Strangest Things Ever Found Inside Fish

Fillet and clean enough fish for the dinner table and eventually you will find a foreign, mysterious object lodged in the gut of some fish; it's at these times when 'fact is sometimes stranger than fiction' stories are created

I recently shared some incredible stories about items of jewelry found inside fish. (See Rings and Things: Fantastic Tales of Anglers and Jewelry.) While conducting research for that article, I learned that rings, nose studs and other valuables aren’t the only strange things discovered in the bellies of fish—not by a long shot.

Now, by “strange things” I don’t mean turtles inside bass or sea gulls inside sharks, neither of which are particularly remarkable. No, I mean really, really weird stuff you would never imagine ending up inside a fish.

You would not, for example, expect to find a century-old religious manuscript inside a cod, would you? Yet that is exactly what was discovered in 1626 when a fishmonger gutted a cod brought to market in Cambridge, England. The fish guts were tossed aside, but a woman standing nearby noticed what looked like a piece of canvas in them. Taking it out, she found the soiled, fishy-smelling pages of a manuscript wrapped in sailcloth. These she showed to an employee of Cambridge University who took them to Dr. Samuel Ward, master of Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge. The pages were carefully cleansed and found to contain three devotional works by John Frith, an early Protestant martyr who was burned as a heretic in 1533. No one knows how the pages wound up in the belly of a cod, but they were published in 1627 as Vox Piscis, or Voice of the Fish, a book that has prompted lively debate for centuries.

A more modern cod story comes to us from Mike Suchan in a story called Crazy Catches published on the Boat U.S. website. This one involves British businessman Andrew Cheatle who thought his cellphone was lost forever after it slipped from his pocket on a beach and was washed out to sea. A week later, however, Cheatle received a call from fisherman Glen Kerley saying he had retrieved the phone from the stomach of a 25-pound cod.

“I thought he was winding me up,” Cheatle said, “but he assured me he had caught a cod that morning and was gutting it for his fish stall and that my Nokia was inside it, a bit worse for wear. I didn’t believe him but went to meet him and found it was my phone—a bit smelly and battered—but incredibly it still worked after I let it dry out ... I had to get the circuit board changed in the end. But now it’s fine. I know it sounds like a fishy tale but it’s 100-percent true.”

Kerley was not surprised by his find, saying, “Cod are greedy fish. They’ll eat anything. They have big heads and big mouths. I’ve found plastic cups, stones, teaspoons and batteries, and I’ve also heard of someone finding false teeth in one.”

You might recall another fish-and-false-teeth story I shared in 17 Mind-Blowing Fishing Tales. This one involved Arkansas catfish angler James Price who accidentally dropped his dentures into Bull Shoals Lake while fishing. Price never expected to get his chompers back, but 10 days later, he landed a 20-pound Bull Shoals catfish that had swallowed one of his dental plates. Robert Ripley found the story so intriguing he included it in a 1951 Ripley’s Believe It or Not column.

Another story you can believe or not was reported on the Florida Sportsman fishing forum. “When I was a kid, I was working on an outboard at the dock,” the anonymous poster said. “I dropped my dad’s new wrench into the lake. My friend had a big strong magnet, so we tied it to a string and tried to pick up the wrench. I felt something on the end, and when I pulled it up, there was a 5-pound catfish stuck to the magnet. He had eaten the wrench!”

Of course, catfish are well known for eating almost anything in the water. Dentures and wrenches aren’t the only odd items that have turned up inside them.

A recent poll of my Facebook friends produced this list of strange items found in the bellies of whiskerfish: toothbrush, flying squirrel, squirrel tail, corn cob with kernels still attached, muskrat, rat, McDonald’s toy, spark plug, bubble gum and coyote leg. Mark Davis, host of the BigWater Adventures with Mark Davis fishing show on the Outdoor Channel, says he and Outdoor Life’s Jerry Gibbs were fishing on South Carolina’s Santee-Cooper lakes when they caught a monstrous 89-pound blue cat. Despite their intention to release the big cat, it died, and in its stomach they found a full-grown, very fresh pintail duck!

An 1847 edition of Scientific American reports another weird account of these fishes’ gustatory habits: “A catfish was purchased in the Cincinnati market, lately, which, on being opened, was found to contain in its stomach, a silver thimble, a gold ring and a counterfeit dime, tied up in a rag.”

An even stranger cat-eats-anything story comes to us from a May 18, 1894 edition of The Manitoba Morning Free Press in Winnipeg. It tells of a 140-pound Kansas catfish caught by one Douglass Smith. “In its stomach was found a small bottle, securely corked, containing this message: “Whoever will find this will please send it back to me. H.E. Pipes.” Mr. Pipes had thrown the bottle in the Kaw River three years earlier, 75 miles from where the fish was caught.

