It’s pretty easy to hoax people. We all want to be deceived, but only up to a point. Some hoaxes are fun and pleasant, others malicious and unpleasant. We’d like a way to tell the difference (Robert Carroll).

Mar 30, 2012

Fur-Bearing Trout: Truth or Fiction?

A rare, nearly extinct breed, the Hicken's Furbearing Trout is from the Artikdannder genus of fish and is found in the arctic lakes north of the 72nd parallel. Its diet consists primarily of ice-worms and fod. Sometimes confused with the more common Alpino-Pelted Trout.
Source: Petrie Encyclopedia of Zoology, Vol. 7, (1938)

The Fur-Bearing Trout is a species of fish that possesses a thick coat of fur to keep itself warm in the cold waters where it lives. These furry fish are primarily found in the northern regions of North America, but particularly in Canada, Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana. The species is also sometimes referred to as the Beaver Trout, or (incorrectly) as the Sabled Salmon.

Once plentiful, the Fur-Bearing Trout has been hunted almost into extinction. Its exotic nature, combined with its curative properties, has made it extremely valuable on the black market. Because of the scarcity of this fish, the actual origin may never be known but clearer minds believe that the evolution of the fur was more out of survival than happenstance.

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One of the first recorded statements on this creature has appeared in Ambroise Pare (1510-1590) book On Monsters and Marvels. Ambroise Pare was chef surgeon to both Charles IX and Henri III, and widely being considered as the best physician and true Renaissance man of the 16th century in Europe. In his book, Pare wrote:

In the huge, deep, fresh water lake – on which the large city of Themistitan, in the Kingdom of Mexico, is built on pilings, like Venice – is found a fish as big as a sea-calf. The savages of the Antarctic call it Andura; the barbarians of the country and the Spaniards – who have made themselves masters of this place by conquests of their new lands – call it Hoga. Its head and ears are not different from a terrestrial swine; it has five whiskers a half-a foot long or thereabouts, similar to those of a big barbell; its flesh is very good and delicious.

This fish produces live offspring, in the fashion of a whale. If you contemplate it while it is disporting itself swimming in the water, you would say that it is now green, now yellow, and then, red, just like the chameleon; it keeps more to the edge of the lake than elsewhere, where it feeds on leaves of a tree called Hoga, from which it took its name. It is very toothy and savage, killing and devouring other fish, indeed [those] bigger than it is; that is why people pursue it, hunt it and kill it, because if it entered into the conduits it wouldn’t leave a single one of them alive; whereby the person who kills the most of them is most welcome.

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In the USA, the first official publication on the fur-bearing fish was posted by James Herbert Hicken in May, 1929 issue of Montana WildLife. He wrote:

The discovery of this fur-bearing fish was made while traveling through Glacier National Park during a sudden drop in temperature, following up of which led to “Iceberg Lake” located near Whitefish, Montana. Several hooks were broken immediately upon touching the water. Finally one was heated, and when it hit the water, the temperature tempered the hook, with the result that one of the fish was caught. “The water in this lake is so cold that nature has taken care of her own by providing the fish with a thick coat of fur. In fact the water is so cold that it is beyond the freezing point.”

The bezel, a very rare specimen, is found only on Prince Edward Island and lives on the hum of the humming bird. They were found to be the only bait that these fish will bite except in extreme warm weather, when it has been earned that they will bite on ice worms. Another peculiarity of this fish is that it follows the precept of the poet who said: “in the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love. So, with these fish, and during this period with a portable phonograph, by putting on a love song the fish will come to the surface and the quick transfer, to a jazz record results in them shaking themselves to death, when they can be picked out of the water.

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As you see, the first theory, offered by Hicken, suggests that the salvelinus fluffudilis has evolved to grow a thick fur coat to maintain its body heat in cold seasons. According to another theory - because several jugs of hair tonic were spilled into the Arkansas River (Colorado)  sometime during the 1870s. The tonic explanation seems a more likely assumption for this evolutionary miracle, as it would just not be feasible for a fish to grow hair. Human-style hair would not keep them warm underwater and only drag as they swim, wasting precious energy.

The tonic theory author is S.E. Schlosser. In his own words:

Now it happened that there was a mining camp in Colorado where more than an average number of the miners were bald. An enterprising hair tonic salesman from Kentucky decided to take advantage of this golden opportunity, so he made the trip north. It was a rainy summer evening. The salesman was headed towards the mining camp with four bottles of hair tonic under his arm. As he was crossing one of the trout streams which lead to the Arkansas River, the salesman slipped and dropped two bottles of hair tonic into the water. The bottles broke, and the hair tonic spilled into the stream.

Not too long after this incident, the fishermen along the Arkansas developed a new method for catching trout. They'd head to the bank of the river carrying a red and white barber pole and some scissors. Then they would set up the barber pole and call out: "Get your free shave and a hair cut here". All the trout whose fur had grown too long or who needed their beards trimmed would hop right out of the water and be picked up by the fishermen. It wasn't until the mills began muddying the waters so much that the fish couldn't see the barber poles that the practice died out.

