In Episode 126, Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger go ice fishing for the legendary beaver trout on Lake Memphremagog in northern Vermont. Since the time of the Civil War anglers have spread the tale of a trout that grows a fur coat to keep warm during the cold winter months. The story and even photos of the fish have been in the newspapers for over a century. Is it just a story, or could there be something more to it? The guys enlist the help of the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department on their hunt for the truth.
Read the episode transcript.
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Produced and hosted by: Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger
Edited by: Ray Auger
Guest: Jud Kratzer, Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department
Additional Voice Talent: Dustin Pari.
Theme Music by: John Judd
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Ralph Sessions’s 1927 postcard of the Beaver Trout on Lake Memphremagog.
Jud Kratzer of the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department with his very own Beaver Trout. Photo courtesy of Jud Kratzer.
*A note on the text: Please forgive punctuation, spelling, and grammar mistakes. Like us, the transcripts ain’t perfect.
[RUNNING STREAM/WINTER WIND]
RAY: January doesn’t seem like the best time of year for a fishing trip in Vermont, Jeff. It’s freezing up here! It’s gotta be far below zero!
JEFF: It’s the perfect time of year if you’re ice fishing.
RAY: Okay, that’s fair, but do we have to go so far north for this fish? We’re practically on the Canadian border here by Lake Memphremagog.
JEFF: This fish is a legend, Ray. And they say it lives in the coldest waters in Vermont in this lake, so that’s where we’re going.
RAY: But these fishing poles? I mean they’re pretty small to catch a legend, aren’t they?
JEFF: The poles should do fine. This legendary fish is a trout, it’s only 10 to 15 inches in length.
RAY: What makes this trout so special?
JEFF: During the coldest part of winter, they say this trout is covered in a fur coat. Today, we’re fishing for the Beaver Trout of Vermont.
JEFF: Hi, I’m Jeff Belanger.
RAY: And I’m Ray Auger. Welcome to Episode 126 of the New England Legends podcast. If you give us about ten minutes, we’ll give you something strange to talk about today.
JEFF: Thank you for coming along with us as we find and chronicle every legend in New England one story at a time. We do that with a lot of help from our growing community of legend hunters who are sharing our stories and episodes, and who are contacting us with local legends they love. Feel free to reach out to us anytime on our legend line at 617-444-9683 – you can call or text us on there, you can even leave our show closing if you want to hear yourself on a future episode.
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JEFF: Okay, Ray, are you ready to go ice fishing?
RAY: As ready as I’ll ever be. I have to admit, I’ve never done this before.
JEFF: Neither have I, but there’s a first time for everything.
JEFF: We’ll just drill through the ice here.
RAY: Tell me again about the beaver fish?
JEFF: Up here in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, for over a century and a half, there’s been talk of a special kind of trout. One that grows a fur coat to keep it warm in the frigid winter waters.
RAY: Okay, wait a minute. I thought only mammals grow fur.
JEFF: I thought that too. And yet, check out this postcard from 1927.
RAY: Okay, there’s a man holding a stick and line through a hole in the ice. Under him it reads: Fishing for Beaver Trout, Iceberg Cove. Under it… Wow! Okay, there’ a fish that looks like your basic freshwater fish, but it’s covered in a fur coat. Man, I hate fish. They freak me out with our without fur. I can honestly say they don’t get cuter with a pelt.
JEFF: And under the fish it read: Memphremagog fur bearing trout, and in parentheses it says Beaver trout.
RAY: That’s crazy! I’ve never even heard of something like this.
JEFF: This story comes up in the newspaper archives again and again over the last 150 years. It seems to have started just after the Civil War.
RAY: Then let’s head back to the late 1800s, and set this up.
RAY: It’s the winter of 1861 here in Newport, Vermont, on the shores of Lake Memphremagog. Two young men, Zophad Mansur and Theophilus Grout are ice fishing on the lake. That’s when the boys pull up a fish… a fish unlike anything they’ve ever seen before.
JEFF: Right, this fish has a fur coat! They bring their catch into Newport, and it’s the talk of the town for weeks. Is this some new kind of animal? Is this some great scientific discovery? Everyone is buzzing.
RAY: But folks in Newport can’t ponder this discovery too long, because something big is about to go down.
[CANNON AND MUSKETS]
RAY: Shots are fired on Fort Sumter in South Carolina. The United States is now at war with itself.
JEFF: Zophad and Theophilus enlist in the Union Army and head south to battle the Confederates, and northern Vermont forgets all about this fur-bearing trout, because obviously there’s more important issues to discuss.
