A Texas-Sized Hellbender

Team Hellbender: Dan the Stream Man, JD the Noodler, Hellbender Wrangler Kim, and Nurse Veronica

Team Hellbender: Dan the Stream Man, JD the Noodler, Hellbender Wrangler Kim, and Nurse Veronica

We must have lifted 30 rocks this morning, and didn’t find a single hellbender. At one point, we saw something black and wiggly shoot out from under a rock. We spent the next 15 minutes chasing after it, thinking we found a baby hellbender, only to realize we had been duped by a regular old stream salamander. Shortly after that, we came upon a dazzling group of small, bright orange fish that we later identified as saffron shiners, Tennessee shiners, warpaint shiners, mountain redbelly dace, and river chub. The shiners were all crowded around the chub’s rock-covered nest, probably hoping for a tasty egg to slip out. After a half hour of shooting underwater fish pictures, we had started to lose our energy and focus. Things did not look good for team hellbender.

Dace, shiners, and river chub brighten up the stream bed.

Dace, shiners, and river chub brighten up the stream bed.

After stopping for lunch, we dragged ourselves back into the cold stream. I was feeling bored and soggy, and wondered if we were wasting our time at this site. I had only found two hellbenders here before – a little guy back in 2011 and an adult last month that was in pretty bad shape. It’s a popular fishing spot, and hellbenders tend to get caught and killed on fishing lines. My hopes of finding one were quickly fading.

Just as we resumed our search, we heard someone coming down the stream bank. It was Bill Harris, a bushy-bearded fisherman whose two passions in life are fly-tying and riding his bicycle along the Virginia Creeper Trail. Bill has a cute, curly-haired mutt that rides behind him in a covered trailer. Together they clean up the never-ending stream of litter that gets tossed alongside the Creeper. Today Bill was riding with his friend’s son, a 12-year old named James who was visiting for the summer from Texas. Bill had heard a lot about our project and was hoping to show James his first hellbender. The pressure was on.

James the Texan meets his very first hellbender.

James the Texan meets his very first hellbender.

Bill’s salamander senses must have been tingling, because 2 minutes after they showed up, I reached under a boulder and felt the squishy side of a hellbender! I called over JD – he’s our partner from Virginia Game and Inland Fisheries and the best hellbender “noodler” I know. He reached under the rock, and with a little twisting and splashing, wrestled (or “noodled”) out an ENORMOUS hellbender. This thing was 2 feet long and weighed almost 2 ½ pounds, about as heavy as a wooden baseball bat. It was the perfect first hellbender for a kid from Texas.

2 comments

  1. Cheryl Alexander says:

    Can the mucous from any of the salamanders in the Kings Port area cause you do be ill for a few hours? I know, dumb question. We had a group of teen in Duffield Virginia on a mission trip. 3 girls had dilated eyes, headaches, tingling legs and a rash. The girl that had it worse had put her fingers in her mouth to adjust the rubber bands on her braces. She was kind of “spacey” too. No they were not doing drugs I assure you. This is the only thing we can think of that caused it and we have done a little research online and it leads us to the salamanders. The creek they were walking in and found the salamanders in came out of a cave.

  2. Kimberly Terrell says:

    Wow, what an odd experience. I can assure you that it definitely was NOT a salamander. Could they have been accidentally exposed to some sort of pesticide or chemical?

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