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Wobble the Fisher at the Adirondack Wildlife Refuge

Order: Carnivora
Family: Mustelidea
Genus: Pekania
Pekania pennanti

Whenever the subject of fishers come up, you hear descriptions like mean, nasty and viscious, a smaller wolverine with just as much attitude. Fishers get a pretty bad rap, but when they do, there's a great deal of projecting and anthropomorphizing going on. Fishers aren't mean or evil. People are... and our motives for being so are complicated, often mean spirited, and generally not related to simply surviving.

What members of the mustelid family, the weasels, are is uncompromisingly aggressive, which is why they are such efficient and successful hunters, from the wolverine down through the fisher and marten to the ermine and least weasel. I also believe they get blamed for much that they probably didn't do. For example, great horned owls, which have smaller territories than fishers, are probably much more likely to take your cat than fishers are.

The ancestors of fishers appear in North America between two and a half to five million years ago, while individual remains from 125,000 years ago, show no significant anatomical differences from modern day fishers.

Fishers are meso pretadors who defend and scent mark territories of about ten square miles, preferring conifer forests with good cover. Mature forests provide large trees and fallen logs with hollows for denning, and fishers may also den under bushes or in crevices. Fisher territories often overlap, and are frequently patrolled, using common routes.

Fishers are seasonally brown to dark brown to mottled in Summer, with moulting between Summer and winter. Male fishers average three to four feet long, and can reach 8 to 13 pounds, females about half that. Fishers are not “fisher cats”, nor do they eat much fish, even though they are great swimmers, as well as climbers. Fishers have small round ears to prevent heat loss, and broad, blackish five toed feet featuring retractable claws, which act as snow shoes. Their ankles have a turning capability of 180 degrees, which makes them very nimble in trees, even allowing them to run down trees head first. Their rear foot pads have a central scent gland, which may assist in finding other fishers during mating season, and with marking territories.

Studies of fisher stomach contents do not commonly find domestic cats, but porcupine, snowshoe hare, wild turkey and smaller rodents are more likely prey. Know what wildlife lives around you. Understand that starvation is generally the number one killer of wildlife... it's real tough out there!... It's not like they're specifically out to get your cat, but also consider when and where to let pets out. Fishers also eat some greens, insects, nuts and berries and they will scavenge dead animals.

Contrary to popular lore, fishers don't flip porcupines to attack the belly. Way too dangerous a strategy, and probably believed because someone observed the fisher eating a porcupine's organs first, with the unquilled underside the logical way into the carcass. Rather the swift and shifty fisher attacks the porcupine's face with a series of  quick bites, sort of like Muhammed Ali jabbing an opponent relentlessly to discouage them and weaken their resolve.

One surprising find from studies in Maine indicate that fishers will occasionally attack the much larger Canadian lynx, often in snowy weather, when the lynx may be surprised while trying to lay out the storm. The fisher seizes the lynx by the throat and tenaciously holds on until the cat suffocates. Fishers have less luck with bobcats, and often end up as their prey.

Females, like bear sows and about 100 other mammals, feature delayed implantation, which means that the blastocysts don’t implant in the uterine wall after mating, delaying pregnancy, and insuring the female will deliver three to six kits in the Spring, who will stay with her through the Summer. The female will again go into estrus in April or May, a couple of weeks after giving birth, thus starting the cycle anew.

Fishers have been trapped out and extirpated from many regions more than once, as the sale value of pelts rose and fell, but efforts to fur farm them, have been frustrated by their extended reproductive cycle. Fishers are on a strong comeback in New England, probably because of the increase in porcupines, an important prey animal. The NY DEC reinitiated fisher and Marten trapping in the Adirondacks for the month of November.

From our experience rehabbing and releasing fishers, the kits start out pretty gentle, becoming increasingly more aggressive toward each other, as well as to their keepers, until such time, even mom has had enough, and kicks them out. Studies in Glacier National Park indicate that kits of the larger wolverine female, are raised by mom, but then do an apprenticeship with Dad, with the focus on hunting. I don’t know whether fishers have a similar familial structure.

Steve Hall

Wobble the Fisher by Joe Kostoss
Wobble the Fisher at the Adirondack Wildlife Refuge by Joe Kostoss, Eye in the Park

Wobble with Hope
Wobble the Fisher at the Adirondack Wildlife Refuge with Hope
Jonas with Fisher in RehabJonas and Rehab Fisher

Jonas with a young fisher in rehab, shortly before release

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Steve & Wendy Hall
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