RAY: When the Civil War ends in 1865, Zophar and Theo both survive, though Zophar loses an arm, and maybe Theo loses his mind a little because he decides to come home to northern Vermont and go into the newspaper business. Still, the two men remain friends.
JEFF: So picture this, one day Zophar and Theo meet for lunch in a Newport, Vermont, eatery. The two men are catching up over two bowls of oyster stew, talking about work and family, when one of the men brings up the fish they once caught on Lake Memphremagog.
THEO: Hey Zoph, you remember that furry trout we caught when we were boys?
JEFF: The café goes silent. Everyone leans in to hear the story.
RAY: Theo is no dummy. He sees the attention everyone in the restaurant is giving this story, and he knows this will sell some papers. So he heads back to write it up for the following day’s newspaper. And just like that… the story spreads across Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom.
JEFF: There’s a funny thing about fishing stories, Ray.
RAY: What’s that?
JEFF: No one likes to be outdone. If you catch a fish and brag about it, I want to tell you about an even bigger fish that I caught.
RAY: I get it. If you say you had a good day of fishing and caught six fish, I’ll tell you about the time I caught ten.
JEFF: Exactly. So if you claim to have caught a fur-bearing trout, there’s no way you’re a better fisherman that me, so I better get out there and lay claim to one too.
RAY: Right, because only the most skillful anglers can land one of these rare breeds.
JEFF: Soon, other newspapers are filling up with stories of other fishermen who said they’ve also caught fur-bearing trout. And then, a nickname is born.
THEO: The Beaver trout. That’s what we call it. The Beaver trout.
JEFF: The funny thing about news cycles is that no matter what’s being reported, or how interesting the story may be, eventually people get bored and move on.
RAY: So the Beaver Trout story dies down for a while, but then we jump ahead to 1927. A Vermont fisherman named Ralph Sessions heads out to Iceberg Cove on Lake Memphremagog to do some ice fishing. There he is holding a line over the hole he cut in the ice, and that’s when his photograph is taken.
[FLASH BULB POP]
RAY: Sessions claims to catch the elusive beaver trout. He even takes a picture to prove it. The photo of the furry trout and Sessions fishing on the ice become the Christmas postcard we mentioned earlier.
JEFF: So the legend gets a shot in the arm. It’s been decades since the buzz about the beaver trout, and now folks are buzzing again because they have a photo to talk about.
RAY: Plenty of people look at the photo of the beaver trout and believe it’s an obvious fake. Some think this is more the work of a skilled taxidermist as opposed to the odd hand of God.
JEFF: The story dies down again, then in 1945 the beaver trout makes the papers once more. A man named Harry Richardson claims he has caught the trout and also produces a photo to prove it. Suddenly others are clamoring for the fish. A man in Connecticut asks for a dozen of them to make a custom pair of mittens.
RAY: A man from Oklahoma sees a story in the papers and asks for as many beaver trout as possible so he can breed them.
JEFF: But this fish is so elusive…
RAY: Or not real…
JEFF: That no mittens are made, no breeding stock are ever caught. And the story dies down for a few more decades.
RAY: It’s now April of 1974, and the Burlington Free Press runs an article on the Beaver Trout. Just like before, locals respond. Like fisherman E.G. Warren who writes a letter to the editor.
E.G. WARREN: I was very pleased to read “Bish” Bishop’s article on his experience with fur-bearing trout. This is the first time I have ever heard of one being taken from a brook. You have to fish deep with a heavy sinker about two feet above the bait. Worms quickly freeze. Owing to the frozen bait and great depth, a “strike” seems comparatively feeble. It takes patience and some experimenting to land one of these rare fish. They never come near the surface as they suffer from perspiring in warmer water. I have caught on three in years of fishing. (PAUSE) E.G. Warren, St. Albans, Vermont.
JEFF: By this time, the beaver trout legend starts getting weirder. The story is you need to use an ice worm, that’s so delicate, only a master can hook one. And you have to fish in the deepest and coldest waters. That the fish only has this fur coat in the winter, so there’s no point in fishing for one in the summer. And the reason you can’t bring your catch into town to show others is because the beaver trout is so sensitive to the warmer temperatures at the surface, that the fish will actually evaporate in a very short time after you pull it out of the water.
RAY: (LAUGHING) Come on… (PAUSE) Still, around northern Vermont, you find a store or two with a mounted furry Beaver Trout on the wall, it’s just enough to keep the legend alive for locals and tourists, and that brings us back to today.
RAY: Okay, Jeff, this is sounding like a fishing story on steroids to me.
JEFF: I get that. But there’s so many stories over the span of maybe 150 years. And the letters to the papers. How do you get that many people in on a hoax? Plus, I did a little research, and found this thing.
