Missouri's Best Kept Secret
In times past, when someone from the Springfield area said they were “headed for the lake,” they were usually referring to Table Rock, Taneycomo, or Lake of the Ozarks. But since the early 1970s, as those aforementioned lakes have become more crowded with commercial development, a steadily growing number of local outdoor enthusiasts have made Stockton Lake their destination, and for good reason. Stockton Lake’s attractive features include good fishing, a variety of campground facilities, horseback riding, hunting, scuba diving, power boating and water skiing, sandy beaches for swimming and relaxing, the most active sail boating season of all the Ozarks’ lakes, and, for history buffs, a well documented archaeological past.
A relative newcomer among man-made lakes in the region, Stockton Lake was planned, designed, and constructed by the US Army Corps of Engineers. Construction of Stockton Dam began in 1963, and the new facility was placed in operation in late 1969. The lake reached its normal operating pool level (867 feet above sea level) in 1971, and was officially dedicated in 1972. The dam, built near the lake’s namesake, Stockton, Missouri, impounds the waters of the Sac and Little Sac Rivers, creating two long arms of deep water spanning the boundaries of Cedar, Dade, and Polk Counties. Located approximately 50 miles northwest of Springfield, the lake and its boundary areas total 33,000 acres of public land. The lake itself has roughly 25,000 acres of surface water, and about 300 miles of convoluted shoreline.
While Stockton Lake is only about 30 years old, the land it covers has a rich history. Archaeological evidence found in the area indicates that man occupied the Sac River valley as long as 10,000 years ago.
The most advanced early culture flourished when the Indian tribes developed an extensive trade network which included the Sac River valley. When the French first explored the region in the 17th century, the Osage Indians were in control of the area. A treaty with the Osage in 1808 made what is now Cedar County the property of the United States, and the first permanent white settlers began arriving in the 1830s. Cedar County was incorporated in 1845, with the village of Lancaster selected as the new county seat in 1846. In time, the town’s name was changed to Fremont, and then, in 1859, changed again to Stockton in honor of Mexican War commander I. F. Stockton. Unfortunately, the original town of Stockton was almost completely destroyed during the Civil War.
For the town of Stockton, the highlight of the year is the annual Black Walnut Festival. Held the last full weekend in September, the whole community takes part in celebrating the fall walnut harvest with music, dancing, antique displays and period costumes, crafts, carnival rides and lighthearted old time competitions for all ages. Hammons Products Company, the world’s largest processor of eastern black walnuts, has its headquarters in Stockton.
Located on a peninsula that extends to the north between the Big and Little Sac arms of the lake, the 2,000 acre Stockton State Park, (administrated by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Parks and Historic Preservation), has one campground which features 45 campsites (38 with electrical hookups), a dumping station, modern restrooms, shower houses, and laundry facilities. The Stockton State Park Inn offers a 128-seat dining room, with a small motel nearby.
There are ten other campgrounds conveniently located around Stockton Lake. Eight are managed by the Corps of Engineers (Cedar Ridge, Crabtree Cove, Hawker Point, Masters, Orleans Trail North, Ruark Bluff East, and Ruark Bluff West) and two are operated by private marine concessionaires (Orleans Trail Marina and Mutton Creek Marina). Camping fees are charged at all Stockton Lake campgrounds, with the fee amounts based on the season and level of facilities provided.
Fishing has been consistently good during Stockton Lake’s first three decades of existence. Crappie, black (smallmouth) bass, white (largemouth) bass, walleye, catfish, pike, and bluegill fish populations have continued to thrive as the lake’s ecosystem has matured and evolved.
For those who don’t bring their own boat, or who just need to stock up on supplies, there are three full-service marinas located around the lake. Orleans Trail Marina, State Park Marina, and Mutton Creek Marina offer rentals of fishing boats, jet skis, ski boats, and pontoon boats as well as fuel, tackle, groceries, and camping supplies. Lakeside restaurants, and seasoned advice on how to best enjoy what Stockton Lake has to offer are also available.
The public lands around Stockton Lake also provide excellent hunting opportunities for quail, dove, squirrel, raccoon, rabbit, deer, and turkey. Waterfowl, including both ducks and geese, are usually found at the lake in the fall. Except for the parks and waterfowl refuge areas, all public lands around the lake are open to hunting in season.
A relatively new winter time lake activity growing in popularity is the annual Stockton Lake Eagle Days. Each January, the Stockton Lake Association joins with Corps of Engineers and DNR staff to give people the opportunity to observe bald eagles in their natural wintering habitat. Using pontoon boats supplied by Orleans Trail Marina and Stockton State Park Marina, eagle watchers are ferried to observation points within the main body of the lake. From an open water vantage point, viewers are able to observe wintering eagles in areas not visible from roadways.
Eagles are migratory birds. From their nesting ranges in Canada and around the Great Lakes, bald eagles move south following the migration routes of waterfowl, traditionally passing through our region in January. Missouri is now recognized as one of the leading bald eagle sighting states in the nation, and one of the functions related to Eagle Days is the annual eagle count conducted each year by local conservation agents prior to the viewing tour. The survey is done in conjunction with similar counts in surrounding states to help establish where the largest number of eagles will be found. The bald eagle population appears to be flourishing. The average number of January eagle sightings the first five years of Eagle Days (through 1999) was 69. In 2000, 96 were counted, and in January of this year (2001), though frozen lake conditions prevented the usual Eagle Days pontoon boat outings, 110 eagles were sighted.
