Missouri’s River Otters — Old Tales and New Images

January 23, 2016

A river otter emerges from an icy lake in St. Charles County. After four straight mornings of dressing like an abominable snowman and sitting in the snow with my lens pointed at “best bet” surfacing locations, I finally captured some nice images of the toothy critter.

I met my first river otters in 1992, but I wasn’t in Missouri; I was actually in Ontario. A Canadian bush pilot had dropped me and a few buddies off at an island in the middle of a huge lake, dotted with hundreds of smaller islands and coves. Satellite phones were not an option at that time so the pilot told us he would fly over every couple of days to check on us. I guess we were supposed to write “help” with some rocks if something went wrong.

After our first day of fishing, we were relaxing on a house-sized granite rock near our cabin when a couple of river otters swam up to partake in the offal we had tossed after cleaning our pike. I remember being mesmerized at the sight of the busy otters as they came and went like ghostly creatures from the deep. I even snapped a few photos with my 35 mm camera. Later when the film was processed, the photos revealed a few brown blotches that might or might not have been otters.

It was decades later before I saw any river otters again, but during most of those encounters, all in Missouri, I was fortunate enough to capture some nice images. One of my most memorable otter encounters did not include the snap of a shutter. I was sitting at the tip of a rocky point on the Mississippi River, tripod and camera splayed over my lap, my rubber boots just touching the water. It was mid-winter and I was photographing mergansers and pelicans in the icy river. The waterfowl shooting was slow so I was in the middle of a daydream when an otter sprung from the water and landed between my ankles! Before I could even let out a gasp of shock, the equally surprised otter returned to the river in a backward dive. I sat there for a while, my mind in that “What just happened?” state, before I regained my senses and tried to spot the unexpected visitor. Of course, I never saw the otter again and I reckon it was a day or two before it returned to its favorite spot at the tip of that jetty.

Missourians have a bit of a love-hate relationship with river otters since their successful restoration in our state. If you’ve ever observed otters, you have witnessed their boundless energy, which also leads to a boundless appetite (see image below).


Although native to Missouri, river otters sometimes have a tough time endearing themselves to landowners, especially those with small ponds near rivers where otters occur. Yes, otters can give the concept of “fishing in a barrel” new meaning. If otters wear out their welcome on private property, landowners should consider obtaining the Missouri Department of Conservation’s publication, Missouri’s River Otter: A Guide to Management and Damage Control.

I’ve photographed most of Missouri’s major mammals but none seem to have as much fun as river otters. Even as adults, they constantly frolic and play, rolling in the snow and jumping each other. As you can see from the final image, river otters are never short of heart-warming expressions.


As a result of successful restoration efforts, beginning in the 1980s, river otters are now found throughout Missouri. If you haven’t seen one yet, you’re probably not spending enough time outdoors!

Thanks for looking,


Email:  Natureframes@Rocketmail.Com

Gallery of Images:  Danny’s Website



5 comments on “Missouri’s River Otters — Old Tales and New Images”

  1. Wonderful shots of the fun creature! Glad your snowman routine worked.

  2. So awesome! I love river otters. What lake in St. Charles? Do you do much watching in Illinois near the river road? Have you seen river otters on the Illinois side anywhere?

    • Hi Melissa — I rarely shoot in Illinois or along the river road, although I did check out the peregrine falcons there last year. I often see river otters in Mississippi backwaters during winter, anywhere you see an opening in the ice where they can come up for air while fishing. You might check below pipe outlets, warm-water discharges, etc. to find them. As I said, river otters are kind of like bobcats; you just have to have some dumb luck to run into them, especially when you have a camera. Also, you’ll need your long equipment as I typically obtain shots with a 500/4 lens plus a 1.4 TC. Good luck and thanks for the comment.

  3. Oh another cutie! They look quite playful!

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