SAN ANGELO, Texas (Concho Valley Homepage) — You’re on a boat in Lake Nasworthy during an early-morning fishing trip with your friends, confident you’ll catch a lunker so large that the folks at home will be laughing when you tell them that your fish was “this big.”
That’s when it hits you — or rather, your boat. A sudden, small thud rocks your fishing vessel, shaking it and sending ripples across the muddy waters. Your friends rush to the sides to catch a glimpse at whatever caused the commotion, and you follow suit. At first, you all suspect nothing, the murky depths illuminated only by the warm light of the rising sun. That soon changes, though, when your eyes catch a glimmer of scales.
A fish? No, it’s too big for that. A lizard? No, not in a lake like this … right? This thing, whatever it is, is a monster in your eyes. A friend sends the boat streaking across the lake, pushing you and your company toward the safety of the shoreline. As you clamber onto Nasworthy’s banks, however, one question flashes across your mind, not unlike the scales that caught your attention (and fear) moments before — just what was that thing?
Guns, gators and (supposed) fish monsters
This scenario may not be too far from a story heard by the workers of San Angelo’s Nature Center in the early 2000s. A police officer and two sheriff’s deputies approached staff and asked whether the two alligators calling the facility home at the time — Clyde and Walter, by name — were still in captivity. The law enforcement officers then told the workers that they were sent to check in on the center after receiving a report about a concerned citizen who had allegedly shot at a large creature in Lake Nasworthy.
Hours after the police had arrived, members of the local Texas Parks & Wildlife Department also came to the center to check in on the gators. Clyde and Walter were still safe at home with the rest of Nature Center’s animal tenants, however. With the alligators confirmed to still be in their respective exhibits, both investigations were eventually dropped, taking with them the story of the supposed water monster hiding in the waters of Lake Nasworthy.
Michael Price remembers, though. The Nature Center’s director from 2004 to 2013 recalled hearing reports about the supposed stalker of the waters stemming all the way back into the late 1990s, before this tale of the Nasworthy Monster, known also as the “Angelo Alligator,” was ever told by the police.
“It was somewhere between ’98 and 2000,” Price said. “I remember one of the conversations at a civic group where I was doing a presentation, and they asked if I heard about the ‘Angelo Alligator.’ I was like, ‘No, never heard of that,’ and they were like, ‘Oh, yeah, there’s been an alligator here for years. It makes an appearance every now and then.’ That was when I first heard about it.”
Cold case or cold-blooded?
In a column published in the San Angelo Standard-Times in 2010, Price used his expertise in Texas’ wildlife and knowledge gathered from his hobby of herpetoculture to propose three theories as to what such a creature may have been. Now, 13 years later, Price has been asked to revisit his analysis of the Nasworthy Monster and share his thoughts on what might have gone down that fateful day.
The beast in question was described as being large and at least 6 feet in length. The accounts of the officers, Texas Parks & Wildlife members and the citizen involved in the incident as well as the testimonies provided by other San Angelo residents suggest that the beast likely had scales of some kind. One other trait stuck out to Price, though — the creature’s proximity to the surface of the water.
“It was something that was moving along the surface of the water,” Price said. “From what I remember of what they were saying, it wasn’t going up and down, it was just moving slowly across the surface of the water.”
Words can be deceiving, however, and there are perhaps few words more likely to misdirect than those coming from a shell-shocked citizen who just got done trying to gun down a monster. One such statement that drew concern from Price while he was studying the description was the creature’s purported size.
“People’s judgment on size is quite laughable sometimes,” Price said. “I think human nature is one of exaggeration due to fear. Who knows, maybe it was something that big. It very well could be! As a scientist, you can never say, ‘Oh, that’s absolutely not it at all,’ but the likelihood of it truly being 5- or 6-feet long — unless it truly was an alligator — I have serious doubts.”
Hook, lineup and sinker
So, what suspects are in our waters? Price’s initial theories in his 2010 article pointed toward the culprit being either a flathead catfish, a longnose gar or (as you might’ve been thinking already) a made-up boogeyman.
Flathead catfish and longnose gar are both native to Lake Nasworthy and average anywhere from 2-4 feet in length depending on factors such as genetics and availability of prey fish. Despite what their average size may indicate, these fish are easily capable of reaching and surpassing their upper limits, with Lake Nasworthy’s all-tackle fishing records clocking both the largest flathead catfish and longnose gar ever captured at just under 4 feet long.
“It’s kind of like people,” Price said. “Robert Wadlow from the 1940s got to be 8 feet 11 inches tall. Are we all going to get to be 8 feet tall? No, we’re not, we average far less than that. Is there a genetic chance that a fish got to be 5 feet long? Sure.”
Nowadays, however, Price says that the longnose gar may be the most likely candidate. This is due to longnose gars’ specialized air bladder that connects to their pharynx, a feature that allows the fish to effectively get oxygen from the air as well as from their gills while in the water. This unique air bladder lets longnose gars breathe easily while they glide along near the surface of the water and prowl for their next meal — or startle lake-goers.
“The most plausible to me would be the gar,” Price said. “Watching the behavior of gar, it can be quite surprising when you see a 3-, 4- or 5-foot fish at the surface of the water maintaining its level with the surface of the water for short periods of time, especially if you’re in a kayak or small boat.”
The flathead catfish, while sharing a similar hunting M.O. with the longnose gar by sticking close to the water’s surface in search of live prey, often searches for food without the “gliding” effect observed in gars, going against the account given to Price that described the creature as “moving slowly across the surface of the water.”
“I theorized the flathead catfish because they have a propensity for eating live fish, so they often come to the surface of the water, but they generally don’t glide along the surface of the water,” Price said. “But gar absolutely do. They will glide across the surface of the water to get prey and actually breathe a little bit.”
Longnose gars also bear noticeable scales on their body, something that catfish lack. Additionally, longnose gars do a good portion of their hunting in the early morning hours, right when the spooked citizen made his report to the police.
“From what I recall, it [the citizen’s call] was from earlier that morning,” Price said. “Gar feed primarily at dusk and dawn. If he was out at dawn and happened to see that and felt like he needed to take matters into his hands so to speak, if it was out at dawn it would make more sense.”
But what about the possibility of an alligator? After all, several people were calling our home-grown cryptid the “Angelo Alligator” long before the shooting report that started Price’s analysis even occurred. Price finds it unlikely, though, citing that alligators wouldn’t have enough land to effectively hide from passersby.
“I’ll just go ahead and say it: I truly don’t think it’s an alligator,” Price said. “Alligators are reptiles, alligators do spend time on land, but there’s not enough land areas for it to be able to hide from someone seeing an alligator on the bank of the lake. Somebody somewhere would’ve seen it.”
So, o-fish-al or de-bait-able?
Despite Price’s expert knowledge of Texas’ freshwater wildlife, one issue remains: We still don’t know whether the initial report made to the police that day holds any water. Many cryptid stories have become notorious for their hoaxes, with falsified information and elaborate setups designed to feign the existence of a “monster” hiding under humanity’s nose becoming almost synonymous with the tales. The Nasworthy Monster may be just such a story.
“Whatever makes news,” Price said. “For some people, it’s ‘Hey, a 3-foot alligator in the lake won’t make news. Oh, but a 7-foot alligator in the lake? That’ll make news!'”
And yet, with no confirmation as to whether the claim is valid or not, one can only imagine what that gung-ho citizen actually saw the day of the incident. So, the next time you have a friend, co-worker or family member brag about the size of their latest “monster” catch, maybe hear them out. Who knows? They may have just fished up a local legend.