Clever Little Devils

Guest Blogger: Michael Vorhis, author of ARCHANGEL suspense thriller, OPEN DISTANCE adventure thriller & more to come

Midsummer but pre-dawn, I stood freezing on the bank of a deep lake-sized waterfall pool, flogging the fish-rich water for three hours without so much as a line twitch. I’d braved the precarious path down a steep slope across teetering, wet, moss-covered rocks, favorite rod in hand, knowing that one slip would at least be painful and might well prove more costly than that…there to stand in the teeth of the waterfall’s wicked soaking wind, casting, trying everything, to no avail. Several hours later, about 8:45am I suddenly began to get good strikes. Nothing had changed in my location, presentation, fly depth or fly pattern.

Just a fluke, I decided, and three days later (after recovering in the body temperature department) I arose at 5am, snuck out of camp, donned waders and returned to the same spot, where I enjoyed the same three hours of shivering, the same expletives-deleted disappointment, which ended only about 8:50am, when the mist was lifting from the water’s surface and I began to get strikes.

Figure-1__Waterfall_Pool

Why, you ask…and I asked too. It wasn’t until this past weekend, months later, that I was convinced beyond all doubt as to the reason why. But let’s not rush things.

Figure-2__Waterfall_Pool

Three years ago I’d hiked several miles down steep private land, praying my car wouldn’t be towed, trashed or pushed over the canyon’s edge. None of that happened, and I did find one little spot on the small creek-like river where I couldn’t be seen easily, to toss a favorite gold-ribbed hare’s ear nymph below a little pour-over. After setting up I got no strikes of any kind for a fairly long period of time, then finally saw the indicator-less line do something an inanimate line wouldn’t have done, and set the hook, landing and releasing a number of nice trout. But why had it taken so long?

This past weekend I got out on my favorite local river. It was end of January and the Chinook fingerlings would still be hatching and swimming around, with destiny dooming most of them to being no more than protein for steelhead. A few weeks prior I’d gotten savage strikes trying to capitalize on the same stream dynamic, and I wanted more. As I walked toward my step-in point about 15 minutes before dawn, I saw a nice rainbow leap three or more feet out of the water, right over where my first cast was slated to go. “Alright,” said I to myself, “it’s gonna be a good morning!”

But I hadn’t asked WHY that 15-incher had breached like that. Late January. Nothing hatching. Why spend the energy? I’d forgotten to ponder that in my haste to throw my alevin-stage fingerling-replica streamers for the next 1.5 hours, seeing two more nice fish leap shockingly high within 20 feet of me.

And then I looked up, at a log about 60 feet across and down, at something moving there. Well lookee there, a cute little river otter. Two of them! What’re they doing? Looks like they’re…uh…stripping fish apart and eating them.

Figure-3__Otter_with_Fish

Aha, the leaping fish…the only other time I’d seen large fish vault that high in this river was when huge Chinook were invading their turf. And the absence of strikes I’d experienced, on what had always before been a well chosen streamer this time of year. I thought back to the waterfall pool of the summer before. What had I seen in the cascading water’s mist for the first few hours of fishing back then? Two wild river otters roving around the large lake-sized pool, diving repeatedly, coming as close as they dared to where I stood, to crane their necks and verify what I was, then to disappear below the choppy surface and be lost again in the cold water and the grey swirling mist. It hadn’t been until the sun rose enough to dispel much of that mist, ending the safety they felt it provided, that they disappeared. About 30 minutes later was when I’d gotten my first strike. And that happened both days on that waterfall pool.

And I thought back to the canyon river of three years prior, and what I’d seen as I’d set up my gear that day–three river otters moving systematically downstream, pausing to work the pool I was just about to fish. It wasn’t until about 45 minutes after they left that I’d gotten my first take on the nymph.

And I thought back to other similar occasions that all had very similar results.

And this past weekend…hours went by, and I now know why: Those otters were working, unseen, the very water I was fishing. The only fish I saw were the ones they were eating and the ones they’d scared vertically out of the water. They sat within view of me but across the current, eating with impunity, then disappeared…probably back to the very flow I was plying, because I still got no action at all. It wasn’t until I moved to other water that a few takes began to be felt.

From these and other experiences I think I can precisely discern the attention span of a trout–about 30 to 45 minutes. These otters, these cute, playful little river devils (well now, come on, it’s a rule that fishermen can use any word they dang well please when they’ve just gotten skunked) must be incredibly adept at subsurface hunting, and the fish know it.

