Thursday, May 30, 2013

Grunion run time!

ABOVE: The mythical grunion run at Huntington Beach, circa 1940.  Visitors often think we're pulling their leg, along the lines of submarine races in the desert.  Rest assured, grunions are real.  (Photo, City of Huntington Beach archives)

*UPDATED 2017*

   "Between the Orange County line and Newport Bay the highway is on an embankment, behind which extend miles of shallow tidal channels.  Spongy marshes are dotted with tufted islands of salt grass. White cranes stand solemnly on long legs in the shallow water, or wing slowly across the waste of marshy islands.

   This shore is one of the most frequently visited by schools of grunion, little smelt-like fish of the silversides family that run up on the sand to spawn during spring and summer.  It is the only fish that spawns in this extraordinary manner, and it does so only on Southern California beaches."
                                                                                                    Federal Writers Project, 1941

   Some people run with the bulls.  But here, we prefer grunions.

   At the turn of the last century Californians began gathering at the beaches on the nights that spawning grunion swam to shore, a silvery mass of fishyness spread across the sand.  It was such a unique sight, it caught the attention of the the Federal Writers Project, Los Angeles: A Guide to the City and Its Environs, ("environs" meaning those of us in the boonies outside the City of Angels).

   The Federal Writers Project observed beach goers in the 1930s used "all sorts of improvised equipment--small nets, kitchen sieves, sink strainers, window screens, baskets and what not" to catch the slippery, tiny fish.  The "crowds of amateur fisherman (would) bring picnic suppers and build bonfires on the sand" as part of the night's expedition.

California Grunion (Image, Department of the Interior, U.S. Fish and Game, 1985)

   More regulated today to prevent overfishing, grunion running remains a beloved Southern California beach culture tradition.  For many, it was the first nighttime adventure that allowed them to stay up past bedtime.

   That was the case for Huntington Beach Mayor Connie Boardman, who remembers as a child it was a big deal to be at the beach at night.  Her family called it "going grunion hunting" or "grunioning" and warmed themselves at a fire pit on the beach.

 "I remember living in La Mirada  and taking night time trips as a child  to catch grunion at Huntington Beach State Beach.  We just grabbed them with our hands. My mom fried them in corn meal I think...They were crispy."
                                                    Huntington Beach Mayor Connie Boardman


   Grunion running occurs at night, shortly after a full moon.  No grunion "taking" or catching is allowed during April and May, to protect the peak spawning season.  However, observation is allowed during those months.  Come June through August, the midnight run starts again.

   To put another spin on this, the Los Angeles Times once told readers "forget Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr's famous roll in the sand. Grunions are once again flinging themselves on California beaches" (California's grunion have voyeurs running to the beach, Los Angeles Times, March 24, 1994).   

   Like sea turtles, grunion head for the sand to lay their eggs, allowing the ocean to push them onto the beach.  With each wave, there are a few seconds to catch a handful of grunion before they wash back out to sea.  Grunion runners literally dash back and forth like sandpipers to catch the dancing, flipping fish.  You will be a sandy, salty mess by the end of the night.  

ABOVE: A bit of light sets the silvery grunion aglow at the Bolsa Chica State Beach. (Photo courtesy of David Carlberg, Huntington Beach resident and author, 2009)

   David Carlberg, a Huntington Beach local and author of Bolsa Chica-Its History from Prehistoric Times To The Present, recalls a night he and his wife, Margaret, witnessed a grunion run at Bolsa Chica State Beach.

   "We wandered up and down the beach for about an hour and not a grunion in sight. About to give up when about midnight, as if a gate was opened,  the beach near the north side of the inlet suddenly glittered with thousands of spawning grunion," recalls Carlberg.  "The spectacle extended over several hundred feet along the beach and lasted for at least a half hour, then it faded as quickly as it appeared. Since none of us had a fishing license, all we could was watch."

