The fisher, also known as the pekan, or misleadingly called a fisher cat, is a forest-dwelling mustelid native to North America. Both “fisher” and “fisher cat” are misnomers, given they do not catch fish and have no relation to cats.(1) The latter name can also lead some people to confuse the fisher with the fishing cat—which is actually a cat that catches fish.
The origin of the name fisher is not known for certain, but it is likely related to the word “fitch”, referring to the more familiar European polecat or pelt thereof. The name derives from the colonial Dutch equivalent fisse or visse. Early Dutch settlers may have associated the fisher’s appearance with the dark phase of the European polecat.(2) The “cat” half of their common name is probably a superficial comparison to felines.
The fisher was previously placed with the martens in the genus Martes, until DNA analyses suggested the fisher was distinct enough to be place in its own genus, Pekania.(3)
The fisher’s dorsal surface ranges from medium to dark brown—changing with the season and being slightly different between sexes, with males having coarser fur than females. In early winter, the fisher’s coat is dense, glossy, and dark brown to black. From the face to the shoulders, fur can be hoary-gold or silver due to tricoloured guard hairs. The underside is almost completely brown, save for a cream-coloured chest patch varying in size and shape. During summer the fisher’s dorsal surface tends to be lighter.(2)
The fisher can be distinguished from the often confused North American marten by its larger size, proportionately smaller ears, and the throat markings being pure white, when present at all.
Fishers tend to be found in coniferous forests, as well as mixed and deciduous forests. They prefer habitats with high canopy closure, as well as habitats with many hollow trees for dens. Spruce, fir, white cedar, as well as some hardwoods are usually found in their habitat.(4) Fishers are more likely to be found in old-growth forests, since trees in heavily logged areas with extensive second growth are not large enough to suit the denning requirements of female fishers. They prefer areas with many hollow trees and continuous overhead cover, with greater than 80% coverage—avoiding areas with less than 50% coverage.(5)
Fishers are most active at dawn and night. They are believed to be solitary animals that only associate when mating. During all times of the year, fishers use “resting sites” such as logs, hollow trees, stumps, holes in the ground, brush piles, and nests of branches. Ground burrows tend to be used during winter, and tree nests are used all year, but primarily in the spring and autumn. Fishers use snow dens during winter, which are burrows under the snow with long and narrow tunnels leading to them.(4)
Female fishers are sexually mature after one year of age, with breeding season lasting from late March to early April. After fertilisation, blastocyst implantation is then delayed for ten months until mid-February of the following year. After gestating for about 36 days, the female gives birth of one to four kits.(6) Females then enter oestrus seven to ten days later before the breeding cycle resumes.(7)
The kits are born blind and helpless, but begin to crawl after three weeks. They open their eyes about seven weeks later,(8) and start to climb after eight weeks. They will depend on their mother’s milk for the first eight to ten weeks of their lives, before being introduced to solid foods. After five months the mother will lead them out on their own, and after a year the juveniles will have established their own range.(7)
The fisher is an opportunistic predator and mainly feeds on small mammals, birds, insects, nuts, berries, and carrion.(4) Despite their name they do not catch fish. In some areas, fishers will occasionally raid chicken coops. Perhaps the most well known trait of the fisher is that they are one of few predators to hunt porcupines. Observational studies show that fishers make repeated biting attacks on the face of a porcupine and kill it after about 25–30 minutes.(5) This is in contrast to the sensationalistic misconception found in popular literature, where the fisher is said to flip a porcupine onto its back and “scoop out its belly like a ripe melon”.(9)
Although adult fishers are generally safe from predation, young fishers will occasionally fall prey to hawks, red foxes, lynx, and bobcats.(10)
Since the 18th century, fishers have been popular with trappers due to the value of their fur. During the early 20th century, fishers were nearly exterminated due to a combination of overtrapping and changes to their habitat, especially in the northeastern United States. It was not until 1934 when the fisher started to receive some form of protection. A few years of closed seasons helped the fisher make a gradual recovery of their former range, but once their numbers had improved, trapping resumed in the United States in the mid 1960s. Their numbers once again declined in the late 1970s, leading to a few more years of closed seasons. Trapping of fishers again resumed in 1979, but with restricted bag limits. Since then their numbers have steadily increased.(3)(11)
Secondary exposure to pesticides
In 2012, a study conducted by the Integral Ecology Research Center, UC Davis, U.S. Forest Service, and the Hoopa tribe showed that isolated populations of the fisher in California (known as the Pacific fisher, though they are not considered a distinct or subspecies of Pekania pennanti) are exposed to and killed by anticoagulant rodenticides associated with illegal marijuana cultivation.(12) Their study revealed that 79% of fishers tested in California were exposed to an average of 1.61 different anticoagulant rodenticides, with four fishers having died due to these toxicants. A follow-up study in 2015 determined that the fisher’s exposure and mortality from these toxicants increased to 85%, with a now exposed average of 1.73 different anticoagulant rodenticides, resulting in 9 more deaths.(13)
In 2017, Days Edge Productions released Forgotten but not Gone: The Pacific Fisher to bring attention to the Pacific fisher’s struggles, and the controversial 2016 decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife to not list the species under the Endangered Species Act.
