If you spend enough time fishing the creeks in the Pineywoods of East Texas, you’ll eventually come across sign (tracks or scat) of an interesting animal. This animal is a fish-catching machine and could easily rack up more numbers on any given day than the most elite angler, on their best day. This master fisherman is the river otter (Lontra canandensis).
River otters are semi-aquatic members of the weasel family. Their long slender bodies, powerful webbed paws, and tapered tail allow them to swiftly move through the water. Otters are highly adapted to hunting in an underwater environment. They have the ability to close their nostrils and ear holes for long dives, and a clear membrane, called a nictitating membrane, can shield their eyes while swimming underwater. Otters can remain submerged up to six minutes.
When hunting, they use their eyes, sensitive paws, and whiskers to hunt for prey along the stream bed. One of their most adaptive qualities for life in the water is their incredibly warm and waterproof fur. This particular characteristic made them a valuable commodity in years long since passed. Prior to established hunting and trapping laws, unregulated harvest of these critters, for the world-wide fur trade, contributed to their population decline over the centuries. However, by the mid-twentieth century, laws were implemented to protect this once abundant animal and since then, populations of river otters have burgeoned, nationwide.
National recovery efforts in the forms of reintroduction, state-implemented moratoriums on harvesting, and a general overall awareness of environmental impacts, have all been a boon to the river otter. Populations of river otters have grown enough in several states that a highly regulated trapping season has been reinstated. Many states that have seen a comeback of river otters, Texas included, have once again allowed the harvest of river otters, but furriers and trappers must apply for CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) permits upon harvesting the animal.
In Texas, otters were extirpated from the northern and southern portions of the state. Thankfully, the population in East Texas, although reduced during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was never fully annihilated. The abundance of densely forested swamps, rivers, and brackish marshes, served as a haven for the Texas river otter. Over the years, their population has expanded, moving westward. Sightings have increased in frequency and people have spotted them outside of metropolitan areas like Austin and San Antonio. Houston’s own Buffalo Bayou has had numerous river otter sightings over the years.
The presence of river otters in any waterway is something to be celebrated because otters are seen as an indicator species, that is, an animal who has a low tolerance for pollution. Therefore, if consistent otter sign or sightings are found on a particular waterway, you can assume the waterway is healthy. This is particularly exciting when it comes to the Buffalo Bayou, which has been plagued by pollution for several decades. It is encouraging to see increased biodiversity in this highly urbanized waterway.
As anglers, spotting a river otter can be a real treat. Populations of river otters are more common throughout East Texas, but seeing one is still a very special occasion. Because river otters are mostly nocturnal, anglers are more likely to see their tracks or scat, rather than spotting one in the flesh.
A telltale sign that otters frequent a waterway is the presence of otter latrines, also called brown-outs. An otter brown-out is an area where a community of otters consistently defecate. This is a territorial behavior and is often done to communicate with other otters in a waterway. It’s like a message board saying, “I was here, just passing through.”
Anglers can be on the lookout for otter latrines along point bars and peninsulas. These prominent land features are magnets for otters and they allow easy access to and from the water. If you think you found a brown-out, look for multiple piles of scat that contain shells from crawfish, fish scales, and small bits of bone. You may also find foul-smelling globs of yellow or white goo. This is something that otters secrete, which again, helps them communicate with each other, in a very pungent way. You may also see areas where the otters were digging or rolling in the sand or dirt. Adjacent to otter toilets, you can usually find a trail or slide where the otters move in and out of the water.
Otter tracks are another sign that anglers should watch for. The paws of the otter are wide (sometimes as wide as a dog, although dogs have four toes, otters have five) and their claws can usually be seen in tracks in the mud. The rear tracks of otters are asymmetrical and one of their toes sits farther back than the rest of the foot, giving it an awkward, lopsided look.
The dead giveaway that a set of tracks is from an otter can be seen in their loping gait. Otters, along with their cousins, the mink, have a stride that produce a staggered pair of tracks. This occurs when their rear paws plant on the ground in preparation for their front paws to lift into the air. When landing, the front paws come down first, followed by the rear. This happens in staggered succession when the animal is hurrying along. Check for tracks on sandbars and edges of streams, especially on narrow spits of land that connect two sections of water.
Knowing that we share our local waters with river otters is something that anglers in Houston and eastern part of the state can be proud of. The presence of these animals attests to the health of the local waterways and the diversity of wildlife in this part of the state. The next time you’re out exploring a stream, keep an eye on the bank for any signs of otters. If you’re lucky enough to spot some, you’ll know that you are fishing in a healthy stream.