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How to Fish on Grunion Runs for Maximum Success

Updated: Jan 27

The first Grunion Run is in mid-March in Southern California, marking the start of the saltwater surf fishing season for many West Coast shore casters when vast shoals of these tasty bait fish start appearing on the beach as their breeding season begins.

grunion run fishing
Between March and September the grunion runs present some excellent fishing opportunities. This article will help you make the most of fishing on a grunion run in California.

Species such as leopard sharks, soupfin sharks, shovelnose guitarfish, striped bass, surf perch, croaker, bat rays, and especially California halibut love grunion runs for an easy meal close to shore.

But it can be tricky fishing and timing your session for maximum success on a run. Maybe you've experienced a slow or poor bite during a grunion run when you thought it should be wide open? If so, read on...

California halibut caught on a grunion run
Grunion Run Fishing - A big California halibut caught on the tactics and methods in this article during a Grunion Run

This page is all about sharing information and knowledge around grunion-run fishing and the tactics and tackle that really work when it comes to targeting predatory fish in the surf in California around grunion runs, based on several years experience of guiding around runs.


Grunion Run Fishing - Tactics, Times, Baits, Rigs, Beaches and Tides for Grunion Run Fishing in California guide index


Grunion Run Fishing - Introduction (Grunion Run 101...)

The seasonal grunion runs and their vast shoals of tasty protein act like a mobile buffet truck, kicking into life many predatory surf species that like an easy meal in Southern California.

grunion run california

For this reason, it's a great opportunity to catch a big leopard shark, soupfin shark, bat ray, California halibut, surf perch, yellowfin croaker, white seabass or similar predatory surf species.

To be clear, we're not really trying to catch grunions at all - they're small, boney and take is restricted - but they're a central part of surf fishing in SoCal. They're also not useful as bait, but we'll discuss that in depth later and list some great alternatives.

Next, let's get into the details for successfully fishing around those famous runs, which are often some of the hottest bites...


Grunion Run Fishing in California - Grunion Run Basics

Grunion runs occur when vast shoals of the sardine-like grunion (Leuresthes tenuis) congregate just offshore in Southern California on certain moon and tide cycles, working their way up to the sandy shallows as the tide comes in.

As the video below shows, the female grunion carve out a small hole and lay their eggs at the top of the night’s high tide just where the waves end and the sand begins, with the males fertilizing the eggs in situ before flopping and squirming their way back to safety as the water retreats.

This cycle (the Grunion Run) is repeated roughly every ten to 14 days or so, generally on a new, half, and full moon.

This is because the aforementioned moon cycles generate the larger high tides (sometimes called spring tides), which suits the grunion's tactic of laying eggs in the sand at the high tide mark.

They're then left to mature until the next big tide cycle plucks them from their sandy hole and returns them to the ocean, whereupon they begin their journey to become adult grunions. Mating, sand, and summer – what a life!

Grunion runs are listed as occurring over four nights, with conventional wisdom dictating that the last half of the listed dates (3rd and 4th nights) are the best times for grunion run hunting as the run picks up pace.

The run times coincide with the high tide that day, so hunts can be planned fairly precisely.

However, whilst the timing of the run is well-known, the locations of the runs aren’t as easy to predict. More on the best grunion run locations, spots and beaches later.

grunion run beaches California
BEST GRUNION RUN BEACH - Any open, reef-free flat sandy beaches in Southern California will attract grunion runs when conditions are right

In general, pretty much any open, flat sandy beach in Southern California from Ventura down to San Diego will have runs at some point, and every stretch of coastline has its favorites.

In recent seasons, multiple runs have been confirmed at the following beaches making them the best beaches to find grunion runs in California:

  • Surfer's Knoll (Ventura County)

  • Santa Monica Beach (LA County)

  • Redondo & Torrance Beach (LA County)

  • Seal Beach (LA County)

  • Cherry Beach (Long Beach, LA County)

  • Cabrillo Beach (LA County)

  • San Pedro area beaches (LA County)

  • Huntington Beach (Orange County)

  • Newport Beach / Balboa (Orange County)

  • Capistrano / Doheney Beach (Orange County)

  • Carlsbad State Beach (Orange County)

  • Cardiff-by-the Sea Beach / San Elijo (San Diego)

  • Coronado Ferry Landing Beach (San Diego)

  • Campo Archelon (Baha, MX)

Ask around locally or search on Facebook and it’ll soon be clear which ones feature consistently and are worth targeting. The theme is always open, sandy beaches, warm water, relatively mellow conditions and a quiet locality.

Other factors to consider when planning a grunion run fishing session are beach access in the 10 p.m. to midnight slot when runs often occur, and the no-take months of April, May and June.


Grunion Run Fishing: How does a Grunion Run impact the Surf and Shark Fishing?

The grunion run’s impact on the quality of the fishing is an interesting subject.

Looking at the basic facts of the run, it’d be easy to think that simply being on the beach at the time of the run will lead to a wide-open session for all species.

