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

By Jacqueline J. Davidson
January 22, 2008
Grunion on the run
Courtesy of Julianne E. Steers/grunion.org

At 10 p.m., the balmy ocean air begins buzzing withanticipation. A barefoot crowd paces along California's CoronadoBeach, 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, anonlooker notices shimmery objects bouncing on the sand. With shoutsof glee, the crew charges toward a mass of small silver fish.

"Try grabbing a double handful, then try not to let them shootout though your fingers!" says San Diego graphic designer JeffPadgett with a laugh. Even experienced hunters struggle to catch asingle slender grunion. It's like attempting to capture Jell-O withthe drop claw from a 50-cent stuffed-animal machine. "Doing thisbrings out the kid in you," Jeff says.

What makes grunion so popular in Southern California is theirunusual mating behavior. "They run in numbers up to the thousands,"says Karen Martin, a grunion researcher and Pepperdine Universityprofessor. "They wash up on the beach to spawn entirely out of thewater."

It's a bizarre sight: wobbling fish popping up from the sand."Female grunion partially bury themselves in the sand so they canlay their eggs in safety," Karen says. The eggs incubate until thenext peak-tide cycle―about 10 days to two weeks later. Thenthe water unearths the eggs, and baby grunion emerge. Runs occurlate March through early August, with the most activity from Aprilto June. April and May are "observation only" months. Buying aCalifornia fishing license grants the privilege of catchinggrunion, but by hand only.

"I've been doing this since I was 17 years old," says PaoloBenitez, who uses a tide chart to determine when the grunion willarrive. He plans to use the mild fish he's caught in aFilipino-style family feast. "For me, this is hunting," he says. "Ilove to see how much I can fill that bucket."

For fishing license info and a 2008 grunion run schedule, visit dfg.ca.gov/marine/gruschd.asp.

Greet the Grunion
"A grunion run is something you can't experience anywhereelse in the world," says Melissa Studer, senior program officer ofthe Grunion Greeter Project. Grunion Greeter offers workshops eachMarch and April for those who want a head start on planning agrunion hunt. "Anyone can witness natural history take place,"Melissa says. "It's free―and it's good, clean fun." Toregister for a workshop, e-mail Melissa at melissastuder@san.rr.comor visit grunion.org.