California Moray

Species: Gymnothorax mordax (Ayres, 1859); from the Greek words gymno and thorax (naked breast or lack of scales) and the Latin word mordax  (prone to bite).

Martin (Greensleeves) and a moray at the 2003 Catalina Get Together

Alternate Names: Moray or conger eel. Early-day names included marina and muraena. Called morena de California or anguila in Mexico.

Identification: Typical eel-like shape with a large head tapering to a pointed tail; the only shallow-water eel lacking pectoral fins. They have very well developed teeth (to grab their prey) and the coloring is greenish-brown, greenish-yellow, or red-brown.

Moray captured by DompfaBen at the San Clemente Pier in 2009

A moray from the San Clemente Pier in 2004

Size: Up to five feet long and around 15 pounds. Most caught from piers are less than three feet. A 49-inch moray with an empty stomach weighed 11.2 pounds while a 47-inch fish, whose stomach contained two flying fish, weighed 14.58 pounds. Conclusions: (1) Don’t eat flying fish if you’re on a diet and (2) flying fish should stay at the top of the water and not head down to the realm of the morays.

Range:  From Bahia Magdalena, southern Baja California, to Point Conception.

Kien and a moray caught at the Cabrillo Mole in 2011

Habitat: Considered a true bottom fish that lives in continuous contact with the substrate; morays occupy crevices in shallow reef or rocky areas, especially around the offshore islands. Primary foods are crustaceans and small fishes with small spiny lobsters, red rock shrimp, kelp bass and blacksmith considered favorites.

A moray caught by Rita Magdamo at the Cabrillo Mole in 2014 (Photo courtesy of Rita Magdamo)

Piers: Every year will see a few California moray caught by southern California pier fisherman; an event that attracts the attention of most nearby anglers. Morays are both uncommon and ferocious in nature and it is one fish that should be handled very carefully. Best bets: Ocean Beach Pier, Dana Point Harbor Pier, San Clemente Pier, Redondo Sportfishing Pier, Hermosa Beach Pier, Gaviota Pier, and, by far the best, the Cabrillo Mole in Avalon.

Bait and Tackle: Morays are seldom the intentional catch of anglers; instead they are caught incidentally when fishing for other rocky-shore fish. They will grab almost any bait. However, best bait would appear to be shrimp, crabs, or small live fish.

The best time to fish is at night and the angler should keep the bait in motion since moray will hide in crevices waiting for prey to swim by. Tackle should be kept simple; a medium-sized outfit with at least 15-pound test line and a size 4 to 2 hook. Be prepared to strike and start reeling quickly before the moray can retreat to the rocks.

A nice-sized moray caught at the San Clemente Pier in 2002 by Predator (Martin) once known on PFIC as Stinkyfinger. Here he seems to be risking a finger or two.

Arcadian and a moray taken at the Cabrillo Mole on “The Night of the Moray” in 2015 (Photo courtesy of Hashem Nahid)

Food Value:  I’ve never eaten a moray but I have been told that they are quite tasty.

A moray taken at the Cabrillo Mole in 2016. It’s easy to see why they are called snakes.

Comments:   Moray are a favorite of skin divers and often are quite tame. However, those I have seen caught on the end of a fishing line (I’ve only caught two), are usually ready to do battle. Because of their mouth full of sharp teeth, be careful if you happen to inherit the unenviable job of removing a hook from a still-thrashing, nasty-tempered moray that’s giving you the evil eye. By the way, although moray are common at Catalina, it doesn’t mean you are going to catch one. I have caught over 125 different species of fish from California piers and though I had once caught a moray while fishing from a boat at the Coronado Islands, I had never caught one from a pier. Thus I decided around 2010 that I needed to catch a moray from a pier and I felt the Cabrillo Mole would be the place to catch it. Years went by and even though there was an annual visit to Catalina, and several friends caught moray, I never could seem to catch one. That changed on a warm July night in 2015 while fishing on the Mole with friends (which meant a bad Turkish-rendition of the song “That’s Amore” by my fishing friend Mahigeer (and obviously no relation to Dean Martin). Soon after I caught my moray another friend caught one not fifty feet away on the Mole, and then, as we were leaving the Mole, we discovered a group of kids had just caught another moray. Whatever the reason for their abundance that night it will long be remembered as the “Night of the Moray.”

KJ and the long sought after moray during “The Night of the Moray” — Cabrillo Mole at Catalina, 2015 (Photo courtesy of Hashem Nahid)

Just sit back and dream like you’re listening to Dean Martin singing “That’s Amore.”  (A new version with apologies to Jack Brooks, and Harry Warren, the writers of “That’s Amore.”)

When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie

That’s a time for a moray

When the world seems to shine like you’ve had too much wine

That’s a time for a moray

Bells will ring ting-a-ling-a-ling, ting-a-ling-a-ling
And you’ll sing “Is it time for my moray?”

Hearts will play tippy-tippy-tay, tippy-tippy-tay
And you’ll sigh in relief with your moray





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One Response to California Moray

  1. dompfa ben says:

    Great post, Ken! It is certainly an interesting emotional roller coaster to pull on a hoop net (when seeking lobster or crab), feeling the weight in the net as you pull the rope, only to discover an angry, thrashing moray eel looking back at you with those somewhat reptilian but equally kitten-like eyes… then you realize, “Hey cool! A moray eel! Let’s throw it back before someone loses a thumb!”

    So if you were graphing that on some kind of psychological emotional metric, it would go:

    Excited… Somewhat disappointed… Surprised… Compassionate… Fulfilled (upon the release).

    Thanks for the ed-cred. :)


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