Modeling of hydrological time series is essential for sustainable development and management of lake water resources. This study aims to develop an efficient model for forecasting lake water level variations, exemplified by the Poyang Lake (China) case study. A random forests (RF) model was first applied and compared with artificial neural networks, support vector regression, and a linear model. Three scenarios were adopted to investigate the effect of time lag and previous water levels as model inputs for real-time forecasting. Variable importance was then analyzed to evaluate the influence of each predictor for water level variations. Results indicated that the RF model exhibits the best performance for daily forecasting in terms of root mean square error (RMSE) and coefficient of determination (R2). Moreover, the highest accuracy was achieved using discharge series at 4-day-ahead and the average water level over the previous week as model inputs, with an average RMSE of 0.25 m for five stations within the lake. In addition, the previous water level was the most efficient predictor for water level forecasting, followed by discharge from the Yangtze River. Based on the performance of the soft computing methods, RF can be calibrated to provide information or simulation scenarios for water management and decision-making.