Have you ever seen a hellbender? Would you want to?

Jeff MulhollemThe Oct. 11 issue of Pennsylvania Outdoor News contains a story about a new report by the Center for Biological Diversity that identifies amphibians and reptiles in need of immediate federal protection to stave off extinction.

The list included in "Dying for Protection: The 10 Most Vulnerable, Least Protected Amphibians and Reptiles in the United States," includes a 2-foot-long salamander once commonly seen in the Keystone State – the eastern hellbender.

For me, the story triggered two thoughts:

Photo courtesy of hellbender.orgFirst, I only have seen two hellbenders, both more than 30 years ago. One was very much alive (I will never forget it!). The other was dead and decaying;

And second, I bet few of you have seen a hellbender. In fact, the folks I asked this week whether they had ever seen one didn't even know what a hellbender is. That is a shame.

For those unfamiliar with hellbenders, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hellbender.

Once found in New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, Missouri and  Mississippi, these big amphibians are threatened with extinction due to dams and water pollution.

With flattened bodies, paddle-like tails for swimming and numerous folds of skin for oxygen absorption – known as "devil dogs," "mud devils" and "snot otters" – they are uniquely adapted to aquatic life. Nobody knows now in how many states North America's largest amphibian still survives.

In a way, I was relieved to hear that several were found dead after a chemical spill caused by a train wreck wiped out all life in parts of two isolated streams in the Sinnemahoning watershed a few years ago. That proved they are clinging to existence in the Northern Tier of Pennsylvania.

The one I saw in the late 1970s in Kettle Creek scared the hell out of me. I had no idea the harmless monsters existed before I encountered the one in Clinton County, not far from Leighty Bridge, as I recall.

It was a pleasant mid-April late afternoon in the first week of trout season and I sat on a boulder in the water, not far from the edge of the stream to reflect on a Hendrickson hatch that allowed us to catch dozens of fish. A couple of my friends were fishing in the pool upstream.

Just before I dozed off in the warm sunshine, I noticed the entrails from a bunch of trout in the water by the big rock I sat on – someone had cleaned a limit of trout there, probably that morning.

I doubt that I napped long, but when I opened my eyes I happened to look down between my wader-clad legs. To my absolute horror, by my feet in a foot or so of water I saw a mottled brown head bigger than both my fists together, contentedly chomping on fish guts.

What a way to wake up! Screaming like a little girl, I jumped up clutching my fly-rod and sprinted across the slippery, rocky shallows to shore, somehow managing not to fall on my face. My friends laughed so hard they nearly fell in and stopped fishing long enough to wade over and see what someone said must have been a hellbender.

The creature, of course, retreated back under the rock at my abrupt, splashy escape, so nobody saw it but me. My companions implied I was a sissy who was seeing things. Although when we returned to look the next day, all the fish remains were gone.

There was no Internet then, so I had to look up "hellbender" in an encyclopedia when I returned home to be sure I hadn't hallucinated. In truth – despite the merciless ribbing I absorbed from the guys I was fishing with that day – it was an experience I am glad I had, and I always wished I could have shown my son a hellbender.

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