Steven B. Rogers

Running the Grunion

When I tell people about my early years living on the West Coast near Los Angeles, I always include my youthful recollections of running the grunion with my folks and their friends along Redondo Beach. I am not sure those hearing my stories always believed me; I was a young buck then, the scourge of Miss Dawn’s nursery school, and surely I was making up the whole thing . After all, I used to stand in front of the picture window in our living room watching the nighttime glow of wildfires burning in Malibu and Topanga Canyon across the bay and thinking that China was on fire. What did I know? But as I grew older and wiser I discovered that others have told similar tales. F. Scott Fitzgerald describes the running of the grunion in The Last Tycoon (the unfinished version published in 1941) as does Charles Bukowski in his poems “The Hunt” and “Grab the Grunion.” So it is not an urban myth as some of you might think. We are not talking snipe hunts here There really are grunion and people continue to run them to this very day.

The grunion is actually a small silver-sided fish measuring 5-7 inches which can be found along the Southern California coast below Point Conception, and as far south as the Mexican beaches of Baja California. They resemble smelt although they are not related. And they are not netted like smelt (in fact, netting is explicitly verboten) nor are they taken on bait like other fish. They are caught by hand and only by hand and collected in buckets for a fish fry the following day. There is no creel limit; you keep what you are able to eat and that’s all. There is a brief closed season during the height of the spring spawning season; but otherwise the bountiful grunion are fair game.

The iridescent “silversides” arrive on a nighttime high tide two to six days after a full moon and continue to come ashore for a few hours until the tide begins to ebb. The females come ashore, wiggle down into the sand to deposit their eggs, and then the males will gather around them to secrete their milt. It collects around the female’s body and fertilizes the buried eggs. The lucky ones do the deed and return to the ocean as subsequent waves wash over them. The less fortunate find themselves sloshing around in buckets of seawater and kelp and destined for the dinner table.

Fitzgerald called the grunion a “very punctual fish” and captured a grunion “run” on the beach at Santa Monica in The Last TycoonIt was a fine blue night. The tide was at the turn and the little silver fish rocked off shore waiting for 10:16. A few seconds after that time they came swarming in with the tide and Stahr and Kathleen stepped over them barefoot as they flicked slip-slop in the sand . . . They came in twos and threes and platoons and companies, relentless and exalted and scornful around great bare feet of the intruder, as they had come before Sir Francis Drake had nailed his plaque to the boulder on the shore.

I still have very vivid memories of running the grunion on Redondo Beach back in the mid 1950s; the moonlit night, the flashlight beams sweeping across the sand and small bonfires on the beach. For a little kid it was great fun and adventure to be allowed to stay up after one’s normal bedtime to wander the beach and catch fish by hand. Everyone kept their flashlights trained on each succeeding wave as it stretched its waters over the sand. Soon we spotted a few fish dancing along the edges of the receding water. We were told these were scouts and they must be allowed to return to give their compatriots a thumbs up that the coast is clear. Soon, with each retreating wave, the sand was alive with thousands of tiny fish. We rushed forward and gathered the grunion into our buckets. Each wave would bring more ashore and soon our buckets were filled to the brim.

The next day my dad snipped off the heads and quickly dressed the tiny fish before drenching them with flour and deep frying then. I remember eating the grunion like I would french fries, dipping them in some tangy cocktail sauce. Not only did I get to catch these fish by hand, but I was allowed to eat them by hand, as well. What little kid wouldn’t like that?

Grunion, unlike smelt, are not available in stores or restaurants. If you want to eat them, you have to hit the beaches when they do. Running the grunion may not be as exciting as hooking and landing a fat, three-foot rockfish out in the middle of Chesapeake Bay, but I can’t think of a more memorable fishing experience ever.   

Steven B Rogers is a historian and research consultant based in Washington, DC.  He is the editor of A Gradual Twilight: An Appreciation of John Haines published by CavanKerry Press in 2004.  His historical and personal essays, literary criticism, and poetry have been widely published, including in pass numbers of Gargoyle.  He and his wife reside in historic Mount Rainier, Maryland.