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.”