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Into the Outdoors - The Hellbender

I know that this may seem to be a strange time to be writing about salamanders, but they are actually making the news. Recently, the Pennsylvania Senate passed a bill which would make the hellbender the state’s official salamander. These are the state’s largest salamander, supposedly sometimes reaching a length of two feet.

When I was a kid, we referred to salamanders as lizards, simply because of their appearance. Lizards are, of course, reptiles, while salamanders are amphibians.

Years ago, my friends and I would often catch big brown salamanders in the early spring, while fishing for suckers at the mouth of Sugar Creek in Brady’s Bend. We always called them “waterdogs,” but they must have been hellbenders instead. They have also been referred to as “snot otters.” The reason I believe that is that they lacked the external gills found on the mudpuppy. Back then, they were really plentiful, to the point of being somewhat of a nuisance. In fact, a lot of anglers killed them, sometimes impaling them on sticks, supposedly based on some very old custom among Native Americans in the region. My buddies and I, though, just released them unharmed. Now, the population of hellbenders (if that’s what they were) is in some trouble. To thrive, they need cold, relatively clean water and a rocky bottom. When trees are removed along streams, it allows the water to warm, which is not good for these big critters. In fact, one of the reasons behind the movement to make the hellbender our official salamander is to increase awareness of the need for clean water in the state. That is a worthwhile goal. Also, although hellbenders are anything but cute and cuddly, it would be a terrible shame to see them disappear. They are, however caught by those fishing for suckers. As this is being written, the thermometer says that it’s seventy degrees.

On the fishing front, the panfishing should heat up very soon. It’s still a little early, but it has been my experience that a few warm days can trigger at least a moderate bite. Panfishing may very well be my favorite form of the sport, so I will probably be giving it a try soon. Panfish are great fun to catch, and make for some truly great eating, especially if caught in relatively cold water. Pick your favorite coating and fry them up in a little oil. I always filet mine, but that is just one option. A lot of folks like to just gut, scale them and cook them that way. I have had them like that, but I don’t like the bones and, for that matter, the skin. It’s all a matter of individual choice.

I have gotten a number of reactions to last week’s column, which made mention of eating groundhogs. If you have the stomach to clean them, you should really give them a try. It is better, however, to wait until they have been out of hibernation for awhile. Also, the younger, the better.

The signs of spring are finally beginning to show up. At last, I have seen robins in the backyard. For me, it has been a horrible fall and winter. I can’t wait until spring arrives.

And finally, the Fish and Boat Commission has issued a warning regarding ice fishing. the recent warm days that we have had can result in unsafe ice. While it may look okay, there is a good chance that it is no longer safe. It would be genuinely awful to fall through the ice into cold water. Use extreme caution.

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