Wildlife Commission Continues to Seek Hellbender Sightings

A Hellbender on a rock near a river stream.
Endangered Species Coalition

With Delayed Harvest Trout Waters now open, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission is asking the public, in particular trout anglers, to report any sightings of hellbenders (water dogs) to the agency.

Considered indicators of water quality, hellbenders are large, harmless, aquatic salamanders found in fast-moving, clean streams in western North Carolina – the same waters where trout live.

“Since hellbenders and trout occupy many of the same waters, we’re asking trout anglers to be on the lookout for any hellbenders they see while fishing and let us know if they see one,” said Lori Williams, an agency Wildlife Diversity biologist who specializes in studying hellbenders. “Anyone else who sees one is also asked to contact us. Reported sightings are an important part of a long-term inventory and monitoring project for hellbenders that we began in 2007, along with partners.”

While some anglers may think that hellbenders specifically target trout as a food source, William said that is mainly a myth.

“As an animal that lives on the stream bottom, hellbenders primarily eat crayfish. Sometimes they will also try to take small fish like minnows or shiners or other amphibians like tadpoles and smaller salamanders. Plus, they are big scavengers of dead fish, discarded bait, or other small, dead animals they may find.”

Williams also said that anglers who leave their trout, or any fish, on a stringer at the water’s edge, may see a hellbender emerge from nearby and go after it looking for an easy meal.

“However, scavenging for dead or immobile trout is quite different than trying to chase down a large, live one, which hellbenders rarely, if ever, do,” Williams added. “In fact, fish can be bigger predators of young or larval hellbenders than hellbenders of fish.”

Because of their size – averaging 16 to 17 inches in length – and appearance that only a mother could love, hellbenders are often mistaken as harmful, poisonous, venomous or toxic. None of these are true, said Williams.

“Hellbenders are harmless to humans, although they may bite if someone tries to pick one up,” Williams said. “Leaving them alone is not only good for hellbenders, but it also the law because they are listed as a species of special concern in North Carolina, which means it is illegal to harm, possess, transport or sell a hellbender or to attempt to do so.”

Williams also cautions people to refrain from moving rocks in mountain streams as these rocks provide shelter for hellbenders, as well as other species of fish, salamanders and insects.

Hellbenders, also called “snot otters” and “Alleghany alligators,” were once common but have disappeared throughout much of their habitat, due mainly to declining water quality and habitat degradation.

Because of their listed status, biologists want to learn as much as they can about where they are located and how their populations are faring. Anyone who finds a hellbender is asked to leave it alone but to note the location (physical location or GPS coordinates) and take a photo, if possible and email that information to Williams at [email protected].

If anglers happen to catch one on hook and line, they should carefully remove the hook if it is safe to do so without harming the animal or cut the line as close as possible and return it back to the water. People also can call the Commission’s Wildlife Interaction Helpline (866) 318-2401 and provide details of the observation.

Learn more by visiting the Commission’s hellbender webpage.