You can spend your entire life in the woods around Muskoka and never see one, but fishers are here alright. And Muskoka has the rumours to prove it.
You may have heard some of these “facts” about these secretive predators: they eat housecats; the MNR introduced them to control porcupines; they will attack hikers in the woods; they eat fish.
Interesting stories, but none of them are true. But the fact that fishers are here at all proves one thing: there really is such a thing as an environmental success story.
Eighty years ago, fishers had been wiped out in many areas of North America, and were close to being endangered. Trapping and habitat loss had eliminated them from much of their range. Fishers are members of the weasel family, the largest ones that we have in Muskoka, and like their cousins the mink, they have silky fur that was in enormous demand.
Fortunately, trapping regulations were changed in the 1930s and 40s. And as fashions changed and fur prices dropped, trapping became much less common.
Still, fishers love the deep woods and mature forests, and those had become scarce in many areas, including in Muskoka.
This area was heavily logged in the 19th century, as would-be farmers tried to convert forest to fields. Fishers, and a lot of other creatures, were driven out. By the mid-20th century, the forests were starting to grow back. It takes time to grow a forest, but over the past few decades, the trees have continued to age and the forests have begun to recover.
That recovery has made conditions better for fishers, and their numbers began to rebound.
Fishers are still elusive, and fascinating creatures. They can grow to be up to four feet long, but they’re thin and low to the ground, and even a big one will weigh much less than 20 pounds.
But what they lack in weight, they more than make up for in strength and ferocity. They’re generalist predators, feasting on rabbits and hares, eating carrion, and even occasionally taking a bobcat or lynx. But what really gives the fisher its reputation is its ability to eat porcupines. They are one of the very few creatures that have figured out how to get past the powerful quill defence, which they do by circling around and around, nipping at the porcupine’s face until it collapses from exhaustion.
And that’s why people started to speculate that the Ministry of Natural Resources secretly released fishers in the woods. Porcupines eat trees, and so the conspiracy theorists felt that logging companies must have asked the MNR to bring back fishers to reduce the number of tree-munching porcupines.
The MNR did, indeed, relocate a few animals from Algonquin Park to Parry Sound, Manitoulin Island, and the Bruce Penninsula in an attempt to help local populations in those areas. But most of the animals’ recovery has been perfectly natural: we stopped killing them, and we let their habitat regrow. (In fact, recent DNA tests indicate that the animals moved from Algonquin Park may not have survived, and the fisher populations in Parry Sound and other areas recovered all on their own.)
As for the other rumours? Well, fishers are certainly more than capable of taking down a housecat, but studies have shown that most cats who vanish in the woods at night are eaten by coyotes, owls or foxes.
A fisher would certainly attack a person who corners one, but they are no danger to people otherwise. And the name “fisher” has nothing to do with fish: “fitch” is an old name for the European polecat, a relative of the fisher – when settlers came here, they brought the name with them and over the years it just got extended to “fisher”.