Fish Out of Water

A natural phenomenon scatters thousands of silver fish across the Southern California shoreline.

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Bill Hootkins

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At 10 p.m., the balmy ocean air begins buzzing with anticipation. A barefoot crowd paces along California’s Coronado Beach, examining each wave. With flashlights and buckets in hand, the group eagerly awaits a gift from the sea.

Their patience pays off. After one chest-high wave crashes, an onlooker notices shimmery objects bouncing on the sand. With shouts of glee, the crew charges toward a mass of small silver fish.

“Try grabbing a double handful, then try not to let them shoot out though your fingers!” says San Diego graphic designer Jeff Padgett with a laugh. Even experienced hunters struggle to catch a single slender grunion. It’s like attempting to capture Jell-O with the drop claw from a 50-cent stuffed-animal machine. “Doing this brings out the kid in you,” Jeff says.

What makes grunion so popular in Southern California is their unusual mating behavior. “They run in numbers up to the thousands,” says Karen Martin, a grunion researcher and Pepperdine University professor. “They wash up on the beach to spawn entirely out of the water.”

It’s a bizarre sight: wobbling fish popping up from the sand. “Female grunion partially bury themselves in the sand so they can lay their eggs in safety,” Karen says. The eggs incubate until the next peak-tide cycle―about 10 days to two weeks later. Then the water unearths the eggs, and baby grunion emerge.

Runs occur late March through early August, with the most activity from April to June. April and May are “observation only” months. Buying a California fishing license grants the privilege of catching grunion, but by hand only.

“I’ve been doing this since I was 17 years old,” says Paolo Benitez, who uses a tide chart to determine when the grunion will arrive. He plans to use the mild fish he’s caught in a Filipino-style family feast. “For me, this is hunting,” he says. “I love to see how much I can fill that bucket.”

For fishing license info and a current grunion run schedule, visit dfg.ca.gov/marine/gruschd.asp.

Originally published in March 2008

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