A boy needed stitches after swimming in a man-made lake in Montreal. Did a fish attack him?

George and Max Mandl at Parc Jean-Drapeau in late June, when a fish ostensibly attacked Max.  (George Mandl - image credit)
George and Max Mandl at Parc Jean-Drapeau in late June, when a fish ostensibly attacked Max. (George Mandl - image credit)

WARNING: This story contains graphic images of a leg injury.

Last week, George Mandl, an American vacationing in Montreal, took his eight-year-old son Max to Parc Jean-Drapeau for a swim.

It was a hot afternoon, and Max played on an inflatable structure anchored in the park's man-made lake.

As his legs dangled in the blue-green darkness, he felt a stabbing pain. He screamed and, when lifeguards pulled him from the water, his leg was bleeding.

"It felt like a kind of electrical pain, like that pain when something is just jabbed into you. It felt like a knife had just cut my leg," he said.

The lifeguards and, later, paramedics and two emergency room doctors, said they had seen nothing like it in their lives: a pattern of semi-circular scrapes punctuated by deep lacerations had appeared around Max's knee. He appeared to have been attacked.

"One minute you're just playing and the next you're at the beginning of Jaws," Mandl said in an interview.

Max Mandl, an eight-year-old visiting Montreal from Los Angeles, emerged from the water at Parc Jean-Drapeau's man-made lake with these injuries.
Max Mandl, an eight-year-old visiting Montreal from Los Angeles, emerged from the water at Parc Jean-Drapeau's man-made lake with these injuries.

Max Mandl, an eight-year-old visiting Montreal from Los Angeles, emerged from the water at Parc Jean-Drapeau's man-made lake with these injuries. (George Mandl)

Anglers say it is possible a large, carnivorous fish attacked Max, but such attacks are incredibly rare. The nature of Max's injuries has confounded some experts and led to an investigation by officials at Parc Jean-Drapeau who are trying to answer the question: What happened to Max?

A fish or a scrape

When she first saw the picture of Max's injury, Béatrix Beisner, a professor of biological sciences who studies lake animals at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) didn't believe it could have been a fish bite.

"I don't really know of any fish in our area that might bite a human," she said. "The only one I really know of that might bite a human would be a snapping turtle and they're more likely to take a toe or a finger. Their mouths are not that large."

She theorized that Max could have scraped himself on something under the water: a piece of metal, perhaps, or a cinder block.

But the structure Max was on is inflatable and children play on it daily. A submerged hazard would likely have been spotted and removed.

Beisner changed her mind, however, and said it was "entirely possible" that a fish attacked Max once she saw images of people who had been bitten by muskellunge, otherwise known as muskie.

Apex predator

Muskies are the apex predator of lake fish, according to Michael Lazarus, a professional muskie angler who spends most of the year guiding tourists around Montreal, casting for the fish.

Michael Lazarus, a muskie fishing guide, says the waters around the Montreal area are great for muskie fishing. The fish can live for more than 30 years and grow very large.
Michael Lazarus, a muskie fishing guide, says the waters around the Montreal area are great for muskie fishing. The fish can live for more than 30 years and grow very large.

Michael Lazarus, a muskie fishing guide, says the waters around the Montreal area are great for muskie fishing. The fish can live for more than 30 years and grow very large. (Submitted by Michael Lazarus)

They live long and grow large; Lazarus once caught a 26-kilogram muskie. They also eat large prey, including ducks, birds, muskrats and other fish. But they almost never attack humans.

Reached on his fishing boat on Thursday after a morning where he caught two large muskies in the waters around Montreal, Lazarus said he had only ever heard of four or five bites in decades of muskie fishing.

Most of those attacks are freak accidents: the fish mistakes a pair of feet dangling over a dock as prey and lunges. But Lazarus said he also had been bitten by a muskie that he had just caught and released. It came swimming back at him and bit him. He needed five stitches.

In this case, Max's injury appeared consistent with a muskie bite, even if it appeared larger than what Lazarus would have expected.

"There's no such thing as a muskie with a bite radius like that," he said. "However, it could have grabbed ahold of him and thrashed and got him at all different angles."

There's another reason Lazarus doesn't doubt a muskie bit Max.

Muskies are plentiful around Montreal. Even though the lake where Max was swimming is man-made, separated from the St. Lawrence River by a series of filters, Lazarus knows there are muskies in it. He said he used to catch them there before it was closed to angling 20 years ago.

"In the spring when it floods, the water overflows the basin. That's how they've gotten in in the past," he said. "The fish from the St. Lawrence can get in there. Over the years, I've fished it many times. I've caught fish in there."

Is it safe? 

Officials at Parc Jean-Drapeau declined to answer detailed questions about the incident involving Max. They issued a statement saying they were investigating the June 26 incident, when Max was injured.

Max Mandl sits in a wheelchair outside the Montreal Children's Hospital. He needed two stitches as a result of his injury.
Max Mandl sits in a wheelchair outside the Montreal Children's Hospital. He needed two stitches as a result of his injury.

Max Mandl sits in a wheelchair outside the Montreal Children's Hospital. He needed two stitches as a result of his injury. (George Mandl)

Mandl said he hoped spreading awareness about what happened to his son would prompt the park to take measures to ensure this kind of attack didn't happen again.

Max needed two stitches. He had to take antibiotics and he is still walking with a slight limp.

Beisner, the biologist, said she hoped the park would be able to catch the muskie, if that is what bit Max, and remove it.

But Lazarus, the muskie angler, said the fish had probably been in the basin for years and would never bite a human again.

"Absolutely zero chance," he said. "I mean, it's been there forever. Everybody swims in there. It's the first time it happened."