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That Big Slimy Salamander

I’ve been reading a book entitled Sentinels of the Susquehanna, by a friend and local writer, John Zaktansky. John is the executive director of the Middle Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association, an organization devoted to protecting 11,000 square miles of land that drains into the North and West Branches of the Susquehanna. The first couple of chapters immediately caught my eye since they are about the largest amphibian in our country — the Eastern Hellbender.

We are certainly coming into that time of year when slimy, slithery critters start to show up like that big old Black Rat Snake that was making its way alongside the house. Still, it’s not very likely that many of us will catch sight of the largest salamander in North America even if you spend a lot of time in and around their habitat, which is streams and rivers.

I have only ever spotted a few Eastern Hellbenders in my lifetime. I once caught sight of one while I was wading and fishing a local creek; part of the salamander was sticking out from under a large flat rock in about two feet of water.

On another occasion, I was actually SCUBA diving in a deep hole on another large area creek when I peered up under a ledge in 15 feet of water only to find a large hellbender staring back at me.

Hellbenders are mottled, brown in color, and can reach a length of 24 plus inches. They have a flattened head and body, and skin folds along the side of the body. They have a pair of small eyes on top of their head and a pair of nostrils on the snout. Large gill clefts are located behind the head.

Hellbenders prefer shallow, clear, fast-moving water, especially with ample rock cover on the stream bottom. Except when mating, hellbenders are usually loners and often prefer hiding under rocks — a good reason they are seldom spotted.

Another reason they are seldom spotted is they are nocturnal and seldom venture out in daylight. Much of the hellbender’s diet is made up of crayfish, aquatic insects, and on occasion, small fish.

Actually, having hellbenders occupy a stream or river is a good sign that the water is still reasonably healthy and suitable for aquatic life.

In spite of their less than desirable looks, hellbenders are not aggressive, and even though they have small teeth, they do not bite and nor are they venomous.

If you happen to catch a hellbender by accident while fishing, try to remove the hook without any damage or simply cut the line close to the hook and release the hellbender. Hellbenders are protected in Pennsylvania — you cannot remove them from the wild.

In the days to come, I’m sure I will be making references to other chapters in Zaktansky’s book, but in the meantime, if you want to check it out for yourself, go to or call John at 570-768-6300.

Webb Weekly