RAY: Ewww. I’m reading the description… It’s called a Hairy Frog?
JEFF: Right. Give this a read.
RAY: Okay, I can’t pronounce the Latin name, so I won’t even try. But it’s also known as the horror frog or the wolverine frog. It’s found in Central Africa, and the males of the species grow these hair-like structures on the sides of their bodies and legs that are used during mating. Yeah, it looks like really course hair. Like a dude’s beard.
JEFF: It’s not technically hair, though it looks a lot like it. Those things have arteries that are used to store extra oxygen when the male stays with the eggs for long periods of time.
RAY: So we already know that nature is weird, even weirder than we can imagine. So maybe there’s something to this fur-bearing trout story? (PAUSE) I think we’re going to need some help with this one, Jeff.
JEFF: I agree, Ray. Which is why we made a call to the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department and spoke to this guy.
JUD_KRATZER: Jud Kratzer, I’m a fisheries biologist with the Vermont Fisheries and Wildlife Department.
RAY: I’m curious, Jud. Have you heard of the Beaver Fish before we reached out to you?
JUD_KRATZER: I’ve been working here since 2006. One of the employees that we had at the time, I learned about it early on, he told me about the legend of the fur-bearing trout. One of the foresters in our office had a copy of that postcard on the window of his office, so I’d seen it there. But this seasonal employee that we had, I think he actually, we were up in the Evansville area and we stopped in to the Evansville Trading Post and he took me in to show me the mounted version that’s on the wall there. So that’s the first time I got to see one.
RAY: Wait a minute. Is Jud saying this thing is for real? A mounted version for all to see at the Evansville Trading Post?
JEFF: Not quite. It turns out Evansville isn’t the only place with a mounted trout covered in fur. Others have taxidermied their own versions.
JUD_KRATZER: I guess it’s kind of like an inside joke for the entire northeast kingdom. It’s kind of nice to have something like that, that’s unique to this area. You don’t hear stories about trout with fur on them from anywhere else.
RAY: Is it possible there’s some natural explanation for this? I’d hate to think it’s some big hoax that’s been going since the time of the Civil War.
JEFF: It turns out there might be something to that, Ray. Jud Kratzer explains.
JU_KRATZER: There is actually a disease called ich that sometimes even fish in an aquarium will get. It’s a fungus, and it’s a white, fuzzy covering that gets on the fish that could look like fur in some cases.
JEFF: I had a fish tank as a kid, and I recall my fish getting ich on occasion. Especially when looking at the fish through the water it can look like fur. But the reality is, there’s no fish that are also mammals. And the postcard and even the mounted versions are just hoaxes, hoaxes that are just believable enough to keep the legend alive. And sometimes legends get help from the highest authorities.
RAY: You’re not suggesting…
JUD_KRATZER: I think I’ve been one that has promoted the gag, than others. I guess seeing that one in the Evansville Trading Post, and there’s actually one at the Stone House Museum in Brownington, and I do my own taxidermy. When I first came here in my office there was an old mounted lake trout that was kind of falling apart. And so it sat there for a while and then after I hear about the beaver trout, I was like, “You know, I should make my own.” So I took that lake trout that needed some fixing up anyway, and I had some muskrat pelt at home, and I glued the muskrat pelt to it, and now Vermont Fish and Wildlife has their own mounted beaver trout here in St. Johnsbury.
RAY: So it’s a great story, that’s never quite dismissed by everyone because maybe you’ve heard the story, and maybe you caught the glimpse of something in the water that one time, and suddenly you tell a friend.
JEFF: Who tells another friend.
RAY: Who tells another friend.
JEFF: And the next thing you know, you’ve got a mounted beaver trout on the wall of the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department and a couple of yahoos from a New England podcast call you to talk about it.
RAY: Okay, you’ve got to see a picture of this fur-bearing trout. Jud Kratzer was kind enough to share the photo of him hold his beaver trout and his baby. If you go to ournewenglandlegends.com just click on Episode 126 to see the photo.
JEFF: On our Web site we also posted that postcard of the beaver trout from 1927.
RAY: Hey folks, do us a favor and post a review of our show on Apple Podcasts. That goes a long way in helping others find us.
JEFF: We’d like to thank Jud Kratzer and the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department for weighing on this week’s story. We’d also like to thank Dustin Pari for lending his voice acting talents this week. And our theme music is by John Judd.
VOICEMAIL: This is Joseph Ames from Ossipee, New Hampshire. I don’t really have a story but I just want to say the bizarre is closer than you think.
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