Fishers—No Threat to Our Turkey Population

Fishers are vicious, but this road killed fisher on Route 62 in New York, about a mile north of the Pennsylvania line, shows they are no match for Michelin.
Fishers are vicious, but this road killed fisher on Route 62 in New York, about a mile north of the Pennsylvania line, shows they are no match for Michelin.

Contributing Writer
Steve Sorensen

Squeals, growls, rustling leaves—all the commotion grabbed my attention and I stopped to listen. It was the middle of spring gobbler season a few years ago, and spring had abundantly sprung. The understory of brush was fully leafed out, limiting visibility where I stood to only about 15 yards.

Then I saw two fishers running from the spot where I heard the sounds. Fishers, large members of the weasel family, are sometimes called fisher cats—though they have no relation to Sylvester, Garfield, or any of their kin, domestic or wild.

As the fishers ran by in their undulating fashion I reached for my camera, but before I could snap a photo they were gone. Then I heard more rustling from the same spot and three raccoons came running toward me, spotted me, and made a mad dash back into cover.

Why would two fishers be partying with three raccoons? I don’t know, but maybe the fishers wanted to eat the ’coons. A recent study by Dr. Jeff Larkin at Indiana University of Pennsylvania (conducted from 2002 to 2014 and published in 2016) showed that six of 91 fishers examined had remains of raccoon in their stomachs.

Many turkey hunters think fishers are big-time turkey predators, and frown on anything that competes with us for turkeys. Some blame a decline in the turkey population mostly on fishers. But the truth is that of the 91 fishers in the study, only three had any trace of bird species in their stomachs, and not one of those birds was a turkey. If fishers are so adept at taking turkeys, birds would probably be found more often in their stomachs.

Fishers probably do prey on turkeys, but such depredation is likely to be minor. While I’ve heard stories about fishers taking whole flocks of turkeys on the roost, that’s not very believable. I’ve also heard hunters have witnessed fishers climbing trees and taking a roosted turkey right off the limb. That could happen, but it’s likely to be rare. Fishers do most of their work on the ground, and turkeys on the limb will hear a fisher approaching because claws against bark are not silent.

Although fishers are relatively small (about 10 pounds), they are vicious and formidable, but like any predator they are not always successful. Back in April while I was hunting for shed antlers I watched a fisher chase a gray squirrel. Up and down trees they went. The squirrel was able to jump from one tree to another, but the fisher was not. The fisher finally gave up, and I suspect most attempts to take turkeys end in similar failure for fishers. After all, turkeys can also fly away.

However, fishers, like hawks and several other predators, can and do take newly hatched turkey poults—before they can fly into trees—but that happens mainly in early summer when young turkeys are tender and most vulnerable.

So what do fishers eat? In the study the number one food found in the stomachs of fishers was voles. A vole is a small rodent similar to a mouse, with a stouter body and a shorter, hairy tail. Voles are abundant and the fisher is perfectly designed to hunt them. The second most common food found in fishers is deer. While a fisher may be able to take a small deer, they more often scavenge from dead deer. Also common in fisher stomachs are rabbits, mice, squirrels, fruit, seeds, porcupines, foliage and even other fishers.

Fishers tend to avoid humans, so many people have never seen one. Besides a few sightings in the spring woods, I’ve seen them cross the road a couple of times. I suspect a high-speed combo of steel and rubber is a greater threat to fishers than fishers are to our turkey population, so hunters have no reason to celebrate the death of a fisher.