The Golden Year
Lake Monroe celebrates 50 years of history, recreation and wildlife
What's in a name?
812 sets the record straight: is it Lake Monroe or Monroe Lake?
Lake Monroe, as it’s often referred to by locals, is actually the incorrect title for Indiana’s largest body of water. The area was originally designated Monroe Reservoir by its US Army Corp of Engineers owners because it is a manmade resource, not a natural dam. But this name didn’t stick around long.
“Through the Division of State Parks, the Department of Natural Resources decided as a group to call it Monroe Lake,” says Jim Roach, property manager.
Roach says although Monroe Lake is the official name, the DNR has no control over individuals with private campsites, businesses and webpages who refer to it as Lake Monroe. No matter what you call it, it is the same lake Monroe County has cherished for 50 years.
Although the DNR recommends using its official name, we’ll call it what the locals know and love: Lake Monroe.
THE NORTH FORK of Salt Creek is quiet. Water flows calmly down a wide, winding stream. The forest is hushed, filled only with the chirping of a few birds. A lone car sits alongside the narrow gravel road that runs along the creek. Steven Higgs, founder of Natural Bloomington and environmental journalist, author and photographer, points at something out of sight.
“There’s a wildlife refuge at the end of the road,” Higgs says. “But I doubt we’ll see many cars passing through this early in the morning.”
Salt Creek’s north fork is just one of three that come together to form Lake Monroe, a 10,750-acre reservoir – about the size of 10 football fields – that stretches over Brown and Monroe counties. The manmade lake first opened its waters in 1965, after four years of damming and construction. Today it’s home to over 300 bird species, 30 species of fish and a variety of woodland animals and wildlife. And it’s now celebrating its 50th birthday.
The 23, 952-acre property is Indiana’s largest tourism attraction, with 320 electric and nonelectric campsites, nine boat ramps, eight State Recreation Areas, four marinas, three beaches and the Fourwinds Resort.
We'll tell you the ins and outs of boating on the lake, where to catch the fish you’re looking for and hidden gems around the area. 812 spoke with wildlife specialists, lake naturalists and environmental experts to learn everything Lake Monroe has to offer both on and off the shore. So come on in — the water’s fine.
History of Lake Monroe
Where we've been, where we are, and where we're heading
In 1960, the Lake Monroe area was an upland-forest creek valley. The oaks, hickories and maples had returned after heavy farming and logging in the early 20th century wiped out nearly all the trees from Bloomington to the Ohio River. With no forest, animals such as deer, turkey and grouse abandoned the region. It wasn’t until the formation of the Civilian Conversation Corps in 1933 that the area began to revive.
“The CCC put workers on the ground who reintroduced the forest and built the shelters and trails we use in our parks today,” Higgs says. “Once the trees came back, the wildlife had to be reintroduced.”
Just as the region returned to its woodland glory, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers launched a statewide flood-control plan for areas with natural lakes and creeks. Jim Roach, Monroe Lake Property Manager, says the lake’s primary purpose was flood control.
Construction on the lake began in 1961. Several small towns, such as Paynetown, Elkinsville and Fairfax, had to be evacuated because they were in the floodplain.
“It was very controversial at the time — the government kicking you out of your house to build a lake for people to swim and fish,” Higgs says. “It wiped out entire communities, and a lot of people had to be relocated.”
The lake is owned by the Corp of Engineers and managed by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. Its 441-square-mile watershed (the surrounding area of land from where all water drains and collects into the lake) is diverse in geography and landscape. Lake Monroe has various biological regions, including forest, deep lake, and wetlands.
According to Higgs’ upcoming book, A Guide to Natural Areas in Southern Indiana, 90 percent of the lake’s watershed is forest, where woodland birds, white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, snakes, rabbits, raccoons and foxes call home.
Lake Monroe’s deepest point measures approximately 59 feet. The deep lake area is home to 30 species of fish, including bluegill, catfish and largemouth bass.
The eastern watershed, located east of the Highway 446 causeway, is mostly made up of wetlands and marshes.
That range of ecosystems has led to the successful reintroduction of many species, including bald eagles, wild turkeys and river otters.
“It is a very diverse ecosystem from one end of the lake to the other,” Higgs says. “No place else in Southern Indiana compares to the biodiversity of Lake Monroe.”
