In 15 years of wading streams, I've never seen a hellbender or even met anyone who claims to have seen one. It's easy to be incredulous that they even populate our streams. How could a two-foot long lizard escape notice in the crystal clear waters we fish?
Yesterday, I got up close and personal with one when it emerged from under a rock and attempted to devour a ten inch brown I'd just released. I was fishing the North Mills Delayed Harvest water in Pisgah Forest of NC. It's a nice freestone stream, heavily fished, and hardly a remote wilderness. I was fishing one of the larger pools from the upper parking area right beside a stack of metal culvert pipe stacked on the bank. I had just caught a nice ten inch brown on a pheasant tail dropper at the back of the pool.
I photographed the fish in my hand and released him into the pool. I looked down to straighten my gear, and when I looked up I saw my fish sideways and struggling on the bottom at the back of the pool. It was being swallowed by something. I waded out and took this picture.
In the bottom right, you can see that about 7 inches of trout is in the salamander, and just the head is left out. He's almost perfectly camo'ed with the rocks. His head is flat and wide. The hellbender was still on the bottom and obviously working on his meal. I decided to see if I could get the lizard to release the trout. I grasped the salamander by the back of his slippery, keel shaped tail and started to lift him. I'd estimate that he was about two feet long and weighed about two pounds. I got him about half way out of the water.
At that point, he let the fish slip back out of his mouth, and acted like he might want to taste my hand instead. I let him go and he settled back to the bottom. I watched him for a bit until he decided he'd had enough and flicked his tail. In one motion he was gone. The fishing was excellent by the way. It's the first day this year that I've had fish consistently rise to the dry fly. Sorry about my large pic sizes. I'll try to resize.