For most of the 20th century, Hennepin & Hopper Lakes in Putnam County, Illinois, was drained to make way for cropland. But these backwater lakes in the floodplain of the Illinois River 40 miles north of Peoria roared back to life in 2001 when the Wetlands Initiative turned off the drainage pump and began restoration.
Today the 3,000-acre Sue and Wes Dixon Waterfowl Refuge is one of the premier natural areas in the state and is open to the public 365 days a year. Where once only corn and soybeans grew, a mosaic of lakes, marshes, seeps, savannas, and prairies now supports native flora and fauna. In 2012, the Refuge was designated a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance.
Location and Visiting
The Dixon Waterfowl Refuge is located in north-central Illinois along the Illinois River, 40 miles north of Peoria and two hours southwest of the Chicago Loop. The site is open to the public every day for hiking, nature viewing, and birdwatching. The entrance, located two miles south of the village of Hennepin, is off of Route 26.
The 2018 public fishing season at Hennepin & Hopper Lakes begins May 15 and goes through Labor Day, to avoid the spring and fall migrations. A Wetlands Initiative fishing permit is required, in addition to a State of Illinois Sport Fishing License. The lakes are known for some of the best fishing in the Illinois River Valley.
Before restoration, Hennepin & Hopper Lakes had been drained for nearly a century to allow farming. Before that agricultural history, these twin backwater lakes were part of a dynamic, incredibly diverse Illinois River system that supported an abundance of waterfowl. Through TWI’s efforts, the Refuge is today reclaiming that once-rich diversity of life.
On February 2, 2012, the Dixon Waterfowl Refuge was officially listed as a Wetland of International Importance, or “Ramsar Site,” in accordance with the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands. The Refuge joins only 37 other sites in the United States so far to have received the designation.
On June 13–14, 2015, the Wetlands Initiative held its first-ever BioBlitz at the Dixon Waterfowl Refuge. Over a 24-hour period, experts led teams of citizen scientists in searching the 3,000-acre restoration site, finding and identifying more than 675 species of plants, birds, amphibians/reptiles, insects, fish, and more.
The Story of the Dixon Refuge
TWI co-founder Al Pyott tells the story of how he and Donald Hey first came to the Hennepin area looking for an opportunity to restore wetlands. This video was filmed at the 10th-anniversary celebration of the Dixon Waterfowl Refuge in September 2011.