The Lion in Winter

SACRAMENTO REGION, CA (MPG)  |  By Susan Maxwell Skinner
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Gulp. Below the out-flow from Nimbus Dam, salmon, trout and even waterfowl provided a banquet for a sea lion visitor. Over a period of two weeks, the marine mammal twice visited Nimbus to feast.

SACRAMENTO REGION, CA (MPG) - American River Nature watchers recently beheld hungry sea lions swimming through Arcade, Carmichael and Fair Oaks. Winter visits by the species are not uncommon but the recent sightings were considered rare for the distances the mammals had traveled inland.

In the space of two weeks, there were two separate sightings - thought to be the same individual - at Nimbus Dam. The 90ft high concrete wall stopped his migration and hours of happy hunting followed. “You could hear him before you saw him,” said a transfixed angler. “He was roaring like an elephant. I saw him surface with a fish trashing in his mouth. He swallowed it whole - head-first.”

Battling against the dam’s white-water outflow, the muscular visitor gorged. When exhaustion took over, he slipped briefly back toward the Nimbus Fish Hatchery, only to return to the floodgate again and again.  After a day, he vanished downstream but likely spread the word among fellows nearer Sacramento. Last Friday, not one but three of his species were seen laboring upstream near Watt Avenue. The trailblazer alone returned to feast at Nimbus. Here, angler Jason Nicholas put down his rod to watch a large steelhead being devoured. “In 30 years that I’ve fished here,” he observed, “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Around 6ft long (weighing perhaps 400 pounds) this adult had journeyed more than 130 river miles from the Pacific Ocean. Though quite a feat, his trek is not a record. Another sea lion reached the Woodbridge Dam near Lodi in 1997. “They’re salt-water animals but they follow the fish,” explained California Department of Fish and Wildlife spokesman Andrew Hughan. “They come inland from the (San Francisco) Bay for late salmon and steelhead. They like the fish that are rich in meat and fat.”

The mammals frustrate anglers and have occasionally provoked violence from some who regard them as poachers. “They’re the dogs of the ocean,” says Hughan. “They’re curious and friendly; they’ll steal fish, but they won’t hurt anyone.

“We don’t monitor sea lions or do anything about them unless they’re distressed. A marine mammal inland is a naturally-occurring phenomenon. If you see one, don’t feed it. They need to be left alone to catch fish. It’s a cool sight. People should just stand back and enjoy the moment.”

Footnote: sea lions are Federally protected. Anyone seeing harassment or injury toward the species should call the police or a park ranger.