You never know what you’re going to see out in the Maine wilderness.
Just ask John Neptune of Indian Island. He has been ice fishing most of his life, but last weekend had an encounter that was one of a kind.
Neptune and three friends spent two days ice fishing at Moosehead Lake, north of Rockwood. Despite the sub-zero wind chill, the men were out on the ice and drilling holes before dawn on Saturday.
As the sun started to come up, one of the men noticed an animal on the ice in the distance and took some video of an otter. Neptune figured that would be it.
A short time later, the otter had ambled over toward the group of fishermen and began exploring the setup. It even squeezed into an unoccupied ice shack.
“It kept going around all the holes, probably looking for dead smelt from the day before,” Neptune said. “I was worried that it might go under and grab our baited hooks.”
The men had not seen the otter while fishing in the same area the day before.
Maine has a thriving population of North American river otters, according to Shevenell Webb, furbearer biologist for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. She said the animal in question may be a juvenile, based on its smaller size.
“River otters are very curious but typically shy around people,” Webb said. “The otter may have gotten some fish from a previous ice fishing party and is trying his luck again. Otters do not typically steal from others and are excellent hunters of a variety of fish species, crayfish, clams, frogs, salamanders and snakes.”
This otter may have been shy initially — Neptune said it darted away and hid in a nearby ice crevice when snowmobiles passed nearby — but it was persistent.
“We were just sitting there on the snowmobiles and it would come up literally like 10 feet away,” said Neptune, the longtime recreation manager for Penobscot Nation.
The otter eventually summoned the courage to grab dead smelts that had been discarded on the ice nearby.
“It kind of worked its way over, found it. It was just sitting there, munching, looking at me,” Neptune said.
The otter decided to stick around. It tagged along when they checked their traps and eventually got down-right bold.
When they had a flag, three of the men went over to check the tip-up. They pulled out a 16-inch brook trout, which sparked the otter’s interest.
“It was flopping around on the ice and that otter came right over and was making little noises,” Neptune said. “It was going between my legs trying to get that brook trout.”
Once the fish was secured, Neptune splashed his chisel in the same hole. That led the curious otter to stick its head down into the water to see what was going on.
Later, after the line had been baited again and the tip-up placed back in the hole, the otter did some fishing of its own. Neptune said the animal actually pulled the tip-up out of the hole and again poked its head in for a look.
“It did that three times, to the point where we were shooing it away,” Neptune said.
The otter hung around much of the day, giving the fishermen a lasting memory. Like many anglers, Neptune has witnessed bald eagles flying down to eat fish or bait left on the ice, but the otter was a first.
“I’m 50 years old and I’ve been fishing since I was a teenager, and I’ve never seen an otter do that,” Neptune said.
Animals such as otters sometimes learn that the presence of humans might yield food in the form of discarded fish or bait, but Webb said intentional feeding can have repercussions.
“Once a wild animal becomes habituated, it loses fear of people and usually results in problems,” she said, mentioning the possibility of a rabid animal biting an unsuspecting observer.
Many thanks to Neptune for generously providing today’s video clips and sharing his ice fishing story!
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