With the Spring Mack Days fishing derby underway, this may be an opportune time to tell about the controversial Flathead Lake sturgeon catch of May 28, 1955.
Since 1889, there have been more than 100 recorded sightings of super-sized fish and other strange objects or critters in the lake. Some of the sightings have been attributed to hyperactive imaginations, playful pranks, natural phenomena such as wave action, shadows, lighting effects, logs and a number of animals, including bears, horses, deer, elk, dogs, a dead monkey, a loose circus seal and even an escaped buffalo.
What could have been an answer to the mystery apparently wasn't – or was it?
In the 1950s, organized attempts were made to catch the "superfish" when Big Fish Unlimited offered significant cash awards. The only person to land a big enough fish for the top prize was C. Leslie Griffith, who was reported to have caught the 7-foot, 6-inch, 181-pound, 1-ounce white sturgeon that now adorns a wall of the Polson-Flathead Historical Museum.
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News reports at the time told of Griffith hooking into the giant sturgeon near Cromwell Island, off the west shore, about 9 p.m. May 28, 1955. Five hours later and several miles down the lake, Griffith boated the fish and started back up to Dayton.
About 6 a.m., Griffith and J.F. McAlear knocked at the door of the Dayton Store and Post Office, operated by Mr. and Mrs. Graydon Williams, and asked for help loading the big fish onto a flatbed truck.
There was no question about it being fresh, Williams said later. Blood still seeped from the gaff marks. The Williamses knew Griffith had been fishing for sturgeon for some time. Packages of eel had come in the mail for him – some of them bearing an aroma indicating it wasn't the freshest bait around.
But the catch is still shrouded in controversy.
Skeptics claimed while the fish may have been pulled from the lake, it didn't necessarily originate there. They theorize it may have been brought in from elsewhere in a tank truck – perhaps from the Snake River in Idaho.
On the other hand, sworn court testimony stated the fish was caught in Flathead Lake. A dispute over ownership of the sturgeon and distribution of monetary proceeds from showing it arose. The case went all the way to the state Supreme Court, which upheld a district court finding that ownership was retained by BFU but that Griffith was entitled to a share of the display proceeds.
When I was editor of the Flathead Courier at Polson, author Dorothy M. Johnson, then secretary of the Montana Press Association, advised me not to treat sighting reports lightly in newspaper and magazine articles. In a Nov. 5, 1962, letter, she wrote that she had grown up in Whitefish. She said, “I don’t think the monster should be done with tongue in cheek. You have eyewitness accounts by people who were scared and didn't think it was funny. I remember hearing something in Flathead Lake more than 40 years ago, so I don’t give the Polson Chamber of Commerce credit for dreaming it up.”
In addition to local observers, witnesses come from many parts of the United States and some from foreign countries. Sighting have been reported by doctors, teachers, merchants, lawyers, housewives, clerks, military personnel, vacationers, school kids, retired people, boat captains, millworkers, laborers, farmers, ranchers, law officers, a former state Fish and Game Department chairman, industrial executives and more.
And occasional sightings continue. Reports can come in most months of the year, in all parts of the lake, singly and in groups. They can occur in bunches or days, weeks or months apart – even a few years. So keep your eyes open and binoculars and cameras handy.
Paul Fugleberg is a former editor and co-publisher of the Flathead Courier of Polson and the Ronan Pioneer. His freelance articles and photos have appeared in numerous national and regional magazines and newspapers, and he has written several books. He may be reached at email@example.com.