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Saturday, 28 April 2012

A Short History of the Flathead Lake Monster

The History of a Monster

Retired biologist records sightings
Flathead Lake Monster, Illustration by Stephen Templeton
[Imaginative] Illustration by Stephen Templeton/Flathead Beacon
Laney Hanzel can’t tell you if the Flathead Lake Monster exists. But he won’t tell you it doesn’t. He has file folders full of recorded accounts, maps, newspaper clippings and various tidbits concerning the creature. After nearly 30 years of working as a fisheries biologist on Flathead Lake, he knows the body of water well.

It’s a lake of mythical proportions and Hanzel sees no reason to dismiss eyewitness accounts of a creature with those same proportions.

“I believe the people who are reporting to me,” he said. “They say, ‘We saw something and it was real.’”

Hanzel began recording eyewitness “monster” accounts in 1990 when he still worked for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks because the large number of sightings called in to the agency warranted its own file. It was after his retirement in 1993, though, that he had enough time to interview these people personally, gather their stories and then file them. He does it because it’s intriguing, he said, and because he thinks maintaining records of such cultural lore is important. He doesn’t claim to have seen the monster.
“Somebody has to keep these records,” he said. “Regardless of what they say, I just write it down. I don’t say, ‘Well, maybe, did you see this?’”

The people who come to him with eyewitness accounts aren’t nutcases, he said, though he acknowledges some may be pranksters. But for the most part they are lawyers, doctors, policemen, engineers, biologists, an oceanographer, a retired U.S. Army Major and many others. Hanzel has documented 85 sightings, but isn’t sure how many other people are too embarrassed to come forward. They don’t want to sound crazy.

“Most people try to talk themselves out of seeing something unusual,” Hanzel said.

As the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi River, Flathead covers nearly 200 square miles and is as deep as 386 feet. With 22 different fish species and an array of aquatic plants, the lake, in theory, is big and hospitable enough to hold a large creature.

“It could hide something very easy,” Hanzel said.

The creature – Hanzel prefers that word over the more negative “monster” – is generally described as being between 20 and 40 feet long with humps on its back, steel black eyes and an eel or snake-like body. What amazes Hanzel is that many of the descriptions are the same, even though the witnesses have never met. This was also true before the sightings began to garner media attention, which has included two interviews with Hanzel on a San Francisco radio talk show.

“It was the similarities that really peaked my interest,” he said. “This consistency is kind of validity. I mean, the similarities occurring in this thing – it’s uncanny.”

Hanzel never found any scientific evidence of the creature’s existence while working for FWP. In his many years of studying Flathead Lake’s aquatic life, he worked with highly sophisticated acoustic equipment that was able to detect a 1-inch fish 300 feet below the surface. He never detected any large unknown creatures. He did, however, pull up nets on several occasions with huge holes.

“Those were some pretty big holes that I couldn’t explain,” Hanzel said.

The first recorded sighting was in 1889. Other sightings occurred sporadically throughout the early 20th century. Paul Fugleberg, the former editor of the Flathead Courier, put together a file of the earlier sightings. Fugleberg is the original Flathead Lake Monster historian and he stills works with Hanzel in maintaining records.

The biggest year for sightings was 1993, when Hanzel recorded 13. The most recent sighting was in 2005. One day in 1993, two people 16 miles apart reported sightings within 25 minutes of each other, which could support other people’s claims that they saw two creatures, Hanzel said. Also, many people say that schools of fish jump out of the water, in an apparent attempt to escape a predator, right before the monster appears.

People might be seeing a variety of things when they think they see a monster, Hanzel said. Maybe they see a log bobbing in the water. On a calm day, a boat’s wake can travel up to six miles. An eyewitness may see this wake without a boat in sight and jump to conclusions. Many people have argued that witnesses actually saw sturgeon, but Hanzel said a sturgeon has never been recorded in Flathead Lake.

In the 1950s the sturgeon theory gained popularity. Sturgeons can grow more than 10-feet long and have prehistoric characteristics that look “monsterish.” At one point, Big Fish Unlimited offered a cash reward for any sturgeon caught out of Flathead Lake. A man named C. Leslie Griffith came forward on May 28, 1955 with a 7-foot-6-inch, 181-pound white sturgeon that is now on display in the Polson-Flathead Historical Museum.

The event was covered all over the press, with many people doubting that the sturgeon came from Flathead Lake. Though the controversy was never publicly resolved, Hanzel said a biologist from University of Montana cut open the fish’s stomach and determined it came from a separate river system.

Brian Beck, who owns Flathead Lake Monster Inc., had a sighting in the late 1980s. He wrote it off at the time, he said, because it’s easy to talk yourself out of such strange things. But a week later he heard about other people who had sightings at exactly the same spot and time as his.

“It was serpent-type and with waves,” Beck said. “It just didn’t look like anything I’ve seen on the lake and I grew up on the lake. I’ve seen about everything on the lake.”

Beck acknowledges there’s a chance he saw a log or something else, with perfect wind and lighting conditions to give the impression of a living creature. Maybe.

