In the Connecticut River watershed, you can catch bass in the main river, a mix of bass, rainbow, and brown trout in the lower reaches of its tributaries and brook trout in the headwaters. The River also hosts mink, taxonomic name, Mustela vison. Freely translated, its Latin name describes an animal that is a scout with musk glands. On the right day, if that is what you want to call it, you can learn a lot about mink hunting skills.
As we began fishing, at the edge of vision there was motion on the far shore. The mink was full-grown, a foot and a half long, with dark brown luxurious fur and its signature overlong tail. It moved in its distinctive inchworm bounding motion. It stopped to look at the rising fish, us and then slipped into the water. The fish immediately stopped feeding. Mink are excellent swimmers due to their partially webbed feet. When a river is not frozen, fish comprise nearly one third of a mink’s diet.
We thought we could just move up the river to the next pool. Of course, that short a move might not help as mink patrol as much as half a mile of river hunting for food. Males cover even more territory than females. Males may not have a permanent den, stopping and borrowing other mink or muskrat dens along their extended travel path. Females with young do have permanent dens but may have more than one. But what the hey, you gotta’ have faith if you are going to be a fisher, so we moved up river.
It was the same story at the next pool, except this time it was not a single mink. A mother and her baby came down the bank. The young mink was something over 8 weeks old, because that is when the young begin to hunt with the adults. At the edge of the river, they stood briefly nose-to-nose. Ignoring us, they glided into the water. We gave up on fishing, walked out of the pool and then hung around to see what would happen.
The adult mink reappeared on a rock in the middle rear of the pool. It shook itself and stared at us but not for long. The mink did a soundless nosedive into the water. In a blink, the mink was back on the rock with a trout in its mouth. The mink killed the trout, dropped it on the rock, and looked over at us. When the mink was sure it had our attention, standing on its back legs it commenced a head bobbing chattering at us. It took only a little imagination to think that the mink was having a hearty laugh at our expense.
Ecologists say that minks are nocturnal animals, although they do allow that you might see them in the daytime. This day was definitely a daytime day for mink. We wondered what trout fishing was like in Arizona and southern Texas today since they are the only areas in the lower 48 states without a documented mink population. Obviously, we were not likely to catch any fish on this stretch of river.
We drove to a special pool. It was long with deep, quiet water. Fish were rising to insects on the water. We spotted a fish on the far shore tight against a large rock delicately sipping flies off the surface. Careful casts enticed the fish to rise to the imitation fly but no hook up. It was a fish of size, definitely worth a wee wait to see if it would feed again.
While we waited, we spotted the mink hopping from rock to rock, looking expectantly around each new rock. ¬It hunted upstream toward us and jumped onto the rock that secreted our trout. As the mink landed on the rock, in one motion, it disappeared headfirst into the water. From our distance across the river, it seemed the mink slipped and fell into the water.
We only got half a laugh out about the mink’s slip before the tail, and then the back feet, then the body of the mink reappeared from the water back up onto the rock. Bracing its back feet, the mink began jerking a fat brown trout over 16 inches in length out of the water. Even with the fish held firmly by its tail, the mink barely managed to control the fish. The fish may have equaled the mink in weight given that the average mink weighs only 2 pounds. The fish’s furious struggles shook the mink’s entire body.
We decided the mink had released the fish intentionally, because as soon as the fish hit the water, the mink turned and gave us a long slow look as if to say, “See guys, it really is that easy.” The mink shook itself and with a flip of its tail, dismissing us as amateurs, it continued hunting along the shore.
If you think about the necessary relationship of predators to their prey, the presence of mink validates the health of the fish population in the Connecticut River watershed. When we left the tributary that day, we knew that as anglers, we had a long way to go to match the average mink.
David L. Deen is the River Steward for the Connecticut River Watershed Council. CRWC has been an articulate voice for the Connecticut River since 1952.