This was a lake the Sioux Indians knew well, for they frequently made camp here during their pursuit of migrating herds of buffalo and flocks of waterfowl. Around the turn of the century, as settlements were becoming firmly established, the lake became well-known as a fine place to fish. Several resorts were built near the lake to accommodate visitors who arrived by train.
The Refuge was established in 1936 with the purchase of 365 acres of land in the Owen's Bay area. Subsequent purchases of land have been made on a continuing basis.
The meandered lake bed is protected by a 1939 easement from the State of South Dakota. The easement authorizes the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to flood the lake bed and maintain a closed refuge for migratory birds and other wildlife. However, the center portion of the lake bed is open to hunting.