Ho Nikka – The River Valley merman

by | Oct 1, 2016 | Features

It was a weird summer. If you were looking for one word to describe it, that word would be wet. Arkansas summers aren’t supposed to be wet. As one River Valley resident said, “You don’t hear any old timers talking about how this is the wettest summer since ’43 or whenever because no one can remember a summer with this much rain. Ever.
Weather wasn’t the only strange thing about this summer, though.

“You ever saw a catfish out in the middle of a flooded cow pasture?” asked Lore Folkson. I had not and answered accordingly. “Well, that’s what it looked like. And it was ginormous, way over 200 pounds and probably closer to 300. And it was colored like a yeller cat [flathead catfish] except it didn’t move like a catfish until it hit the slough.”

Folkson rambled on. The wad of Copenhagen bulging from his bottom lip rendered the receiving end of the story a lot of guess work. But through the mumbles and spitting I made out a line of words that demanded a repeat. “Wait, did you say something about arms on that catfish?” I asked. “You meant to say fins, right? A fish that size is sure to have some long pectoral fins.”
“Well, they looked like arms,” said Folkson. “I just got a glimpse, though.”
Folkson’s encounter happened during one of the deluges of August 2016 along a blackwater finger of Goose Pond, an Arkansas Game a Fish Commission Natural Area between Atkins and Blackwell, that curves around the easternmost 40 acres of Folkson’s leased pasture. The main body of Goose Pond sits less than a quarter mile away. Relentless rain had pushed Goose Pond beyond its normal summer reach and left little dry land for his cattle. Folkson was checking on his herd, during one particularly drenching evening shower, when he noticed motion in the bitterweeds near the slough.
“I was shining the Q-beam across the pasture, and then, as I shined it toward the cows, I thought I saw something get up and could’ve sworn I saw arms. Then it hunkered down in a low spot about 50 feet from the creek, and it took me a while to find it with the light. Had a whiskered but weird looking head on it, looked almost like it had shoulders. And then it slithered into the creek like it got caught someplace it wasn’t supposed to be. The only other thing it might have been is a big old mudpuppy (an aquatic salamander). But I ain’t never seen a mudpuppy near that big.”
Folkson’s eyewitness account of strange happenings near cypress-crowded Goose Pond are eerily similar to other reports from this summer along Point Remove Creek and the Arkansas River near Morrilton upriver to Russellville. People have reported seeing a large catfish or something like a giant salamander near the water.
The creature is said to have glistening olive green to yellowish brown skin, long and agile pectoral fins that resemble arms, whiskers like a catfish and apparently bipedal locomotion.
That’s right, gentle reader: Some folks here in the River Valley claim to have seen a two-legged, walking catfish this summer.
There is indeed something in the water.
Looking for answers, I was lucky to find professional contacts that introduced me to internationally known cryptozoologist Dr. Ellen Piscivore. Piscivore is a former biologist that specialized in native North American fishes, but in recent years she’s turned her attention toward searching for more secretive creatures. The River Valley merman has been on her sonar since a single sighting in 2013 and another in 2014, but 2016 offered three encounters. “It’s because of all the rain,” said Piscivore.
Rain is the common denominator. Every sighting of the creature has happened either during or shortly after a soaking shower. “And every sighting was only a short distance from the Goose Pond, Point Remove Creek, or the Arkansas River,” said Piscivore as she pointed to the tattered map on her desk. Red marks checked off the location of sightings along with notes scribbled in graphite regarding time of day and weather conditions. Late evening was the time frame cited for the three sightings, and every one of them was during or just after a rain event.  “There is most definitely a pattern,” said Piscivore as she chewed on a pencil eraser. “And it’s a bit disturbing. It harkens back to some Native American legend about a river god, a man-catfish, if you will, that visited villages all along the Arkansas River and even up into the tributaries.” said Piscivore.
Digging through impossible to find records, Piscivore discovered that the Osage, Caddo and Quapaw all spoke of the man-catfish when Hernando De Soto came through what is now Arkansas. “The Osage called the river god ‘Ho Nikka,’ which means ‘Man Fish,’ but they treated it like a deity,” said Piscivore. According to Piscivore, Osage legend says that the Ho Nikka only comes on land during extremely wet periods and only during the warmer months. And then only if there is an imbalance in the circle. According to legend, it seeks to right the wrongs in a brutal manner.
Attempted abductions have accompanied the sightings in 2016.
Fable Mae’s home sits near the confluence of Point Remove Creek and the Arkansas River. Her unfortunate dog, Elmer, was abducted from an open yard at approximately 11:15 p.m. on a late summer night that saw 1.23 inches of rain fall in the river bottoms south of Morrilton and Atkins.
