Grunion Run 2011 or How I Found Myself on the Beach at Midnight Chasing Fish

It was nice to have my brother around to help with the kids who were slightly freaked about the grunion-catching hysteria that the other kids were experiencing

It’s grunion season.

Grunion are little silvery fish who like to ride high tides up the sand, mate, lay eggs, and then flop back into the sea.

We happen to live near beaches where this happens. Since the grunion like high tides – they mostly wait for the highest tides at the full and new moons. There are four nights every two weeks grunion can be seen, and usually the third and  fourth nights are the best for viewing.

Interestingly, they also like the highest waves – many waves would crash without a grunion in sight, or just a couple, then a very high wave would come up and toss dozens and dozens of grunions frantically bending and twisting that, well, makes you think about fish sex. I like to think about groups of grunion out there in the dark sea, floating, waiting, and then with a hive mind riding the largest swells into shore.

Grunion come out to mate and lay eggs, but the two actions are mixed up together. The female buries herself in the sand tail first. What we saw was fish heads looking up at us from small holes in the sand – mouths open and closing in gasps and the heads lurching from side to side while the female fish go about their laborious business of pushing out thousands of eggs. Male grunion are sometimes there wrapped around the female’s head, momentarily, before they leap away. The female fish thrashes herself out of the hole and lays on the sand catching her breath – this was a good time to catch them – before catching the next wave back to the sea. (Adults need a fishing license to catch them, children do not. Catching is allowed with HANDS ONLY.)

As much as this was a very satisfying event (GREAT for kids), it was nothing like I’d expected. The shore was not covered with grunion, but we saw enough. It does take preparation though to haul kids to the beach from 11 pm to midnight. We chose Salt Creek Beach in front of the Ritz and brought hot tea and cookies. The beach parking is open until midnight and promptly at midnight a cop car cruised along the beach access road with a high beam spotlight and announced through a megaphone that the beach was now closed.

P.S. My brother sent us the fruit of his grunion internet research in a brief email the next day:

“Oh my…
[photo of many grunion]
Blog talking about it so you don’t have to repeat everything:

The grunion is actually a small silver-sided fish measuring 5-7 inches which can be found along the Southern California coast below Point Conception, and as far south as the Mexican beaches of Baja California. They resemble smelt although they are not related. And they are not netted like smelt (in fact, netting is explicitly verboten) nor are they taken on bait like other fish. They are caught by hand and only by hand and collected in buckets for a fish fry the following day.

I must have just seen two females buried next to each other:

“The females come ashore, wiggle down into the sand to deposit their eggs, and then the males will gather around them to secrete their milt.”

[The quotes in my brother’s email are from another blog post about grunion, from Steven B. Roger’s blog “Looking Toward Portugal”]

P.P.S. Sierra sent me pictures of the cleaned grunion that same night, and then more pics the next more of the grunion fish fry the next morning. Wish I’d been there for breakfast!


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