The performance boating community is a mixed bag of personalities, boats, and waterways. Each geographical region of boating holds its legends and lore and boaters from each proudly carry their flag high and tout their home water as the best in the country. Those of us on the west coast are fond of speaking with great fervor about such areas as The Delta, Lake Powell, Lake Havasu, or Parker. To left coasters these aquatic playgrounds represent the epitome of what boating was meant to be. Warm climate, beautiful views, and a boating season that, for some, lasts year round its easy for the argument to be made that there is no better place to be a boating enthusiast.
Laying in wait in central Missouri, however, is a monster that many of us have only heard of in fairytales shared around the fire by those brave pioneers of the west coast that have ventured beyond the emerald waters of the Colorado. The monster of which I speak is of course none other than Lake of the Ozarks. Known by some as the "Magic Dragon", this massive reservoir winds it's way through 100 miles of the Ozark Mountains and should find it's way into any conversation about truly epic boating destinations.
Lake of the Ozarks or LOTO as its known, isn't exactly down the street though. At nearly 1500 miles from our home port of Lake Havasu, towing to LOTO may not be in the cards for everyone looking to partake in all the Ozarks has to offer. So, is it possible to travel to one of the largest reservoirs in the US without a boat and still take in the spectacle that is the LOTO Shootout and Super Cat Fest? We had to find out.
With our flight scheduled to leave Vegas bright and early at 7am our departure from Lake Havasu would need to be somewhere in the neighborhood of 3:30am. Bags were packed, cameras were charged, and an excited albeit weary crew began our trek across the sleepy desert to Sin City. All was going to plan except it wasn't. As mentioned a 3:30am departure was needed to arrive in a timely fashion to board our plane out of Vegas. Speaking plainly, this just didn't happen. Hey, it wouldn't be an adventure if you actually made it on time to catch your first flight right? Plus, bloody marys are an important part of the morning and rescheduling our flight gave ample time to experience all that the Las Vegas airport had to offer in terms of sustenance. But I digress...
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Our air travel adventure finally behind us after landing in Kansas City, we made the trek through seemingly endless farm land to our chosen destination... Lake off the Ozarks. A day of planes, trams, and automobiles behind us we arrived just in time to catch the tail end of the LOTO street party. Although late to the party, we found an abundance of watercraft ranging from common runabouts to full blown, no expense spared, super cats on tilt trailers. While the LOTO Shootout certainly brings their A game in regards to hardware at the street party, in comparison to the Desert Storm street party there is just something missing when it comes to energy level. Nonetheless we made due and found a popular watering hole to slake our hard traveled thirst and reveled in the possibilities of the week to come.
Our host hotel was the Camden on the Lake and morning brought with it our first opportunity to take in the vast dock outside saddled with all manner of over the top machinery from such noted manufacturers as Skater, MTI, DCB, and Mystic. As was mentioned before, Desert Storm has LOTO beat in regards to their street party. That is were the comparisons stop, however. LOTO is on a scale that is beyond anything on the west coast. That is not to discount anything that Desert Storm has to offer, as it's an amazing event. What Desert Storm doesn't have, though, is the shear volume of boats, docks, bars, and waterway that LOTO offers. LOTO is like Texas... everything is bigger!
Given our land locked state this time around at LOTO we decided that our best move was going to be to hit as many of the larger facilities on and around the lake as possible. The obvious first step of of that was to enjoy the offerings just out side our own hotel. Located at mile marker 7, the Camden offers huge dock space, a swimming pool facing the marina, a pool bar, a dock bar, a stage next to the marina, two restaurants, and an upstairs bar overlooking the docks. Add to this Shady Gators bar just on the other side of the marina and you could easily stay put at the Camden all week and have a great time.
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Staying put just isn't in our DNA though. Rumors of an absurd number of bars and restaurants on the water had been tickling our ears since before we arrived and we sought to experience some key locations on this trip. If you talk to the locals you will get a number somewhere between 25 and 91 bars located on the water scattered up and down the Dragon's back. Not sure why the number varies so much from one local to the next, but it's safe to say that you can find a bar just about anywhere you go. The first place we ended up was Performance Boat Center. Located at mile marker 21 PBC is a veritable one stop shop for all your performance boating fun. With new boat sales and service, an in house paint shop, covered docks for days, and a full service restaurant and bar called Redhead Lakeside Grill, a boaters every need is met in one place. And for us land locked folks it provided a great venue to spectate the boats and people. Something of note not only at PBC, but all over the lake were the dock girls. Employed at every notable dock are college aged girls whose job it is to handle dock lines, assist in arrival and departure, and handle the fueling of the hundreds of boats that pull in each day. They aren't just a pretty face either. These girls would run circles around most deck hands I've seen and they are a whole lot better looking than Billy Bob the Bait Boy you see roaming around most marinas. In talking to one of the girls who was fueling a beautiful 48 MTI, it was revealed that a day on the docks was good for anywhere from $1500 to $2000 in tips during Shootout week!
