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Sea lion patrol

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GOLD BEACH — A California sea lion looking for an easy breakfast of fall chinook at the end of an angler’s line slips between the tips of the jetty and into the Rogue River bay, but not without trepidation.

Before it hunts for the hooked chinook, it needs to figure out if that guy in the large aluminum boat with those damn firecrackers has logged in for work yet.

“They come in and their heads pop up like turrets,” says Harold Helton, the man on the Most Wanted List of Rogue bay pinnipeds. “They’re looking for this boat. They know exactly what this boat looks like. They actually know what time I get off and what time I start.”

As the bay’s official Sea Lion Patrolman, Helton is helping keep salmon-munching seals and sea lions away from anglers trolling the bay for fall chinook and coho.

Now in its 14th year, the patrol funded by bay anglers and for bay anglers remains a big hit among fishermen, who say they once lost about half the fish they hooked to pinniped thievery.

Now the occasional firecrackers and more often just the sight of the patrol boat sends them fleeing without a meal and flipping their middle fins at Helton, the only man in the bay with a federal permit to legally haze seals and sea lions.

The result is that California and Stellar sea lions play only an occasional cameo role in the crazy antics of bay fishing.

“It’s gotten better and better each year,” says veteran Rogue guide Gene Garner of Gold Beach. “I haven’t lost a fish to a sea lion in the bay since the program began. It’s worked that well.”

But the smaller and more limber harbor seals are still side-stepping Helton’s M-80 firecrackers and working the bay with occasional success, but not like pre-patrol seasons.

“We’re still battling the seals,” Garner says. “I’ve already lost one fish to a seal this year, but the patrol definitely helps. Last year I lost three to seals, and you think about how many fish were caught, that’s pretty good.

“It’s still one of the best fisheries around,” Garner says. “That’s why all the people are here.”

It’s also why all the seals and sea lions are here.

Salmon are a diet staple of seals and sea lions, which are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which largely bans harming or harassing the animals.

That gave the mammals nearly free access to bay chinook when the nearly all-wild fall chinook fishery took off in the late 1980s and blossomed into the piece d’ resistance of lower Rogue fishing seasons.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and NOAA-Fisheries officials helped the Port of Gold Beach garner a federal permit to haze seals and sea lions, which quickly tipped the scales in anglers’ favor.

Now the port and fishing organizations hold derbies, auctions and other fundraisers to foot the roughly $30,000 annual bill for the program, says port Manager Andy Wright.

Helton patrols in 10-hour days, making a quick appearance at the mouth to announce to seals and sea lions that he’s clocked in, and then he goes about babysitting hooked chinook.

He seeks out boats with anglers fighting fish. Those he doesn’t see can turn to CB channel 10 and call in a patrol strike.

“I’ll actually hide and try to blend in with other boats, says Helton, a Gold Beach native who has been the sea patroler the past six years. They see me, and I’ll see them heading out. They just don’t want anything to do with this so they turn and head out.”

When he encounters those that don’t swim away, he’ll drop in an M-80 or two — enough to cause them discomfort but not injury, Helton says.

In rare instances he’ll shoot them with a rubber bullet, which he likens to “kind of a light spank.”

His last tool is popper shells, regularly used at airports to chase off geese, but Helton’s have counter-weights allowing them to sink before exploding.

“They hate that more than anything,” he says. “When one of those things go off, they come out of the water like a porpoise.”

The sea lions have gotten the message, but harbor seals still pose a daily threat.

“They’ve stepped up their A-game,” Helton says. “They’re seriously ripping us off.”

Still, the losses are far fewer thanks to a program that keeps anglers returning and bringing home more chinook than stories of losing 30-pounders to finned predators.

During the midst of this year’s run, Helton is so popular he could become mayor of Gold Beach.

“Yeah, just as long as the fishermen are all voters,” he says.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

Just the presence of Harold Helton, the Rogue River bay's official Sea Lion Patrol, and his boat deters sea lion's from stealing fall chinook salmon hooked by anglers. Photo by Tom Backman