The best modern description of hairy trout has been performed by Takeshi Yamada in 2004.

The Canadian Hairy Trout is a species of fish that possesses a thick coat of fur to keep itself warm in the cold waters where it lives. Canadian hairy trout can be found in most waters in Canada with the exception of Prince Edward Island and Manitoba. In Canada, three species of hairy trout are recognized. The average length of the fresh water form is 12-18 inches long and 18-24 inches in anadromous stocks. The colors of their furs are light gray, light green, light brown, dark greenish-brown, and almost black. The colors of their furs are said to be determined by the foods and chemical component of the water they live. These furry fish are primarily found in the northern regions of North America, but particularly in Montana, Colorado, Wyoming, and Canada. The species is also sometimes referred to as the Fur-bearing Trout, Furry Trout, Beaver Trout, or (incorrectly) as the Sabled Salmon. Captive breeding of this fish has not been successful.

This creature spawns in late autumn to early winter in shallow, gravelly waters. The female digs a redd where she lays about 2000 eggs. This species is carnivorous and feeds on insects, crustaceans especially crayfish, mollusks, salamanders, frogs and rodents. Its hairs grow significantly longer during late autumn to early spring to keep its body warm and enable it to be active all year long. The Canadian hairy trout has enjoyed only limited success as a game fish in Canadian waters because it is difficult to catch. Several species of these furry fish are also found in the northern regions of North America such as Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana. Fur-Bearing trouts mounted as trophies can be found hanging on walls throughout the Great Lakes region of North America. Hairy trout mounted as trophies can be found hanging on walls throughout the Great Lakes region.

A number of theories have arisen in academic circles to explain this creature's luxuriant coat unlike any other species of trout or fish groups. Some say that the creature evolved its thick coat to protect itself from the extreme cold of northern waters. Today, some scientists say that this creature’s fur is actually a species of fresh water algae grows on the body due to the fish’s release of special chemicals during the cold seasons.

As the weather grows warmer during the spring the hairy trout sheds its fur, only to regrow its coat as winter returns. This is why trout with full coats of fur are so seldom encountered. During the summer months when hairy trout usually do not have fur, the ones from streams have pale markings on a dark greenish brown background. The back may be covered with wormlike marks. Lake Superior fish are more silvery with less distinct markings. In both stream and lake fish, the tail is nearly square, and the leading edge of each lower fin sometimes has a white margin.

Hairy trout require cold, clean, highly-oxygenated water. Hairy trout, like other salmonids, have developed rich life history diversity over time. This means that they have evolved the capacity to take advantage of a variety of aquatic environments. Hairy trout can live in river and stream systems, tiny first order tributaries, small ponds, large lakes and estuaries. Like other trout and salmon, hairy trout can migrate from fresh to salt water where they live in estuaries and the ocean close to shore, called “salters.” As a char, hairy trout spawn in the fall among loose gravel in streams and rivers, or on groundwater upwellings in ponds and lakes.

Because hairy trout are so sensitive to water quality and water temperature, they serve as a classic "indicator" species of the larger aquatic ecosystem and the watershed draining into the water body where they live.

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This is one more theory, but it is just that the creature was a cleverly arranged hoax at the first place. The mastermind behind the creation of this rare breed of fish was Ralph Sessions, a man who operated a photo studio in Newport, Vermont, a small city located at the southerly end of Lake Memphmagog. As the story goes, Sessions was struck by a humorous idea for a picture while fishing on the international lake that spans the Vermont/Quebec border—take a perch, wrap it in fur, take a picture of it, and make postcards of “the fur bearing trout.”

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Some years later, most likely during the 1930s, Sessions sold his studio to Harry Richardson, who decided to have a taxidermist cover a fish with fur. A picture was taken of Richardson ice fishing on the west side of the lake with Owl’s Head looming in the background. Richardson then took that photo, along with the picture of the fur covered fish (also referred to as a “beaver trout”) and produced hundreds, possibly thousands, of postcards. It’s almost certainly one of the most recognized postcards in Vermont, if not New England.

The National Museum of Scotland has also a rather fine example of the elusive fur-bearing trout.  If we may believe Dr. Geoff Swinney, curator of lower vertebrates, fish, amphibians and reptiles, a woman approached the museum with a furry fish she'd bought in Canada as a souvenir of her trip. When the museum staff - rather politely, of course - refused to add her creation to the collection, she left it behind, and eventually the monstrous creature was tossed away. When Peter Dance's book Animal Fakes and Frauds was published, visitors started asking after this special fish. In response to popular demand, the museum's taxidermist tracked down some rabbit fur and created a new one!

However, it is not all a hoax. There are a few fish to be found whose bodies are covered in a hair-like substance.  For instance the 'hairy frogfish' has growth on its scales that could be mistaken for hair, and a species of mould growth named 'cotton mold' produces a fur-like growth on the host fish. The carnivorous fungus which eats the furry trout alive continues to grow after the fish's death.

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