“When that summer sun starts to beatin’ down … drive until the map turns blue.”
— “Water” by Brad Paisley
The best part of hot summers in Missouri is fun on the water, and Columbians don’t have to drive far to find some blue. Finger Lakes, Lake of the Ozarks, Mark Twain Lake, Truman Lake and Pomme de Terre Lake are all within two hours of CoMo.
All five of these lakes offer fishing, boating and swimming, but each one puts a little different spin on good times on the water. Looking for a crowd and lots of action? Want to escape somewhere quiet? Whatever floats your boat, there’s a lake to make those unforgettable summer memories.
20 minutes north of Columbia
Just north of Columbia, Finger Lakes is a quiet place for a dip or a boat ride. No gasoline-powered motors are allowed on the water.
“It’s flat water; people can paddle, and it’s relaxing,” says Debbie Newby, Finger Lakes State Park superintendent.
Unlike other, much larger lakes in the area, nearly all of Finger Lakes is within a state park. As the name implies, it is actually a string of small lakes, formed when the area was a mining site. Connected by a series of dams and canals, these lakes offer more than 1½ miles of water to explore.
“Getting back in the different coves and narrower places where the trees come over the lake — it’s pretty neat to get back in there and see that,” Newby says.
The state park rents canoes and kayaks at the park office from March 15 through Nov. 15, or visitors may bring their own. If renting, paddlers are not allowed to swim from the boat and must limit their swimming to the sand beach (signs in the park direct visitors to the beach and other amenities). Paddlers who bring their own boats do not face this restriction.
Fishing is also popular at Finger Lakes, both from a boat — the state park has a boat ramp that is free for all visitors to use — and from the bank.
“If you are fishing for fish that thrive in deep water, you will do well here,” Newby says, adding that crappie, bluegill and bass are abundant.
While visiting Finger Lakes for the water, be sure to check out the state park’s other amenities, including a campground with basic and electric sites, and challenging off-road vehicle trails.
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Pomme de Terre Lake
2 hours, 5 minutes southwest of Columbia
A “hidden jewel in the Ozarks,” Pomme de Terre Lake offers 8,000 acres of crystal clear water, 113 miles of mostly undeveloped shoreline and a low visitation rate. The lake’s French name means “apple of the earth.”
“Visitors can find solace and quiet while hiking, camping or canoeing,” says Brad Myers, operations project manager for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Pomme de Terre Lake. “Families enjoy the clean water and dramatically reduced boat traffic Pomme has when compared to Lake of the Ozarks and other big lakes.”
Swimmers can choose from two state park beaches and two Corps beaches — or they can swim right next to their campsites. Pomme de Terre boasts more than 600 campsites in five Corps and two state park campgrounds; many of those campsites are right on the lake.
Another unique draw of Pomme de Terre Lake is Muskie fishing. The lake has a reputation as the Muskie capital of the Midwest, and there are several guides who specialize in fishing for these large, hard-to-catch fish. To those who choose to fish on their own, Myers recommends putting in at Martin’s Flat, just southwest of Quarry Point Park. The lake also offers excellent fishing for crappie, bass, bluegill, catfish, white bass and walleye.
Boaters at Pomme de Terre will find boat ramps all around the lake. Corps boat ramps have a daily launch fee of $3; state park boat ramps are free. There are also 660 private docks on the lake.
“With the winding lake and many coves, you can almost always find a quiet place to boat, even when it’s windy,” Myers says.
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Lake of the Ozarks
1 hour, 15 minutes south of Columbia
So popular in mid-Missouri, it is known simply as the Lake, the Lake of the Ozarks is a vacation destination with an energized, let-the-fun-never-stop atmosphere.
“Most public lakes are mandated by some governing body, such as the Corps of Engineers,” says Tim Jacobsen, executive director of the Lake of the Ozarks Convention & Visitor Bureau. “Because the Lake of the Ozarks is privately owned by Ameren Missouri, it allows more development right on the water’s edge. So there are more than 200 restaurants on the Lake of the Ozarks, and … more than 60 are right on the water’s edge and easily accessible to boaters.”
Boating is a big deal at the Lake — and “big” is the operative word. While other lakes tout their peaceful waters, the Lake is proud to be the place where the big boats come out to play. There are nine public-access ramps scattered around the Lake, as well as numerous full-service commercial marinas. Several lodging facilities around the Lake offer private boat slips.
Throughout the summer, visitors find events happening on the Lake itself. Aquapalooza is the Lake’s largest family boating event and features live music and fun activities all day long. This summer, it takes place on July 19. Another big event on the water is the Lake of the Ozarks Shootout, the Midwest’s largest unsanctioned boat race. Events this year begin on Saturday, Aug. 16, with a mini shootout and continue all week long with races on Saturday, Aug. 23, and Sunday, Aug. 24.
