On the Ridge: (Fisher) cat calling

  • A fisher cat shown on Dan Ryan’s trail cam recently. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • A fisher cat shown on Dan Ryan’s trail cam recently. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Published: 2/17/2021 7:37:40 PM
Modified: 2/17/2021 7:37:37 PM

I had the good fortune recently of seeing some pictures taken by Dan Ryan’s trail cam in Northfield. Seeing these pictures and hearing about how much fun Dan has with his trail cams reminded me that these optical instruments are not always used just for hunting. On the contrary, as I know many people just like Dan who enjoy their trail cameras year-round.

And why not? Trail cams are great fun and give tons of information about more than just animals around hunting sites. They can tell you a great deal about animals that are right around your own backyard, and Dan seems to have a jet stream of wildlife pounding the turf around his property.

The first picture that was shown to me was of a beautiful coyote (brush wolf is my preferred label) that looked large and extremely healthy. At first glance, Dan thought it was a fox, so I gently pointed out the differences. Then a few weeks later, a friend of his shared some new photos taken from Dan’s camera, this time of a fisher cat. These were some of the best pictures I’d ever seen of a fisher cat taken on a trail cam, and thanks to Dan for sharing a few of them with our readers.

When the friend conveyed to me that Dan, once again, thought the animal in these pictures was a fox, I looked at her and said, “You need to impress upon Dan that not every creature he sees in the woods is a fox!” No offense Dan, but you can expect the most recent version of “Audubon’s Field Guide to North American Mammals” in your mailbox real soon.

Just kidding, Danny! But this does lead to the question of, what is a fisher cat? Contrary to its name a fisher cat is not remotely related to cats nor does it prey on fish. Found all over North America, the fisher is one of the larger members of the weasel family, and is related closely to mink, otter, badgers and wolverines. They live elusive, solitary lifestyles and are seldom seen. Fishers have long bodies, short legs, rounded ears and small eyes. An average male fisher cat weighs between 7-14 pounds and is around three feet in size, which includes a long furry tail. Females are smaller, weighing between four to six pounds. A female’s body is a bit shorter, but their fur is often darker and more luxurious than males.

I was recently told by a wildlife biologist friend of mine, that fisher cats come in many different colors ranging from almost black to light brown and gray. But she was quick to point out that fishers in Massachusetts are typically chocolate brown. I put some questions to her that many people have put to me over the years. Are fisher cats vicious? I’ve always heard that fishers kill cats, and have a blood-curdling scream.

I’ve also heard people say that they were afraid to cross paths with a fisher as they’ve heard the animal attacks people by jumping at their face and eyes, which is absurd. My friend concurred by stating that “many people have some very consistent misconceptions about this animal. The public perception is that fisher cats are very vicious, but the truth is they are not. They won’t attack you, your kids, or your dog if you are out for a walk in the woods.”

With sharp retractable claws, teeth that can shear and puncture, excellent senses, great speed, and agility, aren’t fishers the perfect predator?

“Yes, they are,” she answered. “But they prey mainly on small animals, occasional house cats, mice, and ground-nesting birds and waterfowl. They also are the only predator in New England that successfully preys on porcupines. And they eat eggs, berries, fruit and nuts, and roadkill.”

Yet, in over 50 years of hunting all over New England and beyond, I have only seen a fisher cat twice. Once as I watched one scurry up a tree chasing a squirrel, another time watching from my tree stand as one slowly danced across the forest floor. That’s exactly why Dan’s pictures are so incredible.

But what about that scream? Well, my anonymous friend explained that it’s a common myth. People who work closely with these animals (like Shelburne native Eric York once did) and who have been around them a lot, will tell you that they’ve never heard a fisher cat scream. Plenty of other common wildlife species do emit a variety of loud hair-raising screams or cries, most notably foxes, raccoons, barn owls and injured rabbits… especially foxes whose screams are often thought of as fisher cats.

She added that “fishers do make vocalizations, but the sound is not at all similar to foxes or any of the other animals mentioned.”

In Massachusetts today, despite having no official population count, fisher cat numbers are stable. These population numbers come from data given by hunters, trappers and sightings by both wildlife professionals and the general public.

Joe Judd is a lifelong hunter and sportsman. He is an outdoor writer, seminar speaker, member of the New England Outdoor Writers Association, and a 2019 inductee into the N.E. Turkey Hunting Hall of Fame. Joe is also on the Quaker Boy Game Calls and Bass Pro Shops/Cabela’s Pro-Staff.

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