I wasn’t thinking about hellbender until yesterday afternoon, when I heard they were abundant here in Pisgah National Forest. Someone who snorkeled this river said they saw 6 hanging out right in the open this summer, right where I was.
Hellbenders are foot long salamanders, giants in North American terms. They need cold, clean water to survive so their numbers are declining and their range is shrinking since cold clear stream are becoming rare. They used to be in the rivers near my house but are now believed to be gone. I have never seen one even though I have been on an unofficial search for the last 3 years by looking for them any time I am in their range. I want to see one in case they disappear from the wild, but I have hope that we can protect the populations that remain.
The river was clear and loaded with fish, but that didn’t matter. I had a search image of a flattened, round, well camouflaged, mottled head of a salamander blazed in my brain and nothing else mattered. I envisioned it barely peeking out from under a flat rock and I searched for an image to match the one in my head. I’m sure I missed some fish. I saw movement in my periphery and dismissed it. It wasn’t until I looked to my left and saw a large brown trout holding under a log that I realized I was missing incredible biology for the search of what might be. I was missing what was in front of me, which was pretty awesome, in the quest for something better.
The fish was large as trout go, and beautifully colored with yellow fins and belly, red and brown spots above, and a slightly hooked lower jaw. The large fish just held under the log at the base of a small falls and watched me watch it until it decided I was too much threat to tolerate, when it disappeared with one flick of its tail.
Brown trout are not native to North America. They were brought here from Europe and like the also non-native rainbow trout, are raised in hatcheries and released in our rivers and streams. They are top predators in the aquatic food web, and part of me wonders if the decline we are seeing in hellbender could be related to these non-native fish feeding on hellbender larvae. But this trout was an incredible animal and I shared a similar thrill in watching the brownie that fly fishers do when they capture this elusive fish.
It definitely would have been amazing to see a hellbender. These animals are so secretive and well camouflaged, and the rivers in Pisgah afford so many places where a hellbender can effectively hide from a snorkeler, I bet that my search was very incomplete, that I was just at Pisgah at the wrong time of year and if I return in their breeding season, I’ll see one. Still, every time I search and come up empty, part of me worries that their numbers are dropping and maybe I will miss my chance to observe them in the wild. But for now I am grateful for trout and will continue my hellbender quest.