Off the Beaten Path: Watch out, Iliamna Lake Monster, here I come

Next summer, I plan to fish for the Lake Iliamna Monster. I’m bored of catching salmon, halibut and trout, and it doesn’t look like the Feds are going to allow even catch-and-release whaling anytime soon. Stupid Marine Mammal Protection Act.

I need more of a thrill, so I’m borrowing a pack-raft, some long-line gear and a virgin goat (for bait) and flying to Iliamna. I plan to write a book afterward in the vein of the classics, “The Old Man and the Sea” and “A River Runs Through It.” My girlfriend has suggested the title “The Dumbass* and the Lake,” but I’m leaning toward “A Lake Sits on it.” I plan to also write a manual on how to fish for freshwater monsters, a book of poetry and a blockbuster Hollywood screenplay.

Iliamna Lake, at more than 1,000 square miles, is the largest body of freshwater in Alaska. There are rumors it’s around 1,700 feet deep. The Kvichak River, draining out of the southwest region, runs for about 60 miles into Bristol Bay. Long known for its incredible populations of salmon and trout, it’s also said to harbor monstrous fish-like creatures. Stories of these beasts go far back before this century, but with the advent of bush planes and the epidemic of media there have been more and more reports. Many have come from reliable sources that did not have mullets and were not drunk or tripping on hallucinogenics. All say they see a strange giant fish creature, sometimes in small groups, from eight to more than 30 feet long, floating near the lake’s surface. There have also been sightings in the Kvichak River which may indicate the creatures travel back and forth from the Bering Sea.

Jeremy Wade, the host of Animal Planet’s show “River Monsters,” brought worldwide attention to the Iliamna monster when he attempted to catch one during an episode called “Alaskan Horror.” Before that, others have dusted off their tackle and rods and given it a go. One party set long-line gear in 300 feet of water without hooking anything. Another supposedly tried fishing with steel cables attached to their floatplane. The story goes that the monster struck, the fisherman got knocked off the float, and the monster towed the plane around the lake.

According to a 2010 ADN article: “In June of 1980, the Daily News offered $100,000 for tangible evidence of the Iliamna Lake Monster and sent reporter Bill Wilson to the lake to untangle the myths. The reward brought both serious and non-serious responses. One man, according to the website, reportedly played classical music to lure the animal up from the depths. There were no results, and to this day there has never been a well-financed search using sophisticated sonar and underwater photographic gear.”

Classical music? Who are these weirdos! Don’t they know giant cryptid fish only respond to gangsta rap, particularly to Eazy-E and Biggie Smalls? “Sophisticated sonar and underwater photographic gear!” When did the world become so politically correct?! Back when Alaska was great we would have busted dynamite in the lake until something weird floated up.

Bruce Wright, senior scientist for the Aleutian Pribilof Island Association and Chilkat Environmental, is sure that there’s something in the lake. He thinks it’s likely sleeper sharks adapted to living in freshwater.

“Sleeper sharks surprise me all the time,” Wright said over the phone. For a species said to exist in every ocean, very little is known about them. I’ve stuck my hand in a number of their mouths to pop hooks out while long-lining for halibut. They seemed so lethargic it didn’t even occur to me there could have been potential danger. Recently, there’s been more and more documentation of sleeper sharks killing sea lions and other fast moving large animals. Wright went onto say, “They eat everything and anything. I’ve found chunks of gray whale, harbor seal and even chrome chum salmon in their stomachs. They target the midsection to eviscerate their prey. Sure, they’re cold blooded and slow moving, but they have their moments.”

While sleeper sharks are associated with deep water, Wright says they frequently come to the surface during the night. Luckily, Alpacka is pretty good about repairing rafts in case I am attacked. Which means I’ll long-line Lake Iliamna during the day and troll chunks of goat during the night. I’ll start from Pedro Bay, in the eastern portion of the Lake, and primarily fish the north side. I plan to float my trophy — I’ll settle for nothing less than a 30-footer — down the Kvichak River and look for a taxidermist in Naknek.

Wright also wonders if freshwater sleeper sharks might explain the Loch Ness Monster sightings in Scotland. After my successful Iliamna expedition, book tour, and Hollywood movie, I plan to visit the Scottish Highlands and try my luck fishing there.

• Bjorn Dihle is a freelance writer based in Juneau.

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