Despite their declining numbers, the Pacific fisher has yet to receive federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. On the 14th of May 2020, the United States presidential administration denied Endangered Species Act protections to the Pacific fisher from Northern California to the Canadian border. They were however, granted endangered status in the southern Sierra Nevada.(14)
Myths and scapegoating
There are many assumptions, speculations, and contextless stories out there about the fisher that are rarely backed by evidence beyond hearsay. Despite being a very elusive mustelid that few in the general public can identify or distinguish from other animals at a glance, it is not uncommon to hear far-fetched claims about their behaviour and psychology, especially by locals in the Northeastern United States. The fact that many still believe the myth that the fisher habitually screams is in itself a case of mistaken identity that can lead to false accusations.
They do not habitually scream
We often come across claims that the fisher screams like a banshee in the night, yet we have found no credible evidence of anyone actually witnessing the fisher doing this. There are also videos on places like YouTube perpetuating this widespread belief by claiming the screams we hear in the videos are that of the fisher’s. Apart from the questionable fact that we never actually see the animal in any of these videos, the fisher is a mostly silent mustelid and rarely gives its location. These sounds are more likely made by the red fox.(15) It is also possible that sometimes people are hearing wails from the fisher’s prey and are assuming the sounds are coming from the a fisher.
They do not frequently attack domestic cats
One common accusation or insinuation is that the fisher habitually preys on domestic cats.(16)(17) Contrary to this belief, cats are not on the fisher’s main menu, and despite what some locals have claimed to have witnessed or caught, casual field observations do not mean attacks on cats are happening frequently throughout the fisher’s range. They are opportunistic predators and do not seek out one animal in particular.
A 1979-1980 study by the Fish and Game examined the stomach contents of fishers trapped in the U.S. state of New Hampshire, and discovered that cat hairs were found in only 1 of over 1,000 stomachs.(18) In 2011, an informal unfinished study in upstate New York found no cat remains in 24 scat or stomach samples, and an earlier published study found no trace of cat in 226 Massachusetts samples.(19) In 2017, a study in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania revealed similar results to the New Hampshire study.(20) Despite these data, the fisher continues to be largely blamed for missing cats. Wildlife biologist Eric Orff summarised the issue, writing:
“Do they eat cats? Sure, as do foxes, coyotes, owls and – more likely – a local SUV. It is the nature of a house cat injured on a highway to seek a hiding place to die, but you can bet a ‘fisher cat’ will be blamed for its disappearance.”(21)
These studies suggest that while fishers can and have preyed on cats, the claim that they frequently do is likely exaggerated—a combination of the fisher being the scapegoat for other, more likely explanations, and some claims probably being based on mere speculation (e.g., leaping to the conclusion that missing cats were taken by a fisher without witnessing them doing so, or assuming the prey one saw them carry off was a cat). Further, given that few people have seen or taken the time to objectively learn about the elusive fisher prior to an incident, and that mustelids are constantly confused for other animals, cases of mistaken identity cannot be ruled out. Even if every study did find cat remains in the stomach and scat samples of fishers, without further examination, we could not discount the possibility that some of the cats were already dead (e.g., roadkill) before they were consumed.
Regardless of how frequently domestic cats are prayed upon, we must remember that the fisher is native to North America while the domestic cat is not. Rather than blaming or demonising the fisher for existing in its natural range and doing what nature intends, we should instead either keep our cats inside or supervise them when they are let outside.
They do not frequently attack humans
Unless a fisher is threatened, cornered, suffering from injury, distress, or illness, attacks on humans are extremely rare. There have been a few isolated claims of attacks on humans.(22)(23) However, similar to attacks on domestic cats, some of these allegations may or may not be true, since some incidents may not have been thoroughly investigated to confirm the attacker was a fisher.
Fishers are simply trying to find food and survive, though they may react aggressively to a perceived threat when startled. So to lower the chances of such encounters, it is recommended to restrict access to food waste, pets, pet foods, and domestic fowl.(4)
They are not the main threat to wild turkey populations
Some believe the fisher is the main cause for the decline of wild turkey populations in the United States. This is yet another unsubstantiated belief about the fisher that make them the target of misdirected anger. While it is certainly possible for fishers to prey on turkeys, the act is hardly common enough to be a significant threat to their numbers.(24) A study in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania revealed that out of 91 fisher carcasses from 2002–2014 that had their stomach contents examined, only three had any trace of bird species in their stomachs, and not a single one was a turkey.(20)
According to an article on the National Wild Turkey Federation’s website, among other factors, it is likely production (not predation) that drives turkey populations. High population densities prevent many hens from finding quality nesting, and may decrease the chances of a successful hatch or the ability to raise a brood. The belief is that a quality habitat that provides both adequate space and shelter for turkeys is more important than the number of predators.(25) Blaming an elusive animal like the fisher may be the easy thing for us to do, but the long-term solution to increasing turkey numbers may ultimately depend on man’s activities, as well as good habitat management.(26)
Body length: 90–120 cm / 35–47 in (males), 75–95 cm / 30–37 in (females)
Tail length: 37–41 cm / 14.5–16 in (males), 31–36 cm / 12–14 in (females)
Weight: 3.5–6.0 kg / 8–13 lb (males), 2.0–2.5 kg / 4–6 lb (females)
Lifespan: Up to 7 years (wild), up to 10 years (captivity)
Range: Northern forests of North America.
Conservation status: Least concern