Who is Tahoe Tessie?

The Lake Tahoe water monster. Fact or Fiction? An expert and locals weigh in.

Local artist Raymond Smith’s whimsical drawing of the mysterious Tahoe Tessie depicts a creature that easily blends in with its surroundings and that draws unsuspecting boaters near with a bird-mimicking lure. One explanation for strange sightings is that people see a mother goose and her goslings. Or do they?

Local artist Raymond Smith’s whimsical drawing of the mysterious Tahoe Tessie depicts a creature that easily blends in with its surroundings and that draws unsuspecting boaters near with a bird-mimicking lure. One explanation for strange sightings is that people see a mother goose and her goslings. Or do they?

Illustration By Raymond Smith

One day during 1982 or 1983, Gene St. Denis and a friend were looking in the water near Cave Rock at Lake Tahoe.

“We saw a blotchy gray creature about 10 feet to 15 feet long. It turned a corner and produced a large V-shaped wake in front of it.”

The animal surfaced and then swam away leaving St. Denis and his friend in a state of awe.

On another occasion, while diving with a different friend, St. Denis swam over a hole. All of a sudden, it was like something exploded underneath them, St. Denis said. Then, they spotted a creature about 16 feet long swimming away.

“We waited for the silt to settle,” said St. Denis, “and found large fin prints where the creature had been.”

Over the years at Lake Tahoe, there have been numerous unexplained sightings and mysterious events such as these. Usher in the tale of the water serpent, a creature that some believe to be the source of these mystifying experiences: Tahoe Tessie.

Tessie was one of several unidentified swimming objects discussed at a recent lecture by Charles Goldman, Professor of Limnology (the study of lakes) from the University of California, Davis. Goldman has his theories about USOs but admits that not all sightings and photos are easily explainable.

St. Denis, who has been chartering fishing boats since 1981 through his companies Blue Ribbon Fishing and Tahoe Trophy Trout, has had a number of experiences on the lake that definitely leave room for speculation. There were a lot of reported Tessie sightings in the early ’80s.

As daunting as such sightings might seem, St. Denis has experienced events that he can’t rationalize. On two occasions, while fishing, he raised fish that had been severely mauled while being reeled in.

“About halfway to the boat, these fish—they were big fish—got raked,” St. Denis recounted. The incidents took place once off Dollar Point and the other time off Cal Neva. One fish, about 13 pounds and 35 inches, had teeth marks spaced close to one inch apart all around its body.

“The holes left by the teeth were big enough to put a pencil into,” St. Denis said. The other fish simply had its hindquarter torn from its body.

St. Denis believes there could be a reasonable explanation for large creature sightings like his own.

“The number one suspect for most unexplained sightings is a sturgeon,” he said. “I would say it’s likely a white sturgeon, or possibly a river sturgeon.” Sturgeons can be large, sometimes reaching weights as great as 1,500 pounds, and can live for more than 100 years. But, as sturgeon have no teeth, this still leaves the question of what giant creature could have bitten into the fish that St. Denis pulled into his boat.

“There’s also a chance that it could be a muskie,” St. Denis said. Muskie are highly aggressive fish, which can grow to be relatively large. Last year, a 7-and-a-half-foot muskie was caught off of the East Coast.

Although neither sturgeons nor muskies have been officially caught in or around Lake Tahoe, there have been unofficial reports of catches of both. On July 30, 1888, the Nevada State Journal reported that a 7-foot fish that appeared to be a sturgeon was speared in Pyramid Lake at the mouth of the Truckee River.

And, according to St. Denis, there was a report of a 4-and-a-half-foot muskie being caught in the late 1960s off of Zephyr Cove.

“You can’t prove that something’s not there,” Goldman said during his recent presentation in Squaw Valley.

Shortly after the lecture began, a woman whispered, “Well, I don’t believe it.” She was not alone. It seemed that most people in attendance were merely curious Tahoe locals interested in hearing about the mysterious world of water monsters.

Legends of water monsters—be they from fog or fact—titillate our imagination. From Manipogo in Canada’s Lake Manitoba to Champ in Vermont’s Lake Champlain to Nessie in Scotland’s Loch Ness, people have been trying to explain uncertain visions and experiences for centuries by conjuring up creatures.

Indeed, there are about a half dozen reported sightings of Tessie each year. Some of these are easily discounted. For starters, cold lakes distort light in ways that can produce convincing mirages.

Also, as Goldman said: “We think that a lot of the Tessie reports are actually colliding boat wakes which produce a series of waves.” In the eye of the imagination, these waves could be the humps of a serpent. Another common mis-vision: a female goose and her goslings. From a distance, mother goose is the head of the “monster” followed by a number of small, dark bumps, which appear to be the serpent-like tail.

“You think you’re seeing a huge creature,” said St. Denis. “And then you look through the binoculars and realize you’ve been duped.”

Goldman shared with his audience photos that were supposed evidence of Tessie.

“This one looks just like a stick being dragged by a boat,” said Goldman. The other could have been recreated simply by throwing a rock in the water. Of course, falsifying information about water monsters is not unheard of. Goldman addressed probably the most infamous event of this kind.

“On his deathbed, the photographer of the original photo of Nessie [Loch Ness’ monster] confessed that it was a hoax,” he said. Conversely, Goldman also presented a photo taken in Loch Ness of a large fin. “This is one that we still haven’t been able to explain.”

Of course, beyond the facts, there lies plenty of lore that can grow to fairytale proportions.

One Tahoe local, Patty, who isn’t a firm believer in Tessie but says she enjoys the tale, postulated that perhaps there is an underwater tunnel between Loch Ness and Lake Tahoe and that the monster spotted in each lake is one and the same.

“She summers in Tahoe and winters in Scotland,” Patty mused.

Local writer Bob McCormick delightfully intertwines Tessie lore and Tahoe history in his children’s book Tahoe Tessie, The Original Lake Tahoe Monster. So popular is his tale that, at the King’s Beach public library, there is only one copy left as the other has been thrown out due to wear. There are also Tessie sweatshirts, coloring books and mugs that tourists and local enthusiasts can purchase at the Ski/Beach Barn in King’s Beach.

This is all proof positive of one fact: People love legends and monsters. They add dimension and color to the mysteries of our world and help us explain what we don’t yet understand. So perhaps, what is most important at the end of all of this is that we in the Reno-Tahoe-Carson area have a tall tale of our own. Something to wow children. Something to contemplate when looking out over the cold vastness of Lake Tahoe on a windy day at dusk, when we see a questionable ripple in the water.

Like one young Tahoe local who’d come with his mother to Goldman’s talk observed, “Tessie’s like Santa Claus. It’s a fun story.”

“It’s entertaining to look out on the waves and point out where we ‘see’ Tessie," the boy’s mother added.