About five minutes is a long time to hold your breath. But otters do it all the time.

Before my move to Center Pond in Dalton, I'd only had a brief glance at a river otter -- not to be confused with their distant cousin, the sea otter.

I started watching them at this time of year and in the autumn, whenever the ice is right. When the edges of the pond have open water, the otters come into the cove. They pop up for a breath or climb out to gobble their catch.

They do the same thing where the channel flows on the south side of the pond.

Otter-watching depends on serendipity. But in the right conditions, like an open flow or relatively thin ice, a patient watcher -- maybe from one of the causeways in Pittsfield or the parking lot at Laurel Lake in Lee -- may see one come up for a breath.

My favorite window for otter watching coincides with the maple sap flow, when the pond ice glazes over on freezing nights and then thaws on warm, sunny days.

Otters don't have to resort to moving water or to the edges of the lakes and ponds. They create poke holes for themselves.

In winter, they keep their poke holes open in the ice so that they have places to come up for air when the pond freezes over, and because they can't eat under water. They have to make their way onto the ice or to the shore in order to dine. It's a triumph to see one emerge, given the work involved.

The holes give otter-watchers a place to start. Sometimes there are two or three within a stone's throw of each other. It may take time, though, to see a snout come up through one. How long depends on how good the fishing is and how the otter's luck is running.

I was fishing when I saw my first otter on the Westfield River, half a life ago, and all I saw was a fleeting glimpse of a dark brown speedster on the opposite bank.

They blast around under the ice at speeds around 7 miles per hour, propelled by their powerful back legs. And they lurch fast enough to catch trout -- no mean feat.