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In the dead of winter when lesser creatures slug it out under the ice, otters take full advantage of its topside possibilities. Skiers on the frozen river sometimes find a most amazing set of tracks: the hop, skip, jump and bellyflop of otters on the level.


An Otter Kind of Critter

By Roger Lacher
August 1995

More and more folks along the Big Miss are catching a glimpse of something fishy in a full-length fur coat, bigger than a buck mink but smaller than a seal or cigar boat.

Lutra canadensis, our river otter, is on the rebound. Beaver and muskrat share auburn pelage, but amount to blunt instruments in a vast watershed needing cavorting carnivores, pointed humor and greased lightning.

Members of the weasel family, mustela, otters are cousins to the cranky wolverine, skunk, mink and an increasingly scarce Wisconsin mascot: the terrestrial badger. Otters are unique among riparian mammals in their apparent intelligence and playfulness. In anecdotal tales dating to the 17th century in the Great Lakes states, white fur-trappers marveled at the antics of otters and took full advantage of their social nature to place multiple traps for better catches. Trading natives soon caught on to the efficiency of spring steel over snares or deadfalls.

About the only predator of otters is us, homo sapiens. E. J. (Adirondack) Dailey recommended using shallow stone pools along rivers to hold bait fish long enough for otters to trip the trigger or setting big Victors by beaver dam overflows. Hudson's Bay Company didn't need to tell a novice twice to slap traps smack dab under obvious otter slides. Old timer A.R. Harding wrote many how-to, fur-harvesting books. In Deadfalls & Snares, he says,

I have used both steel traps and deadfalls and altho I do not wish to start a controversy yet I must say that a deadfall well set is a good trap. I am aware the tendency of the age is to progress and not to use obsolete methods, still even some old things have their advantages. Good points are not to be sneered at and one of these I maintain for spring and fall trapping in a district where otter move about from lake to lake or river to river is the old time Indian deadfall.

A turn-of-the-century contemporary, Joseph Brunner, had a quicker method. In Tracks and Tracking he writes,

Where otter signs are seen along small streams or rivers, waiting for them with a shotgun during moonlight nights usually yields satisfactory results. If one is shot, and there is no danger of the current taking it away, it is well to keep quiet for a time, as they often fish in pairs, and the second frequently gives as good a chance for a shot as the first.

Perhaps Brunner took a clue from J. J. Audubon. In The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, Audubon chronicles in detail his first encounter with the river otter.

...It is an otter, and now within range of our old gun 'Tear Jacket', we take but one moment to raise our piece and fire; the water is agitated by a violent convulsive movement of the animal, our dog plunges into the river, and swimming eagerly to the otter, seizes it, but the latter dives, dragging the dog with it beneath the surface, and when they reappear, the otter has caught the dog by the nose and is struggling violently. The brave dog, however, does not give up, but in a few moments drags the wounded otter to shore, and we immediately dispatch it.

Audubon came back the next day with hired help to cut open a den tree, cut three saplings for three young and "pressing the stick forcibly downward over each neck. Our companion then crept into the hollow, and soon killed the otters, with which we returned home." Apparently a good painter must get real close to the subject(s).

During the early centuries of American history, many species of real economic value, such as bison, certain fish and furbearers were harvested to regional extinction. Much depended on European fashion trends, farm machine technology and the reproductive capability of creatures affected.

Otter litters averaging two or three young per year did not replace heavily trapped populations. As early as 1867, Minnesota initiated regulations, but otters continued to decline. From 1917 to 1943 they were totally protected. Then intermittent trapping seasons resumed, with limits of one to three animals per trapper per year. At first fewer than 100 otters were taken annually statewide.

But under strict DNR management, including pelt registration, carcass examination and recent computer modeling, the otter harvest slowly grew to 1,200 in a good year. Currently, about 8 percent of Minnesota's otter population is trapped. At this rate a 5 percent annual increase is projected. And as fur falls out of fashion, so do pelt prices, which may reduce pressure on target species.

The rebound of this brown bounder excites many river folk. Canoeists comment on our version of the Loch Ness monster: a straight swimming serpent with four or five humps undulating across a backwater. That's the whole family. With luck one may tread water to stand up to whistle, chirp, sniffle, chatter or growl.

In the dead of winter when lesser creatures slug it out under the ice, otters take full advantage of its topside possibilities. Skiers on the frozen river sometimes find a most amazing set of tracks: the hop, skip, jump and bellyflop of otters on the level. More typically, slides are along steep clay banks where the fuzzy torpedoes cavort over and over for no obvious reason than plain fun.

Most of the otter's diet is rough fish and almost anything else a carnivore can consider: frogs, ducks, turtles, muskrats, crayfish, baby beavers, other little buggers that bleed.

In Way of the Trout, an underwater camera documents an otter pursuing a large rainbow trout. The chase goes on for some time around snags, boulders and river bank roots -- the otter matching the trout's velocity and flexibility until the trout barely gets away.

For Aldo Leopold it was the fire dying in a wolf's eyes. For Emil Liers it was a litter of otters saved after he'd trapped their parents. Liers took them home to Homer, Minnesota, and raised them within a stone's throw of the Mississippi. He came to deeply appreciate the species, got more, put up a "See the Otters!" sign on Highway 61 and wrote his first book, An Otter's Story (Viking Press, 1953).

The story is as anthropomorphic as mid-50s Disney. Ottiga, the hero, and kin Blackhawk, Tomah, Olaita, Necedah, etc., romp along the Mississippi, Wisconsin and Kickapoo rivers. They meet all sorts of adversity in their travels through the seasons and life cycles. The author chronicled otters in a new light, claiming that less than half their diet was fish, and not gamefish. Long whiskers enable the animals to hunt caddis flies and crawfish in blind water, and crawfish prey on the fry of gamefish. So the "gypsy vagabonds" are not vermin but an asset to the angler.

Emil Liers was a regional "environmentalist" before the term had credibility or currency. Now we're privileged to witness his auburn bombers working the river banks, diving underwater to swim a mile on six quick gulps of air, flipping snapping turtles on their backs for the sheer fun of it. We share the otter that Ernest Thompson Seton described as "joyful, keen, and fearless... the noblest little soul that ever went four-footed through the woods."

© 1995 Big River

 Roger Lacher is a writer who has lived most of his life on a tributary stream of the Root River, 24 miles upstream of the Mississippi. He now resides in Winona, Minnesota.

Read more stories about life on the Upper Mississippi in the Big River Reader, an anthology of feature stories from the first four years of Big River newsletter.