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.
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.
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.