I trekked after them, going all the way to the crest of the ridge and beyond, as the pair doubled back, retracing their earlier steps. But I was forced to abandon the chase for good when my quarry entered an impenetrable tangle of scrubby hemlocks and ancient windfalls. Once again, I left the woods without seeing the Devil.
And what had I learned? Well, I'm now convinced that I had indeed stumbled across the tracks of two fishers, hunting cooperatively. Were they a mated pair? Or were they siblings? In either case, they were defying the experts. The guidebooks speak with one voice in insisting that — except for a short breeding season in March or April — fishers are solitary and unsociable. (One reference notes that "pair bonds are temporary or nonexistent." That's pretty unequivocal.) Of course, wild creatures don't read the guidebooks, do they? Maybe my Devils were the exceptions that prove the rule.
Nor was this the only unanswered question. Why did the predatory pair show so little interest in the many mice and squirrels that crossed their path? Why were they so single‑minded in their pursuit of larger prey? I can only guess. Perhaps chasing down small animals simply doesn't pay in harsh conditions. Perhaps a mouse just doesn't have enough meat on his bones to fuel an active, cat‑sized killing machine in zero‑degree cold. Perhaps only a fat porcupine repays the necessary investment of time and energy. It makes sense to me, but only the fisher knows for sure. And he's not talking.
Still, even though I'm left with more questions than answers, and despite the fact that I trudged home from two days in the woods without so much as catching a fleeting glimpse of my elusive quarry, I think myself lucky to have seen as much as I did. Driven almost to extinction in much of Canoe Country by unregulated trapping and habitat loss, the fisher also suffered from a (largely undeserved) reputation as a killer of fawns. This certainly didn't help his standing in sporting circles. It may even have given rise to his infamous sobriquet. But that was a long time ago. The fisher now enjoys a measure of protection. He's still a rare and secretive predator, however, notable more for his ruthless efficiency than his fecundity. He'll dine on any animal smaller than himself, including the young of both foxes and coyotes, not to mention the much larger porcupine. He's also said to kill and eat domestic cats who wander too far from home. (A case of the biter bit, I guess.) Not even the tree tops offer a refuge from his claws and teeth. The fisher is a skillful climber, equally at home both on the forest floor and high above it. About what you'd expect from the Devil of the Woods, eh?
Nearly three months have come and gone since I first stumbled across the fishers' sign, and I haven't caught up with them yet. In fact, for the last few weeks, I've seen no fresh fisher tracks at all. Am I disappointed? Yes. A bit. But I'm of two minds about the whole business. Predator and prey are necessary complements, of course. They're the warp and weft of life, the threads that weave the fabric of woodland community. Remove either one, and the fabric falls apart. So I can't condemn the fisher for doing what comes naturally, even if I'm happy that the porcupines and red squirrels whom I've gotten to know so well can now breath a little easier.
And what about me? Well, I'm out on the snowy hillsides, stalking my prey in my own way, and still hoping to catch a glimpse of that elusive, enigmatic, eldritch creature, the outsized weasel known as the Devil of the Woods.
Copyright © 2010 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.