And it’s an important source of drinking water. The Monroe Water Treatment Plant pumps an average 15 million gallons per day, providing drinking water to five counties. A proposal a couple of years ago tried to route water from Lake Monroe to the south side of Indianapolis as well, but was shot down.
Roach says there’s no way of knowing what’s in store for Lake Monroe’s next 50 years.
“Most of our funding goes to preventative maintenance and general upkeep, so there are no new facilities coming in the near future,” he says. “The water going toward central Indiana was a rumor. I’ll just say it’s always a good rumor. I can’t say what happens 20 years from now. Never say never.”
Boating, fishing, and hiking - oh my!
Recreation opportunities at Lake Monroe
Lake Monroe is more than a massive flood control system — it is a major economic and recreational source for Southern Indiana. It is the second largest financial contributor to Monroe County, and draws an estimated 1.5 million visitors annually.
Roach says the summer months, ranging from Memorial Day to Labor Day, are the lake’s busiest times of year.
Lake Monroe has three beaches, located in the Fairfax SRA, Paynetown SRA, and Hoosier National Forest’s Hardin Ridge recreational complex. Although it’s suggested the waters remain closed until Memorial Day, the beaches are unguarded and don’t have official operation hours. Roach says some visitors are back in the water by early May.
Eight State Recreational Areas are located on the reservoir. Each SRA has a boat ramp and public restroom, while some offer additional outdoor opportunities. Fairfax, Paynetown and Cutright are the busiest SRAs, and account for 1.2 million of the lake’s visitors. The others combined, including Crooked Creek, Pine Grove, Salt Creek and Moore’s Creek, account for less than half a million.
The lake is known for its abundance of water activities, including swimming, fishing, and boating. Roach says there are close to 2500 permanently moored boats on the reservoir.
“We have flown over the lake on a Fourth of July weekend and counted the number of boats. It’s easy for that number to get up into the 3000 to 4000s,” he says. “Once the water temperature gets to the 80-degree range, it’s comfortable enough to swim. Fishermen come early, but the recreational boater, inner tuber, water skier and floater like the water to be warmer.”
The 446 Causeway splits the waters into two manageable sides to please every type of visitor. The east side is strictly an idle zone, meaning boats cannot go over 5 mph. The west side is open water, and speed is unlimited. Jet skis, wave runners and powerboats can race as fast as their engines can take them.
Rita Flynn, Facility Manager of the Lake Monroe Sailing Association, says she prefers the more peaceful east side.
“I like kayaking – it’s something fun, something small,” she says. “I like to go past Cutright and Pine Grove and North Fork.”
Other small sections of Lake Monroe, including a few on the west side, are also idle-only areas. These include Moore’s Creek, Allen’s creek, all ramp areas and the dam, as well as the Fourwinds area, Ramp Creek and most of the smaller areas off the lake’s main body. Flynn says weekdays before 5 p.m. are the best time to go out on the lake because there is less traffic.
However, boating on Lake Monroe isn’t a free expenditure.
“To some, spending $15,000 on a boat isn’t expensive,” Flynn says. “If someone wants to get into it, even at the $5,000-$6,000 range they could. That’s the initial expense, and it can add up. It’s not for people on a budget.”
If you don't own a boat, three boat rental companies and marinas that offer hourly, daily and 3-day rentals to those wishing to venture on the waters. Jenny Shedd and her husband Rick have owned Lake Monroe Boat Rental, Inc., located in Paynetown, for 23 years. Shedd says their establishment offers just about everything aside from houseboats and sailboats, and lists some of the most popular rentals.
“We have double-decker boats with slides, 24 to 28-foot pontoons, floaters, jet skis, paddleboats and kayaks,” she says. “The small paddling crafts have really taken off. The double-deckers are really popular for ball teams, families and cheerleading squads because they accommodate 24 people.”
Prices range from $48 for an all-day paddleboat to $600 for three days with a 24-foot pontoon. Additional boat rental companies include Lake Monroe Marina located in Cutright and the Fourwinds Resort and Marina in Fairfax.
But not all of Lake Monroe’s fun happens on the water. Interpretative Naturalist Jill Vance says the property offers a whole range of recreational opportunities.
“It’s a 20,00-acre property, but 10,000 of those acres are land,” Vance says. “So that’s part of my job — to get people into the woods and field to explore the flora and geology.”
Lake Monroe’s property has 226 electric camping sites, which offer comforts such as a camp store and dumping station. It also has 94 nonelectric sites for those seeking a more natural camping experience.
