Truman Lake

By Pat Piper

They arrive by camper or RV, some pulling boats on trailers and even some on bicycles with tents and sleeping bags. Here's why...

Photo of Kaysinger Bluff overlooking Truman Lake, Missouri

On a map, Truman Lake looks like a backward "K" — four arms reaching north and south, due west and southwest. Up close, its 958-mile shoreline, the granite cliffs, and the mile-long Truman Lake Hydroelectric Dam with a visitor center overlooking the 55,600 acres of water are indeed a sight to behold.

Truman Basics

"Here's how I explain Truman Lake to folks," says Charlie Terrell of Anglers in Action. "This is where you'll find the best fishing lake in the Midwest. It has good ramps and it's unique from other lakes because there are no waterfront homes. It's owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The result is lots of timber along the shoreline. Fish like that."

People do, too. Terrell's observation is echoed by Army Corps of Engineers Park Ranger Erin Cordrey. "I would describe Truman as an excellent destination for recreational boating, fishing, and camping. You can beach your boat anywhere along the shoreline, but keep in mind the lake's primary purpose is flood control and the lake elevation can fluctuate greatly. Normal pool is 706 feet above mean sea level but at normal pool, boaters on Truman do need to keep an eye out for underwater trees, especially in the coves." Cordrey's warning is based on the fact that the farther you travel from the center of the lake and into one of the four arms, the shallower the water is going to get. Fisherman Larry Stoafer has seen what can happen. "With over 8,800 acres of standing timber left when flooded, boaters have to be very careful the first time on the lake not to venture too far from the lower main lake and river channels, especially the upper end of Tebo Creek on the Tebo Arm, which is known as a lower unit eater." The Army Corps has a website for checking the pool level:

The "K" And The Arms

Cordrey says each of the four arms of the Truman Lake has its own character. The Osage Arm (southwest) is known for scenic granite walls that include the Kaysinger Bluff, which is the site of the Truman Visitor Center. The largest towns on the Osage Arm are Warsaw (population 2,000) and Osceola (population 850). Both have boat ramps, but waterskiers head to the Osage arm because it's wider and deeper. The Grand Arm (west) is where anglers go for catfish or to view eagles and waterfowl. The largest town is Clinton, which is a big tourist destination with numerous boat ramps at campgrounds as well as a public ramp at Sparrowfoot Park and Bucksaw Park. The southernmost point of Truman Lake is the city of Hermitage on the Pomme de Terre Arm. The nearby Pomme de Terre State Park has four boat ramps at no cost for launching. Tebo Arm (north) is scenic and a favorite for boaters, but as Stoafer warns, take care of your prop when motoring out of the channel.

The center of lake activity is one-and-a-half miles northwest of Warsaw, where a visitor's site overlooks the Truman Dam that contains the Osage River. From here, one has a firsthand look at the amount of water held back for hydroelectric power generation as well as flood control. There's a no-boating zone on the upstream side of the dam, marked not only by an orange buoy line but signage as well. The same holds true for the downstream side where anglers are quick to point out the excellent bank fishing at Bledsoe Ferry Park.

From the Visitor Center, Truman Lake State Park six miles away is visible. Located on a peninsula, the park has a marina with fuel, supplies, boat rentals, a boat ramp, and a restaurant.

Now About The Fish

More than three dozen bass and crappie tournaments take place between April and October on the lake, most originating from Long Shore Marina in Warsaw, though many also occur at Bucksaw Resort Marina in Clinton. There's usually a common story told by those fishing these waters: What you catch isn't what you had planned to catch.

Photo of Kit Lueg with a winning fishing tournament checkKit Lueg scored first place, and some cash, in a recent Anglers In Action tournament on Truman Lake.

For example, Craig Thompson, a St. Louis software engineer, spends about 100 days every year in his Nitro bass boat in pursuit of a hybrid striper or two. "I was in some deep water and had actually landed a few five- to eight-pound fish and was enjoying the success. That's when my hook became snagged on what I thought was a stump, of which there are plenty around here. I was moving the pole from side to side trying to dislodge the hook, when the "stump" took off. I spent a half-hour trying to get whatever it was alongside the boat. It turned out to be a 45-pound flathead catfish. I released it and will admit we both expended a lot of energy that day."

