Grunion Fish Runs and Hunting on San Diego Beaches

Tips for Grunion Hunting in San Diego

Grunion Spawning: A Yearly Occurrence in San Diego
••• Jeff Foott/Discovery Channel Images/Getty Images

A summer evening is a perfect time to have a SoCal experience, and if there is anything that is uniquely Southern Californian, then this phenomenon just might personify it: the Grunion Run. Picture yourself on one of San Diego's beaches at night with a few dozen other people. The tide is high and the waves are rolling pretty far up the sand line. Suddenly, as a wave recedes, you spot hundreds of silvery things, wiggling on the sand.

Then, just as quickly, the next wave rolls in, then out, and with it the silvery spectres. Yep, you are witnessing a famous California grunion run.

What are Grunions and Why Do They Come Ashore in San Diego?

The California grunion (Leuresthes tenuis) are small silvery fish about five to six inches long found only along the coast of southern California and northern Baja California. Most of us would be unaware of their existence were it not for the unique spawning behavior of these fish. Unlike other fish, grunion come out of the water completely to lay their eggs in the wet sand of the beach. And that, my friends, makes us privy to the California grunion run, or more sprecifically, the grunion's sex life.

Along San Diego's sandy beaches, from March through September, one of the most remarkable life cycles in the sea is completed when the California grunion comes ashore to spawn.

According to the California Department of Fish and Game, as if this behavior were not strange enough, grunion make these excursions only on particular nights, and with such regularity that the time of their arrival on the beach can be predicted a year in advance.

This phenomenon can be seen on many beaches in southern California. Shortly after high tide, on certain nights, sections of these beaches sometimes are covered with thousands of grunion depositing their eggs in the sand. Hence, the popularity of both grunion watching and grunion hunting.

Yep, you read it right: grunion hunting.

Because, even though they are fish, you don't exactly catch them with a pole and line. Nope. Since the grunion basically wash up to your feet, you have to chase them down and grab them barehanded if you want to catch them. That's what makes grunion hunting so uniquely SoCal!

Since these fish leave the water to deposit their eggs, they may be picked up while they are briefly stranded. Often there are more people than fish, but at other times everyone catches fish. So, no expensive fishing gear is needed (just your bare hands and a bucket or sack to hold your prizes). Oh yeah, and a valid State fishing license and a willingness to get a little wet.

Tips for Grunion Hunting in San Diego

Fishing the grunion is prohibited during April and May, but this is a fun time to see the spawning ritual if you're not interested in catching any grunion. You can not use anything other than your hands to catch the fish and no holes can be dug in the sand to catch them. There is no limit to the number of grunion you can take, but you are advised to only catch enough that can be consumed so none are wasted. 

The best beaches for grunion runs are Del Mar, La Jolla, Mission Beach and the Coronado Strand. When going on a grunion hunt, keep light to a minimum as it may scare away the fish from landing on the sand to lay their eggs.