In my experience, this isn’t quite true. Let me explain why.

Many predatory surf species are triggered to feed and move by tidal shifts. They use the moving water to find food and scent trails, rather than roaming aimlessly to find food at night.

The grunion runs revolve around late-night high tides, often in the 10 p.m. to midnight range, meaning fish like bat rays, soupfin and leopard sharks are hunting exclusively by scent at this stage.

At high tide – peak grunion run time – there’s very little water moving in or out, meaning the predators just aren’t on the hunt right then.

The grunion can have a party – good work, evolution.

However, when that water turns and high tide turns into an outgoing tide, also known as an ebb or ebbing tide, it’s a different story. This occurs late at night or very early morning on a typical grunion run tide.

The first green arrow on the diagram below shows this scenario; an ebbing tide at the peak of its tidal push.

best times to fish on a grunion run surf fishing California

Those predatory species are then triggered to swim up that scent trail of dead and dying grunions, enhanced by the outgoing tide, with the moving water making finding food much easier.

On a grunion run, this normally happens just as the run is ending, which can be way beyond the hours most sane fisherfolk keep - think around 11pm to 4 a.m. to hit that peak moving water slot after a late-night high tide.

As those grunion back off the beach with the outgoing tide, the combination of a mobile shoal of feeding and mating fish pumping out scent and movement plus water shifting will trigger those predatory species into action, but not until well into the evening and the high tide turns into an outgoing tide.


Grunion Run Fishing - Best Times to go Fishing during a Grunion Run

The good news is that the fishing in the days before and after a run is usually top-draw.

By dialing in that same tide cycle that brings the grunion up the beach, only a few days before or after so those peak times with the water moving occur earlier in the evening or around dawn, the bite can be as productive.

And your family won’t hate you for returning home at 4 a.m. covered in bat ray slime and grunion juice.

To be precise, when I talk about peak times in relation to tides, I mean those times either side of the high and low tide slacks where the water is moving in or out of the area you’re fishing.

Moving water triggers predators like sharks into action because they find it easier to find food and move at this time, compared to slack water. Typically, this peak tidal movement occurs an hour or two after, and before, high or low tide.

Best times to fish during a grunion run
BEST TIME TO FISH DURING A GRUNION RUN - Either side of the high tide, about two hours before or after, is often the best time to fish during a grunion run due to the tide moving water in and out.

So, with a typical grunion high tide coming in at 10 p.m. to midnight, you might also look at a high tide a few days earlier, say around 8 to 9 p.m., with that bite-friendly peak incoming tide occurring around dusk in Spring, say 6 to 7pm.

Or maybe the high tide is in the early hours and the peak outgoing tide kicks in at dawn.

These would both be great times to fish either side of a grunion run if you’re not keen on a very late night but still want to make the most of a run and the fishing.


Grunion Run Fishing - When to fish for big Bat Rays and Sharks on a Grunion Run

After many nights of fishing in grunion runs, I’ve observed that big bat rays are often the first species to turn up for an easy meal.

Bat rays love the slack water around the high tide period and will come close to shore to graze on whatever the find, but on grunion runs they specifically seem to turn up at precisely the same time.

The video below features a big bat ray caught during a grunion run using some of the tackle and tactics described later in this article.

I’ve been on a beach many times when, within minutes of spotting a grunion run starting, we hook up on a big bat ray. You can imagine how easy it is for them to swim around and hoover up spent grunions.

grunion run fishing bat ray california
GRUNION RUN FISHING - A big bat ray caught during a grunion run in California.

Beyond bat rays, as that high tide slack turns into an outgoing tide, this is when the other predatory species really kick into gear, particularly surf shark species.

However, as this is normally outside of reasonable fishing times (think early hours of the morning; midnight to 4am) this bite isn’t one to regularly target if you have a life outside of fishing.

For example, the video below features big bat rays caught during a grunion run late at night in Southern California. By the way, we used a Surf Shark Pulley Rig, mackerel bait, and 8oz Sputnik Surf Sinker whilst fishing with the awesome John Locker (aka The Fish Locker YouTube Channel)

Grunion Run fishing - The best Baits and Tactics for California halibut, Surf Perch, Seabass and Croaker

If you’re targeting species like halibut, often in the days before or after the run as you would with the larger predators, your go-to baits are a lot simpler in that a grunion pattern lure (jerkbait, swimbait or jig) is all you need to match the hatch.

One of the best we've found is the Daiwa Salt Pro Minnow in Grunion pattern (below). Glow-in-the-dark jerk baits like the Lucky Craft patterns are also gaining popularity. Expect lots of big croaker and perch, too.

grunion run fishing bait
GRUNION RUN FISHING BAITS - The Daiwa Salt Pro Minnow Floating in Grunion pattern is an awesome bait.

Also, try drop-shotting a white fluke in the 3 to 5-inch range on light spinning tackle right after a run, picking up halibut combing the surf for spent grunions and other surf species making the most of the buffet.