“It was, like, the strangest thing, like that show ‘Stranger Things,’ ” said Mae. “One minute Elmer was, like, yapping his head off and the next thing I know, I hear, like, a yelp — it sounded kind of, like, muffled — and then, like, this big splash from the river. And the dog was, like, gone.”
A normal, rational person would lock the door and wait on the light of dawn to check things out. But Fable Mae couldn’t leave well enough alone and courageously walked to the river bank, guided by the silver beam of light from her cell phone, in search of her furry companion.
What she saw was unexplainable.
“It was a catfish, like, I know it was a catfish. But then it stood up on a rock, and, like, it sure enough had legs… I mean, like, it sure looked like legs. And I could, like, see Elmer’s tail sticking out of its mouth,” said Fable Mae. “I thought about trying to video, like, you know something like this would go viral and get all kinds of ‘likes’ on Facebook, but then I, like,  thought about poor Elmer.”
According to Mae, she then reluctantly put down the phone and grabbed a burly piece of driftwood. With a lucky hurl, a glancing blow to the creature caused it to spit up the confused and utterly terrified canine, and Elmer doggy paddled to shore in record time. Mae said that Elmer has not eaten one frozen fish stick, his former favorite hot-weather treat, since the experience.
Luckily, Mae was able to curb her fright and longing for social media fame enough to get a clear mental picture of the beast. And with the help of a sketch artist, Dr. Piscivore finally had an image of just what lurks in the currents and murky depths of our local waterways.
The illustrations accompanying this article are the first publication of these images. There is no known scientific classification or even hypothesis as to what it is.
Dr. Piscivore said dognapping was commonly part of the Native American legend as well. “A lot of the villages had a kind of dog clean up service, if you will, where the teenage boys would scoop up the poo and throw it the water,” said Piscivore. “Well, coincidentally, or not, it seemed like the Ho Nikka would show up when the villages had a lot of dogs and a lot of dog poo, and a lot a dogs would disappear right around the time of the sightings.”
A connection to poo seemed rather far fetched. What is there about poo in the waterways that could trigger the return of an ancient being? Could manure from Folkson’s cattle have found its way into Point Remove Creek during the flooding and summoned the creature up from the river? Was the Ho Nikka trying to eat a cow when Folkson’s Q-beam interrupted its nocturnal hunt? How the heck could a 300-pound anything even think about swallowing a full grown cow?
Folkson answered some of those questions as he explained that late summer-born calves were in the pasture where he witnessed the fantastic beast. And though Folkson has not lost a calf, he has noticed peculiar markings around some of the calves’ tails and hind quarters. “It looked like they was scraped with 40-grit sandpaper,” said Folkson.
Rain and manure still seemed like an odd combination to summon a river god, but one final element crystalized the hypothesis: Canadian geese.
The last sighting happened around Old Post Park in Russellville, right beside Army Corp of Engineers Lock and Dam 10. The resident flock of Canadian geese in the park are legendary around the River Valley. They make an awful ruckus when anyone gets too close. They steal lollipops from children. And they poo on an epic scale in the pond/faux stream that serves as a fish viewing area and central attraction of the park. “That goose poo goes into the river right at Lock and Dam 10,” said Piscivore.
This piece of the puzzle fit disturbingly well with what local amateur naturalist Allegory Smith witnessed on the sand next to Lock and Dam 10 one damp mid-August evening.
“It was a quiet night of midland water snake observation,” said Smith. “Actually, it was too quiet. I had yet to see a single snake, which was odd considering atmospheric conditions were optimal. Anyway, as I stealthily and carefully picked my way across the rocks, I heard this muffled honking along with splashing and what sounded like someone beating an old rug with a broom. So I focused the red filtered beam of my light toward the sound just in time to see what looked like a goose wing slowly sink into the water,” said Smith.
After the ripples faded, Smith cautiously eased over to a location near where the alleged goose wing had disappeared into the depths of the river. “There were some weird looking tracks in the sand,” said Smith. “They were nothing like any other animal spoor I’ve ever seen. And I would know. I’ve got a minor degree in biology and watch Animal Planet religiously.”
Piscivore believes evidence for why the Ho Nikka has reappeared is clear. I asked her if there were any mentions of human abduction in Osage legend. “None that I could find,” said Piscivore. “It appears that the Osage got the message, if you will, and I wouldn’t worry about it too much anyway. I think the drier weather of late summer has maybe sent the Ho Nikka back to the wherever it came from.”
No other sightings of the aquatic monster have been reported as of this writing on September 19. But Piscivore’s parting words of caution echoed through my head as I planned for a few fishing trips this autumn with an eye toward the weather: “Whatever you do,” said Piscivore, “don’t go in the water.”

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