If catfish have bizarre appetites, what about the report of a grouper caught off the Australian coast in 1865? This appeared in The Times newspaper and described the fish as being 7 feet long, 6 feet in circumference and having a head weighing no less than 80 pounds. The fish’s stomach was reported to contain “… two broken bottles, a quart pot, a preserved milk tin, seven medium-sized crabs, a piece of earthenware triangular in shape and 3 inches in length encrusted with oyster shells, a sheep’s head, some mutton and beef bones, and some loose oyster shells.”

Catholic tastes, these groupers. Now, consider this account, another cod story, from John Colquhoun’s classic 1840 book The Moor and the Loch:

“A friend of mine was trolling in Loch Long and hooked a seithe [a skin or hide]. An enormous cod seized the seithe and paid the penalty by being brought into the boat himself. His girth seemed unnaturally large, and, upon opening him, a brown paper packet of sandwiches, enough for luncheon for a pretty large party, was taken out. They could not have been less injured, mustard and all, had the cod’s stomach been a sandwich-box.”

We do not know whether they ate the sandwiches or not. But it is certain, as we’ve already shown, that cod are garbage cans of the sea and will eat almost anything. British ichthyologist Francis Day (1829-1889) recounts the story of a 7-inch candle found inside a cod that may have been searching for enlightenment, and notes that others have been known to swallow guillemots (a type of sea bird), partridges, turnips and even whole hares. The mind boggles at how or where a cod would come across a hare, but stranger still is the recent story of a cod that swallowed an adult toy for its nourishment.

This account came to light in April 2014. Bjorn Frilund, a 64-year-old Norwegian fisherman, was hoping to catch herring near his hometown of Eidsbygda when he reeled in a 13-pound cod. Noticing the fish’s stomach had an odd shape, he cut into it. Inside he found two half-digested herrings … and an adult toy.

I have also heard several tales of strange things eaten by another saltwater denizen, the redfish. My friend T.J. Stallings says he and a buddy were examining the stomach of one individual to determine what the local redfish were eating and were surprised to find a juvenile rattlesnake among the contents. This did not prompt them to try rattlesnakes for bait.

Stranger still was a Florida redfish reportedly found to have ingested a snorkel. The mouthpiece had grown out the fish’s side and healed up. The other end was sticking out of the fish’s mouth!

Chris Holmes of Chalmette, La. says he once caught a redfish with a spent shotgun shell in its belly.

Other fish gorge on weird snacks, too. For example, back in the 1960s, an angler fishing the Snake River in Oregon decided to investigate a bulge in the stomach of a 6-foot sturgeon he had just landed. He found the fish had swallowed half a bushel of white onions. (An effective new bait for sturgeons, perhaps?)

And how about this one? A 39-pound pike was found in a British haystack next to a pond, with its mouth tightly clamped to the severed tip of a fox tail. Did the pike bite the fox’s tail and get dragged up on the bank? You decide.

Despite their beauty, trout eat some disgusting things, too. Cigarette butts, for example. In my recent Facebook poll, several friends from California to South Carolina reported catching trout that had filters from the tobacco products in their guts. Their surprise was nothing, however, compared to the angler who found a human finger in a trout caught in 2014 in Idaho’s Priest Lake.

Nolan Calvin found the severed finger while gutting a trout caught by a friend. He put the mysterious pinky finger on ice and called the police. Detectives were able to get a fingerprint and matched the digit to Haans Galassi of Colbert, Washington. Turns out it was one of four fingers Galassi lost when a speedboat tow-rope got wrapped around his hand while he was wakeboarding. The fish was caught eight miles from the accident site.

“There are still three more, too,” said Sergeant Gary Johnston with the sheriff’s office. “It’s hard to say where those are going to end up.”

And finally, there’s this unusual story reported in Bizarre Phenomena published by Reader’s Digest (1992). One day in 1972, Ricky Shipman lost his wallet from a pocket in his swimsuit while swimming with friends off a beach in North Carolina. Eleven years later, a man named Gause, the owner of a restaurant in Little River, just across the state line in South Carolina, returned Shipman’s driver’s license, which had been in his lost wallet. A friend of Gause had caught a large Spanish mackerel near the beach where Shipman had been swimming, and gutting it, he had found the license inside, protected by its plastic cover.

Let’s hope if we find something strange in the belly of a fish, it’s a credit card like this, or maybe a valuable ring or some money. If someone’s severed finger is hiding there, we might start practicing catch and release more often.

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