The Fisher: Elusive, Fast and a Porcupine’s Worst Nightmare

The Fisher: Elusive, Fast and a Porcupine’s Worst Nightmare

Illustration by Adelaide Tyrol

The “fisher cat” is neither of those things. Doesn’t fish. Isn’t a cat. In fact, a lot more of what people think they know about the fisher is wrong. It’s almost like we made up the animal.

The fisher, Pekania pennanti, is a big forest-dwelling weasel, related to the American marten, and native to North America. The common name has nothing to do with fish, but instead derives from French and Dutch words for the pelt of a European polecat, to which it is distantly related. Native American tribes had their own names for the animal, many of which translate roughly as “big marten.”

Then there’s the idea that the fisher is exclusively a denizen of the Northern Forest, the vast realm of spruce and fir. Not true either. “They live in the suburbs of Boston,” said Susan Morse, a wildlife ecologist, forester, and executive director of the nonprofit Keeping Track.

Their range used to be even more extensive. Fishers once lived through New England down the Appalachian Mountains to North Carolina, through the Ohio Valley and across the upper Midwest and north to the tree line, explained Steve Faccio, a conservation biologist at the Vermont Center for Ecostudies.

But the deep woods of the East were rapidly cleared for farming and the big weasel was heavily trapped for its luxuriant fur. By the late 1800s, the fisher “had been extirpated in most of the Northeast outside of Maine and perhaps northernmost New Hampshire,” said Faccio.

Now the fisher is on its way back. “They’ve returned to much of their former range outside of the southern Appalachians,” Faccio said. “In New England they’re doing very well.”

As a graduate student at Southern Connecticut State University in the late 1980s, Faccio helped reintroduce fishers to northeastern Connecticut and radio-tracked them to monitor how well they did. Quite well, it turned out. A couple of dozen fishers were released — half pregnant females, the rest males. A few got hit on the roads, and some decamped for Massachusetts, but most stayed put. And reproduced. Today the population is well established, and Connecticut has a fisher trapping season.

Vermont had a similar reintroduction program, said Faccio, which was partly prompted by the desire to control porcupine numbers. Fishers are one of the few predators that will eat the thorny little beast. They attack its face, then flip it on its back to tear open the unprotected belly.

The fisher owes its resurgence partly to the fact that it’s an omnivore. Like bears. Or humans.

“They will feed on anything, from fruit — apples, blackberries, blueberries — to reptiles and amphibians and birds and bird eggs, up to animals the size of porkies,” said Faccio. During his radio tracking work, Faccio found that they took advantage of the abundant gray squirrels of the oak and hickory forests of northeastern Connecticut. “When we would hike in to check on resting fishers, eight out of ten times we would find the tail of a gray squirrel under the tree and the fisher would be sleeping in the squirrel’s nest up in the canopy.”

Fishers can also move. Really move. “They have the ability to disperse pretty long distances in a short time. They have a kind of energy efficient lope. It seems they can lope forever without stopping, unless the snow is deep and powdery,” he said.

Fishers are secretive and avoid humans. They stay in the forest and don’t like to cross open land. In winter, Faccio can find fisher tracks within five minutes of leaving his door. But he has rarely seen the animals.

One other myth about fishers is that they’re partial to house cats. Eating them, that is. In some studies house cat fur has been found in fisher scat. “But there’s probably a lot easier prey for them to deal with,” Faccio said. If Fluffy vanishes, it’s more likely he got taken out by a Toyota than a fisher.

Then there is the screaming. Fishers are famous for screaming. Or, at least famous for being said to scream. “I don’t know of any reputable information that fishers scream. When we had them in captivity they growled or made purring sounds,” said Faccio.

Even if he sees them only rarely, Faccio is grateful for the big weasel’s presence. “I just like knowing they’re out there. It’s another indication that our ecosystems are functioning. Plus I enjoy getting out and following their tracks. You can feel their energy as they go from brush piles to a fallen tree, or lope over to investigate a hollow tree and then go straight to a spot where there are sometimes porkies. It’s always a fun adventure.”

