A Fisher Story – From the Archives
By Matt Yaeger
This article appeared in the Primitive Pursuits newsletter ‘The Tinder Bundle’ in July 2008.
I just have to share this story with you all. My partner and I were hiking at this reservoir and preserve near where we live in Ithaca. It was right around sunset when we decided to sit on a log to enjoy a nice view of the forest and gorge surrounding us. Shortly after we sat down we noticed some birds in the sky – a red-tailed hawk was being harassed by a group of crows.
We watched the birds for about 5 minutes and then my partner suddenly pointed up to a huge white pine about 30 yards away and quietly exclaimed “What is that?!”
About 50 feet up the pine was a rather large mammal climbing out to the very tips of a branch. I had never seen anything like this before, this animal was basically going to places on the branch where I previously thought only squirrels and birds would dare go. Very carefully and meticulously the creature made its way to the tip of the branch and appeared to be reaching for something before turning around and heading back towards the thicker/safer part of the branch where it joins the trunk. We still had no clue what kind of animal we were witnessing. After carefully making it to the trunk, the creature started climbing down the tree headfirst (from at least 50 feet in the air, mind you).
At this point, we got a very good view of the animal. It was quite dark in color. It was quite large (bigger than a good-sized house cat) and pretty furry. We could see its ears and somewhat pointy nose/snout. We were shocked at how this sizeable animal could maneuver down the pine head-first so easily and comfortably.
Midway down the tree, the animal decided to adjust its position. It went behind the tree momentarily, and when it appeared again, it was coming down the tree tail-first (like you would expect from a large animal high up in a tree).
We watched it climb down the tree for about five minutes. When it reached the base of the tree, it started coming in our direction! By this time, dusk had set in so it probably didn’t see us. However, in a matter of seconds, the animal turned around and ran in the opposite direction deep into the forest (we think it finally caught our scent).
The animal walked/ran pretty low to the ground as it scampered away from us. We were left dumbstruck by what we had just watched.
Back at our apartment, we talked about what we had seen and tried to piece together all the characteristics of the animal. One of the most important things we noted was that the animal was in a white pine tree, and it climbed down the tree head-first from at least 50 feet in the air. After researching the different tree-climbing mammals that can be found in New York State, we concluded that we had seen a Fisher. Fishers can be identified by their ability to climb down trees head-first. They also have the ability to pivot their legs 180 degrees (which explains how the animal could adjust from head-first to tail-first halfway down the tree).
Local tracker Linda Spielman, of Keeping Track, caught wind of the Fisher story and approached us on Primitive Pursuits Day to ask about it. I told her I had found a hair that could possibly have come from the Fisher. I gave it to her to compare with some specimens she thought she had. I have always felt that if someone in the know could confirm that it is indeed a Fisher’s hair then there would be no question as to what kind of tree-climbing mammal we saw that early spring evening.
Sadly Linda could not find her collection of Fisher’s hairs, so she was unable to compare our hair to hers. However, hope is not lost. Linda wrote that a few weeks ago she saw fresh Fisher tracks up at Hammond Hill in Dryden. She believes Fishers are certainly making a comeback in our region. This is exciting because it is not yet a widespread realization (the DEC still does know them being around here). Historically, the Fisher has been found all throughout the Northeast, including the Finger Lakes, but because of logging and trapping in the past, their numbers dwindled. I found a map that compares Fishers’ historical range to their current range. If you’re interested you can check it out here:
Currently, the range map indicates that in NY State Fishers are only found in the Catskills and Adirondacks. However, by exercising some awareness, it can be concluded that Fishers are reclaiming parts of their historical range.