The Stockton Lake Equestrian Trail meanders approximately 12 miles between Hawker Point and Orleans Trail Campgrounds, following the winding shoreline and providing a scenic day’s trail ride. Both trailheads have a half-dozen non-electric campsites with shower facilities and restrooms nearby. Other amenities include hitching posts, abundant shade, and plenty of parking and turning room for vehicles and trailers. The horse trail campsites cost $10 per night and can be reserved through the National Recreation Reservation Service (NRRS). Reservations are recommended but not required. (See below for contact info.)
In addition to offering fishing, camping, wildlife management, horseback riding and water sports recreation, Stockton Lake and Dam also provides flood control, hydroelectric power (marketed through the US Department of Energy’s Southwestern Power Administration), and water supply storage.
The latter feature—water supply storage—should be of particular interest to residents of Springfield. During the dry summer of 2000, many private wells went dry and several smaller communities in the region were forced to ration their public water supplies. In Springfield, however, water usage remained normal and unhindered, a fact that is directly attributable to the pipeline connecting Stockton Lake to Springfield’s primary water supply reservoir, Fellows Lake.
Named in honor of the late Sol Nuccitelli, a former City Utilities board member who championed its building, pipeline construction began in June of 1995. Just 355 days later, the first water flowed through the completed 30 miles of pipeline from Stockton Lake to Fellows Lake, adding much needed reserves to the water supply serving Springfield’s rapidly expanding needs.
“The amount of water taken out of Stockton Lake by the pipeline is proportionally very small,” said Dennis Gold, Senior Manager of City Utilities water system. “In the five years the pipeline has been in place, a total of 13 inches of water level have been used, an amount easily replenished by normal rainfall and runoff.” An agreement between City Utilities and the Corps of Engineers provides approximately 7 million gallons of water per day for Springfield’s water system until the year 2040.
“Without the Nuccitelli pipeline, Fellows Lake would be at about 25% capacity right now,” Gold continued, “and Springfield would be having problems with water quality as well as quantity.” Primarily due to the water supplied by Stockton Lake, Fellows Lake is currently at 75% capacity, well above the minimum levels required to maintain both quantity and quality of the city’s drinking water. Thanks to the Corps of Engineers and the planning and foresight of Sol Nuccitelli and City Utilities, Springfield’s water supply needs have been secured for many years to come.
While Stockton Lake shares all the features that make our other Ozarks lakes popular, it stands at the forefront in one important category: sailing. Competitive and recreational sail boating have been a part of Stockton Lake since the very beginning. In fact, the first regatta event was held as a part of the lake’s dedication activities back in 1972. Since then, Stockton Lake has become known for its favorable winds and continues to attract an ever growing number of sail boat enthusiasts to its shores and waters. Most of the lake’s organized sailing activities take place under the aegis of the Lake Stockton Yacht Club (LSYC).
Ron Plymate and his wife Jennifer, owner-operators of the Orleans Trail Resort Marina, are active members of the LSYC, and their marina serves as a focal point for the club’s annual schedule of activities. Ron was raised in Springfield and began sailing on Fellows Lake in the early 1960s.
“The Big Sac arm of the lake is oriented in line with prevailing winds during our sailing season,” Plymate explained, “so it lends itself naturally to sailing. The lake bottom was logged off when the lake was built, so there are no hidden obstructions, and there’s plenty of deep water to accommodate the deep drafts that sailboats require.”
Since its founding in the early ‘70s, the LSYC has grown to 135 memberships representing over 200 people and more than 120 boats. About half the membership comes from the Kansas City metro area, another fifth from Springfield, and the remainder ranging from St. Louis to Wichita.
“Sailing isn’t what you’d call a hobby,” Plymate added, “It’s more of a lifestyle. LSYC members do lots of things together…we go on charters, swim, join in for all kinds of activities together, but it’s our common interest in sailing that keeps us coming back.”
An avid sailor, Plymate used to rent smaller sail boats at his marina, but gave that up because “…it was just too time consuming having to qualify people who really didn’t know the first thing about sailing technique or safety.” For those who want the sailing experience without having to acquire the necessary skills, Plymate has a 38-foot Ericson sail boat with captain which he charters by the day.
The LSYC has an active racing and social season with several events each month from April through October, culminating in the season’s grand finale, the annual Missouri Governor’s Cup Regatta in late September. For anyone interested in finding out more about sailing or the Lake Stockton Yacht Club and its activities, Plymate’s Orleans Trail Marina is a good place to start.
With bountiful hiking, hunting, and camping opportunities around its wooded shores, good fishing and all manner of recreation on, in, and under its waters, its not hard to understand why a steadily growing number choose Stockton Lake as their regular go-to place. Check the contact information supplied here and start finding out for yourself why its considered by many to be “Missouri’s best kept secret.”
Contact Information for Stockton Lake Activities:
Stockton Lake Association
(Has information on the lake, camping grounds, restaurants, lodging, activities)
Stockton Yacht Club
816-898-1041 or 816-875-4842
Stockton State Park Marina
PO Box 429
Stockton MO 65785