Best grunion run fishing baits fishbites brawler
BEST GRUNION RUN BAITS - Fishbites Brawler scented baits can be fished swimbait-style or on a drop shot. They're great baits for grunion run fishing at night or in low light for California halibut.


Grunion Run Fishing - Best Surf Fishing Rigs, Tackle and Tactics to use for Sharks, Rays

Next, let’s explore some basic tactics and tackle to deploy during a grunion run.

With the water temperatures up, swarms of baby rays and small critters will likely be interested in anything fresh and bloody you send out, so go big with the baits like the one below to avoid nuisance fish.

mackerel bait for sharking fishing in California on a grunion run
Grunion Run fishing bait - a great bait for shark fishing on a grunion run is a fresh mackerel mounted on a two hook surf shark pulley rig

For example, a large chunk or head section of fresh (never frozen) mackerel, bonito, croaker or surf perch.

Grunions are not the best bait; they’re small, delicate, unpredictable to find and take is prohibited in certain months.

A better strategy is to turn up to your session with a dozen fresh mackerel, some croaker or bonito on ice, rather than hope the grunion show up for bait.

Best grunion run surf fishing bait
BEST GRUNION RUN FISHING BAIT - Fresh (not frozen) mackerel is an awesome bait for any predatory fish in California

So, let’s say you’re running half a fresh mackerel on a twin-circle-hook pulley rig (a reliable surf fishing set-up for predators) with a proper Sputnik-style surf sinker and wire leader.

Tackle-wise, the big lesson is this: don’t go under-gunned as the grunion runs can attract some really big fish. Those big rays and surf sharks will test your equipment to the max.

I’d fish with nothing less than: 6500-size spinning reel, or conventional equivalent, capable of running 30 pounds of drag (an Okuma Salina 10,000 or Penn Slammer III 8500 HS are the current weapons of choice), 50-pound braid main line, 12-feet of 80-pound mono rubbing leader and a rig equipped with 130- or 170-pound wire, like the expertly-made surf fishing rigs below.

Try the Leopard Shark Pulley Rig for casting for leopards anywhere in SoCal; the Surf Shark Pulley Rig for larger soupfin and big bat rays on rockier venues, and the Shark Leader C-Rig for an easy and robust option for pier, drone or kayak deployed baits for larger shark species like sevengills and trophy soupfin anywhere.

Don't forget a big spuntik surf sinker too - 7 and 8oz are the go-to weights for surf shark fishing.

Anything less than the tackle described above and the rigs listed, and those big rays will disappear off to the horizon, whilst the soupfin and leopards will expose any weakness in your set-up.

Tip: Don’t use mono as a bite leader or you’ll leave hooks in fish.

Recast and rebait regularly to get those fresh scent trails laid down in the current and you will get bit, especially if the vast shoals of grunion are in the area and moving up the beach.


What are the Rules, Laws and Regulations for Grunion Run Fishing: Do I need a fishing license for catching Grunions?

  • Fishing License: A valid California fishing license is required for individuals 16 years and older to participate in grunion runs. You must have a fishing license even if you don't intend to keep the grunion.

  • Seasons: In 2022, a closure (no take allowed) was introduced from April through June to better protect grunion during their peak spawning period. This is in place for the 2024 season.

  • Bag and Possession Limits: There are specific bag and possession limits for grunion. The daily bag and possession limit for grunion during the open season is currently 30 grunions. These limits help protect the species and ensure future sustainability. You will be fined if found over this limit, or if keeping grunions in a no-take month.

  • Restrictions on Devices for catching grunion: Devices, such as nets or hole traps, may not be used for capturing grunion during runs. Only the use of bare hands is typically allowed to catch them. No holes may be dug in the beach to entrap them. The best way to catch grunion is to just scoop them up with your bare hands.

  • Size Limits: While there may not be specific size limits for grunion, regulations usually require that they are kept whole while in possession.

When participating in grunion runs, it's important to prioritize the well-being of the fish. Gentle handling and a "catch and release" mentality are encouraged to minimize stress on the grunion population, which is highly pressured.

A good tip for experiencing a strong run, is to minimize disturbance by avoiding bright lights or excessive noise on the beach during runs.


Grunion Run Fishing: Guided Grunion Run Surf Fishing Trip & Sessions in California

So, that’s my professional guide’s take on grunion run fishing. Get it wrong and it can be surprisingly slow.

But, get your timing and tactics right, and you’ll likely find yourself attached to something large and toothy this spring and summer, and catching and releasing a big fish from the beach in California is as good as it gets in my opinion.

If you’re interested in learning more about grunion run fishing on a guided surf fishing trip or just need some advice, get in contact - we’re happy to help.

Our guiding service runs surf and shark fishing trips in Orange, LA and San Diego County most of the year round.

Let me know if you have any questions or if you want to inquire about a guided surf fishing trip in southern California for any species or season:

bat ray caught on a grunion run California
Grunion Run caught bat ray for John Locker on a recent session. Thanks to John Locker (aka The Fish Locker) for this awesome bat ray shot.


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