“It could actually be our monster,” he said. “You never know. That’s what makes the story great. You can’t say something doesn’t exist just because you haven’t seen it.”
By A Fan on 08-29-07
Beautiful Illustration !
By James Conner on 08-30-07

Hanzel wrote a story on the monster for the Flathead Lakers, where he serves on the board of directors. His story can be read at the Lakers’ website
By Erika Corne` on 09-11-07

I really enjoyed this story. I found it inturiging and rather inspirational. I am actually a journalist for my High School Newspaper, where I do the “Weird and Bizzare and somtimes just plain Crazy” column. I decided that this month, I want to do a story on the Flathead Lake Monster, and I’m wondering if there is any way I could get ahold of Laney Hanzel, because I would really like to do an interview with him, and maybe get some more first hand accounts. You can contact me by the e-mail address above. If you could get back to me about this as soon as possible, that would be wonderful. Thank you,

Erika Corne`
Whitefish High School
Bulldog Breeze
By David on 09-14-07

We caught a 30"[white] sturgeon out of the lake in the late 80s. Since the sturgeon theory of the monster was common, I thought sturgeon were in the lake back then so we never reported it to anyone…I do remember it didn’t taste that great.
By Laney Hanzel on 10-17-07

Whenever publications of stories about the Flathead Lake Monster (or better Creature) are printed seems as though additional people have had sightings and haven’t reported them to anyone. I have been keeping records of the sightings since 1990 and have accumulated a file of past sightings. I would like to have anyone who has seen or knowns of someone who has seen an unusual sightings on the lake to contact me and I shall add them to the list of sights that now totals 86.
--For the most part the reports seem to be describing standing waves and sturgeon. I have one or two distinct sightings of swimming moose from this lake. David's report that [white] sturgeon WERE present in the lake at least as of the 1980s is important to the identification, especially since the monster buffs are always saying there are no sturgeon in the lake. A similar situation exists at Lake Okanagan, British Columbia, the Ogopogo lake. 
"Where do white sturgeon live?
--Best Wishes, Dale D.
"Ogopogo" sighting seeming to show a back fin and a long tail fin

"The Real Ogopogo"-scale of a large sturgon to a human being.

Flathead Lake, Montana (photo by Matthew MacManes)
The Flathead Lake Monster is an eel-like aquatic creature living in the Flathead Lake in Northwest Monatana, the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi river. The lake is 27.3 miles long, 15.5 miles wide and has a maximum depth of 370.7 feet. The average depth is 164.7 feet and it covers 191.5 square miles.


The first recorded sighting is attributed to a lake steamer captained by James C Kerr. The story tells of a large creature ramming the boat at a high speed. A "quick draw" passenger fired on the creature, and it submerged beneath the boat, disappearing as quickly as it appeared, leaving a stream of ripples. He referred to it as a large, black whale-like creature.


It is most often described as a large eel-shaped creature [ie, a standing wave-DD] that can vary in length from 10 to 40 feet [60 feet maximum given]. It is said by those who describe this length as being round and brown to blue-black in color. When seen closely it has very steely black eyes and moves in a snake like fashion. There have also been several witnesses who have described it as a whale-like animal with a grayish epidermis and barbed like fins, a less mysterious description matches that of a large lake sturgeon.
This description seems confirmed by a story from May 1955 when a fisherman claims to have caught a similiar creature fishing. The trophy after a five hour battle was an 8 foot long, 181 pound sturgeon that can still be seen in the Polson Flathead Historical Museum. Many skeptics and cryptozoologists believe the large fish in questions was artificially introduced from a larger body of water.



A giant sturgeon, (1911)one possible theory put forward
There are many stories from those who've seen the creature in the cold mountain lake. The most reported sightings were in the year of 1993, when it's said an out of state banker caught a few seconds of a large dark object breaking the surface of the water. He described is as a large creature with the head of a sturgeon on the body of an eel. The most recent sighting of this curious lake creature was in August 1998. A seasoned trout fisherman who was reeling in a small fish up from around 120 feet deep and reported a large sturgeon like fish following the catch, before breaking off at the surrface and disappearing back into the chilly depths of the lake. Unfortunately there have been no reported sightings since.



Sturgeons are large, "living fossils" that normally range from 3-5 feet and can weight 10 to 80 pounds. They're freshwater fish that are colored olive brown to dark grey on the back and sides with a white belly, with sharp bony ridges along it's back and sides. They are bottom feeders that are occasionally seen feeding in shallows and around the mouth of rivers. They are a rare site and can be startling when seen. They are most famous for their caviar, but are also caught for their meat and oil, they are known to leave large holes in fishing nets.

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  1. nice opinion.. thanks for sharing.

  2. I should mention that PURSUIT printed a tally of Flathead Lake monster stories in the 1970s and I did an analysis of the reports at that time. I found that the majority of reports conformed to a large fish-shaped creature about 20 feet long and with a minority of reports which seemed to be swimming mooses. The report that is famously often quoted about a horse-headed creature in the water rubbing up against a pier is one of the clearer swimming moose reports, and it is the one that is in particular cited as "Plesiosaur-like" (it isn't, it is horse-headed and hairy, with a small amount of neck showing): and one of the traditional native accounts mentions that it has moose antlers.

    Best Wishes, Dale D.


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