MISSOULA, Mont. — Most Montanans have heard tales of the Flathead Lake Monster, but only a select few have actually seen it.
That’s why NBC Montana dug into this mystery that spans more than a century.
In northwest Montana, what lies beneath the waters of Flathead Lake is just as legendary as the lake itself.
“I heard that people have seen a giant serpent that come up out of the water and it surfaces very shortly,” said sailing instructor Genevieve Evans.
“I’ve seen it on my fish finder, but I've not been able to catch it,” said Kenan Appelhans.
They’re talking about the Flathead Lake Monster.
“I don’t like monster. I like creature,” former Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks fish biologist Laney Hanzel corrected.
Hanzel started taking records of sightings in 1993 after 30 years working on Flathead Lake. That’s when a cryptozoologist called Hanzel and asked him to document sightings.
“I haven't seen any monster,” Hanzel said. “I worked 30 years on the lake night and day.”
The first recorded sighting was in 1889 when Captain James C. Kerr claimed he and his 100 passengers saw the monster while on the steamboat the U.S. Grant. To date, there have been 109 documented sightings. The last one occurred in the fall of 2017.
“A creature 30 to 40 feet long. It undulates through the water and had steel black eyes. That's a summary of almost 80 sightings,” explained Hanzel.
You can find Lake County Judge Jim Manley in Hanzel’s records. He and his wife Julia were near Big Arm in 2005. Their boat battery died and they were waiting for a ride. They had been swimming alongside the boat and were relaxing when they heard a strange noise.
“I remember saying, ‘Look, look! That's it! We're seeing it!’” Jim Manley said. “I knew immediately, because the descriptions are all the same. It was like, 25 feet from what we could see and humps.”
“Thirteen years later, it's still like I can see it. It hasn't changed my belief,” Julia Manley explained.
“We heard the loud splashing. That's the part nobody can explain to me. If it was just an optical illusion, how do you explain the loud splashing. Afterwards it was a little eerie that that thing was swimming underneath us,” Jim Manley added.
Tami Avison was a preteen when she saw it from her grandma’s house in Polson.
“There may have been five or six and they were just swimming in the bay.” Avison recounted. “It was amazing actually. And my grandmother just told me nonchalantly, ‘those are the Flathead Monsters.’”
Avison and another witness say there’s a strange wake that appears by the monster.
“There's a wake in the water, and I saw this black form,” Finley Point resident Pam Moriarty said. “I never saw the head. At the end of it, there were five shark-like fins.”
Moriarty is a wildlife photographer, but couldn’t get to her camera fast enough.
“If I had gotten a picture of it the way I saw it, I don't know if my life would be any different,” she said. “I might be in a few newspapers or something. It would just be the thrill of telling everybody, ‘This is what I saw and it does exist.’”
A lot of witnesses never come forward with their story for fear of being made fun of or doubted. While some people call them crazy, the witnesses we talked to say there’s no doubt they saw the legendary Flathead Lake Monster.
“One guy came up and said, ‘Do you see dead people too?’” Jim Manley said.
Even skeptics can’t deny the monster in popular culture in Montana. The Cove Deli and Pizza has a pizza named after it. There are murals and statues depicting it and there’s even a soda brand named after it.
Tami Avison says she took 8 mm film of it, but can’t find it today.
“If there is something here, I think it's shy and it avoids boats as long as it can,” Jim Manley said.
It’s important to note that everyone we talked to said the monster isn’t scary, just big. They all agree it’s nothing to be afraid of.
The legend is as deep and quiet as Flathead Lake.