Payette Lake’s Cryptid

McCall Mag.jpg

Grove Koger

Over the years I’ve written several times about one of Idaho’s more intriguing mysteries, a cryptid (animal whose existence is unproven) thought by some to live in Idaho’s Payette Lake. This article originally appeared in the Summer/Fall issue of of McCall Magazine, named for the town lying on the lake’s southern shore, as “Sharlie: The Myths and the Mystery.”


We call the big beast “Sharlie,” but over the years he’s answered to “Slimy Slim” and (incongruously, this being mountain country and all) the “Sea Serpent.” Sometimes he was “whathaveyou,” sometimes the “whatamacallit.” To one of Idaho’s more poetically minded journalists, Dick d’Easum, he was the “twilight dragon of Payette Lake.”

But of course we have no idea what Sharlie really should be called, or even if he’s a he.


D’Easum dates his dragon’s first appearance to 1917 but doesn’t go into details. Other commentators reach back even further, referring vaguely to that hoariest of clichés, an “evil spirit” whose presence frightened away the Native Americans. More prosaically, Sharlie seems to have appeared first to railroad workers cutting ties near the upper end of Payette Lake in the early 1920s. They saw what appeared to be an eight-foot log floating in the water, but then it started moving …

By the 1940s things were hopping in McCall, or at least in Payette Lake. The “sea serpent,” as he was then known to the Idaho Daily Statesman, was spotted in May of 1943 and again, more closely, in June. That month Thomas F. Rodgers of Boise was rowing on the lake when he realized he had company. “The head stuck out of the water about six inches,” Rodgers told the Statesman, “and was about two feet long. It had large eyes and a dark green, thick, leathery-looking skin.” Rodgers assumed that his sighting was a “common occurrence,” and in a sense it was, because when he described his experience to the boat keeper, the latter knew immediately what he was talking about.

There were more than two dozen sightings reported in 1944, so many that Time even carried a story in its August 21 issue. Written in the magazine’s trademark smart-aleck style, the report referred merrily to “beasts prominent in monster husbandry” and recycled a Paul Bunyan story from the Statesman.

Sharlie officially became “Sharlie” in 1954 when the Payette Lake Star sponsored a contest to name him. The Statesman even chipped in a share of the prize money, which went to former Twin Falls resident Le Isle Hennefer Tury. Her winning suggestion echoed a radio routine popular at the time.

Identity Crisis

Over the years there seem to have been plenty of variations in Sharlie’s appearance. Sightings have ranged from the eight-foot “log” of the 1920’s to an enormous, sixty-foot creature with a horizontal tail observed by real estate agent Pauline Miller in 1952. Sometimes Sharlie’s head has resembled a dog’s or a crocodile’s, but more often it has looked like a periscope. Often he’s moved (in the words of one eyewitness) “up and down like a roller coaster.” Occasionally he’s glided along so smoothly that he’s left scarcely any wake.

Given these variations, we can guess that people may be seeing several different creatures or phenomena. Explanations have ranged from rogue waves to sturgeon (whose eggs, pace Paul, may have been planted in the lake during the 1920’s), to moose, to … Well, read on.


Sharlie has received the occasional nod from cryptozoologists, scientists who study anomalous or unidentified animals. In 1980 Gary S. Mangiacopra published the only scientific review of the evidence to date in Of Sea and Shore. Based in part on Miller’s account and sketch (reproduced below), he concluded that at least some reports might be of pinnipeds—that is, seals. In Mangiacopra’s scenario, Northern Elephant Seals might, just might, have made their way up what were once free-flowing river systems long ago and found themselves trapped in Payette Lake by twentieth century dams. Fellow cryptozoologist Roy Mackal made much the same suggestion in 1996.


The only hands-on research that I’ve been able to track has been carried out by McCall-Donnelly High School science teacher Mike Gantz and his students. According to a 1994 report, “Project Sharlie” involved gathering water samples from around the lake and lowering a video camera down a cable. Initial sightings, however, involved nothing more startling than beer cans lying on the floor of the lake.

If only there were photographs, you say, and of course a photograph would go a long way toward establishing, well, something about the beast. For a few tantalizing weeks in 1944, it seemed as if such evidence might be forthcoming. Twin Falls theater owner B.L. Fagin snapped photos of Sharlie swimming about 150 feet offshore along the western side of the lake. Fagin was shooting in newfangled color, so the prints weren’t available immediately. But they weren’t available later, either. Depending on which story you believe, the film disappeared, the camera was out of focus, or the film was blank.

Sightings of Sharlie have been few and far between since the mid-1980s, although at least two highly credible reports appeared in print in 1996. So while we’ve had a growing pool, we might say, of potential witnesses, there have been fewer actual sightings. It doesn’t add up, does it? In his 1980 article, Mangiacopra sounded an elegiacal note. He hypothesized a very small population of Sharlies, a situation leading to inbreeding, decline, and extinction.

The Mystery of a Solution

A few paragraphs back I mentioned several explanations for Sharlie’s identity, but the truth is, I don’t have any better idea than you do what Sharlie is, and I like it like that.

If you read detective novels, you know that the mystery itself is almost always more satisfying than its solution. A mystery has a certain frisson, while a solution has all the excitement of a lecture. So it is with Sharlie. Kate Wolf’s comments from 1996 capture this situation perfectly. Floating on a pontoon boat in July of that year, Wolf and her daughter and two relatives spied something with three to five humps and an intermittently visible head moving through the water. “I saw something I don’t have an explanation for,” she later told the Star-News. In an age in which every puzzle, every conundrum can be explained or explained away, what could be more wonderful?


Since my McCall Magazine article appeared, I’ve treated this subject in more scholarly fashion for American Myths, Legends, and Tall Tales: An Encyclopedia of American Folklore, published by ABC-CLIO in 2016. And some years before that I wrote a short piece that might well serve as a footnote to “Sharlie,” but I’ve never had a chance to publish it—until now 

I have a particular reason for being taken with Gary Mangiacopra’s theory. In 2001 a friend of mine and his brother hiked to Lower Baron Lake in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains southeast of Payette Lake. As they approached the shore with their fishing poles, a seal climbed out of the water onto a rock about thirty feet away and barked at them. The two were so astonished that they withdrew immediately and went fishing elsewhere.

Now my friend grew up in the area and has hiked virtually every one of its trails. He’s also seen just about every conceivable animal in the region, including, needless to say, otters. What he and his brother saw that day wasn’t an otter. It was a seal.


Yes, of course, but it happened.