Flessie the Flathead Lake Monster of Montana

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Is it just me, or are lakes simply teeming with monsters? I'll admit, I haven't been to that many lakes, and I've never seen a lake monster myself. There are so many accounts of them worldwide that I can't help but think I'm bound to spot one sometime. Many accounts of lake monsters share suspicious similarities, like a serpentine body, humps protruding from the water, and so massive it could swallow a human whole.

In Flathead Lake of Montana, in the northwestern part of the United States, there's a local lake monster legend called "Flessie" that has been intriguing people for over a hundred years.

Where Is Flathead Lake?

In northwestern Montana, about 30 miles southwest of Glacier National Park, you'll find Flathead Lake. It's one of the largest natural freshwater lakes in the United States and spans nearly 200 square miles (518 square kilometers) at a depth of over 370 feet (113 meters). Plenty big enough for all sorts of aquatic creatures—even large ones.

Google Map showing Flathead Lake's location in northwestern Montana.
Flathead Lake in Montana.

Flathead Lake is surrounded by the Mission and Salish mountain ranges, creating a beautiful atmosphere for birdwatching or monster...watching? I feel like there needs to be a better term for that. Cryptolaking? The towns of Polson and Bigfork are right on the shores of Flathead Lake, and Kalispell is a short drive away. Anyway, the area is a popular spot for fishing, boating, hiking, and other outdoor activities, which means people are there regularly, ready to spot any lake monster popping its head above water.

Aerial view of Kalispell, Montana, featuring a sprawling town with residential and commercial buildings, surrounded by lush green fields and forests, with a backdrop of mountains and dramatic clouds.
Kalispell, Montana.

Flathead Lake supposedly formed over 12,000 years ago during the last ice age. When the glaciers receded, a basin was carved and filled with fresh water. The region has been home to the indigenous Salish and Kootenai (Kutenai) tribes for at least thousands of years, and they've relied on the area's natural resources to live. The tribes are now part of the ​Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Reservation​.

The name "Flathead" comes from the Flathead Native American tribe, the easternmost of the Plateau tribes. In this case, the name "Flathead" is a misnomer from early European explorers and traders who mistakenly believed the tribe practiced head flattening—which wasn't the case. The name persisted and is now associated with the lake, region, and tribe. You can read more about the head flattening practices of another tribe at the Oregon History Project: ​Chinookan Head Flattening​.

Skipping ahead past thousands of years of harmonious living with the land and lake, European settlers arrived in the early 1800s, drawn by their love of capitalist pursuits and creating extinction events from overhunting and overtrapping. Additionally, many European settlers came into the area to displace and appropriate land from Indigenous peoples, all while imposing Christianity, cultural norms, and languages to "civilize" American Indians.

A scenic view of Flathead Lake in Montana, featuring deep blue waters, a clear sky with white clouds, and surrounding green forests. Distant mountains are visible on the horizon, adding to the tranquil beauty.
Flathead Lake. About a 15-minute drive from the city of Kalispell, Montana.

Flathead Lake is home to Wild Horse Island, the largest island on the lake. Like Flathead Lake, Wild Horse Island has its share of strange stories. Over the years, the whole area surrounding Flathead Lake has had numerous unexplained drownings and disappearances. Some blame the lake's cold temperatures and sudden weather changes, but others look toward the legends of monsters.

Legends & Stories of Flessie the Flathead Lake Monster

The Kootenai people have a legend about the lake, a tale with no known origin date. According to their legend, a tribe lived on an island in the lake. One winter, while crossing the frozen lake, two girls saw antlers protruding from the ice and tried to chop them off. The ice split open, revealing a monstrous creature with giant antlers. The girls used special powers to escape, but half the tribe members drowned—which is said to be the reason there are so few Kootenai people.

Flessie" (Flathead + Nessie) is the affectionate nickname for the Flathead Lake Monster, inspired by Scotland's famous "Nessie.

Skipping ahead an unspecified time (centuries? or more?) to 1889, Captain James C. Kerr of the steamboat U.S. Grant and his 100 passengers reported seeing a whale-like creature in the lake. A passenger retrieved a gun and shot at it, causing it to dive out of sight. I'm not sure about you, but I think shooting first and asking questions later might not be the best strategy for a lake monster.

About a decade later, in 1900, 12-year-old Elmo Buffington claimed to have seen a 20-foot-long creature with a body as big around as an oil barrel. That might not mean much to you now since you may not have even seen an oil barrel. Oil barrels back then weren't standardized to exact measurements, but Elmo Buffington probably saw something in the water whose body was around two feet in diameter (~ 60 cm)—plenty big enough to swallow him whole.

