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Moonstruck Grunion Get a Mating Call : Beachgoers to Have Their Hands Full Catching Fish on the Run

Times Staff Writer

This year’s second running of the grunion--the mysterious nocturnal invasion of California beaches by millions of small, tasty fish that hurl themselves on the sands--is scheduled to start sometime between 10:30 and 11 p.m. Monday.

State Department of Fish and Game spokesman Patrick Moore said the little creatures, which “are adapted to tidal cycles in a remarkably precise manner,” appear on beaches to spawn year-round during nights following new or full moons.

“But, by law, they are allowed to spawn unmolested during April and May,” Moore said. “That two-month hiatus will end in June.”

That’s when people can start catching them, but only with their bare hands. No scoops, nets, shovels or even gloves are allowed, he said, and any fisherman over the age of 16 must have a valid angler’s license.

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And it might help to share in the relatively small amount of knowledge that Fish and Game biologists have gathered about one of the ocean’s strange bits of mysticism.

Seemingly spellbound by a combination of moon and tide action, Moore said, thousands of female grunion ride in out of the dark sea on a wave, push their way high up on the sand and use their tails to scratch little depressions, into which they deposit their eggs.

Male fish immediately swarm around the females to fertilize the eggs.

“Then, often on the very next wave after the one that brought them in, all the adult fish re-enter the sea,” he said.

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It is during those few moments that they can be grabbed.

But there is a trick that might lead to a better catch, Moore said.

The first few grunion that appear on the sand are “scouts,” and if they are allowed to return safely to the water, “the main school, waiting just offshore, will swarm in and you’ll be rewarded with an abundance of little fish at your feet,” he said.

Moore said that to guard against eggs prematurely washing back into the ocean, the grunion spawn only during a descending tide series, that is, when each succeeding tide is lower than the one of the previous night. In this manner, eggs are allowed to incubate undisturbed deep in the sand until the next series of high tides uncovers them.

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Then they are washed into the sea where, in a matter of minutes, “baby grunion hatch by the millions and swim away,” Moore said.

City and state lifeguards along the Orange County coast said all low, flat beaches can be spawning grounds for grunion, but some are better than others.

Huntington Beach’s city strands, for example, have too much noise and artificial lighting, a lifeguard there said. And at San Clemente, Lynn Hughes, marine safety captain, said he didn’t really know why, “but we’re just not much of a grunion beach.”

Seal Beach, parts of Newport Beach near the pier or the mouth of the Santa Ana River, and Laguna Beach’s main beach offer better chances, as does Doheny State Beach in Dana Point.

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Once caught, the five-inch fishes should be cleaned and scaled, Moore said, then dipped in a mixture of cornmeal, flour and salt and deep-fried.

Grunion runs this month should occur on Monday through Thursday and again on June 23, 24, 25 and 26, with starting times beginning about 10:30 p.m. and getting about one hour later each night. The middle two nights of a four-day run are the most productive, Fish and Game biologists say.

Next month, grunion runs should occur July 8 through 11, and July 23 through 26.


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