The first hint that an intruder had invaded my pond was a pile of fish scales - a big pile.
They were heaped against a fallen log a few yards from the water. At first, I thought a sneaky trespasser had caught a mess of fish and cleaned them.
But trespassers, I've learned, also leave behind bait containers and other litter. All I saw were chewed-up bones and fish parts.
Something was dining there.
The next morning, I had an opportunity to meet the interloper face to face.
He was floating on his back, gnawing on a three-inch bluegill like a little kid eating corn on the cob. He had dark, velvety fur, beady eyes and long gray whiskers.
It was a river otter - a very tame river otter.
He followed me along the bank, diving and resurfacing every few seconds and emitting a soft, yelping little bark, kind of like a poodle with a head cold. I'm not sure what he was trying to say, but I doubt it was very nice.
Later, I mentioned the little visitor to my friend Tom.
"How nice," Tom laughed knowingly. "He'll eat all your fish."
I doubted such a small creature could eat too many fish. But last week, I sat in on a Clemson University scientist's lecture on a study of largemouth bass in creeks at Savannah River Site.
The researchers attached transmitters to 87 largemouths and studied their movement for two years.
The resulting 36-page report had lots of interesting data, but one fact caught my attention: Otters gobbled up a fourth of the test fish.
The scientist, Tucker Jones, recovered 22 transmitters from otter dining areas, called middens. "There were teeth marks in some of the antennas," he said. "We once found five transmitters under one log."
He added, however, that the protruding antennas on test fish likely made the weakened bass more vulnerable to Savannah River Site's huge otter population.
But I still worried about my pond, envisioning five years of careful fisheries management vanishing into one errant otter's bulging waistline.
I thought about dispatching the intruder. Was it legal?
Otters can be trapped from Dec. 1 to Feb. 15. Dan Forster, Georgia's assistant game management chief, said nuisance animals causing property damage - such as eating fish - can legally be killed anytime.
I sought another opinion from state Fisheries Supervisor Bubba Mauldin.
"Otters do compete with anglers for fish and as a result they're often perceived as a threat," he said. "But they don't remove enough fish from wild populations to make a difference in angler success."
In fact, he added, predation is a normal and essential element of a healthy ecosystem.
Otters, I have since learned, are quite popular worldwide and have a fan club that would rival the Backstreet Boys and Elvis combined.
There is the International Otter Survival Fund, a European outfit dedicated to preserving otters everywhere - including the one in my backyard in Evans.
There's also Otternet.com, a 50-page Web site devoted to convincing anyone who doesn't already love otters that the playful mammals warrant respect at the least - and undying admiration at the most.
In the United States, there are groups such as the River Otter Alliance. And otter lovers from all over the world gathered in Chile last January for the Eighth Annual Otter Colloquium.
Despite a wealth of advice, I've decided that the little fish-snatching aquatic weasel living in my pond can hang around as long as he likes.
After all, every pond has its share of bluegill. But how often do you have a celebrity to play with in your own back yard?
Reach Robert Pavey at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 119.
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