Shark Week Milwaukee! The Time Two Fishermen Found a Shark in Lake Michigan

Feb. 6, 2017
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The (briefly) infamous Lake Michigan Shark

It was a typical Milwaukee spring morning in May 1969, when a pair of fishermen out trolling for Coho salmon about two miles off of the south shore spotted a seagull perched atop a piece of driftwood. The scene was nothing much that would have caught the eye, but as they neared the bird, the chunk of wood revealed itself to be a dead fish. Again, nothing too special. But the fish appeared to be of a pretty good size – a sturgeon, one of the men assumed – and as they neared it, the two pals had a closer look. The fish did not seem to have been dead very long. As they pulled up, the bird flew away and the glint of the early-morning sun revealed a row of sharp teeth in the fish’s mouth. The men pulled the creature into the boat, neither quite sure that they had just found. It appeared to be a small shark.

Conferring with an expert from the Milwaukee Public Museum, the fish was indeed confirmed to be a shark of an undetermined species. It was about 29 inches long and weighed almost 10 pounds – hardly a man-eater, but certainly a concern. Sharks had been known to enter and survive in fresh water. While Milwaukeeans viewed the beaches with an unprecedented suspicion, local officials puzzled as to how the shark had made its way so far from home and prayed that it had not brought friends (or family).

But the worry over an invasion of freshwater sharks in the city were short-lived. Just as soon as the panic had begun, a downtown attorney invited members of the local media to his office for an impromptu press conference. His client, the lawyer insisted, could explain everything. The client was 39-year-old William Bathke, a northside tavern owner. The shark, he sheepishly told reporters, was his. He had caught it in 1966 at Cape Coral, FL (he presented home movies of the trip as evidence) and had been keeping it in his freezer until a few weeks ago, when him and some barroom pals hatched a plan. Inspired by the recent press attention given to a new “Gertie the Duck,” nesting on the State Street bridge, Bathke and his buddies had the idea to give Milwaukee a resident animal that would really draw some attention. “Here we had a shark,” he said. “[We figured] it would make a pretty good joke.” The idea was idle chatter at first, but as the drinks kept coming, the fellows took action. “The idea grew and grew,” Bathke said, “It was so funny.” On April 25, the men hurled the thawed-out shark into the water off Bradford Beach. The Floridian fish make it a few miles south before the fishermen plucked it from the water about a week later.

When the story broke, Bathke decided his gag wasn’t so funny after all, and came forward to relieve the minor panic the shark had inspired. Despite the stir it caused, state officials determined that the men’s fish toss had not broken any laws. Although Bathke said he had certainly learned his lesson and would never perform such an act of marine trickery again. 

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