Joe Rankin writes on forests and nature. He lives in Maine.

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Discussion
  1. Robert Roggeveen → in West Hartford, Conn.
    Jun 05, 2017

    Very informative. Thank you.

  2. Amy Record → in Vershire, Vermont
    Jun 06, 2017

    Unfortunately I have found fisher cats are opportunistic hunters so cats can be easy dinners,for example, I had a raccoon in a box trap, my boss saw it before I arrived. I went to receive it and found a tipped over open and empty trap, there was still snow on the ground and you could see what happened, there was a blood trail leading away and only fisher tracks.

  3. Robert Scherer → in Cape Neddick, Maine
    Jun 06, 2017

    Re fishers screams: I have personally heard a fisher scream. My house is on the Josias river in southern Maine. One day years ago while watering my garden with my back to the river, I heard this god-awful scream from behind me. I whipped around to see high on a branch in a tree in the wetland between the river & my land, a fisher. Below the fisher, on the tree trunk about 8’ below was my cat. He was about 30’ up the tree. When he heard the scream, plus my scream of his name, he started to shinny down the tree. When he came to me I grabbed him & brought him inside. The fisher paced back & forth on the branch high up for 15 minutes before he came down & moved on.

    Some of the confusion about fishers screaming or not may be the similarity to the red foxes territorial cries. I have heard that many times on my 16 acres of woods. My cat was the usual instigator in those cases.

    So whether you believe my story or not will not change the facts of it. I feel lucky to have been able to experience it.

  4. Pat → in Kennebunk ME
    Jun 06, 2017

    Enjoyed your column very much.

    I live on the Kennebunk River and have seen their ‘lope’ at dusk as they cross the road. A few years back I found one that had been hit by a car. I stopped to move it out of the way - and because my curiosity got the best of me - and was really surprised how long, and heavy, they are. I reported it to the Roadwatch program.

  5. Tom → in Just east of Albany, NY
    Jun 09, 2017

    In my great many years spent outdoors in NY and southern Canada, I have seen MANY Fishers, even called them in while turkey hunting, but have never had the experience of hearing one scream. My first observations took place in the 1950’s in the Adirondacks, but now they are everywhere.

  6. Stan → in Mass.
    Jun 09, 2017

    Enjoyed the article, I have been told that porcupines can scream, maybe when a fisher is chasing them?

  7. Chris Morris → in Saint Marys, West Virginia
    Jun 10, 2017

    I know they are here in the Ohoi Valley. I have seen three personally in the last 4 years and one on a game cam last year.

  8. Susan Hobart → in Bowdoinham, ME
    Jun 12, 2017

    I see no benefit in repopulating fishers. They are vicious killers who I believe have killed more pet cats than porcupines.  Because they are so fast and quick animals don’t even have a fighting chance.  I would be extremely happy if they were to become rare and endangered!

  9. Meg → in Maansfield Center, CT
    Jun 13, 2017

    Have seen fishers crossing my yard and the road here around Mansfield Hollow Lake. Have also heard a horrible scream a few times and was told it was a fisher cat, but it could also be the fox families that live here. Glad to see all the wildlife around here. There was even a moose photographed here two years ago. Saw three osprey last night, too. And bats live in my house’s fascia boards…not in my belfry!

  10. John Rodehizer → in Hamilton MA
    Jun 17, 2017

    I have heard them scream working a a fresh water marsh invoking terror to nesting geese and ducks. I assume raiding eggs while the females are sitting on them. They are no match for this opportunistic feeder.

  11. Mick → in Yonkers, NY
    Jun 24, 2017

    A fisher was photographed in the Bronx three years ago: https://naturalsciencesresearch.wordpress.com/2014/06/06/fisher-photographed-in-the-bronx-first-ever-nyc-record-of-this-squirrel-and-rat-predator/

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