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Mark Twain Lake
1 hour, 30 minutes northeast of Columbia
Mark Twain Lake — named for Missouri’s most famous author — is the largest provider of outdoor recreation in northeast Missouri.
“It’s a great place for family fun, whether camping, boating or fishing,” says Mary Anne Heitmeyer, a park ranger with U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “There’s plenty of space. Even on busy holiday weekends, it’s still a comfortable place to be. And it’s very neighborly. People are courteous here.”
With 18,600 acres of water, Mark Twain Lake is more than twice the size of Pomme de Terre but about three times smaller than either Truman Lake or Lake of the Ozarks. As is true at Corps of Engineers lakes Pomme de Terre and Truman, most of the shoreline at Mark Twain Lake is undeveloped.
There are numerous boat ramps around the lake, as well as two marinas. There are no boat size restrictions on the lake, and boats of all kinds get out on the water — including sailboats.
“We are popular with sailboaters because we are primarily an east-to-west-situated lake,” Heitmeyer says.
The most popular fishing at Mark Twain Lake is for crappie and bass.
Swimmers at Mark Twain Lake find three beaches, one in Mark Twain Lake State Park and two at Corps sites. Tubing and skiing are also favorite activities on the lake.
A good place to start a visit is at the M.W. Boudreaux Memorial Visitor Center at the south end of Clarence Cannon Dam on Highway J.
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1 hour, 45 minutes southwest of Columbia
The greatest attraction at Harry S. Truman Lake — adjacent to Lake of the Ozarks — is the fishing.
“People come here to fish, mostly crappie and bass, but also catfish,” says Erin Cordrey, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers park ranger.
“Truman Lake has been popular with tournament fishermen for many years. Bledsoe Ferry Park, located just downstream of Truman Dam, is one of the most popular bank fishing areas in Missouri.”
Even the boating on the lake named for America’s 33rd president is geared toward fishing, Cordrey says, “but we do get some sailboats, jet skis and ski boats. Overall, it’s a slower pace than Lake of the Ozarks.” Yet there are no motor restrictions on the lake.
Cordrey credits Truman’s pristine shoreline to the absence of private boat docks. But even without those private docks, the lake is very accessible, with around 40 public boat ramps. There are more than 20 parks and access areas located around the lake and five full-service marinas. Swimmers can choose from six Corps sand beaches, which charge a fee, and Harry S Truman State Park, which has a free public beach plus a beach just for campers.
Truman Reservoir is the largest flood-control reservoir in Missouri. At normal pool, the reservoir has a surface area of about 55,600 acres, but this area can nearly quadruple to 200,000 during flood control.
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Which Boat Is Best For You?
Ready to catch the wave of boat ownership? See which boat is best for you with this quick guide from Butch Putnam, owner of Putnam Boat Sales, and the National Marine Manufacturers Association’s website, www.discoverboating.com.
Johnboats are flat-bottomed aluminum or fiberglass boats with bench seats and flat transoms (backs). “They’re handier to fish from than many boats,” Putnam says, adding most have aerated livewells for keeping caught fish alive. Powered by a small to moderate outboard motor and steered with a tiller (versus a wheel), johnboats offer easy maintenance and low cost.
Bass boats have low, sleek profiles and are built to fish with two or three anglers on board. The smaller, aluminum bass boats — those 16 to 18 feet with 25 to 150 horsepower — are very similar to johnboats. At the higher end, bass boats can exceed 18 feet in length and provide 150 to 200 horsepower. Livewells are mandatory, as is an electric trolling motor on the bow (front).
Pontoons are super versatile and super popular. “There are small fishing pontoons, but most we sell are for cruising, with lounge seating from front to end, all over the boat,” Putnam says. Little pontoons with electric trolling motors offer slow and lazy rides in either small lakes or quiet coves in big lakes; bigger pontoons with higher horsepower deliver enough speed for skiing and tubing.
Bowriders, or open-bow runabouts, are boats with extra seating in the bow (front). “They are a little more fun to drive [than a pontoon], and for the size of the boat they are, they hold quite a few people,” Putnam says. These boats also offer convenient swim platforms at the stern (back).
Cruisers and yachts are ideal for people who want to spend all day — and all night — on the water. Cruisers range from 23 to 40 feet; yachts are 40 feet and longer. Most have cabins that will sleep four to six people, along with a galley (kitchen) and head (toilet). “Instead of a house or a condo, people will stay on the boat, and the boats are very roomy, and they can go to a cove and cove out, and spend the night or the weekend,” Putnam says.