Figure-4__River_Otter

The once plentiful river otter started a long decline in the 1700’s, mostly courtesy of trapping–their pelts were prized, even used as currency. By 1960 they’d completely disappeared from major non-swamp areas, such as in the American southeast. Despite their innate resilience, amazingly they became endangered as a species. (I shamefully admit to having a little hunk of otter skin in my fly-tying kit right now, although I don’t know if it’s river otter or sea otter, and I guess one can always hope it came from an individual that had lived a long life and met a peaceful, natural demise…or if not that at least a quick tractor trailer.)

In the mid-1980’s efforts were made to reestablish them. Mating pairs born in lowland marshes were transplanted into mountainous areas, and their incredible adaptability let them make the transition without a single noticeable false step. Now they’re on the rise pretty much everywhere across the land.

Figure-5__Swimming_Otter

They can live about a decade. Their own fears include predation by alligators, mountain lions and lynx, coyotes and dogs, bears if they’re fishing the same water…and man. They always live in dens, often with tunnel openings, always near enough to water that they can enter and exit the water right from the den. They seek flowing water if they can find it, still and choked with vegetation if they cannot. They can even live along a seashore, although they shouldn’t be confused with their sea otter cousins, who are up to three times their size and whose tails are proportionately far shorter. River otters are masters of aquatic habitat in every way.

I’ve believe I’ve never seen a lone river otter in the wild. There will be at least two, and very possibly more, depending on the time of year and how big the young are. If you see one, look around–another is bound to surface nearby, often with a hapless fish in its mouth. Otters are family-oriented and cooperative in their timing and hunting. They’re smart, and will only let themselves be seen if they’re pretty sure you can’t get to them–such as right across a swift current. I’ve only ever seen them fishing in early morning, so avoiding them might be as simple as not getting up quite so early.

Figure-6__Otter_Pair

If you see otters “spoiling” your water, you can bet the fish know they’re there too. So enjoy the glimpses of these curious, whiskered, hotdog-shaped mammals, but don’t expect the trout to be active for quite some time after the otters have moved on. The good news their presence offers is that your expertise has led you to choose a great spot for angling, because they know where the good fish are in greatest abundance; but the bad news is that those fish will be skulking as motionless as they can, and will put all feeding on hold. And the otters may be hunting right under your nose, but not breaking surface until they crawl out quietly on a bank behind a log somewhere.

Seeing sizable fish trying to fly many feet above the water is a dead giveaway. Next time I see or suspect otters where I’m fishing, I’ll choose that half hour to eat a sandwich, or perhaps to move to other water they’re not endorsing at the moment.

3 thoughts on “Clever Little Devils

  1. Michael Vorhis

    I guess I should add a correction: Our own Montana Mountain Man, Mike Cline, has pointed out to me on the side that river otters are not always seen in groups–that solitary males do go solo and can demonstrate territorial aggressiveness, even toward humans. He points out that some of his local rivers have well-known spots that require a bit of vigilance by anglers.

    I’ve never seen river otters fishing solo, and that includes quite a lot of sightings over the years. But I guess I should not say that if you see one, there will be more; sounds like there may not be. You’ll probably react the same either way–if one leaves the area, any others with it will be leaving too, and if one comes toward you gnashing teeth, well, one is all it takes.

    Tnx Mike, for that clarification. Every little bit of lore helps. If I ever see a warning sign or a live growling otter, I’ll not be tempted to laugh it off. I think before your comment I probably would have. : )

    – Mike

    Reply
  2. Joe Dellaria

    Hi Mike,
    Nice job piecing this together. I have seen otters on my local rivers a handful of times. So it’s not a big problem for me. However, early in my trout fishing career I distinctly remember casting my heart out and not catching a thing only to watch an otter jump in the water and come out in seconds with a nice trout. Then he sat on a log about 3 rod lengths away and ate the trout while looking at me the whole time.
    Joe

    Reply
    1. Michael Vorhis

      Howdy Joe,

      And I’ll bet the log was across the current from you, too–they know exactly how close they can get to us if we’d have to fight past the main channel to get to them. That you’d been casting forever getting nothing means the fish already knew he was there and were hunkering down. And as you describe, they seem so good at catching a meal quickly. I’d like to watch how they do it–they probably sneak up from down-current–the ol’ “log getting closer” trick. : ).

      Again, my main takeaways from this topic are that large high-leaping fish is a sign of otters subsurface, and that it takes 30 to 45 minutes after they’re gone for the fish to forget. Fool me once, sausage-shaped dude, fool me once….

      – Mike

      Reply

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