"What are they doing?" one of the German students asked, pointing down at the kids with flashlights and buckets, running along the beach and squealing under the moonlight.
"Grunion run," I answered. "What a lucky break."
This was a decade ago. I was teaching English to a group of 15 adult international students—from Germany, Switzerland, France, Italy, Brazil, Japan and Korea—in a 10-week summer program at a local college. I had invited them over to my place for a going-away party, and we were relaxing on my patio near the Ocean Beach pier after midnight. It had been one of those rare ideal classes where everyone showed up to class, worked hard, did their homework, had fun, got along well and forged friendships that seemed destined to last beyond the summer. None of us wanted the night to end.
"What's a grunion run?"
"You'll see. Come on."
If you spent your childhood here, you probably have vivid memories of grunion runs. Part of the appeal is the simple yet out-of-the-ordinary pleasure of hitting the beach in the middle of the night and running around in the dark, getting soaked in the breaking waves, your flashlight beam searching the night for silver flashes of silver fishes spawning on the beach.
Then there was the fun of trying to catch the slippery critters with your bare hands. Some families took grunion running seriously—if the grunion ran (they didn't always show up), they'd fill their buckets with the slippery, skinny fish for frying up later.
Only in Baja California and along the (primarily southern) coast of the state do the grunion spawn. California grunion (Leuresthes tenuis) are members of the New World silversides family, which includes jacksmelt and topsmelt. The slender, 5-inch, non-migratory silver fishes inhabit waters near the shore as deep as around 60 feet. There's another species called the Gulf grunion, found only in the Gulf of Mexico.
What they do that's so amazing is this: Within a few days after a full or new moon, right after a nighttime high tide and continuing for a few hours, the female grunion will ride a breaking wave as far up onto the beach as she can manage. She then arches her body, keeping her head up, digs into the wet sand with her tail and burrows herself into the sand "nest" up to her pectoral fins.
As many as eight males will try to mate with her by wrapping themselves around her and releasing their sperm, called "milt," at the same time she deposits her eggs about four inches below the surface. The milt of a successful male cascades down the female's body until it reaches and fertilizes the eggs while the male makes his exit. The female then returns to the sea with the next wave. Sexy little beasts, aren't they?An individual spawning event can take as little as 30 seconds or up to several minutes, and on a really big run, thousands of the fish will spawn, forming a massive glinting, silvery, writhing grunion beach orgy.
In 1927, the population became so depleted that a law was passed designating a closed season to protect the grunion. From April to May, it's illegal to catch or bother them, though you're certainly allowed to watch them do their thing. During closed season, you could even help scientists by becoming an official "grunion greeter," through a program co-organized by the Scripps Birch Aquarium and other California grunion advocates and enthusiasts.
During open season, you may capture grunion, but if you want to keep them, and you're older than 16, you must have a fishing license. You're allowed to use only your bare hands—no tools other than a bucket—and you're allowed to keep only what you'll eat. These rules have helped the grunion population survive.
The main open season is from June through August, but there's a one-month early season in March with two runs. Because grunions time their spawning with the moons and tides, a pretty reliable schedule is issued well in advance each year by the state Department of Fish and Game. This month's first run was right on schedule. This coming weekend marks your only early open-season chance to do a grunion run. The times are: 10:05 p.m. to 12:05 a.m. Thursday, March 22; 10:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. Friday, March 23; 10:55 p.m. to 12:55 a.m. Saturday, March 24; and 11:20 p.m. to 1:20 a.m. Sunday, March 25.
There's a legend among grunion enthusiasts that catching a grunion, kissing it and releasing it back to the sea brings much better luck than killing and cooking it. They'd probably rather not have their mating ritual disrupted by a giant human trying to show them some love in hopes that their silvery grunion magic will rub off on him, but I'm sure every grunion will agree that it's better than being fried.
I explained this kiss-the-grunion ritual to the students as we reached the beach to begin our search for silver flashes in the darkness. I'm surprised they believed me since it's exactly the kind of thing I'd make up. I'll never forget the sight of one particular student—a beautiful Italian woman whose name now escapes me, jeans rolled up to her knees, having caught, kissed and returned a grunion to the sea, running back up the beach as a wave rolled in, her smile a flash in the moonlight.