I recently spent a wonderful week in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Like last year, it was me and the Oja family -- Greg, Kaisa and Anton -- paddling the clear lakes and rivers, portaging our canoes through pine forests along rocky and well-used trails, and enjoying good fishing, good cooking, and good times.
Like most trips to the "BW," especially the canoe trips, it's fun to select a new set of lakes to visit. This year's trip was north of Ely and included Mudro, Fourtown, Boot, Fairy and Gun lakes. Indeed, the beautiful landscape of rock outcrops graced in coniferous greenery and surrounded by water everywhere reflecting the blue sky above with puffy white clouds drifting lazily overhead were staple treats for our eyes.
One afternoon at our Gun Lake campsite, Anton had made a discovery that he was eager to show us. He had encountered a furry friend on the trail -- an animal he deduced was a fisher. Anton correctly identified the mammal as a juvenile fisher after going through in his mind other possibilities.
The lone fisher kit was only about half grown. Why the animal was by itself will remain a mystery, but aside from it being on its own, the fisher appeared by all accounts to be relatively healthy. We observed the youngster walking about as we marveled at the uniqueness of being so close to such an elusive Minnesota mammal.
Fishers are members of the weasel family. Other relatives of the fisher include the pine marten, river otter, mink, badger and wolverine. The fisher is reputed as the fastest tree-climbing mammal in North America. These rather large and powerful animals with bear-like claws can literally run up and down trees as they hunt for prey such as squirrels, chipmunks, deer mice, and porcupines, or to escape possible predators.
The fisher has a curious name. There are only a few records in existence of a fisher actually observed eating or catching fish. Undoubtedly an opportunistic creature that will take advantage of most any available food and prey, fishers were nonetheless named in reference to fishes. That said, these highly intelligent and swift hunters of the forest are better known at finding and killing forest dwelling, terrestrial prey.
Other names for the fisher include pekan, black cat or black fox, and Pennant's cat, evidently in reference to T. Pennant, the man who gave the fisher its Latin scientific name, Martes pennanti. But perhaps a more fitting name for the fisher was what the Ojibwe traditionally called the animal: "tha-cho", which means "big marten."
Undeniably marten-like in appearance and habits, the fisher is much larger than its smaller cousin the pine marten. Both species are arboreal weasels, that is, tree-loving weasel-like mammals. And both species are known to hunt similar prey. However, the two species are not believed to be competitors.
Elusive in every way, fishers are adept at avoiding detection. In part, this stems from its nature as a nocturnal hunter. In order to capture fleet-of-foot prey like rabbits and squirrels, and sometimes even young deer, fishers are deliberate and determined hunters that take advantage of their natural surroundings and abilities. Moreover, the fisher is one of the only mammals known to actively hunt and kill porcupines for food.
Female fishers are only receptive to mating for a very short period of time in the spring after giving birth to her litter. Once mating commences and successful fertilization occurs, female fishers enter into an incredibly long gestation period -- about 350 days. Actually, this is common in all members of the weasel family. Still, timed so the fertilized egg attaches to the female fisher's uterine wall just months before the baby fishers are born in the springtime, this "delayed implantation" helps to ensure that the young fishers are born at the right time and have the best chance of survival.
Another distinctive characteristic of fishers, indeed, found in all members of the weasel family, are its odor producing scent glands. Fishers have two anal scent glands that produce a musky odor, though not as strong as some of the other family members or closely related mammals. Mink produce stronger odors than fishers do from their glands, and skunks, of course, even more so than both mink and fisher.
Ranging mostly in forested lands, especially in mixed deciduous-coniferous forests throughout Minnesota's northern third, fishers are also found in other not-so-typical habitats. I have observed fishers in the Tallgrass Aspen Parklands and Prairie Grassland biomes of Kittson, Marshall, Polk, and Norman counties. They also occupy suitable habitats throughout central Minnesota, too.
Fishers are interesting animals that few people observe in the wild. And though I will never know if the young fisher kit of the Boundary Waters that Anton discovered had survived, the possibility exists given the special survival skills of its species. Trapped for their valuable fur during the state's closely regulated fisher trapping season, this large member of the weasel family continues to thrive while remaining virtually unseen.
Once nearly extirpated from the state because of deforestation and unregulated trapping, this mysterious Minnesota mammal is abundant once again as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
BLANE KLEMEK is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.