River otters were once extinct in West Virginia but they now roam the waterways in almost every county thanks to a reintroduction program by the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (WVDNR) in the early 1980’s. Over 200 otters were released in 14 major rivers across the state from 1984 to 1997 by WVDNR personnel. Since then their populations are high enough that a trapping season was initiated in 2011 with a limit of 1 otter per year.
Otters are members of the weasel family along with mink, long-tailed weasel, least weasel, striped skunk, spotted skunk and fisher which also call the mountain state home. The fisher was another species introduced back into the ecosystem by the WVDNR. River otters are the largest member of the weasel family here in West Virginia.
River otters are muscular critters with long slender bodies which allows them to swim with ease. Their tails act as a rudder and are long and stout and make up a 1/3 of their body length. A noticeable feature of the otter is its large whitish colored whiskers that they use to locate prey. They have a big nose with small black eyes and very small rounded ears. They have short legs with webbed feet that help propel them through the water.
Otter fur is dark brown in color and has an oily appearance. Males are larger than females and weigh between 10 to 25 pounds. They range from 35 to 60 inches in length from head to the tip of the tail. Otters are carnivores and are well equipped at catching fish. They feed on crayfish as well but slow-moving fish such as carp and suckers make up most of their diet.
Otter scat is often found in one place which is also referred to as a “toilet” when they go to relieve themselves. The scat will be full of fish scales and is a tell-tale sign that an otter is in the area. They almost hop when they walk, and their tracks are easy to identify in the snow. They’ll also slide down banks on their bellies which is easy to spot.
Otters are curious animals and can sometimes be dangerous if encountered at a close range. In 2017, two boaters were bitten on Dunkard Creek in Monongalia County when an otter climbed into a canoe. Some people may think that they are cute and cuddly creatures but they’re a wild animal and can become aggressive in some instances.
I’ve seen otters while fishing on a few of our rivers over the years. Most recently, I put my hands on one I caught while running the trap line. Otters are mainly nocturnal and this one was coming up from the Gauley River and getting in my pond on almost a nightly basis.
I first noticed it’s distinctive set of tracks while checking my traps the end of January. There was snow on the ground and the dead giveaway was I saw where it slid down the bank of the discharge stream from my pond on its way back to the river. Thankfully my pond stayed frozen for over a week when I first noticed the otter tracks.
I knew as soon as my pond thawed out the otter would be in it eating the fish I stocked a few years ago. Upon further investigation I found a small toilet area with fish scales in the scat. After a couple of weeks of narrowing down where the otter was coming into and out of the pond, I successfully eliminated it.
I have two overflow culverts on the dam part of the pond and this otter was coming up and going through them to get into the pond. I blocked the left one off with rocks, so it would have to go through the right one. A conibear trap was placed in the water on the pond side of the culvert which caught the otter as it was sliding into the pond.
I’m going to tan the hide and keep it for myself. The WVDNR is conducting a study on our otter population and is requesting river otter carcasses so I gave mine to my local wildlife manager. As an avid catch and release fisherman I have mixed feelings about otters but they have their place in nature just like everything else I suppose.