During spring and summer months you can experience one of the strangest natural phenomena in southern California: the midnight Grunion run. On the four consecutive nights following full and new moon (in tune with the highest high tides of the month) thousands of little wriggling silver fish come ashore to flat sandy beaches to mate and lay eggs in the sand. Conditions have to be just right – sometimes they never show up, or just a few come ashore. They could pick any sandy beach, so you just have to go, and hope you’ll get to see them! The ‘run’ can happen at any point during a roughly two-hour window starting just after high tide. At first a few ‘scouts’ will wash up, these selfless fish serve as tests to see if it’s safe out. Of course, thousands of easy pickings does not go unnoticed among various predators, and in particular black crowned night herons line the beach on nights when the Grunion are expected to show up. If the scouts safely return to the water, slowly more and more Grunion will come ashore, sometimes many thousands them! The fish prefer dark and quiet spots, so it’s best to keep your lights out the majority of the time so as not to scare them off – particularly the first few. It wasn’t until the 30 or so other ‘grunion greeters’ had left, around 1am, that I finally saw the giant piles of wriggling fish.

“Grunion Spawning” ~ Doheny State Beach, CA
The Tech: Canon 5D2, 16-35mm mkII, tripod, headlamp
Exposure: iso 6400, f/5, 1.6 sec

This was one of the most challenging photos I’ve ever taken, as I literally had one wave cycle to set everything up and get the shot… in the dark. No time to focus or compose! Once the fish sense that you’re there they start wriggling back to the sea and with the next wave most of them will be safe in the water again. Of course, it didn’t help that the second time I wanted to use my flash this year, it refused to even turn on. Oh well, I was able to get much more even and naturalistic lighting with my headlamp at the sacrifice of some sharpness.

April and May are the peak months, and is also the ‘closed season’ for fishing them. Yes, that’s right.. during other months with a fishing permit and your bare hands you’re allowed to ‘fish’ for these 4-6 inch fish. Some people say they have a great fatty taste, kind of like freshwater smelt. I guess I’ll have to head back to the beach in the summer sometime to try one! You can find more information, as well as predicted ‘run’ times here: www.grunion.org.

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5 Comments to “Midnight Fishing”

  1. Richard Wong says:

    Fascinating photo, Floris. I’ve heard a lot about this and would like to check it out some time but man that sounds like it takes a lot of patience!

  2. Amazing phenomena and great effort in capture this, Floris!

  3. Aleks says:

    Wow, that is insane! I remember you telling me about this, glad you were able to get this incredible shot.

  4. Amazing capture! What a moment to be there and how fortunate you found the right beach!

  5. Mark Vincent Müller says:

    Hi Floris

    It is a great inspiring pleasure to follow your work. You have a precise artistic touch in your images and I appreciate your experimental nature.

    With deep respect.
    Mark Vincent Müller