Established in 1924 to protect smallmouth bass spawning grounds, the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge follows the river for 261 miles from just above Wabasha, Minnesota , south to Rock Island, Illinois. Along the way it encompasses nearly 240,000 acres of river, islands, forest, marshes, sloughs, backwater lakes, sandbars, and scattered prairie remnants — almost all of it in the floodplain.
It is the longest wildlife refuge in the Lower 48. The refuge headquarters in Winona  (51 E. 4th St., 507/452-4232 or 888/291-5719) has maps and brochures and can answer just about any question you might have.
The refuge is home to 57 species of mammals including white-tailed deer, coyote, fox, otter, and beaver; the endangered Blanding’s and wood turtles and 51 other reptile and amphibian species; and 118 kinds of fish ranging from minnows to sturgeon.
Birds have been the biggest winners in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s conservation efforts. Over 300 species have been recorded here and the river is one of the continent’s principal migration corridors. Geese and ducks are especially abundant.
Each fall up to 75 percent of the North American population of canvasback ducks may be seen on Mississippi River Pools 7 and 8 around La Crosse, Wisconsin. Up to 12,000 tundra swans can be seen in late October and early November around Weaver Bottoms .
Bald eagles are year-round residents — nearly 100 pair nest in the refuge — though they are most impressive in winter when they congregate below dams and at the mouths of tributaries, where the water doesn’t freeze over. The Wabasha  and Red Wing  areas are the top winter viewing spot on the Minnesota side.
Heron and egret rookeries, often hundreds of nests strong, are found in the more remote areas. Other birds commonly found in the refuge are sandhill crane, turkey vulture, pheasant, wild turkey, Eastern bluebird, yellow warbler, and an increasing number of American white pelicans.
Endangered and threatened species residing here include osprey, peregrine falcon, red-shouldered hawk, great egret, and yellow-crowned night heron.
Lazy canoeing is fantastic in the quiet backwaters where countless side channels and sloughs wind through hundreds of wooded islands. In the summer, acres of water lilies and other flowering water plants are in bloom. In addition to the up close and personal look at the river’s rich flora and fauna, the backwaters offer adventure and solitude; you can explore at will, enjoy getting lost, and for the most part motorboats can’t make it back here.
The braided backwater labyrinths are most abundant in the upper sections of each pool where the construction of the locks and dams has had less effect on the river. Because of heavy boat and barge traffic, the main river channel is not a good place to canoe; even just crossing it can be difficult. The largest barges need a mile to stop and they cannot steer out of your way!
Boaters of all kinds can camp on refuge islands for up to 14 days at a single site. During waterfowl hunting season (generally late September to mid-November in Minnesota), camping is only allowed outside closed areas and on sites visible from the main channel. Downed wood may be used for campfires, though cutting of any tree is, of course, prohibited.