Hopefully, some of you who’ve spent time creeping around mountain streams in the Southern Appalachians, will have an encounter with the Cryptobranchus Alleganiensis or the Eastern Hellbender. I say “hopefully” because they are quite rare and endangered. I know quite a few folks who’ve spent years fishing in our mountains and have never seen one. Many locals call them “Snot Otters”. Personally, I think Snot Otter is the only way we should refer to them from here on out and is by far the coolest nickname of any animal in our mountains. As a matter of fact, I think we should rename our minor league baseball team the Asheville Snot Otters. Now that would be a cool tee shirt.
No matter what you call them, they are a sight to behold. According to some experts, they can grow to almost two and a half feet long and weigh four to five pounds. Something that big crawling along the bottom of a clear stream toward your Simms fishing boot might cause a “WFE”, or Wader Filling Event, especially if you are not aware of their existence.
The first time I caught a glimpse of one was in Eastatoe Creek, which flows through a remote section of Upstate South Carolina. It was 1987, give or take a few years. I’d spent the day fishing and exploring. I didn’t know what I was doing but I was determined to catch something. Towards the end of day, I came to a small sandy beach resting in the bend of the creek and had stopped to take in my surroundings. I studied the water, looking for a spot to toss my small Rooster Tail, when something caught my eye resting in the water near the sandy beach. At first, I thought it was a log, but then the log turned toward me and made a dash right towards my feet. Luckily, I wasn’t wearing waders. At that point in my life, I’d never heard of a Snot Otter or Eastern Hellbender and remembered thinking to myself, ”Wow, that’s a huge Salamander”. It was many years later when I actually did some research and figured out that I had not discovered the world’s largest Salamander.
Over the years, I’ve had three or four other memorable encounters with large lizard-like creatures. I once had one come up to investigate a Wooly Booger I was stripping through a deep hole on the North Fork of the French Broad River, near Rosman, North Carolina. It was quite surprising because I did not know one could be caught on the fly. If anyone has actually accomplished this feat…please let me know.
Perhaps my coolest encounter was on another section of the North Fork. I once again found myself standing in the bend of the river near a sandy beach…there’s a trend here if you’re following along. I looked down and resting right next to my boot was a no BSin’ Snot Otter. Now this was twenty years after my first encounter. I didn’t have a WFE and the Snot Otter didn’t bolt away. It was kind of pleasant; just me and this big salamander creature, peacefully coexisting. It was so calm that I took time to investigate further. I looked around and discovered at least 5 to 6 other smaller Snot Otters within spitting distance of the first one. I was standing amongst a Snot Otter convention.
I now know that I was standing near the den of a male Snot Otter, who was dutifully guarding his den from other sneaky males trying to infiltrate the den and take over his fatherly duties. A Snot Otter dad will remain at his post for up to two months fighting off all intruders, including clueless trout fishermen. There are some videos on YouTube of this behavior, if you care to look. Generally, it happens in the fall of the year.
But here’s my point…
If you take the time to contemplate and study the mountains and valleys of our Southern Appalachians, you’ll discover all kinds of epic life-and-death struggles taking place, sometimes right at your feet. Don’t even get me started about the “skullduggery” of Crowes.
The only way to truly start this journey is to get out in the woods and find your adventure…WFE’s will come.
Joe Woody is Co-Publisher of The Angler Magazine Great Smoky Mountains with his wife Debra. He is an Army Veteran and a self proclaimed “Adventure Angler”. You can usually find him wandering around Western North Carolina telling fishing lies. He is also a baseball nut and a crazy FCS Football fan. He has a Bigfoot magnet on the back of his truck.