As mentioned earlier, everything is just bigger at LOTO. This includes the parties. While RDP prides itself in throwing the party of parties at Desert Storm, we would be lying if we said that the parties at LOTO don't rate high on our must attend list. Just like everything at LOTO not only are the parties awesome, but there are TONS of them. We were only able to make it to a few, but if the ones we attended are any indication Lake of the Ozarks knows how to party! Performance Boat Center threw a huge kickoff party with a fireworks show that puts every fireworks show on the river to shame. We literally got tired of watching them and bailed while they were still bursting above our heads to make the next party. The next party while low key was just as impressive. MTI Boats had their party at the home of well known boat racer Bob Bull and his dock alone is worthy of press. His dock housed a 52' cat, a 48' cat, a 34' outboard cat, and a 42' center console, all MTI's of course and all sitting on lifts. The covered dock featured a 30' granite topped bar in the center, a smaller bar at the entrance, a live band, and a 30' buffet stocked with amazing food. These guys know what they are doing!
We ran into the Blue Man Group looking for a ride on the way out of the MTI party. Sadly we were already at capacity...
Much to the chagrin of the afore mentioned dock girls the forecast for our second day showed rain with a chance of rain. This happened to be Poker Run day for those with aquatic transportation, so we didn't feel so unfortunate to be arriving nice and dry to our destinations. Our first stop of the day was to Big Thunder Marine. Big Thunder, while not on the water, is one of the premier sales centers in the area and their facility, again, is something to behold. When you hang a 22 Donzi Classic from your ceiling as decor you know your business is doing something right.
The weather began to break as we were leaving Big Thunder and it was decided that Dog Days would be our next tour stop. Located at mile marker 19 and along the poker run route, Dog Days proved to be a good spot for a refreshment and gave a good vantage point to take in some of the boat action. With a full service restaurant, three bars, and a huge pool along with tons of boat parking you could easily make a day out of this place. Osage Beach where Dog Days and PBC are located is one of the larger communities on the lake and offers lots of options for food and accommodations if you are without watercraft.
Saturday came with the promise of clear skies and warm temps. The break in the cloud cover was a welcome change and gave a chance to get some great color on the docks as the early morning sun wiped the sleep from its eyes and peered over the tree line to the east. Living in Arizona as a photographer it is easy to take for granted that you will nearly always have beautiful golden light pouring over your subjects each sunrise and sunset. After being confined to fogged up lenses, flat grey light, and soggy boats all week the sun was a welcome reprieve.
Shootout day was also on Saturday (and Sunday) and, as such, the place to be if you weren't floating in the giant raftup was Captain Ron's. Captain Ron's is located at mile marker 34.5 and is the hosting restaurant/bar for the Lake of the Ozarks Shootout. As host Captain Ron's is a bustling hub of boating action on Shootout days. Boats participating in the Shootout use Ron's abundant docks to stage for their next runs and a Jumbotron and multiple TV's play the live feed of the event throughout the day so patrons can keep up with the action. The atmosphere is festive and the drinks are made with rum, lots of rum!
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After fighting the crowds and nearly sweating ourselves into a puddle at Captain Ron's we decided to go explore some other spots. On the list all weekend was the infamous Big Dick's Halfway Inn (careful when you google that one). Located at mile marker 47 which is around the halfway point on the lake, Big Dick's started out as a bait shop and later grew to become one of the more popular bars on the big lake. Shirts and hats from Dick's can be seen at boating events all over the country so it's a bit of a surprise to discover that Big Dick's is just a little dive bar unassumingly tucked away on the banks of the Lake of the Ozarks. Getting there by car is all the more interesting as you dive through an area straight out of Deliverance to arrive at the lake side shanty. Though it be small, it packs a big punch when it comes to fun. Their claim to fame is the "Minnow Shot". A nod to their bait shop roots, the Minnow is a simple shot with the addition of a live minnow. The barkeep informed us that they go through about 2000 minnows a week in the summer season. It's easy to see why it's so popular. The whole bar cheers as you send your doomed swimmer down the hatch. Combine the minnows and the ambiance and you have a low key winner of a bar.
Being our last full day at LOTO we saved the best for last. After taking in the shenanigans at Dick's we set out on a pilgrimage to find our way to Coconuts. Located just 10 minutes by boat from the Camden on the Gravois river arm, Coconuts is as close to a Caribbean resort as you will find this side of Nassau. With two swim up bars, a huge wrap around bar at pool level, a full service restaurant/bar at the patio above, multiple pools, sand volleyball courts, and seemingly endless boat parking if you can't find something to keep you busy here then you seriously need to reevaluate your life. Picture, the tropics, Desert Storm, and Spring Break, all wrapped up in one convenient location with dock girls to make your experience that much better.
Being boating enthusiasts its hard to imagine going to one of the premier boating locations in the United States and never setting foot on a boat. It just seems contrary to the whole spirit of event. While it may not be everyone's cup of tea, let it be said that you do not need a boat to thoroughly enjoy LOTO. Yes, there is something to be said for pulling up to the dock like a boss and joining your crew mates at the bar for an afternoon of tall tales and merriment, but the real enjoyment is exploring new locations with the people you enjoy. So, get out there and check out some new waterways for yourself, boat or no boat.
See you on the water!
Oh... and American Ethanol ran 204 mph for those who only care about shootout numbers
Words: Tom Leigh
Photos: Tom Leigh, Stacy Johnson, Dave Johnson, Carter Bahde