Vance says she leads hikes and plans community activities that run throughout the year. Events scheduled for Spring 2015 include the Feb. 18 Nesting Box Workshop, the Woodcock Walk on March 11, the Brown County Wildflower Foray on April 24-25 and a May 2 bicycling tour of the area’s geology and limestone.
THREE HIDDEN GEMS OF LAKE MONROE
According to naturalist Jill Vance, some of the lake’s most unique experiences happen away from the shoreline. In her own words, she shares three of Lake Monroe’s hidden gems and a plant and animal you don't want to miss.
1. Stillwater-North Fork Waterfowl Resting Area
North Fork Waterfowl Resting Area: Drive 10 minutes east of Bloomington on Highway 46 and turn south on Friendship Road and follow it until it dead ends at a fork, where both branches lead to small parking areas.
Stillwater Marsh: Drive 10 minutes east of Bloomington on Highway 446 and turn south on Kent Road and follow it to McGowan Road. Continue south on McGowan to the wildlife viewing area.
"The Stillwater marsh area during migration season in the fall or spring is amazing.We manage that area as seasonal wetlands and flood it during the winter months right in time for the migrating waterfowl. We have an overlook from where you can watch thousands of birds flying around. You can’t walk into it during winter months, because it’s closed to not disturb birds. But you can view the birds from the overlook. During the summer months, that area is open for hiking."
2. The Big Oak.
Located: Fairfax SRA, off the Big Oak Trail, one of the Fourwinds Resort hiking trails.
"Located in the Fairfax SRA is an old, white oak tree. Most of lake’s forested property was logged in the early 1900s, but this one tree made it. It’s about 250 to 300 years old. It has a designated trail in Fairfax, called “Big Oak Trail,” and it’s marked on the map. People often take pictures with it."
3. Woodcock Walk.
Located: Within the Fairfax SRA, off S. Fairfax Road. Meeting times and location may vary.
"Our property is a mosaic of walking views. Two-thirds of the Fairfax peninsula is not developed, so if you want to see wildlife, that’s the place to go. It’s where the woodcock display in the spring. On a March night, right before sunset, the woodcocks take to the air, circling and calling out to each other. It is a beautiful experience."
Her favorite animal:
The woodcock, small, brown wading birds with stocky bodies and long, slender bills.“They’re the cutest birds,” she says. “They hide away most of the year, but they come out during March and will dance around for you. They’re the most adorable, weird looking, fascinating bird. And you really only get a two-week window to see them.”
Virginia Bluebells, a white-blooming form of the bell-shaped, typically sky-blue wildflower.
“They’re an early-spring ephemeral, and they grow along the streambed of the Salt Creek SRA,” Vance says. “Spring is the only time you’ll see the white blooming form of the bluebells. They peak mid- to late-April.”
Hook, line and sinker
Take a bite out of fishing at the lake
Some of Brody McWilliams' earliest memories center around Lake Monroe. The 2013 Big Ten bass fishing champion, two-time Indiana High School State champion and member of IU’s Bass Fishing club says he began fishing at the lake as early as 6 or 7-years-old.
“I’m from Greenwood, so I’ve grown up around the lake,” he says. “I’ve been competing in fishing tournaments since I was 11.”
McWilliams goes to Lake Monroe two or three times a month, and shares his favorite area to sink a line.
“I like going up on the slow side, on Pine Grove or Moores Creek. It’s better fishing up there, because there’s no skiing or fast boats,” he says. “The area has a lot of large mouth bass, a few spotted catfish and carp. Small mouth bass are rare.”
Wide ranges of native fish dwell in Lake Monroe’s waters. They include several species of sunfish, three different types of catfish (brown bullheads, channel cats and flathead cats), bass, crappie, walleyes, hybrid stripers, minnows, shiners and shad. The best areas to catch each of these vary.
Bass can be found mainly near the boat ramp on Cutright SRA. Hybrid strippers, which tend to swim deeper, are down near the dam where the water is clearer. Bluegill, catfish, and walleye can be found pretty much everywhere, as well as the white and black crappie. McWilliams says crappies are a popular choice because they can be eaten and they taste good.
With 30 species of fish, fishing clubs are active around these parts. Tournaments are held throughout the summer, and fishing guides are available to take you to the best spots to catch a bite. Hiring a guide can make all the difference in finding the perfect spot on the lake’s vast surface.
Most of the fishers use artificial bait and slow plastics in Lake Monroe, called “jigs,” because the water isn’t clear.
