Iliamna Lake, near Alaska’s southern coast, is eighty miles long and twenty-five miles wide in spots; it covers 1,033 square miles. The depth average is 660 feet; in Pile Bay at the eastern end, on one sounding, the lead dropped to 1,350 feet, and then the line ran out. Once part of the ocean, the lake is now less than a hundred feet above sea level.
The January 1959 issue of Sports Afield carried an article titled “Alaska’s Monster Mystery Fish.” The story, by Gil Paust, chronicled more than thirty years of reports of huge fish in Lake Iliamna. In breathless fashion the author details his adventures in trying to catch this mysterious monster fish. Paust, along with Iliamna Lake Monster hunters Slim Beck, John Walatka, and Bill Hammersley, used a Bushmaster sea-plane as a dock and some homemade monster-fishing gear. The four attempted to catch “the big one” with a hook made from a foot-long, quarter-inch-thick iron rod baited with a chuck of moose flank. Their line was several hundred feet of sixteenth-inch stainless-steel aircraft cable. A fifty-five-gallon oil drum was the bobber. The thing snapped the line. For some three decades before this report appeared, sightings of the monster fish had circulated around the shores of Lake Iliamna. At first the stories were assumed to be Inuit (Eskimo) folklore, and local whites did not take them seriously. But then well-regarded local people and visiting sportsmen claimed to have seen the fish, and the word spread.
Perhaps local guide Babe Aylesworth and fisherman Bill Hammersley made the best sighting in September 1942. Crossing at Big Mountain, they were on a direct flight over the lake to get to the village of Iliamna. Bush pilot Aylesworth was taking his Stinson ferry plane across at a steady pace over the deep, blue-black water when he noticed some unusual specks in the water near the unnamed island in the middle of the lake. Suddenly Aylesworth shouted “Oh, my God, what big fish!” and swirled the plane around for a closer look. Both Hammersley and Aylesworth got a good look. They described the things as dull aluminum in color with heads that were broad and blunt. The width of the long tapered bodies was the same as that of their heads, and vertical tails slowly waved side to side. (Whale tails go up and down. Fish and reptile tails go side to side.) They saw several dozen of them.
Spiraling the plane from one thousand feet down to three hundred feet, they soon saw that Aylesworth’s estimate of their length at ten feet was low. The fish were easily longer than the plane’s pontoon; they looked like mini-submarines. They circled for several minutes, then suddenly surged in the water and disappeared in a distinct wave disturbance. As they continued on their journey, the two men discussed and debated. No, it couldn’t have been a whale, walrus, or seal, because they never blew or surfaced. Sharks would have been much smaller.
Local people, most notably the outspokenly skeptical Arthur Lee, thought they might be cod, a theory the witnesses emphatically rejected. Once word got around Iliamna, authorities told Hammersley that he had seen only belugas. Hammersley countered that he had seen thousands of belugas (native white whales) during his years of fishing Bristol Bay and their white backs, tapering heads, and horizontal tails were in no way like what he and Aylesworth had seen.
The lake’s close proximity to the ocean has fueled speculation that the monster fish are landlocked sturgeon or some unknown prehistoric fish, but no dead sturgeon or even landlocked belugas have ever washed up on the shores of Iliamna.
In 1947, after leaving his defense job, Hammersley published a short piece on the mystery fish to try to get others to investigate the matter or to come forward with reports. One who did was Larry Rost, a U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey pilot. Flying across Lake Iliamna in the fall of 1945, he had been so startled by what he saw in the water that he had turned around and passed over it at one hundred feet. What he saw was a giant fish, more than twenty feet long, the color of dull aluminum.
Aylesworth reaffirmed the details of his 1942 sighting in a 1988 interview with Loren Coleman. He added that he thought that most of the animals were well over ten feet long, swimming in water that was only forty feet deep. Aylesworth recalled that cryptozoological sponsor and adventurer Tom Slick hired him several times to fly Slick and his boys to moose hunting sites, and in the fall of 1959 to attempt specifically to find the monsters of Lake Iliamna. Slick had offered a reward of $1,000 to anyone who could catch one of the mystery creatures, and Slick himself was in charge of getting lines set with barrels for buoys. He even hired a helicopter to hover over the exact spot where Aylesworth had had his encounter. Aylesworth and Slick never saw the big unknown animals on these flights and, indeed, the pilot said he went over that place in the lake more than one hundred times without seeing them again.
In 1967, in his book “Things,” Ivan T. Sanderson wrote of Slick’s teaming up with one Stanley Lee to look for the monsters in Lake Iliamna. Elwood Baumann noted in Monsters of North America that “Texan Tom R. [sic] Slick spent thousands of dollars in search of strange creatures in Lake Iliamna, Alaska.” As Michael Newton observed in his book Monsters, Mysteries and Man, Slick and Lee “organized an expedition to search for the elusive creatures. Slick was unsuccessful, and after his tragic death, Commander Lee teamed up with others to continue the hunt. Still the monsters remain unidentified.”
Newton appears to have picked up Sanderson’s lead here: “Captain Lee of Kodiak, Alaska, together with the well-known nature photographer, Leonard Rue of New Jersey, made still another stab at the monsters of Lake Iliamna in 1966.”
The cause of the monster fish sightings remains a mystery.
The Encyclopedia of Loch Monsters,Sasquatch, Chupacabras, and Other Authentic Mysteries of Nature
Written by Loren Coleman and Jerome Clark – Copyright 1999 Loren Coleman and Jerome Clark