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OUTDOORS : Tiny Fish Seeks Mate For Love on the Beach : Luck and patience are needed when keeping a surfside vigil for spawning schools of grunion.

July 22, 1993|KATHLEEN WILLIAMS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Wait until dark, way after dark, to witness an event worth losing sleep over. Find a dark beach, hang out in the cold until nearly midnight. Patience counts. When the high tide rolls in, you will see as many as 5,000 fish come out of the sea and dance on the sand. Maybe.

These are the famed California grunion. Not quite as elusive as snipe, but nearly so.

The tiny, silvery fish respond to the moon, the tide and the hours of darkness to carry out their rituals of passion; fishermen and nature lovers have learned to take advantage of this knowledge.

Those seeking the best possible advantage might consider attending a program, "Grunion Adventures," on the life cycle of the tiny creature. The program--offered tonight at 8:30 p.m. at McGrath State Beach--is lead by Kathy Dolinar, a supervising park ranger with the state Parks and Recreation Department. Grunion are expected to run in the wee hours during a two-hour interval beginning at 12:35 a.m.

This reporter went in search of grunion late one July evening, her editor having studied the tide tables and the list of most expendable reporters.

It was the first night of the run. None of the campers at Emma Wood State Beach appeared to care. They were inside their RVs with their lights lit. Similarly, the sand was deserted near Ventura Pier.

Grunion are fussy about where they spawn. They don't like rocks, and they don't like noise. Or lights. Or, in all probability, human beings--who whenever they see wildlife tend to want to interact with it in ways that would seem unappealing to six-inch-long, edible creatures.

No doubt the fish would like to be left alone to carry out their destiny as nature intended, without the interruption of flashlights, shrieks of delight, or large plastic buckets in which they can be toyed with for a while, before being taken out and eaten.

But they continue to show up regardless. They are not an endangered species, and outside of April and May, there is open season on them with no limit. However, they may be taken only with the hands, and it is unlawful to dig a pit in the sand to trap them. Fair is fair.

On the night in question, near the south edge of San Buenaventura State Beach, a few stalwart groups were seeking grunion.

Frank and Tricia Goss of Ventura, their daughter Tyler, 9, and son Cosmo, 6, were staked out on the sand with a bucket and blankets.

"We're going to give it an hour," said Tricia, who indicated they were potential grunion breakfasters as well as watchers.

Frank said it was his third attempt at grunion gathering, the other two, during his teen-age years, having failed.

The younger Gosses were not in a mood to talk, it being several hours past their bedtime. They braved it out until sometime after midnight, their quest unfulfilled. The grunion, like seasoned surfers, were holding out for a better wave.

Later, ranger Dolinar would advise going on the second and third nights of the four-day run. These, she said, are more popular with the fish, but only if the circumstances are right.

"If they feel pounding feet or they see lights," she said, "they are not going to come in on that beach."

One or two male grunion land on the beach and supposedly report back, alerting the school to come in, she said. Timing is everything.

"They have to come in with the highest of the high tides," she explained, as this lets the fish deposit their eggs high on the sand beyond the reach of the waves for the incubation time. Two weeks later, after the next full or new moon, the waves reach that height again just as the eggs are ready to hatch, and wash the young grunion out to sea.

Catching grunion, once you have chosen the right night and the right beach, is not that hard.

"You have to be willing to go out and run through the water and pick up fish with your hands," Dolinar said.

Grunion do not really dance on the sand. That's a romantic term used by writers. What the fish actually do is more practical. The females wiggle into the sand to deposit eggs, the males twist around them to add their milt; then both flop in the direction of salt water. The next wave takes them back to sea.

Grunion are the only fish on this continent that lay their eggs on land. No one knows how they sense when the highest waves will carry them high enough on the beach, Dolinar said.

Professor Milton Love, a marine biologist at UC Santa Barbara, confirmed this.

"Scientists don't like to answer how questions," he said. But he took a shot at it, anyhow.

"Through a million years, the fishes that spawned when it was brightest outside at night, (full moon) and those that spawned when it was really dark (new moon), are the ones whose young survived to pass on the trait," he said. "Fishes who spawned at half moon, their young didn't make it."

Which sounds logical, but takes away some of the romance. Instead, it might just be that grunion hearts beat a little faster in answer to a special pull of the tide; and at that moment, they plunge into a wave and ride it to their destiny.

Either way, they're out there, hanging out beyond the surf, waiting. And on nights when the tide is high their dance partners, the grunion watchers, are ready, just in case--stationed along the shore from Santa Barbara south through Mexico, staring out to sea.

* WHERE AND WHEN

WHAT: "Grunion Adventures" presented by the state Parks and Recreation Department.

WHEN: 8:30 tonight.

WHERE: Visitors Center, McGrath State Beach. Off Harbor Boulevard, south of Spinnaker Drive, Ventura. A two-hour grunion run is estimated for 12:35 a.m. tomorrow and several more runs are expected in August. But grunion followers will have to go it alone as none of the runs will be supervised by state rangers. Two-hour runs are expected as follows:

Friday: 12:35 a.m.

Aug. 4: 10:55 p.m.

Aug. 5: 11:30 p.m.

Aug. 6: 12:10 a.m.

Aug. 7: 12:55 a.m.

Aug. 19: 11:10 p.m.

Aug. 20: 12:05 a.m.

Aug. 21: 1:05 a.m.

Aug. 22: 2:35 a.m.

COST: Free

ALSO: Catching grunion requires a fishing license for anyone 16 or older.

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