If you live and fish on the West Coast, you probably have a lot of sea lion stories! Those cute little critters you see at Sea World playing the horns and balancing balls on their noses are adorable, but they have little in common with that 600-pound monster that just had lunch with the big spring salmon you were fighting to get up to the boat!
True enough, the big marine mammals have been here for a very long time, and probably have first rights on all the stuff they eat, but with declining fish runs and increased human competition, they don’t get a lot of popular support here at the mouth of the Columbia River. In recent years the numbers of big males have increased substantially, and one of my favorite stocks, our sturgeon fishery, has dropped to such low levels that we can no longer keep even a fish a year. Some think the sea lions have reduced the numbers. The zero fish quota is quite a change from the three fish per day limit we had when I first moved to the area.
The huge critters (all of those who journey up from California are males) take up a lot of dock space as well, pretty much crowding all the boaters off of the docks at our east side marina. They come up in big numbers in the late winter, following the smelt runs (also depleted), stay to chow down on our prized spring chinook, and stick around for the fall fisheries as well.
Over the years, I’ve had a few chase fish I’d hooked in my boats out in the Columbia, but this year I had a new story that was much more up close and personal!
During our fall salmon run, I was fishing a lot on the beaches just a few miles from the ocean. The Columbia is really wide and pretty salty that close to the Pacific, and the fish were bright as could be. You may remember a couple of columns I wrote about the lures and techniques that were paying off big time during that silver run.
But late in the earlier chinook run, something really amazing happened that involved our sea lion visitors. As usual, I was having a lousy run of luck. The big numbers of silvers hadn’t arrived, but lots of other people were catching the prized kings that came first. Some of the better fishermen had a dozen or more catches on their cards, and the fat chinook were averaging nearly 20 pounds.
My fishing buddy, Walt, had been having the same lousy run of luck, and we’d meet most mornings on the beach to cast together, tell stories and bemoan our lousy fishing. As was usual on most mornings, we’d been watching a few fish taken. Some of the better fishermen had already filled their limits on the big salmon and were casting out in the chance that an early silver might take their spinner. Naturally, Walt and I thought that they really should leave and give us their choice spots, but we’d probably just turn that fishing sour as well, and those guys had arrived at the crack of dawn, while we had gotten on the scene an hour later.
As it got closer to noon, everything slowed down. We watched a few gulls flying overhead, but nothing much was going on until we spotted a commotion coming toward us from the ocean. Porpoising down the beach was a little pod of sea lions. Out about a hundred yards or so, they worked their way toward the line of anglers.
Usually this wasn’t much of a problem. During the spring fishery, a few beaches upriver had problems with sea lions chasing hooked fish, but there were a lot less fish, and the lions were more concentrated. Besides, it wasn’t like anyone was catching anything. But then, suddenly they were!
Lots of Action
Just up the beach a couple of guys tied into big salmon. Walt and I watched with interest. This might get exciting. These weren’t fish you could just haul onto the beach. They were big bruisers and even with heavy line, 15 minutes was about the minimum necessary to bring them up on the sand. The sea lions were still out a ways, but it was hard to tell if they had noticed anything.
“Hey,” yelled the angler right next to us as his lure got socked! “I’ve got a big one coming down!”
Walt and I got out of the water to let him play his fish, grumbling as we usually did when someone else was having all the luck. The fish ran out and back a couple of times and then moved into a little pocket of still water a few feet offshore. Walt and I sneaked up to the surf to catch a look at his prize. Suddenly the water turned from green to black! It was as if a cloud had drifted overhead and took all the color out of the water.
Then just the smallest tip, no bigger than a finger, broke the surface and the water swirled violently right in front of us, just a few feet away. Walt and I both jumped back instinctively, as what appeared to be a submarine took off toward the middle of the river. The power of its flight brought a sharp line of sand up to the surface, clearly marking the path to deep water for better than a hundred yards. The poor fool next to us held onto his rod for dear life, the heavy power line he was using was set on full drag and he came awfully close to either losing or breaking the entire outfit!
Finally, a football field length away, his fish, wrapped in the paws of a giant brown sea creature rose to bid him goodbye!
The action was just starting. Our buddy Greg, a fine fisherman I call “the King of the Beach,” hooked the next fish. The salmon hit his pink spinner way out in the river. In just a couple of seconds we heard Greg swearing into the surf. “That Damned seal has my fish,” he wailed helplessly. Walt and I couldn’t help but chuckle. “He’s taking so many out of the river,” Walt snickered. “It’s about time he gave one back!” The big chunky monster rose out of the water, waved the big fish and bright spinner at Greg, and took off to enjoy dinner unmolested.
Race to the Beach
The game wasn’t over quite yet. The fisherman just downstream from Greg had hooked a fish while Greg was busy feeding the wildlife, and he was making some progress. The silver slug was about halfway to shore when one of the pod realized that an easy meal might be in the offing.
A terrified fish rose to the surface and headed right for the beach. Half of its massive body was above water, it was a lot more worried about the sea lion than the hook in it’s mouth. As the race to shore progressed, anglers all along the beach were screaming at the big predator, and sure enough, he stopped for a few seconds to survey the scene. His prey, not sure of what was happening, noticed that the huge shadow chasing it was no longer in the rear mirror. Relieved, it headed back for deep water. That was a poor choice.
The big brown beast decided it didn’t want to give up its advantage and let the other lions get closer, so it took off after the fish, driving it all the way up on the sand. The angler, overjoyed with the chance to gain some ground, ran up the beach, dragging the beautiful salmon as far up the sand as his rod and line would allow. It wasn’t far enough. Throwing a huge wake, the sea lion powered up on the sand, grabbed the fish in its jaws, swung the big body seaward and splashed back into the river, carrying a 25-pound salmon like it was an anchovy!
A few minutes later, the school of fish and the sea lion attack force both left the scene. When the final tally was taken, 11 fish were hooked, five snagged and removed by predators, three landed by human fishermen, and three managed to shake the hook. A couple of hours later, when the action was completely dead on the river, a few guys were hoping that the predators would return, maybe bringing a school with them.
Since Walt and I were having just another day of skunking, we were all for another show!
Bob Ellsberg’s column, Fishin’, appears monthly in RV Life and at rvlife.com.