Morays: Family Muraenidae
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).
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.
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.
Moray caught at the San Clemente Pier by DompfaBen (Ben Acker)
Range: From Bahia Magdalena, southern Baja California, to Point Conception.
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.
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—it is one fish that should be handled very carefully. Best bets: Ocean Beach Pier, Dana Point Harbor Pier, Redondo Sportfishing Pier, Hermosa Beach Pier, Gaviota Pier and, by far the best, the Green Pleasure Pier and Cabrillo Mole, both at Avalon.
Moray caught at the Cabrillo Mole in Avalon by Rita
Shoreline: An occasional catch by rock anglers in southern California.
Boats: An unusual catch on boats although I did manage one from a boat once while fishing the Coronado Islands.
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.
Moray caught at the Cabrillo Mole in Avalon by Mahigeer (Hashem Nahid)
Food Value: I’ve never eaten a moray but I have been told that they are quite tasty.
Comments: Moray are a favorite of skindivers and often are quite tame. However, those I have seen caught on the end of a fishing line (I’ve only caught two myself), 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 buddy Mahigeer (and obviously no relation to Dean Martin).
Soon after, I caught my moray another friend caught one 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.”