The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages the National Wildlife Refuge System to help protect America’s fish and wildlife heritage. Established in 1903 by President Theodore Roosevelt, the National Wildlife Refuge System now consists of more than 540 refuges encompassing nearly 100 million acres of lands and waters in all 50 states and most United States territories. The Refuge System also includes thousands of waterfowl production areas, many scattered throughout the upper Midwest and all vital breeding grounds for migratory birds.
The Refuge System’s mission, as stated in the National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997, is “to administer a national network of lands and waters for the conservation, management, and where appropriate, restoration of the fish, wildlife, and plant resources and their habitats within the United States for the benefit of present and future generations of Americans.” Refuges are managed with care, using the latest scientific techniques and land management practices. As a result, the Refuge System is able to offer unparalleled wildlife-dependent recreation. Priority is given to hunting, fishing, photography, wildlife observation, environmental education and interpretation.
The Refuge System began with tiny Pelican Island, a pelican and ibis rookery in the St. John’s River in Florida. Today it embraces almost every habitat type in United States. The Refuge System is home to more than 700 species of birds, nearly 500 species of mammals, reptiles and amphibians, and a nearly uncountable array of fish and plant species.
If a word captures the very essence of the modern Refuge System it would be “diversity.” National wildlife refuges in the South, in a great arc from Virginia to Texas, feature some of the nation’s most visually exciting wetlands—bottomland hardwood forests, bayous with elegant bald cypress draped in Spanish moss and coastal marshes. These are home to thousands of wintering waterfowl and a host of other wildlife.
In the Northeastern refuges, bogs and other wetlands provide nesting grounds for species such as the black duck and woodcock. Along the coast, piping plovers find safe nesting territory in several strategically located refuges. From Maine to the Chesapeake Bay, our nation’s symbol, the bald eagle, has made an impressive recovery on refuge lands.
Across the Midwest, especially in the prairie pothole region of the Dakotas and Minnesota, refuge wetlands serve as one of the great incubators of migratory life for ducks, geese, shorebirds, songbirds and more. Further west, the refuge lands that straddle both flanks of the Rockies—from the Canadian border south to Mexico—have wetlands that are home and safe resting ground to great flocks of sandhill cranes, snow geese and swans, while their lands yield forage for the great icons of the American West—bison, pronghorn and elk.
The refuges that touch the Pacific—in Hawaii, California, Oregon, Washington and Alaska—are special places. One can find refuges that range from high desert to temperate rainforest, from ephemeral spring pools to glaciers, from sun-drenched atolls to arctic tundra. The wildlife these lands and waters support is staggering, as are the refuge vistas.
In addition to the conservation of wildlife and habitat, the Refuge System offers a wide variety of quality fishing opportunities. Every year, about 7 million anglers visit national wildlife refuges, where they can find knowledgeable staff and thousands of volunteers.
Quality fishing opportunities are available on more than 270 national wildlife refuges. The fishing opportunities, described in this guide, represent virtually every type of sport fishing on the continent. From inconnu and grayling in remote Alaska to snook hovering by mangroves in Florida’s Ten Thousand Islands, national wildlife refuges offer anglers adventure and diversity.
If you want to make the most out of your time on a national wildlife refuge, take a cue from the volunteers and staff that spend every day on the refuge. Watch closely, move with care, act as if you are a part of your surroundings. You’ll see a lot more if you move as quietly as the animals do, and you may well enjoy your trip more.