Fisherman Larry Stoafer has seen it, too. "One of my buddies hooked into a 52-pound flathead catfish while bass fishing on relatively light tackle," he remembers. "He proceeded to be pulled around the lake for 45 minutes before he was able to get it in the boat. Only its head would fit into the live well. But he took it to a nearby marina, where it was weighed and released back into the lake."

Stoafer runs the annual Fishing For Freedom tournament, which brings 100 wounded veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts to Truman Lake every year for a weekend of fishing aboard boats captained by volunteers. He's learned being on the lake with a fishing pole is good medicine for his guests and points to a letter he received last year:

"Did you know the whole time I was with you in that boat and at the barbecue, I did not have to take any of my anxiety medication? Hanging out with you put me at ease and I have learned to take that ease and use it for everyday life. That is something a doctor cannot teach or put in a bottle. I sincerely thank you for being you and showing me I have it in myself to get better and being there to just show me a good time fishing, which I enjoyed more than I can put into words."

The Fishing For Freedom Event takes place on Truman Lake over an October weekend.

When You're Not On The Boat

Both Clinton and Warsaw have downtown areas with restaurants, antique stores, and specialty shops. Clinton has a farmers' market every Tuesday and Saturday through September, while Warsaw hosts numerous festivals throughout the year centered around its downtown. It's worth the time to take a walk across the Joe Dice Swinging Bridge, which crosses the Osage River and is now on the National Historic Register. First built in 1904, this bridge, and others, carried automobiles. Today, it's been rebuilt and is used for foot traffic.

Truman Lake is 120 miles west of Branson, where country music is on stage continuously and just 40 miles west of Lake of the Ozarks, a similar-sized fishing destination. But those having spent time at both will always remark how Truman Lake isn't as crowded.

"Even if you don't go to the lake with a fishing pole, the beauty can take hold," observes Craig Thompson. "Truman Lake is never the same lake twice; it's always got something new to be seen." To which can be added, "and shown."

Why "Truman"?

The lake with the name of our 33rd president is a contradiction. Harry Truman Lake, also known as Truman Reservoir, is named after Missouri's favorite son who was born in Independence, about 100 miles away. Though the lake is known for prize-winning fish, Harry Truman wasn't much of a fisherman. In fact, he never even thought about it until Bess, a lady he admired, talked about how much she enjoyed putting a line in the water. That was incentive enough. After they married (she turned him down the first time he asked), they moved to a new job in Washington, D.C., as Franklin Roosevelt's vice president, a job that lasted all of four months before he became president after FDR died in office.

Map of Truman Lake, Missouri

Fishing became a primary recreation for the president and first lady when they traveled to the "Little White House" in Key West, Florida, where numerous photos were taken of him with a fish. He liked to spend his vacation just offshore. Close friends said he was more interested in making wagers with anyone on board about the size and the type of the next fish to be caught, and Harry Truman collected on most of his wagers. And the lake? It didn't exist when Missouri's favorite son was president. Construction on a dam across the Osage River to provide both flood control and hydroelectric power began in 1964 and was completed in 1979, seven years after Harry Truman died.

Local "Knowledge"

About a quarter-mile from the Truman Lake shoreline is the town of Tightwad, Missouri. The story about the name goes something like this, according to amateur historian and Clinton, Missouri, resident Ed Hannah: A postman was on his way to nearby Warsaw and noticed a watermelon for sale in the grocery store while delivering the mail. Rather than buy the watermelon then, he chose to merely pay for it and pick it up on the way home from his route. The money was exchanged and when the postman returned at the end of the day, the watermelon was gone. The shopkeeper said he'd sold it for 50 cents more than the postman paid. The postman left without his watermelon but with a name for the location of the store.

Some time after the postman's experience, a bank was opened in the town and soon people from all over Missouri were opening checking accounts at Tightwad Bank. After some reorganization, the bank continues to service customers offering not only checking accounts, but hats, tee-shirts, and coffee mugs as well.

Just down Highway 7 from Tightwad is Racket, Missouri. Yes, there's a story here, too, and Hannah fills in the blanks: A man went to his neighbor to complain about the noise coming from all the bantam chickens he raised. The neighbor listened and said the chickens were going to stay where they were. The man went back home having learned a lesson the hard way: If you don't like your neighbors, just buy some bantams and they'll be gone in no time. The man moved. As the story was repeated, the area came to be known as "Racket." 

This article was published in Winter 2010 issue of Trailering Magazine.


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