Readers who called and one poster below have suggested, this is a mudpuppy and not a hellbender.
I tend to agree with them after looking at distribution maps and trying to compare photos of hellbenders, mudpuppies and what was caught at Navy Pier..
Not sure best how to do this, but will leave the original post below, while noting here I think now it is a mudpuppy, originally called a hellbender.
The answer, I'm fairly certain, is hellbender. The question came from Mariano.
This isn't one [above] he caught at Navy Pier while perch fishing earlier this month, but one that I caught on Christmas morning at Navy Pier in 2006.
An image like that tends to stick with you, at least with me..
Here's the original question from Mariano earlier ths month:
On the morning of Dec. 4, while fishing with my friend off Navy Pier, I caught and released something that looked like an eel. We didn't have a camera but I can describe it. It was about 20 inches long, had a big belly, small eyes, was black with red spots, and had four small legs. What was it? Fish or a salamander? Are there salamanders in the lake?
It took me a couple days until I had free time to dig up the story and photo of my hellbender, a day I vividly remember.
It came shortly after young Joshua Arnold had nearly caught another one just down the pier from me. Some days later, Mike Conlin, the now retired former Illinois fisheries chief, identified it as a hellbender.
Originally, I thought it might be a small-mouth salamander, so I was glad when Conlin gave me a heads up what he thought it was.
Naturally, there is a page for hellbenders at hellbenders.org.
There are very fascinating salamanders, and one of the bigger ones. Apparently, they indicate decent to good water quality.
I love questions like Mariano's. That's why we have run a questions as a Sunday feature on the outdoors page of the Sun-Times for years. If memory serves right, the feature started about four or five Sunday editors back with Dan Cahill.
I like questions that take some digging.
So I was surprised when Mariano dropped this note back:
Thank you very much for the information about my catch. My wife, Monica, didn't think I would get a response from you because I didn't have a picture to send you. I had good luck catching perch that day but the highlight was catching and releasing the hellbender.
Well, Monica, I love finding the answers to good questions.
If you got one, send them along to email@example.com.