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for people who care about the West

Fishering

 

In the woods here in Oregon there is a creature that eats squirrels like candy, can kill a pursuing dog in less than a second, and is in the habit of deftly flipping over porcupines and scooping out the meat as if the prickle-pig were merely a huge and startled breakfast melon.

This riveting creature is the fisher, a member of the mustelid family that includes weasels, otter, mink, badger, ferrets, marten, and — at the biggest and most ferocious end of the family — wolverine. Sometimes called the pekan or fisher-cat, the fisher can reach three feet long, tail included, and weigh up to 12 pounds. Despite its stunning speed and agility, it is best known not as an extraordinary athlete of the thick woods and snowfields, but as the bearer of a coat so dense and lustrous that it has been sought eagerly by trappers for thousands of years — one reason the fisher is so scarce pretty much everywhere it used to live.

Biologist friends of mine tell me that Oregon has only two “significant” populations of fisher: One in the Siskiyou Mountains in the southwest, and the other in the Cascade Mountains south of Crater Lake. All the rare sightings of fisher in Oregon in recent years have been in these two areas. In the northwest coastal woods where I occasionally walk, biologists tell me firmly, there are no fishers and there have been none for more than 50 years.

I am a guy who wanders around looking for nothing in particular, which is to say everything. In this frame of mind I have seen many things, in venues urban, suburban and rural. While ambling in the woods I have seen marten kits and three-legged elk and secret beds of watercress and the subtle dens of foxes. I have found thickets of wild grapevines, and hidden jungles of salmonberries, and stands of huckleberries so remote and so delicious that it is a moral dilemma for me as to whether or not I should leave a map behind for my children when the time comes for me to add to the compost of the world.

Suffice it to say that I have been much graced in these woods, but to see a fisher was not a gift I expected. Yet recently I found loose quills on a path, and then the late owner of the quills, with his or her conqueror atop the carcass staring at me.

I do not know if the fisher had ever seen a human being before. It evinced none of the usual sensible caution of the wild creature confronted with homo violencia, and it showed no inclination whatsoever to retreat from its prize. We stared at each other for a long moment and then I sat down, thinking that a reduction of my height and a gesture of repose might send the signal that I was not dangerous, and had no particular interest in porcupine meat. Plus, I’d remembered that a fisher can slash a throat in less than a second.

Long minutes passed. The fisher fed, cautiously. I heard thrushes and wrens. I made no photographs or recordings, and when the fisher decided to evanesce I did not take casts of its tracks, or claim the former porcupine as evidence of fisherness. I just watched and listened and now I tell you. I don’t have any heavy message to share. I was only a witness: Where there are no fishers, there was a fisher. It was a stunning creature, alert, attentive, accomplished, unafraid. I think maybe there is much where we think there is nothing. Where there are no fishers, there was a fisher. Remember that.

Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland. His most recent book is The Wet Engine, about “the magic & muddle of hearts.”