Here’s the thing about southern lakes: you can generally do something on the water 365 days a year. And we don’t mean ice-skating. Beyond boating, there’s fishing, paddling, paddleboarding, and sailing, and off the water, there’s birdwatching, cycling, and hiking to enjoy. During the warmer months, you can add swimming, water skiing, kneeboarding, jet skiing, wakeboarding and even scuba diving to the list.
Columbia’s Lake Murray, a 55,000-acre watery playground, isn’t just close to Columbia: the lake, with its more than 600 miles of scalloped shoreline, is remarkably accessible for day-trippers. “From I-26, it’s an easy trip to the Lake Murray Dam, which has terrific facilities,” says Jayne Baker, Public Relations Manager for Lake Murray Country. “On the Lexington side of the dam, there’s a beach for swimming; the Irmo side is great for picnicking and paddling. There’s a launch pad that sits just a few inches below the water so you can get on your stand-up paddleboard or into your kayak without tipping over. Both areas have plenty of parking, and the walk over the dam between the two is beautiful.”
Every weekend, hundreds take to the waters of Lake Murray aboard pontoon boats, and it’s easy to see why: the lake’s calm water is just right for the crowd-friendly crafts, which provide a stable ride and lots of room for coolers and friends. Join the fun by renting a pontoon boat at one of the marinas that line the shore or just join the party: during the summer, lakefront restaurants like Catfish Johnny's, Liberty on the Lake, the Rusty Anchor and the Beach Club open the decks, bring on the music and transform the scene into a daylong celebration.
If you prefer the quieter side of the lake, consider spending a day —or several—at Dreher Island State Park, where you can swim from a sandy beach, rent kayaks and other water toys, fish and even spend the night camping or in one of the five villas that dot the shoreline. There are also hiking trails, a short nature path, a playground and a camp store where you can rent tackle and purchase a fishing license. Although the main part of the park can be a bit crowded on weekends, a short stroll is all it takes to find a peaceful stopping point.
With the warm climate, and countless ways to dive into the fun, Lake Murray is a perfect example of a year-round lake. Former pro tour fisherman Michael Murphy, who works as a fishing guide on the lake, says that weather rarely keeps him—or his clients—off the water. “The fish are always there,” he laughs. “What changes is where they hang out. If you want to fish on Lake Murray, we know where the fish are.”
Stripers and large-mouth bass are two of the most popular species fished at Lake Murray, but Murphy says that there are plenty of what he calls pan fish—fish you can cook in a pan--as well. “Bluegills, white perch and shell crackers are all plentiful and delicious.”
No matter what type of fish you’re after, Murphy says that the setting at Lake Murray is about the prettiest he’s seen. “The buffer zone is amazing, so you would never know you’re so close to the city,” he says. “We see deer swimming out to the islands, loons in the winter and wood ducks during the summer. If we’re lucky, we’ll get to see the ospreys fishing. They fly up about 100 feet into the air then to into an absolute dive-bomb straight in. It’s amazing they don’t knock themselves out, but they never do. They pull away with a giant fish, one claw on the head, the other on the tail.”
Osprey don’t provide Lake Murray’s only dramatic bird sightings. Each summer, tens of thousands of Purple Martins—a pretty, iridescent species of swallow--roost on “Bomb” Island, a training site for World War II B-25 bombers (including the famous Doolittle Raiders), as they prepare to make their way to South America for the winter. It’s the largest Purple Martin sanctuary in North America, and the oldest. The drama begins at sunset, when the fiery sky comes alive with the birds, who swoop, flutter and caw as they search the air for insects, and the show continues until darkness has fallen and the birds have settled into their nests. Private charters, naturalist-led bird-watching tours and rental boats make it easy for nature lovers to take in the show; the Spirit of Lake Murray runs nightly dinner cruises to Bomb Island as well.