It is often said that every large body of water, including some ponds, and every river, including some creeks, has tales of mythical creatures living in them. Some may be aquatic monsters, others are spirits, still others are trolls and demons, and there are even a few with alleged extraterrestrial bases underneath their waters. As such, it is nearly impossible to keep track of all of them. That is why this writer was pleased to be introduced recently to Hodgee – the legendary lake monster believed by many to live in California’s Lake Hodges. Like many lake cryptids, Hodgee has a variety of origin stories and a history of sightings and myths. The Escondido Grapevine noted this week that many people living near Lake Hodges in the San Diego area know little about their own monster. Let’s join them in learning more about Hodgee – the “friendly Lake Hodges monster.”
“The Lake Hodges Hodgee monster is kind of like the Loch Ness monster. Several people are saying they think they’ve seen it. Sometimes, when you look at the lake it looks like something is moving the water, some currents or something. The fact is it is a mystery.”
If anyone is a prime candidate for seeing Hodgee, it is Stan Smith. He lives near the top of the hill overlooking the scenic 1,234-acre Lake Hodges in Del Dios, a town near San Diego but much close to Escondido in northern San Diego County. He told The Escondido Grapevine this week that he’s surprised most people in the nearby big cities don’t know about their local monster – especially since the area has a history of it dating back to 7000 BCE and recent photos that stand up to the best ones of the more famous Loch Ness Monster in Scotland. Like Nessie, which had an indigenous history that pre-dated the first written account of it by St. Columba in 565 CE, Hodgee’s story may date back to 7000 BCE to the first human settlement in the area – the so-called Harris Site, located just downstream from the Lake Hodges Dam, which eventually became home to the San Dieguito Indians. As detailed on the site Hodgee.com, the Kumeyaay Indians created a site there known as Piedras Pintadas ("Painted Rocks") in 1500 CE and it still holds sacred significance to their descendants. However, the written history of Hodgee can be traced to a non-native in 1916.
“Col. Ed Fletcher convinces the Santa Fe Railroad to create a dam. Despite protests by the local Indian tribe, a dam site is found in an area known as the Crescent Valley. Surveying is completed and construction begins on the Lake Hodges project. There has long been a special documented significance to the lake. The river feeding the lake had run through the Del Dios valley for over 40,000 years. The idea was to make a much bigger lake by damming the drainage of Lake Hodges, thus providing a large, reliable water source for the developing Rancho Santa Fe area. Reports of Indian tribe warnings about a river creature are dismissed in the San Diego Union as "...ramblings attempting to stop the project..."”
How many monster stories begin with invaders ignoring the warnings of locals? Needless to say, they were ignored and Lake Hodges Dam was completed in 1919. Stories of an angry monster began almost immediately – in 1921, local fishermen report seeing "...a large disturbance..." in the water which some blamed on Hodgee and others on rumors that the U.S. Navy was conducting underwater tests on early submarines. By 1929 there enough reoorts of a creature in Lake Hodges that then Escondido Mayor John L. Offitt formally requested that the City of San Diego look into them San Diego Mayor Harry C. Clark brought in the University of California’s Scripps Institute of Oceanography, which was said to have found no conclusive evidence of any unknown creature in the lake, although the report included a comment from one person on the team who saw a "lizard-like" head "protruding from the surface." In 1931 a mysterious boat sinking was blamed on the creature and a witness saw “great turmoil under the water along the base of the pier, from a boat or underwater vessel...or perhaps a large creature." The Scripps people came back and attempted to catch the creature in an underwater cage with a dead sea lion inside it as bait. That’s when the legend of Hodgee took a turn towards the mysterious.
“While no lake creature was captured by the cage, the sea lion bait disappeared and one astonishing photograph was taken from one of the buoy cameras. Subsequent attempts to capture the creature resulted in smashed cameras and buoys, and the project was finally cancelled after an outcry ensued when it became public knowledge that sea lions were being used as bait.” (The photo and an enhanced version showing what appears to be an outline of a creature can be seen here.)
In 1941, Scripps scientists returned with the U.S. Navy's Office of Naval Research and some students to set up a trip-wire 12 inches under the water connected to a bank of cameras in an area isolated from boat traffic. One photo was recorded (see it here) but the war stopped all further research. In 1956, thousands of pounds of highly toxic chemicals which impair cell respiration (Rotenon, C23H22O6) were dumped into Lake Hodges to kill all of the fish as a way to kill off a carp infestation and restock it – there was a report of an anonymous statement written on City of San Diego letterhead which stated that city officials did it to kill the lake monster. Can you imagine something like this being done at Loch Ness?
“We’ve had numerous sightings before, and rumors. Myself, I’ve many times seen ripples from his passing down the water. People say they’ve seen something in the water but I’ve never actually seen him.”
Despite the fish kill, local resident Dave Bark told the Escondido Grapevine that sightings of Hodgee continued. However, there is also a persistent rumor that the monster is an urban legend which started as a joke in a satirical newspaper in the 1970s and it persisted as a way to explain mysterious bubbles, disappearances of cattle and other odd local occurrences. Seeing the popularity of the Loch Ness Monster and its impact on the local economy, Del Rios decided to make Hodgee a real attraction. In 2017, a 20-foot-tall Hodgee sculpture carved from a dying eucalyptus tree was erected near the shores of Lake Hodges. (Photo here.) Local artists Ewing “Mitch” Mitchell and Stan Smith carved it and Mitchell told The Coast News he is proud to add to the legend.
“Public art can have so many roles, beyond the obvious. To me, Hodgee represents something beautiful, fun and eye-catching that came from a tree that was diseased, dying and had become a hazard. Truly wonderful.”
If you are interested in joining the hunt for Hodgee, Lake Hodges is a popular spot for hiking, birding, fishing, boating and other outdoor activities and is well stocked with record-sized largemouth bass. Or should it be called Hodgee food?