Fish Out of Water: Southern California’s Grunion Run

grunion runWhen the moon is full and the tides are high in Southern California, local new outlets all over the Southland are more likely than not to feature a story with the headline “The Grunion Are Running!” The small silvery fish flop ashore every summer to spawn, and the bizarre-looking natural phenomenon always attracts attention.

The California grunion, aka Leuresthes tenuis, is a member of the Atheriniopsidae, or smelt, family of fish. When conditions are just right, both the male and female grunion wiggle their way out of the water onto the beach. The female burrows into the sand and lays her eggs and the males fertilize them. The entire process lasts only around 30 seconds, which is what makes attempts to catch the squirming fish so challenging.

Grunion appear between the months of March and August with such regularity that their arrival can be predicted a year advance, but it’s impossible to foretell at which section of beach they’ll appear. Watching and waiting for the annual grunion run is part of the fun, however, and from Santa Barbara to San Diego, people crowd the Southern California beaches whenever they hear the rumor that the grunion are running.

Southern Californians once dragged bed sheets along the sand to catch untold numbers of grunion with a single cast. To preserve the fish from extinction, a hands-only policy was put into place in 1949, and the open fishing season is now limited to the months of March, June and July. Only people with a valid state fishing license over the age of 16 are allowed to catch grunion.

grunion runSince grunion ride to shore on the waves, it’s best to wait until a wave has receded before using a flashlight to locate them. The grunion run can last up to three hours with the largest number of fish appearing an hour after the start of the run. A gunny sack is the traditional creel for grunions.

Although few of the fish caught these days wind up on the menu, the yearly grunion run is a tradition for many families and an excuse for others to enjoy some nighttime fun at the beach.

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