McWilliams’ passion for fishing comes from a long family history. His grandpa and uncle have been competing in tournaments for years, even making their way to the Bassmaster Classic, which he describes as the Super Bowl of fishing.
Lake Monroe hosts several of its own fishing tournaments throughout the year, and is the home field for IU Bass Fishing. The club hosted the Minnow Bucket Tournament against Purdue University in spring 2014 and hosts two club tournaments each semester. McWilliams says they are hoping to host the Big Ten Championship at Lake Monroe this year.
Bass fishing tournaments at Lake Monroe are competitive, and cost a hefty fee to enter. You have to be a dedicated fisherman to get involved with the big guys on the lake. You’ll be competing for large prizes that can vary from cash to a new boat or trailer. You draw as a team, two to a boat – sometimes you know your partner, and sometimes it’s totally random. Tournaments start in May and go until it’s too cold to fish regularly.
“Every fall the state has a bass tournament draw weekend, which is basically the equivalent to a lottery,” says fisheries biologist Dave Kittaka. “Whoever gets that No. 1 pick gets the choice of any weekend they want to hold the tournament for the following season.”
A bass angler, which is a method of sport fishing, is taken seriously at Lake Monroe. To keep your catch, it has to be over 14 inches. That’s a decent sized fish, according to Kittaka.
“Over 27,500 of the bass caught at the lake are released,” stated Kittaka. “Even though these anglers are catching legal sized fish, they are choosing to release them, which is great for us.”
Even after fishing months have long since passed, you have the opportunity to ice fish on Lake Monroe. This requires a little more precaution that your traditional fishing. You need at least four inches of ice, and between five and eight inches if you plan on driving a snowmobile or small car onto the lake.
Roach loves the fall for a variety of reasons. As the temperatures drop and the lake gets less crowded, he and the rest of the staff finally have some time to breathe. For him, that means time to get out and hunt.
Lake Monroe has an average of 50,000 hunters each year. It’s over 13,000-acres of land are open to seasonal hunting, which usually start in the fall. Seasons include rabbit, squirrel, duck, deer and more.
Deer are the most popular game, and the total season can go from Oct. 1 to Jan. 5. However, there are certain seasons for each type of weaponry. Firearm season, which Roach says is what the majority of hunters do, runs from Nov. 16 to Dec. 1 each year.
Most game hunting seasons run in the fall from August to December. Turkey is typically the only game you can hunt in the spring.
For Roach, he prefers duck hunting. “I’m not a deer hunter, but I’d like to go hunting during whatever season it might be. Maybe once a week.”
There are several hiking trails that weave through the forest and along the edges of Lake Monroe. Trails from Hardin Ridge, Charles Deam Wilderness and the Hoosier National Forest back up against the lake, creating a series of overlaps. Paynetown and Fairfax trails are generally moderate in terms of length and difficulty, ranging from .5 to 1.75 miles. Trails in other forests, however, are more of an adventure.
Higgs shares three of his favorite trails around the lake, and explains what makes them stand out.
Length: Less than a mile
Located: Take the 446 Causeway and take the first right toward Maumee Scout Reservation.
“I’ve hiked this trail the most, and it’s my favorite. The trail hikes out to the top of a ridge and overlooks Lake Monroe from about 50 to 60 feet up. It’s off the grid, meaning it’s established but not marked or maintained. It’s easy to get lost because it has a fork. When you get to the top, there’s an old homesite from the 1870s that’s falling apart. So that one’s probably my favorite – it’s got a beautiful view of the lake, old homesite, and it’s an easy one.”
Crooked Creek Ramp Trail
Length: 1 – 1.5 miles
Located: At the Crooked Creek SRA in Brown County. Take Highway 446 and turn onto TC Steele Road. Follow it all the way to the end, where it turns into a U. Trail begins near the boat ramp.
"This trail used to be an old road that led to Elkinsville. It runs along marshes and lowlands of the water’s edge. It’s a big view of the valley, and there’s a bird sanctuary. It’s also off the grid, and pretty easy to walk. However, sometimes it’s flooded because it’s in such lowlands. You can probably walk out 1.5 miles depending on the water level.”
Hickory Ridge Trail
Length: 48.7 miles
Difficulty: Ranges from moderate to difficult
Located: Off Highway 446, onto Hwy 58 East. Proceed 6.5 miles to Norman to only stop sign in town, turn left. Proceed another 0.3 miles and turn left onto road 1250 W at brown forest service sign and continue 2.2 miles to the Hickory Ridge Trailhead.
