"A wolverine just snarled at me in the driveway," gasped my wife as she entered the house on a dark evening in early winter about 15 years ago. It couldn't have been a wolverine, I explained, since this largest member of the mustelid -- read "weasel" -- family is a northern and high-mountain beast that lives far from this area. Besides, if it was a wolverine, we would probably be frantically barring the back door. She described the creature as somewhat larger than a big tomcat, with an elongated body and tail, almost black and totally fearless. It was, I believed a fisher, and back then my wife was the first person of my acquaintance who had seen one.
By the time this incident occurred, fishers had been in Connecticut less than 10 years, the result of a reintroduction program begun by the then-DEP, now DEEP. Like the wolverine, the fisher is a weasel and a big one at that, with males weighing about a dozen pounds and almost four feet long, counting the tail. They are animals of mature forests, excellent climbers that sometimes spend almost as much time in trees as on the ground. They generally avoid open areas and even second-growth forest. Once common in the forests of northern North America, including Connecticut, fishers almost disappeared from the lower 48 states by the 1930s, as forests were cleared. With their habitat gone, they could no longer withstand pressure from trapping, which was considerable because of their valuable furs.
Where porcupines are common, the disappearance of fishers had a deleterious impact on forests. Fishers are one of the few animals that prey on porcupines, which girdle and kill trees. An old myth described how fishers flip over porcupines to attack their unprotected belly. They do attack the belly but only after the porcupine has been killed by savage attacks on its face and head, which are not shielded by quills. Fishers -- sometimes called 'fisher cats" even though they are not felids -- also prey on a host of other creatures, from ground birds to rabbits. They also scavenge carcases, including those of deer, and eat beechnuts and fungi.
Protection and reintroduction efforts -- which continue in states such as Washington -- restored fishers to much of their former range. Connecticut's reintroduction began in 1988 with fishers captured in New Hampshire and Vermont. They are now so common in the state that trappers can harvest them during a legal season, begun in 2005.
Not everybody welcomes fishers. I have hunting friends who despise them for killing pheasants, grouse and wild turkeys. They do, but creatures such as squirrels are their true staples. If gray squirrels suddenly disappear from your bird feeders, chances are a fisher is lurking nearby.
Fishers also earn antipathy because they occasionally take pets, such as cats and small dogs. Someone I know let out her small Yorkshire terriers for a run in her fenced backyard only to have a fisher leap the fence, grab a Yorkie in its jaws and make off with it. I have chased a fisher that snoops around my chicken coop by night, put off so far by an electric fence.
Like the fisher that snarled at my wife, these big weasels can be fearless. A Madison woman tells of how a fisher chased her Norwegian elkhound -- a good-size dog -- around the yard, nipping at its heels. When she went after the fisher with a shovel, it held its ground. She whacked it once, figuring she had finished it off, then went into the house to call her husband. When she went back into the yard, the fisher was gone, apparently off to seek safer hunting grounds.