A fish caught near the foot of Lake Huron on May 18, 1874 had the citizens of Sarnia agog.
The creature was five feet long and sported a paddle-like snout that was nearly half as long as its body.
The bizarre fish was preserved and put on public display in town, and despite the fact Sarnia and Point Edward had a large commercial fishery at the time, no one knew what it was or where it came from. Word spread; it became a sensation.
It took the federal Marine and Fisheries Department two years to finally identify the beast as a “spoonbill sturgeon.” Today, it’s better known as a paddlefish.
Ottawa was so captivated by the rarity that it authorized a ministry official to negotiate its purchase. But it wasn’t to be.
“The ignorance and greed of the captors defeated our wishes,” the government negotiator told the Canadian Illustrated News. “They demanded $1,000.”
Despite that, the fish did somehow eventually make its way to Ottawa. It appeared in the 1879 Dominion Exhibition in a “magnificent” display of stuffed oddities that included a Greenland shark, a Florida alligator and a 610-pound tuna caught near Halifax, according to the Sept. 24 edition of the Montreal Daily Witness.
The impressed reporter had this to say about the famous fish from Sarnia.
“How it came there is a mystery. It is the only one ever caught in Canadian waters.”
I first encountered the story of Sarnia’s “Odd Fish” in historian Glen C. Phillips book, ‘Sarnia: More Picture History,’ which included a textbook-like engraving of the thing done in 1876.
But after encountering one in real life a light bulb came on and I realized the celebrated 19th century sea monster and a paddlefish were one and the same thing.
It happened while scuba diving with my daughter and two friends in a U.S. quarry known to contain paddlefish. When the massive shadow of one passed beneath it looked like a slow-moving shark tipped with a broad sword. It was a cool moment.
Paddlefish, like sturgeon, are prehistoric and closely related to sharks with a skeleton that’s mostly cartilage.
They have no teeth and swim with their mouths open to capture and eat zooplankton that they filter from the water.
These days, they are found only in the Mississippi River basin and their numbers are in decline.
Sarnia’s paddlefish was the first and one of only three ever recorded in Canadian waters, according to the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources. The last was nearly a century ago.
Upon seeing one, I understood why the rare and strange creature that was mounted for display in Sarnia had sparked a fish tale for the ages.