“I haven’t hiked there in a long time, since the 70s. The trail is a big circle that cuts through the Charles Deam Wilderness, the only permanently protected woods in Indiana. It has great history and nature. It's probably one of the longest and most diverse trails here.”
The Tecumseh Trail – Begins in Morgan-Monroe State Forest
Pate Hollow Trail – Hoosier National Forest
More than water
Lake Monroe is home to a diverse ecosystem of plants, animals and wildlife
Aside from all the fun and exciting activities at Lake Monroe, one of the biggest and most amazing aspects is its wildlife.
Home to a diverse mix of habitats that provide for resident and migratory wildlife species, Lake Monroe’s woodland, upland and wetland habitat give a home to native mammals, insects, amphibians, reptiles and birds.
“The variety of wildlife species, their life cycles, needs, behaviors and the challenges they face are constantly a part of our wildlife management planning,” Rex Watters, Indiana DNR wildlife specialist, says. “The opportunity to help wildlife like the bald eagle, waterfowl, deer, rattlesnake and otters coexist with the resources and the people who use these resources is the challenge, but also the reward that gives this job its appeal.”
Lake Monroe has reintroduced several species of animals back to Indiana over the course of time. These include bald eagles, river otters, turkey and white-tailed deer. The eagle and the river otter have been the most recent reintroductions to the lake.
Before the reintroduction, there hadn’t been an active bald eagle nest in Indiana since 1897. The DNR was able to get a project approved through the federal government to reintroduce the birds. Seventy-three birds were released at Lake Monroe between 1985-1989. Thanks to these efforts, there are now over one hundred nests in the state of Indiana and over fourteen on the lake, taking the bird’s name off the endangered species list.
Approximately 303 of the sleek river otters were released back into the environment between 1995-1999. By 2005, they were removed from the endangered species list.
“These otters did marvels when being reintroduced,” Scott Johnson, nongame mammal biologist, stated. “We were probably one of the last states to reintroduce them, but they’ve done great. They’re really neat animals.”
The bald eagles aren’t the only birds making a statement. Lake Monroe is home to nearly 300 different species of birds, making it the birding capital of Indiana. To better appreciate the diverse species, Naturalist David Rupp established IndiGO Birding Nature Tours, LLC. Rupp leads customized tours for groups ranging from elementary schools to church trips.
The Sassafras Audubon Society (SAS) does bird list counts three to four times a year to keep track of the birds that make the lake their home.
For reptile fans, Lake Monroe is home to plenty of creatures to keep an eye out for. These include species of frogs, turtles, snakes and lizards.
When it comes to frogs, visitors should keep an out for the unique wood frog species. It is the earliest breeding frog and can be heard calling as early as February. A full chorus of these frogs can sound like a group of ducks quacking.
“This interesting part about these frogs is they have a physiological mechanism that allows them to be out so soon,” Herpetologist Sarabeth Klueh-Mundy stated. “Because of this mechanism, they are able to survive the freezing of their body tissues and fluids.”
Other species of frogs that can be heard and seen around the lake include the cricket frog, chorus frog, spring peepers, gray tree frogs, green frogs, bullfrogs and the southern leopard frog.
The painted turtle and the red-eared slider turtle are two of the most common reptiles that can be easily seen on the lake’s waters. While hiking, it is possible to spot an Eastern box turtle, which are a specially protected species. It is illegal to take one of these turtles from the wild.
Some of the most common snakes include the northern water snake, and as their name implies, they enjoy being around the water. They are a fish-eating species that can get rather large in size.
Other snake species include the eastern garter snake, western ribbon snake, Dekay’s brown snake, rough green snake, gray rat snake, milk snake and the ring-necked snake. All of these snakes are non-venomous, but that doesn’t mean you’re in the clear.
Two venomous snakes that could be encountered are the timber rattlesnake and the copperhead.
Along with all the wildlife, a collection of diverse plant life surrounds the massive body of water.
You can find both native and introduced trees, wildflowers, vines, shrublets, shrubs, grasses, sedges, rushes, ferns and allies on dry grounds and wetlands.
Some blooming flowers to look out for this spring around the lake are Philadelphia fleabane, Virginia bluebell, large-flowered bellwort, cleft phlox, Star-of-Bethlehem and wild ginger.