   For many, running with grunion is enough.  Catching them is akin to catching the greased pig at a country fair.  For those who catch a few, they'll be warming up a frying pan sometime after midnight.  The traditional preparation being a dusting of cornmeal, salt, flour, and into a fry pan with a little hot oil.

   "College days at CSULB, a group of us went down to the beach on a bright evening with little surf. I lived in Seal Beach with a roommate and we wanted to see if the grunion tasted good so we headed to the beach with a few friends. We had buckets and scooped up the little buggers by hand, I probably had 2 or 3 cups full. Went back home and got out the fry pan, a little oil, salt & pepper and we cooked them...they are very small and very boney, don't think they will catch on as a meal from the sea."
               Huntington Beach resident Karen Jackle, advising visitors not to expect a big meal out of it.
   Cookbook author Marion Cunningham writes about World War II-era grunion runs on Orange County's coast (Grunion Hunter's Delight, Los Angeles Times, 1998), "We would wait for hours on the beach, sitting around our fires, drinking beer--or the popular drink of the day, sloe gin--and eating potato chips. When we were lucky and the grunion came--it always seemed to be around midnight--they shimmered silver in the moonlight, almost as if they were dancing on the beach."

   "We would walk into the shallow surf with a bucket and capture lots of grunion in no time," continues Cunningham.  "By 2 a.m., the grunion had disappeared and, wet and tired, we would return to the house with our buckets full of grunion. I would fry them right then, and we would eat them with French bread and salad."
ABOVE: The bluesy Grunion Run by Frank Zappa, The Hollywood Persuaders, circa 1963.  Listen at

   If you're not into bare-handed fishing and after-midnight meals, not to worry.  Grunion running often is a "...good excuse for us to have a beach party and social activity...with the fish being an interest but not a major quest" notes an online site.


   "When we were all about 18 or 19 years old, we would go down to the beach with our boyfriends.  They had buckets they would put the grunion in, my girlfriend and I would grab a handful of grunion, run down the beach and let them go!  They would get so mad at us! We had some great times!"
                       Barbara Haynes, Chair, Huntington Beach Historic Resources Board,  describing her teenage "catch and release" method.


LEFT: Several episodes of the 1970s television show, The Beverly Hillbillies, featured episodes about grunion runs.  New to California, in The Grunion Invasion, the Clampetts gear up to fight Grunion, who they believe to be an invading enemy.    

   Huntington Beach author and columnist Chris Epting recalls being at the beach on the same night as fellow writer David Carlberg, when ..."all of a sudden, a motto change from 'Surf City' to 'Grunion City' seemed like it might be in order" (On the grunion hunt, Huntington Beach Independent, June 11, 2009).

   "Driving past the beach the day after the (grunion) run was surreal," recalls Epting, author of Huntington Beach: Then and Now (Arcadia).  "If only those joggers and bike riders knew what had been there just several hours before; swimming, slithering and spawning, while most of the city slept."

  Epting offers some tips for first-time grunioners: "Dress warm.  Wear shoes you don’t mind getting wet.  Bring a flashlight, but try not to use it until you know that the grunion have arrived. They will shy away from light and noise."  Remember, this is a romantic night for the grunion.  Epting's beach guide suggested looking for an isolated, gently sloping beach.

ABOVE: Bolsa Chica and Huntington State Beach, just north of Huntington City Beach, offers an organized grunion run with beach parking.  (Image,

   If you want to take part in a Historic Huntington Beach right of passage,  Bolsa Chica and Huntington State Beach offers an organized grunion run with California State Parks.  

GRUNION RUNS schedule for 2017 can be found on the California Department of Fish and Wildlife website at

   State Parks asks you meet at the Lifeguard Headquarters at Bolsa Chica State Beach for a presentation first.  Park before 9 p.m., before the parking gates close.  You must have a California fishing license. 

One more advantage of running with grunions vs. bulls: they fit in the skillet.  In 2011, the OC Weekly "Stick a Fork In It" blog posted some recipes for grunion that reflect Southern California's diverse cuisine, from fish sauce to tacos,

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