Overhead image of a road on the shore of Flathead Lake.
Flathead Lake, Montana. Just imagine driving along that lonely road and seeing a giant lake monster smile and wink at you and then sink beneath the water, knowing you didn't have time to take a picture.

In 1933, Marion Avery, a school teacher, and her husband reported seeing the creature while boating near Big Arm Bay. They described it as having a "head like a sheep." That's not something you hear about in everyday cryptolaking.

Another story from the 1940s is about a 3-year-old boy who fell into the lake and later told his mother that the Flathead Lake Monster lifted him out of the water to safety.

In the 1950s, an organization known as Big Fish Unlimited began offering cash prize prizes for catching large fish in Flathead Lake. During this period, C. Leslie Griffith caught a 7-foot, 6-inch, 181-pound white sturgeon, leading some to believe that this large fish could be the basis for many monster sightings. The sturgeon is now displayed at the Polson-Flathead Historical Museum.

Mounted "Monster" sturgeon caught from Flathead Lake in 1955 displayed on a wall in a museum.
"Monster" sturgeon caught from Flathead Lake in 1955. It measures 7 1/2 feet long (2.29 meters) and weighs 181 pounds (82 kilograms). See it yourself and learn more at the ​Polson Flathead Lake Museum​.

In 1977, a Polson-area couple reported seeing the monster while boating. They described it as about 30 to 40 feet long (9-12 meters), with humps rising above the water's surface. Despite their clear view, they couldn't identify it as any known animal.

In 1985, retired U.S. Army Major George J. Cote and his son reported seeing a serpent-like creature 40-60 feet long (12 - 18 meters) while trolling in Yellow Bay. Cote saw the creature again in 1987, describing it as a snake-like entity with the tail of an eel.

The peak year for sightings was 1993, with thirteen reports. Witnesses described Flessie as a large eel-shaped creature, 20 to 40 feet long (6 - 12 meters), with brownish to blue-black skin and grayish-black eyes.

In the early 2000s, sightings continued, including an account from a local fisherman who described a creature that left behind a large wake and submerged before he could capture any photographic evidence. Cameras still weren't ubiquitous then, as the iPhone and Android smartphones didn't launch until 2007/2008. So, the chances of anyone having quick and easy access to take a photo would have been very slim.

In 2005, a group of teenagers boating on the lake claimed to have seen a large, dark shape moving just beneath the surface. They described it as moving with a serpentine motion. Additional reports from the mid-2000s detail sightings of a creature with humps and a serpentine body.

Polson, Montana, has embraced "Flessie" over the years and celebrates the legend with the Flathead Lake Monster Festival. This event includes parades, monster-themed games, storytelling sessions, and other activities.

What Exactly Is Flessie the Flathead Lake Monster?

There are many theories about what Flessie might be, and the varying descriptions aren't helping narrow it down. Some say it resembles a giant eel, while others describe it as serpentine, with a snake-like head and a long, undulating body. The estimated size ranges wildly, with some saying it resembles a giant snake—but there doesn't seem to be any known species of snake that big lurking around Flathead Lake.

Other theories say that it's a simple case of misidentification and that Flessie is just a large fish (possibly a sturgeon), or maybe logs or even waves caused by boat wakes. Given that a 7-foot, 6-inch, 181-pound white sturgeon was once caught in the lake, some suggest that a giant sturgeon could explain many of the sightings. It doesn't, however, do anything to explain some of the sightings or the Kootenai legend.

Yet another theory claims that Flessie is actually just a group of otters swimming in line. This can create the illusion of a single serpentine creature, with their bodies appearing like humps undulating through the water. Otters are indeed known to swim in groups, and this behavior could account for some of the reported sightings.

Interestingly...or maybe bizarrely, a less common theory suggests that some lake monster sightings worldwide—including Flessie—could be attributed to swimming elephants. Their trunks, when raised above water, could be mistaken for serpent-like creatures. (Note: there are no wild elephants around Flathead Lake.)

Lastly, some believe that Flessie could be a previously unidentified species of large aquatic animal. We probably won't ever truly know what Flessie is unless, of course, someone gets some very convincing evidence. A huge problem with evidence these days, though, is AI. What if someone spreads around a video of Flessie, but then we discover it was easily fabricated in a few minutes with a little generative AI? There are a lot of lake monster legends worldwide. Some of the stories are quite recent, while others go back hundreds of years or more. But it is interesting to see these legends span continents and centuries.

What do you think?

Is Flessie some unknown species?

Are lake monsters "real"?

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