In the middle of the night when the tide is high, a wave will wash over the sand filling the beach with small silver fish wiggling under the night sky. Then, just as quickly as they appeared, when the next wave crashes, the fish will surf back to the ocean on the receding water. During the largest runs, California grunion can wash on shore by the thousands! For most first timers, grunion runs sound truly unbelievable, but this isn’t some old legend. Grunion use the high tides in the nights following full or new moons to move on shore to spawn. Females will quickly dig a hole and orient themselves with just their head sticking out of the sand while they lay their eggs. Male grunion will swim around the female and fertilize the eggs before they both make their way back to the ocean. During the next two weeks, the eggs will incubate in the sand and hatch in time for the next high tide to carry the baby grunion to the ocean.
Grunion runs are especially popular in Southern California, and growing up in San Diego, my sister and I would spend a series of late summer nights on the beach waiting for waves carrying the fish. During the open season, when hunting is allowed, people will be geared up with headlamps and buckets, using walkie talkies to chat with their partners waiting on the other side of the beach to double their chances of being in the right spot at the right time. It is impossible to predict the exact night or spot on the beach the grunion will show. If the lucky wave crashes, licensed fishers will run down the shore reaching for the slippery fish and tossing as many as they can in their bucket before the next wave carries them away.
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Fish out of water!? Meet the California Grunion. In the middle of the night when the tide is high during full or new moons, grunion will wash onshore to spawn and catch the next wave back into the ocean! Open season for these fish is June-August, but you can only use your hands!
California Grunion’s typical range is from Point Conception, just North of Santa Barbara down through Baja California, Mexico. Oddly enough, in 2001, grunion were spotted in the Bay Area just south of the Golden Gate Bridge! In the years since, National Park Service in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area have been teaming up with grunion expert Dr. Karen Martin from Pepperdine University in Malibu, California to be part of her Grunion Greeter Team to track the Bay’s new resident and see just what they’re up to.
In the next few weeks, in the middle of the night when the tide is high, I’ll be on the beach waiting for Bay Area grunion. If they show, it will definitely be some of San Francisco’s wildest nightlife, but grunion can be one flakey fish. I’m sure they will test my patience in the early hours of the morning, but if there’s a will there’s a wave… and hopefully that wave carries grunion.