It’s a ‘Surf fish’ egg-laying frenzy
As a native I grew up eating surf fish and going with my dad, uncles and cousins to Goat Rock to surf fish. We would pack in fire wood and build a nice spot at the base of the steep cliff on the coarse gravel beach. Today, I see very few folks netting the lost art of surf fishing. This is not a hook and line sport, but netting the tiny fish swimming in the waves and living in the calm waters behind the surf.
Fishermen see them as bait, those from Southern California call them “grunion” (a close cousin), but fish see them as lunch. There are two species of surf fish here: the “night” surf fish, about five inches (or so) and slim and the “day” surf fish, much bigger (as much as 10 inches), and much heavier. They also live in the surf and surrounding waters. Both are staples in the bigger “game” fish, seagull, pelican, seal and sea lion diet.
When surf fish lay their eggs, they come onto the beach in calm waters and shiver out their eggs on the rough gravel. Their eggs are covered with a super sticky substance that makes them adhere to the gravel. As the wave recedes, the fish ride back out and then in again to deposit more eggs - at least the females do. The males are excited by the egg-laying frenzy and deposit their sperm in the soft waves.
After a few warm days in the sun, the eggs detach and are carried out to deeper water by the waves to finish growing the babies. This all happens in the nighttime waters for the “night” surf and during the daytime for the “day” surf. Millions and millions of eggs are laid on a warm night with gentle waves.
The clouds of surf fish during the egg-laying frenzy can be a huge, dark cloud in the surf with their silver sides flashing in the light. One of my long-gone uncles said he could smell them when they were “running.”
For the fisherman, look at your tide book and pick a minus tide (after dark) this time of year for the small night surf fish. Fish the hour or so before the minus tide low point and the hour or so after the mark. The fish are tasty until summer. In the warmer water, they are a bit too strong for the human palate. For day surf fish, check your tide book for a high tide during the daylight hours, go out during a fairly calm ocean and fish an hour or so either side of the high water mark.
Safety for surf fishermen
The issue of safety is a big concern; most surf fishermen wear chest-high waders and a jacket as they wade into the waves. I wear my wetsuit farmer-johns and wetsuit booties. I stay warm in the frigid water and if I do fall or get swept into the surf, I know I will float and I can ride the waves back in. If you are using chest waders, be sure to add a good safety vest on top. Clumsy, yes, but a real friend if you wind up in the surf.
Check the regulations in the ocean fishing guide book if you plan to make your own net. The last time I saw surf fishing nets for sale was in Half Moon Bay. I think the legal limit is six-foot long poles and a six-foot opening. The other, easier option is a Hawaiian style throw-net. When you get to the beach, try Goat Rock beach and fish either side of the Rock parking lot. Some guys fish Duncan’s Landing; the key is rough gravel. You will need a bucket for your fish and a good flashlight. If you hit it on a good night (or day), look for birds and seals feeding frantically in the surf line. I have nearly bagged a seal in the frenzy of surf fishing during the mating cycle, they get close enough to touch…don’t do it. Big teeth.
The regulations allow 25 pounds per day - that is about a five-gallon bucket full of fish. You stand well-back of the surf line and throw your net into the knee-deep wave after it breaks or fish the “back” of the wave. Surf fishing at night is a moving experience. On a good, warm night, the stars are close enough to touch and the fish produce a rich, ripe odor in their breeding frenzy.
Clean ‘em up, eat ‘em up
Once back home, I clean them with scissors, removing the head, innards and dorsal fin. Some old timers eat them whole. Then a fresh water rinse and I freeze them on a cookie sheet lined with wax paper. It only takes an hour or so and they are cold enough to put in freezer bags without sticking together.
To prepare surf fish, I sauté the fish in vegetable oil after a light egg wash, two teaspoons of water to one egg, and beat until smooth, then a quick roll in flour with salt and pepper. The fish crisp up and are eaten like a French fry. Another surf fish favorite is soaking them in your favorite brine and into the smoker with hickory or apple wood. Once smoked, they beg for cold beer and a good baseball game. Alternatively, you can buy them at some local fish markets.
Bill Hanson is a Sonoma County native and a lifelong sportsman. He is past president of the Sonoma County Mycological Association.