Fishing Lines: Eerie tales from the bottom of the freezer

BURGLARS DISCOVERED an unexpected bonus when they broke into a large outbuilding adjoining a Yorkshire house. It contained three huge chest freezers. None was locked, and each was loaded with food. It must have taken the robbers several tiptoed trips to pile the frozen chunks into their getaway transport. In the darkness (essential backdrop for such villainy) they could not see precisely what they had nabbed. No doubt they wondered over the occupation of the home's occupant. A butcher, perhaps?

Next morning, the extent of the theft was uncovered. The victim called the police. They did forensic things, trod on a few plants, took a statement and went off chuckling. "Maybe we won't tell the press about this one straight away," they said.

The wronged man was not a butcher, though with enough meat to feed the Stretford End it was a reasonable assumption. He was a taxidermist. Those freezers contained animals he had skinned (taxidermists use the skin, but none of the innards). Disposing of carcasses is always a problem, especially when they come from foxes, badgers, buzzards, crows, dogs, two cats and a horse.

This particular taxidermist also had a deal with local zoos and wildlife parks, whereby he collected animals that died from disease or old age. So his freezers, as well as the more mundane stuff, also contained bits of a bear, a lion and a serval, as well as a few macaws and smaller birds.

If it hadn't been for that midnight raid, the carcasses would have ended up at a nearby maggot farm. Maggots are not too pernickity about the freshness of their food, whether they're eating badger, bear or buzzard. Humans, however, might be a little more fussy on discovering that Sunday lunch was once someone's old Labrador. Sadly, I don't know the end of this story, and whether the burglars really did tuck into Tiddles without realising what they were eating.

Some of the meat, certainly, could have tasted as if it had been well hung. Taxidermists often have animals in their freezers for a couple of years until they start working on them. But then, I guess most people have a few permafrost items lurking deep in their freezers, rime-encrusted shapes that haven't seen daylight for a year. How many, though, have kept anything in their deep-freezes for more than 30 years?

If Jim Anthony, of Ohio, invites you round for supper, it would be wise to plead a prior engagement. He kept a pike chilled for 37 years, though, to be fair, he was not saving it for a dinner party. Anthony was fishing in Lake Erie when he caught a fish he did not recognise. He took it home, wrapped it up and popped it in the freezer, resolving to take it in and have it identified.

Time passed. His family grew up. But his polar pike nestled, undisturbed, in the freezer. It could even have outlasted Anthony himself, now 63. But one day he read a newspaper article about a special variety of pike, the blue pike, which was declared extinct in its only US home, Lake Erie, in 1975. The fish looked familiar. Anthony shifted through the packs of frozen peas, compared the picture. It was the same fish.

When Anthony took his pike along to scientists, they became very excited. Canadian anglers claim to have caught blue pike in Lake Ontario, Lake Manitoba and parts of the Lake Huron and St Lawrence river system. But these have been dismissed as a type of walleye, a pike-like fish. Scientists had no examples of the species to make DNA comparisons. Anthony's fish should change all that, and reveal whether the last blue pike have interbred with walleye, or whether the separate species still survives.

This might not strike you as very exciting. But for ichthyologists, such a discovery (and especially the manner of it) is the stuff of dreams, the equivalent of finding a coelacanth in your bath.

It's probably a good job Anthony lives in an area where freezer raids are as rare as his blue pike. Imagine eating such a historic fish. And imagine what it would have tasted like.

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