The annual Progressive Louisville Boat, RV & Sportshow kicks off each year at the Kentucky Exposition Center around the end of January, but you don’t have to wait until then to get into the boating spirit or enjoy the best boating lakes in Kentucky. They’re open all year round, with plenty of fun to offer boaters of all kinds.
Here’s a look at the best boating lakes in Kentucky (in no particular order).
1. Lake Barkley
Lake Barkley is in Cadiz, about a three-hour drive southwest of Louisville. It’s a manmade lake that spans about 58,000 acres. It’s just across from Kentucky Lake, with the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area in between them.
Boaters use Lake Barkley year-round. There are rental boats (pontoons and fishing) available, and Lake Barkley State Resort Park—which has a lodge if you want to stay overnight—is about a half mile from a marina with a launch ramp. Lots of fishermen wet their lines here, looking to catch Kentucky bass, crappies, bluegills and channel catfish. The biggest logperch ever caught in the state came from this lake, weighing in at 0.08 pounds when it was caught in November 2013.
2. Kentucky Lake
If you’re already checking out Lake Barkley, then you’re right in the same neck of the woods as Kentucky Lake, which has more than 2,000 miles of shoreline. When Kentucky Lake is at its normal operating level, it covers more than 160,000 acres. More than 17 million people visit each year.
Numerous marinas are on Kentucky Lake; the largest is Kentucky Dam Marina, which offers pontoons, ski boats and personal watercraft rentals. The marina is located at Kentucky Dam Village State Resort Park, one of several state parks that are on the lake, in addition to the Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge. The Kentucky Dam Village State Resort Park itself has a boat dock where fishing, skiing and pontoon boats can be rented from March through October.
3. Buckhorn Lake
Buckhorn Lake is in the southeast part of Kentucky, in the Appalachian foothills. The Daniel Boone National Forest is nearby with more than 700,000 acres of rugged, protected Appalachian wilderness. The lake is about 1,200 acres, plenty big for fishing with a stock of Kentucky and largemouth bass, as well as muskie, crappie and more. Launch ramps and boat rentals are available, with the prime-time season being from May through October.
If you happen to visit Buckhorn Lake during the off-season winter months, keep an eye out for eagles nesting. Sometimes, guests can see them right outside the lodge windows at Buckhorn Lake State Resort Park.
4. Lake Cumberland
In December 1985, a man named Roger Foster caught a striped bass in Lake Cumberland that weighed 58 pounds, 4 ounces. To this day, nobody has been able to beat that record, though many a fisherman has tried. Millions of people visit this lake each year, whether for fishing, personal vacations or powerboat events such as the Thunder Run and Poker Run. And some people stay for quite a while, giving Lake Cumberland the nickname of the “Houseboat Capital of the World.”
Fishing, ski and pontoon boats are available for rental, and the state operates a marina and a restaurant as part of Lake Cumberland State Resort Park. There’s a lodge there, too, with rental cottages available if you want to boat by day and stay ashore by night.
5. Laurel River Lake
Laurel River Lake is in the London Ranger District of the Daniel Boone National Forest, with nearly 200 miles of shoreline all lined with trees and natural beauty. Not only do people boat, fish and water-ski here, but they also scuba dive, checking out the underwater rock formations in the clear water.
During the summer months, a lot of people visit Laurel River Lake to do some night fishing for trout. By day, the catch is usually black bass, walleye, blue gill, rainbow trout, catfish and crappie. Boat ramps are aplenty for putting in, and there are a number of boat-in campgrounds with moorings at the water’s edge of each campsite.
6. Grayson Lake
Fishing and pontoon boats are available for rent, and there’s a boat ramp for bring-your-own boaters at Grayson Lake, which is due east of Louisville near the West Virginia border. There’s a 1,500-acre state park here filled with sandstone canyons and lots of hiking trails. The vistas are so gorgeous, Shawnee and Cherokee Native Americans used to camp here all the time.
Grayson Lake is also a great place to combine a love of boating and golfing. Hidden Cove Golf Course is 7,155 yards from the back tees and offers scenic views all the way around. The par-72 course is open year-round, so if you’re boating off-season, you should be able to get a tee time, too.
7. Barren River Lake
Barren River Lake spans about 10,000 acres in southern Kentucky, near Bowling Green. There are public boat launches as well as a marina that can be accessed from Barren River Lake State Resort Park. That marina has 100 open slips, 40 covered slips and rentals of various kinds available.
Fishermen, in particular, are drawn to Barren River Lake for hybrid, largemouth and smallmouth bass, along with walleye and crappie. The state record hybrid striped bass was caught here way back in April 1991. It weighed 20 pounds, 8 ounces, and has yet to be topped.