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It’s grunion season! If you have no idea what that means, then you’ve come to the right place. We’ll tell you all you need to know about one of Southern California’s most exciting traditions.

So what are grunion? They comprise two species of sardine-like fish that are found only off the coast of Southern California (San Diego to San Luis Obispo County) and Northern Baja, Mexico (north of Punta Abreojos).

See our list of grunion run beaches in California.

These slender, silvery fish have some unique mating behaviors: when spawning season comes, typically March through September, masses of grunion will swim onto the sandy shores at night. The females will dig nests with their tails and lay eggs. At the same time, the males will come up to fertilize the eggs. After more than a week of incubating in the moist sand, the baby grunion will hatch from their eggs and catch a ride into the sea on the nearest wave.

See our California grunion run schedule for this year.

Conveniently, the grunions’ mating habits make them very easy to catch. That’s why you’ll find many organized events called “grunion runs”, in which all people 16 years and older, with a valid fishing license, are allowed to come to the beaches and grab as many grunion as they wish (if under 16 no license is required). With thousands of grunion on the beaches, there is no shortage of fish to catch. However, for the sake of environmental responsibility, grunion run participants are encouraged to catch only what they need. California law forbids the waste of fish. Fishing licenses can be purchased online from the Dept of Fish & Wildlife, but it’s quicker and easier to get from a local store (find a store here).

For the best runs, look for the fish after new or full moons. The grunion are most likely to surface after the highest tides, and the largest numbers of fish generally come about an hour after a run had begun. Avoid using flashlights, as the illumination can scare away the fish. Try to limit your use of flashlights to times after waves have receded. Regulations require that the fish be caught only by hand; no tools may be used. Digging holes in the sand as traps is also forbidden.

The primary reason for going to grunion runs is because it’s fun. But it is also a great way to get fresh seafood. Grunion can be cooked in a variety of tasty ways, just check out our featured grunion run recipes. But if you’re not a foodie, you can still enjoy attending and watching the spectacle. It’s also permitted for people of all ages to gently catch the grunion, then quickly release them back into the water. The whole family can witness and participate in one of nature’s astounding natural phenomenon!

Grunion season is usually open only from the beginning of June to the beginning of September, but is also open in March. Please note that handling and/or catching grunion is prohibited in the off season.

For more info on this season’s runs, view the grunion run schedule.