San Felipe Grunion Fever

San Felipe, Baja, Mexico

San Felipe Grunion Fever
by Anne Clizer

There are only three things I like about fishing: water, being outside, and eating fish. The down side is hefty, with the way fish feel being on top of the list. Bait is a big drawback too, and the way dying fish watch you with those poppy eyes. In spite of this, my love of water and the outdoors has landed me in some fishing situations. One March on the Sea of Cortez I ended up fishing for grunion with Nick by accident.

Before then, I had never heard of grunion. Turns out it’s a miniature fish that reminds me of the smelt my father used to cook once a year by the panful, crunchy with cornmeal and tiny bones. Each spring the grunion “run,” ensuring the survival of their species in a complex process packed with all the compelling elements typical of mating in the natural world: speed, timing, stamina, ludicrous gyrations, and imminent death.

One late afternoon I strolled along the beach in a brisk wind while waves slammed against the sand. Standing at the high tide mark, I watched the receding water. Silver streaks adorned the wave foam. The grunion run had begun! I hustled to camp and woke my fifteen-year-old daughter and her friend.

"The grunion are running," I said. “Come see them.”

Back at the beach, grunion glinted in the surf and I saw some squirmy action at the waterline. The girls arrived. After watching for three minutes, Maya yawned and said, "I’m going back. Let me know if anything happens."

"This is it," I told her. “This is what’s happening.”

"Oh." She said, and they left.

The grunion run gained energy. Here’s how it went: a female grunion broke free from the crest of a wave and fought her way up onto the wet sand. She vibrated her body to dig a shallow hole. Two males swooped in. One wrapped itself around the female, squeezing her so she released her eggs, and another deposited sperm on top of the egg-pile to fertilize them.

All this happened in a few seconds; the next breaker covered the eggs and carried the fish back out to sea. If shadows from beach-walkers fell across them, the fish stopped mating and dove back into the sea. Since grunion always run in late afternoon when the sun is low, observers need to be tricky.

North and south as far as I could see, threesomes mated, the females planted like tiny, twitching flagpoles. They burrowed in, dropped their load, then slithered seaward. I crouched lower as the sun sank, trying to shrink my shadow. Being sneaky made it hard to see. I dashed to camp for the binoculars.

"They're really going for it now," I told the girls, who sat in stunned silence, recovering from their siesta. Just then a ten-year-old neighbor boy trotted into camp.

"The grunion are running," I said.

"No kidding!" Nick yelled. "I haven't caught any grunion in four years.”

“Let’s go,” I said. After the girls’s apathy, Nick’s enthusiasm tickled me, even though it was clear he planned to kill the fish rather than watch them. I barely convinced the boy to shed his shoes before he plunged into the surf.

"What are you going to catch them with?" I said. I’d heard of folks using rakes to flip grunion up onto the beach. Then they tossed them into a bucket and blocked the top shut. Nick grabbed two fish and stood holding them as they tried to wiggle out of his grip. Evidently he feel the same way about their slimy skins as I did. Nick dug a hole in the dry sand with his foot and jammed the live fish into it, covering them back up. But they blasted out immediately and hopped toward the sea. Nick snatched them up again. Next he pushed them into one of his shoes, but then realized that wouldn't work either, not if he wanted more.

"Will you hold them for me?" he asked.

"No way!” I said, but I couldn’t bear the look of disappointment on his face. “Take off your sweatshirt,” I told him. “I’ll tie up the holes and keep the top shut for you.” He ripped off his shirt.

"I"m going to get enough for dinner and give them to my grandma!" Nick plunged back into the waves, using his hands as rakes, tossing grunion onto the beach. Then he leaped ashore, scooping them up and cramming them into the sweatshirt. Nick pounced again and again, carrying handfuls of fish—once he brought seven. He was mad with the greed of grunion fever. He danced through the waves in baggy shorts until they got so heavy the water pulled them down past his knees, exposing white briefs. Nick didn’t want to drop the fish, but he couldn’t walk with his pants dragging in the surf. When I began to laugh he jettisoned the grunion and pulled up his pants.

"That's not funny," he said.

"Well, it's kind of funny," I said. "It’s not like you’re naked."

"If I was naked, it definitely would not be funny," he said.

In the face of all that childish modesty, I wondered if Nick realized the fish were mating, if he was aware of the powerful instinct that drove the grunion to land. The boy kept cramming fish into the sweatshirt’s neck hole. grunion gasped and died, going still against my stomach. For a moment I regretted my part in their death, but I followed Nick eastward after the receding tide, staring out to sea. By the silver light in the breakers, I knew that thousands of grunion had dodged Nick’s grasp. And the wet sand held countless eggs.

I don’t know what my chances are of meeting up with Nick again, so that might have been my only grunion harvest, my single meal of savory grunion meat. But each March I’ll be walking that beach, admiring the new generation as they dance their threesomes in the late afternoon.

Ann Clizer spends the spring months north of San Felipe with her husband and two Jack Russell Terriers. Her other home is in the Idaho mountains.