Boating in the Shawnee: a Great Way to See the Sights

Boating offers a great chance to explore the waters of the Shawnee National Forest in the majestic southern Illinois Ozark Mountains. Outdoor enthusiasts use powerboats, sailboats, canoes and kayaks to venture out onto these waters. Many of the most picturesque spots lie on or near the shores of the waters within the forest boundaries, just along its edges. The Mississippi River runs along the boundary of the southwest section of the Shawnee, across from Missouri. The “Mighty Mississippi,” as it is often called, is truly a massive, fast-moving river that has earned its name. Boating on the Mighty Miss is fun and many boaters also use the numerous large sandbars along its shores for camping and picnicking. Fishing for giant catfish is popular on this massive waterway, which produces some of the biggest channel, blue and flathead catfish anywhere in the world. Spring Arbor Lake, Turkey Bayou, Johnson Creek, Cache Lake, Cache River, the Big Muddy River, Lusk Creek and the Ohio River lie within or along this pristine forest.

Kinkaid Lake is the largest body of water in the Shawnee, at 2,750 acres of water. Some of the most spectacular sights exist on and near Kinkaid Lake, and the best way to see most of them is by boat. Kinkaid Lake sunsets with the Shawnee National Forest backdrop are too beautiful to explain in words. Kinkaid has 92 miles of shoreline and a maximum depth of over 70 feet, making it one of the deeper lakes in the region and so popular with scuba divers. Speaking of scuba diving, both scuba diving and snorkeling enthusiasts take advantage of Kinkaid later in the warm months of the year to get down below and see the aquatic sights. Kinkaid is also one of the country’s best fishing lakes for muskies, bass, crappies and many other species. Nearby Cedar Lake, close to the college town of Carbondale, is another pristine wilderness lake that offers incredible views as well as some of the best trophy striper fishing in the state.

Other sports and activities
Many sports and activities can be enjoyed while boating in the Shawnee. Camping is a great way to spend some relaxing days on the lake and the preserve. Primitive camping is allowed in the National Forest and offers outdoor enthusiasts that chance to really get away from it all, get back to nature and away from civilization. Primitive camping is not allowed in or near picnic areas, designated natural areas or within 150 feet of a body of water like Kinkaid Lake, which is used by a municipality for water. Still, camping is great fun when done in the right area. Hiking trails like the Kinkaid Lake Trail and Cedar Lake Trail can be accessed from a boat. Many other areas, which are available from the shoreline and are not marked, offer great hiking as well. Mountain biking and horseback riding are done here, and rock climbing is popular too on the many large vertical bluffs and steep rocky slopes of the southern Illinois Ozarks.

Hunting in the Shawnee can be excellent. White-tailed deer, turkey, squirrel, ducks and geese are the most popular. While Kinkaid and Cedar lakes and the Mississippi River all produce some of the best fishing in the Prairie State, virtually every lake and stream offers fishing for a wide variety of species of gamefish and rough fish. Some of the more common species targeted by anglers and viewed by divers include largemouth and smallmouth bass, white bass, muskies, stripers, walleyes, rainbow trout, numerous catfish species, crappies, bluegills, carp, drum, gar and other rough fish.

Wildlife watching and photography is popular here—an area that sometimes seems to be overflowing with wild creatures. Whitetail, coyote, bobcat, otter, beaver, raccoon, rabbit, mink and other mammals are seen with regularity around the waters. Many insects and reptiles can be found as well, and majestic birds like the bald eagle, red-tailed hawk, osprey, owls, various ducks, geese, loons and other beautiful birds frequent these waters.

Get out there
Get into the incredible southern Illinois Ozark Mountains and do some exploring of the Shawnee National Forest in a boat. At this time, we still have plenty of dates open during the peak weather periods of the year for guided charter boat trips and lakeside cabin lodging, but don’t wait too long. In addition to sport fishing trips, we also offer charters of various amounts of time for scenery and wildlife photography, and lake tours with our team of the region’s only full-time professional guides. In addition to fishing or sightseeing, guests also learn to navigate our waters and learn the hazards so they can have a safe and enjoyable boating experience on their own. You’re likely to see some of the most beautiful places you can imagine, and wildlife as abundant as anywhere in this part of the world.

Colby Simms is a professional fisherman, media personality, guide and owner of Colby Simms Outdoors Group. He runs a guide service, sells tackle and books on guided fishing and hunting trips. Contact:, 618-521-0526,