It’s a baby bear! It’s a black panther! It’s a wolverine! No, it’s none of the above – it is the fisher, sometimes called fisher cat, a member of the marten genus, and the largest land weasel in New York (I’m considering otters to be amphibious).
We have a terrific fisher mount here at the Newcomb VIC that was donated a few years ago. This particular animal is exceptionally large; according to the gentleman who donated it to us, it weighed about 19 pounds. The largest fisher on record was 20 pounds. Most fishers weigh significantly less: males average 8-11 pounds, females 4-6 pounds. In our minds, however, they are much larger, as most predators seem to be.
Lots of misinformation surrounds the fisher, and not just concerning its size. The name alone is the cause of quite a bit of confusion, for it seems logical that anything called a fisher must have something to do with fish. Surely it hangs out near the water and eats fish. In truth, the fisher is an animal of the deep woods, and while its diet is incredibly diverse, the only accounts I have found of it actually eating fish are those where it stole fish that was used to bait traps for martens.
The best explanation I have found for this weasel’s name is really quite simple (and common): corruption of a foreign word. It is believed that “fisher” was originally “fichet,” a word the French used for the pelt of the European polecat (another weasel). This makes complete sense when one considers that some of the earliest European fur traders/trappers on this continent were French; they would have called things by names with which they were familiar. Over time, fichet became fisher; no fish were involved.
The 19th and early-20th centuries were tough on fishers. They faced a double-whammy survival-wise thanks to two human endeavors: trapping and logging. Both activities reached their peak by the late 1800s and early 1900s, declining by the 1930s.
When it came to trapping, fishers, especially the females with their significantly softer furs, were popular for scarves and the trim of coats and such. Prices rose steadily, which encouraged more folks to run trap lines. By the 1920s, fisher pelts were bringing in well over $100 apiece.
At the same time, logging was going full steam. Fishers are animals of the deep woods – they do not like open spaces such as farms and clearcuts. Between trapping pressure and loss of habitat, fishers were soon extirpated from much of their historical range in the US and Canada. By the 1930s, the Adirondack Park was one of the very few places that had a remnant fisher population.
In an effort to preserve the remaining animals, the fisher trapping season was closed. Enough fishers remained in intact ecosystems for the population to recover, and by 1949 New York opened the fisher season once more.
Today fishers can be found across much of New York State. This is due in part to decreased trapping pressure (a fisher pelt may get $30 to $50 today, a far cry from the nearly $800 price tag of the mid-‘30s), and in part to agricultural lands reverting to forest.
Over the years, I have followed many fisher tracks in the Adirondack woods. Their preferred gait, a lope, looks like a mysterious three-legged animal has cruised through the snow. Although fishers can easily climb trees, they prefer to stay on the ground, often using downed logs as their highways. Because they are solitary animals, you will rarely find fisher tracks grouped together, unless it is mating season.
Fishers mate in late March or early April, about a week after the female has given birth. This would seem to suggest that gestation lasts almost a whole year, which would be odd for an animal of this size. In fact, fishers enjoy delayed implantation, where the fertilized eggs remain in a state of suspended animation for about ten months, at which time they are implanted and official gestation begins, ending in the birth of one to six young about 50 days later.
Blind and helpless at birth, the young remain in the hollow tree den for several weeks. By the time they are five months old, the mother can no longer take the squabbling of the young and kicks them out of the family circle. Within a year, the offspring will have established their own ranges, and another generation of fishers takes on the world.
One of the comments I most frequently hear when visitors look at our fisher mount is something along the lines of “these are mean animals.” I make a point of telling them that “mean” is a human characteristic. Fishers are fishers. They are weasels, they are predators. They are, out of necessity, efficient hunters that can take down a porcupine almost as easily as a squirrel. If cornered, any animal will fight – a fisher may be just a bit more aggressive because it is a predator and used to taking on others. Does this make the animal mean? No – it makes it a successful hunter.
That said, it is best to keep your cats and poodles inside at night. Fishers have been known to snack on pint-sized pets that are left outside. But otherwise, having a fisher in the neighborhood is kind of a nice thing. I’ve only seen fishers three or four times – and each time the animal was dashing across the road, seeking the shelter of the deep woods. I find it comforting to know that this medium-sized predator has done well in the Adirondacks, a link to a past where primeval woods covered most of the eastern US.