Tending the Commons

Seining for Hellgrammites on Coal River in West Virginia

by Mary Hufford

From Folklife Center News 21, No. 2 (Spring 1999)

Hellgrammites, also known as "grampus," are the fierce and succulent larvae of the dobson fly. They first hatch in late spring and hide under rocks from would-be predators, such as red-eye, bass, wall-eye, and other game fish native to Coal River. The term grampus elsewhere refers to the whip-scorpion and the hellbender, fitting companions for a larva whose pincers draw blood.

Fishermen in the region, like Ray Cottrell and Randy Sprouse, capture hellgrammites to use as bait. They snag the feisty creatures by means of "hellgrammite seines," nets suspended vertically in the water, with ends that can be pulled together to enclose the catch. The seine used by Cottrell and Sprouse is strung between two broom handles (sometimes hickory sticks or even window screens are used). Cottrell turns over rocks, and the current washes the hellgrammites downstream into Sprouse's waiting seine.

Randy Sprouse served in 1997 as a field coordinator for the American Folklife Center's Coal River Folklife Project in West Virginia and now directs the Coal River Mountain Watch, a grassroots heritage conservation group. Recognizing the river's centrality to a local way of life and the need for safeguarding its tributaries against mountaintop removal strip-mining, the American Rivers Council recently named Coal River one of the ten most endangered rivers in America.

Tending the Commons