Columnist Frank Newell is on temporary leave. Until he returns, we will reprint submissions from our archives. The following is reprinted from June 2011.
Many of the wild animals that inhabit the Lake Gaston area and the surrounding habitat run a nine-year population density cycle, low to high. This means that each year the involved species increase in numbers until the ninth year, and then a significant decrease occurs, and the cycle starts over.
Several factors contribute to the rise and fall of the various species. In the case of prey animals, their numbers are more often affected by predators. For instance, as the fox population increases, the rabbit population decreases because foxes eat rabbits. In the ninth year, with fewer rabbits available, the fox population takes a nosedive, which leads to a gradual increase in rabbits for the next nine years.
In the case of many predators, their decrease in numbers is caused by diseases that occur when there are too many in the habitat and not enough prey animals to eat. Hunger weakens them, and they themselves become prey to viral diseases. Some of those diseases are distemper, parvo and the dreaded rabies.
I believe that currently this area is in the seventh year of the river otter population. I have noticed a steady increase in their numbers, and this past season, many beaver trappers caught otters in their beaver traps, what is called “non-target” catches. Only a few years back, otter fur was the most profitable of all furs in this area, due in part to its scarcity and also because it is a very high-quality fur.
The otter population in Lake Gaston is increasing, and I predict that in a couple or so years they will again be somewhat scarce. Contrary to popular belief, otters do not harm fish populations. They do catch some fish, but they prefer oily trash fish such as carp and mullet instead of bass and bream. Otters eat a lot of fresh water mussels. They know how to bite the hinged part of a mussel shell, causing it to pop open so they can eat the mussel inside. If you are walking the shoreline or a creek bank and see empty mussel shells, especially large ones, pick some of them up, and if you see tooth marks on the hinged backside of the some of them, they are the ones that otters ate.
Otters have historically been a very important natural resource, especially to the Indians of North America. For hundreds of years, Native Americans, particularly those up north, made their warmest clothes from otter pelts. What is unusual is that unlike most other wild animals, the otter meat cannot be eaten. It has an unpleasant aroma and taste due to scent glands, and the meat is extremely tough.
Whenever some member of the tribe returned from hunting and trapping, and he had speared or trapped an otter, there was much praise. However, the young children caught almost as many otters as did the braves and warriors. Not around this part of the country, but way up north in winter, the ponds, lakes and rivers freeze over, sometimes the ice being two feet or more thick. An otter would dive under the ice and swim to the bottom of the lake or river in search of fish to eat.
As soon as it went under the ice, it would exhale its breath, which formed an air bubble that floated up and pressed against the underside of the ice. The otter could go for several minutes without breathing as it swam about in search of fish, frogs, crayfish or other food, but soon it had to breathe, so it swam up to its air bubble floating against the ice, breathed it into its lungs and then exhaled it, which formed another bubble that floated up to the ice.
When the Native American children were playing on the frozen lake or stream and saw an air bubble floating under the ice, they knew that an otter was swimming somewhere below and would very soon come to its air bubble. They immediately began to jump up and down and stomp their feet on the ice directly over the bubble until it would burst. The otter came up and searched desperately for its air bubble until it drowned and floated just under the ice. Then the excited children ran to get clubs, rocks or tomahawks to smash open the ice and pull out the dead otter. It was a triumphal procession indeed when they came marching back to camp with their trophy.
Back in those days you couldn’t go to Wal-Mart and buy warm clothing or go to Hardee’s and buy food. You had to make your own, and sometimes the temperature was below zero, and the snow was several feet deep.
About the only trouble the otters cause at Lake Gaston is to scatter digested fish scales on piers and boat docks. They do that in two ways. If the digested fish scales are spread out in a line a couple of feet long, the otters have regurgitated them. If the fish scales are in round balls about the size of golf balls, the otters have excreted them. But try not to be too angry with the otters. At least we can all go to Wal-Mart and Hardee’s.
—Continued next week.—