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Lake Odessa - Notes on Iowa State Park Series, Episode 96

Located in the backwaters of the Mississippi River near Wapello in Louisa County, a 6,465-acre state wildlife complex holds natural and historic treasures.


Come along with Notes on Iowa as we explore Lake Odessa Wildlife Management Area.


Containing a large complex of backwaters and islands west of the Mississippi River’s main channel, the public owns the large access area through the US Army Corps of Engineers.  Odessa is divided into the 2,326 acre Port Louisa National Wildlife Refuge (Louisa Division), managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the 4,139 acre Odessa Wildlife Management Area, managed by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. The complexity of the current agreement alludes to an interesting past at the site.


Lake Odessa, a back-channel lake originally hosted a town called Odessa platted in 1861. However, during the late 19th century, the town disappeared, most likely due to the ever present threat of flooding on the Mississippi River backwaters. While the state mulled draining the lake to open farmland, Louis Pammel and E.R. Harlan stepped in after the founding of the Iowa Conservation Board to consider the park for entry into the state park system. An assessment of the site by the two officials, as well as nearby Lake Meyerholz, led to a favorable report suggesting the possible creation of parks in the area. Before any firm action took place, local interests drained the lakes through the creation of canals and and pumping stations. However, when the US Army Corps of Engineers started conducting channel-work along the Upper Mississippi River during the 1930s seepage from the pool above Mississippi River Lock & Dam No. 17 caused the bottomlands to refill with water. Lake Odessa rose, swallowing the original lakebed and swelling to a much larger size than the initially-drained 500 acres.


In the aftermath, the US Army Corps of Engineers officially acquired the lands and turned them over to the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Iowa Conservation Commission for maintenance. Meant to provide habitat for migrating waterfowl, as well as hunting and fishing access, the site underwent minimal development over the decades. During 1949, the Louisa County Izaac Walton League provided the funding for a 5-acre land purchase by the ICC. The state accepted the lands, built an access road, and formed a small primitive campground. Construction of a boatramp and dock also followed, but otherwise the site remained largely undeveloped over the decades.


While development may have lacked, the site served as a popular place for those hoping to hunt waterfowl or test the waters for a variety of fish species. Hunting proved so popular the state experimented with various regulations over the years to achieve specific goals including protecting specific populations of birds.


During 1986, officials feared excessive flooding on the Mississippi River might cause issues at Lake Odessa. High waters put increased pressure on a protective levee, and the crest of the flood nearly topped the dam. Although concerns led to some initial preparations, the dam held. However, four years later the same levee came under pressures again and failed forcing an evacuation of the area. After the waters receded, state and federal funding helped to ensure the site soon returned to its normal status as a sportsman’s paradise.


Today, Lake Odessa Campground and Wildlife Management Area offers visitors a variety of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors in eastern Iowa.  The non-modern, primitive campground offers a latrine but not much else in terms of amenities for Iowans looking for a rustic stay near the Mississippi River. Snively Access Campground, also on the shores of Odessa and managed by the Louisa County Conservation Board stands Louisa County's most popular campground and offers an alternative option for those hoping to spend the night. The DNR-managed Odessa Wildlife Management Area offers public hunting and continues to prove as popular waterfowl hunting location. Odessa holds an excellent reputation with anglers hoping to snag catfish, crappie, and bluegill. Over 200 species of birds visit the Complex throughout the year with October, November, March, and April being the best months for birdwatchers to see large concentrations of waterfowl. The


Next time you find yourself looking to get out and enjoy Iowa’s public lands, consider a stop at Lake Odessa. A truly stunning representation of Iowa’s natural beauty and a testament to the necessity of maintaining opportunities to get outdoors for all Iowans, Lake Odessa shines as a must visit for all people hoping to see Iowa Slowly.


Thanks for coming along with notes on Iowa to explore Lake Odessa Wildlife Management Area.


Make sure to subscribe to the Notes on Iowa website, subscribe on YouTube, follow on social media, and tune in each Sunday to explore the history of Iowa’s state parks, preserves, and other public lands.


I hope I’ll see you out there!


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