Big Lake National Wildlife Refuge Overview

Big Lake National Wildlife Refuge
Contact Details
Refuge Manager
Big Lake National Wildlife Refuge
P.O. Box 67
Manila, Arkansas 72442
Phone: 501-564-2429

The Northeast Arkansas and Southeast Missouri area are extremely rich in archaeological history. These areas were covered with spruce forest prior to the Ice Age, but gave way to an oak/hickory environment that was inhabited by Paleo Indians and many now extinct animals including the mastodon, llama, tapir, horse, camel, and sloth. The earliest documented human occupation of the Big Lake area was in the 700's by the horticultural-based "Woodland" Indians. During the 9th and 10th centuries a more advanced society occupied the area. Archaeological findings revealed that this society built fenced villages and rectangular log houses. They also developed new farming techniques and implemented a sophisticated political system. The Big Lake area was occupied by Indian farmsteads up until the 14th century and then remained unoccupied until the early 19th century.

The New Madrid earthquake of 1811-12 changed the Big Lake area from a free-flowing river system to its present lake/swamp environment. In the late 1800's, loggers rapidly cleared the timber from the area due to a demand for hardwood railroad ties. The rich bottomland soil was quickly identified by industrious farmers and the area was converted to cotton-producing farmland.

Alarmed by the rapid loss of habitat and game, citizens encouraged President Woodrow Wilson to make Big Lake a preserve, which he did by Executive Order in 1915. The refuge has expanded from the original 3,500 acres to its present 11,038 acres. Today, the area takes on the characteristic of a wildlife oasis in the center of a vast agricultural empire.

Habitat and Water Management
The Little River Drainage District in southern Missouri is the primary water source for Big Lake Refuge. The watershed consists of approximately 2,500 square miles of agricultural land, which is all funneled into the refuge by way of several large drainage ditches. Since the Flood Control Act of 1935, Big Lake had been used as a sump for flood waters. Silt and trash associated with the floods led to the deterioration of the Big Lake System. To alleviate this problem the Corps of Engineers constructed a bypass ditch (Ditch 81) to divert some of the floodwaters around the refuge. Since the completion of the project, there has been a noticeable improvement in water quality and an increase in natural aquatic vegetation.

Big Lake consists primarily of wooded swamps and open water. It is shallow with an average depth of three feet. The swamp areas are characterized by stands of black willow, buttonbush, and towering bald cypress trees. Tree species on higher ground include cottonwood, green ash, hackberry, red maple, sycamore, river birch, and a variety of oaks. Open water areas are populated with a variety of aquatic plants. Aquatic plants such as Sago pondweed and American pondweed are a valuable waterfowl food source.

Approximately 150 acres of farmland are planted annually to supplement the natural waterfowl vegetation. Corn, milo, soybeans, and cowpeas provide food for resident species such as deer, raccoon, squirrel, and migratory birds. Winter wheat is planted and used as browse by Canada geese November-February. Since the Big Lake system is so unique, approximately 5,000 acres of the refuge have been set aside as a National Natural Landmark. Approximately 2,100 acres of the Natural Area have been included in the Wilderness Preservation System. The Big Lake Wilderness Area is the only wilderness area in eastern Arkansas.

Over 227 species of birds have been observed by refuge personnel and visiting ornithologists since 1915. Copies of the refuge bird checklist are available at the headquarters and portions of the refuge are open to birding year-round. Many species of migratory birds frequent the area including various songbirds, shorebirds, and raptors. Big Lake Refuge provides habitat for many species of migratory waterfowl including mallards, gadwalls, wigeon, green-winged teal, wood ducks, ringnecks, and canvasback. The peak populations generally occur December-January with an average population of 70,000 ducks. A recent increase in natural aquatic vegetation has resulted in a significant increase in diving ducks, especially the canvasback. Canada geese utilize the refuge during the fall and winter and can be observed in the Baker Island field at the south end of the refuge. Approximately 2,500 wood ducks are produced annually in natural tree cavities and in artificial nest boxes scattered throughout the refuge. Hooded mergansers also utilize tree cavities and nest boxes.

Osprey and Bald Eagles have recently begun nesting on the refuge. Osprey have nested successfully since 1984 and a pair of bald eagles successfully hatched three young in 1993. Since Big Lake Refuge contains a significant amount of wetlands, it is not surprising that the most numerous resident wildlife species are beavers, muskrats, and raccoons. White-tailed deer are frequently observed feeding along the Ditch 81 levee road and in the small farm fields. Sightings of squirrels and rabbits are common, and bobcats are seen on rare occasions. Waters of the refuge abound with fish, aquatic reptiles, aquatic insects and crustaceans. Largemouth bass, crappie, sunfish, catfish, buffalo, and carp are the most common fish species. The red-eared turtle is commonly seen sunning on logs around the lake, but the Alligator Snapping turtle spends most of its life on the lake floor and is rarely seen. A variety of snakes inhabit the waters and swamps of the refuge. The eastern cottonmouth is the only common poisonous snake found in the area.

Controlled hunting of deer, squirrel, and raccoon is allowed on the refuge. Hunting on Big Lake is a management tool. Permits are required for all hunts and are available at the refuge headquarters.

Big Lake provides quality fishing opportunities for bass, catfish, crappie, and sunfish. The refuge fishing regulations are available at the refuge headquarters. Frog hunting is also permitted from the start of the State season through October 31.

Wildlife Observation/Photography
Big Lake Refuge provides many opportunities to see, photograph, and just simply enjoy its wildlife resources. The best time to observe wildlife is early in the morning or at dusk. Migratory waterfowl numbers peak during the fall and winter months, but wood ducks, hooded mergansers and a few mallards are year-round residents. Eagles and osprey generally nest from early February through April. Eagles can be observed feeding their young in May and June and ospreys in June and July.

Recreational Opportunities
The Big Lake Refuge Headquarters is located on State Highway 18, 15 miles west of Blytheville, Arkansas. The refuge is generally open to the public March 1-October 31, and portions of the refuge are generally open year-round. Occasionally portions of the refuge or the entire refuge may be closed due to floods. Those planning to visit the area should contact the Refuge Headquarters prior to their visit. Office hours: 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Monday through Friday.

This information supplied by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 13 Sep 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

  • Big Lake National Wildlife Refuge Travel Q&A

  • What's your favorite hike? Where's the best campsite? Join the conversation! Ask Your Question

Articles & Advice on Big Lake National Wildlife Refuge

park finder
step one
Where are you going?

step one
What do you want to do?

+ More Activities

Receive Gear Reviews, Articles & Advice

Preview this newsletter »


Parks Near Big Lake National Wildlife Refuge
GEARZILLA: The Gorp Gear Blog


Ask Questions