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Art Lander’s Outdoors: Mississippi River basin offers habitats unique to western third of Kentucky

Editor’s note: This is the eighth and final article in a series profiling the major river basins of Kentucky.

The Mississippi River at confluence of Ohio River at Cairo, Illinois. (Photo from USGS)

The Mississippi River is the second-longest river on the North American continent, flowing southward for 2,340 miles from its source, Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota, to the Mississippi River Delta in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Mississippi basin drains all or parts of 32 U.S. states between the Rocky Mountains and the Appalachians, 1,139,490 square miles. It either borders or passes through the states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana.

The Mississippi River forms the western boundary of Kentucky for 71 miles in four counties — Ballard, Carlisle, Hickman and Fulton — from the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi at Cairo, Illinois to just south of New Madrid, Missouri.

Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for the Northern Kentucky Tribune. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

Early History

Native Americans were present along the Mississippi River in Kentucky for thousands of years, first as nomadic hunters and gatherers, then later practicing agriculture in villages.

Wickliffe Mounds State Historic Site, near the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, was the site of a Native American village occupied about 1100 to 1350 A.D.

Native people of the Mississippian culture built earthen mounds and permanent houses around a central plaza overlooking the Mississippi River. Today, this archaeological site features mounds, museum exhibits, a walking trail, and a welcome center.

Open to the public since 1932, the museum exhibits excavated artifacts such as Mississippian pottery and stone tools and displays artwork showcasing their way of life and the archaeological history of Native American tribes in Kentucky.

For more information visit parks.ky.gov.


There are three major tributaries to the Mississippi River in Kentucky — Mayfield Creek, Obion Creek and Bayou de Chien.

Mayfield Creek arises in Calloway County, flows north through Graves County, just to the east of Mayfield, then turns west through McCracken County. It forms the boundary between Ballard and Carlisle counties, and joins the Mississippi River, just south of Wickliffe.

Obion Creek arises in southern Graves County, flows northwestward into Carlisle County, then abruptly turns southwestward through Hickman County, to its confluence with the Mississippi River north of Hickman, in Fulton County.

Bayou de Chien arises in southern Graves County, near the Tennessee line, and flows westward into Fulton County, forming a network of wetlands, merging with Obion Creek and Little Mud Creek, north of Hickman.

River Access

For information on launching ramps for trailered boats on the Mississippi River in Kentucky, visit the KDFWR waterbodies webdsite.

Fish and Wildlife

The confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi in western Kentucky is the apex of the Mississippi Flyway, a bird migration route that generally follows the Mississippi, Missouri, and Lower Ohio rivers from their breeding grounds in Canada and the northern U.S. to their wintering grounds along the Gulf of Mexico and in Central and South America.

Mallard ducks (Photo from USFWS)

About 40 percent of all North American migrating waterfowl and shorebirds use this route. The other primary migration routes are the Atlantic, Central and Pacific Flyways.

More than 325 bird species make the round-trip each year along the Mississippi Flyway.

The abundant wetlands along the Mississippi River in Kentucky offer excellent wildlife viewing, fishing, waterfowl hunting, and trapping opportunities for beaver, river otter and other furbearers.

The wooded uplands support quality populations of white-tailed deer, wild turkeys and small mammals.

Reelfoot NWR

Reelfoot Lake, in Fulton County, Kentucky, and Lake County, Tennessee, is a 27,000-acre crescent-shaped natural lake, lined with cypress trees.

The lake was formed by the New Madrid Earthquake on December 16, 1811, and two aftershocks on January 23 and February 7, 1812. The land beneath the former channels of the Mississippi River, Bayou de Chien and Reelfoot River sank, filling with water flowing downstream from the Mississippi River.

Reelfoot Lake Image from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; click for larger image)

Reelfoot National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1941 in Tennessee. Additional land purchases extended the refuge into Kentucky and its present acreage of 10,428.

The refuge and surrounding lake were preserved as a sanctuary for migratory birds, providing important habitat to over 283 species of birds including the endangered Least Tern.

The refuge is a major wintering, migrating, and nesting area for waterfowl. There is also a large wintering population of bald eagles.

The refuge is also home to various other wildlife, including white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, furbearers, reptiles, and amphibians.

The lake also offers excellent fishing for bluegill, crappie and other gamefish.

Wildlife recreation opportunities include a quota deer hunt, a 3.5-mile auto tour, hiking in bottomland hardwood forests with several viewing towers, and paddling in small boats (kayaks and canoes) trails through the still waters of Reelfoot Lake.

For more information, visit www.fws.gov.

The Mississippi River basin in Kentucky offers visitors an opportunity to explore wildlife habitats not found in the eastern two-thirds of the state, and learn about an advanced Native American culture that thrived in the region, prior to European exploration.

In many ways, the region downriver of the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, is unique in the state and well worth the long drive. It’s one of the state’s “must-see” travel destinations.

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