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Revisiting Zane Grey’s Historic Destinations

The well-known novelist and adventurer pioneered fisheries in Southern California and the South Pacific

March 24, 2020
French Polynesian lagoon islands in Tahiti.
French Polynesia was just one of many top fishing destinations pioneered by Zane Grey during his travels. aitahiti/shutterstock.com

The year was 1872: Ulysses S. Grant had been reelected to the presidency; Yellowstone was established as the world’s first national park; and Susan B. Anthony voted for the first time, for which she was served an arrest warrant and in the subsequent trial was fined $100, which she never paid. It was also the year Zane Grey was born to outdoorsman Dr. Lewis M. Grey, a dentist in Ohio. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree for Dr. Grey’s children. Zane and his brother, RC, grew up hunting the woods and fishing the rivers and streams around their home in Zanesville, Ohio; Zane always had a passion for fishing and adventure.

Although he followed his father into dental practice, it was writing that was Zane’s true calling. He eventually wrote 89 books, including 56 novels set in the West, one set in the East, three Ohio River novels, two novelettes, three collections of short stories, two books of baseball stories and eight fishing books. From 1915 until 1924, Grey had a book on the bestseller list every year except 1916. Most readers considered Riders of the Purple Sage his finest Western novel; it was by far his bestselling novel. Hollywood turned 46 of his novels into movies, and a television series—Zane Grey Theater—only increased his popularity. Grey’s fortunes rose to the point where he could seriously pursue his thirst for fishing virgin seas, so he began traveling to far-flung destinations such as Nova Scotia, Tahiti, Panama, New Zealand and Australia by ocean liner, the only practical form of ­long-range maritime transportation at the time.

In August 1924, Grey purchased a 190-foot three-masted sailing sloop, which he renamed Fisherman, that became his mothership, one of the first of its kind anywhere in the world. Then he began a retrofit to accommodate two fishing boats—a 32- and a 25-footer—in cradles on the main deck. Grey also carried the best tackle money could buy, some of which he had specially made for huge billfish, which were his favorite species. Grey was a keen observer and noted every ­variety of bird and fish they saw, photographing each of them and deciphering their part of the ecosystem in their exact locale. Aboard Fisherman, there was a darkroom for developing the film, and many of the crew’s greyhounding billfish photos are some of the first ever taken.

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RC was most likely his favorite fishing buddy, and they shared many days fishing in foreign seas, sitting on the deck of Fisherman staring at a night sky filled with stars, the moon shining on empty beaches, tropical flowers scenting the night air, and traveling the world’s oceans guided strictly by celestial navigation. And while today’s anglers have the benefit of GPS, many of those same star-filled skies and foreign seas await. But just how much has the fishing really changed since then?

Black and white image of Zane Grey fishing.
While best known as one of America’s most notable authors, Grey was a passionate big-game angler. He helped design tackle to withstand prolonged battles with giant marlin, and was also among the first to use a mothership to fish distant waters. Courtesy IGFA/igfa.org

Discovering the SoCal Scene

Grey first fished Avalon in Southern California in 1914, catching halibut and white seabass from a rowboat. A few years later, he caught his first 100-pound tuna, which qualified him for membership in the Tuna Club of Avalon, the oldest and most prestigious fishing club in the country, founded by Charles Frederick Holder in 1898. The first clubhouse was built in 1906 but burned down in 1915; the current structure was built the following year and remains the mainstay of billfish tournaments on Catalina Island to this day.

There is some dispute about Grey’s ­resignation from the Tuna Club, but according to his son, Dr. Loren Grey, in a book released after Zane’s death, he quit after fighting a monstrous broadbill swordfish 18 miles southeast of San Clemente Island for over 12 hours, well into the darkness, only to have the line break. He went to the club’s board of directors, along with several other ­members, and petitioned them to approve a 36-strand linen line of around 108-pound-test, with rods and reels matched to the line. A good number of swordfish and striped marlin were being hooked, but the light tackle they were forced to use by club rules was no match for the big fish they encountered. The board turned Grey down flat, so he quit the club and began to have heavier tackle made to match the large billfish they were hooking. He commissioned JA Coxe to build custom reels that would hold 500 yards of the new, heavier line, and Shaver Rod Company to construct the heavier rods to match. He also built a 50-foot boat named Gladiator, which was equipped with a crow’s-nest to pursue swordfish and striped marlin. From this lofty perch, the crew could scan the seas to visually sight swordfish and striped marlin as they tailed or sunned on the surface. Sight-fishing, still popular on the West Coast today, was adopted by Grey and his crew, or more likely borrowed from the commercial “stick boats” that harpooned swordfish from the bow.

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Black and white image of Zane Grey with a large marlin.
Grey landed many large marlin during his career, like this big black. At the time, it was known as a silver marlin. Courtesy IGFA/igfa.org

Although they trolled lures and teasers, ­sight-fishing was their preferred technique, and between 1921 and 1926, fishing five to six weeks each season, Grey and his crew landed 36 swordfish, all over 300 pounds. In July 1926, Grey capped off the season by catching a 582-pound broadbill, a world-record fish. RC beat his record three weeks later with a 588-pound catch. Earlier, in 1918, fishing 40 miles south of Catalina Island, Zane and RC caught seven swordfish in a single day, a feat that surely has never been matched on a West Coast private boat. Six of the seven were also released.

Flash Forward

Fishing around Catalina and San Clemente islands has changed in the past several years, thanks to El Niño’s unusually warm waters welling up from the south around Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. Water temperatures in 2014 were about 4 degrees higher than the typical 72- to 74-degree water usually found there. With the warmer waters, an unusual occurrence began to surface off the California coast: Blue marlin and bluefin tuna were being sighted from planes and commercial boats, while anglers were hooking large blue marlin but breaking off most fish while using the lighter 30- to 50-­pound-class tackle typically used for striped marlin.

Bad Company’s Capt. Steve Lassley recalls a ­significant catch on October 14, 2014: “We decided to put together a two-day trip to specifically target the blue marlin that had shown up, so we loaded up and left our home port of Newport Beach and headed to the area, locked and loaded with 130-pound tackle and lures, ready to battle. We were looking for areas where the blue water had pooled up, and then looked for temperature breaks. The water temps were 74.2 degrees—very warm for our area but cool for blue marlin. Typically, large female blues prefer the cooler temperatures, while the smaller rats like the warmer water.”

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Bad Company owner Anthony Hsieh knew the minute he picked up the rod to move it to the chair that the fish didn’t act like a typical striped ­marlin, and as soon as the fish took flight, he confirmed it was a blue, and a nice one at that. In less than 20 minutes, Hsieh brought the fish to the boat and accomplished something that hadn’t been done in Southern California since 1931 when a 692-pound blue was weighed in Newport. They boated the fish and ran to the scales at Avalon to weigh it—a ­462-pound blue marlin—possibly the first ever to be weighed on Catalina Island.

Black and white image of the Tuna Club of Avalon.
Grey resigned from the historic Tuna Club of Avalon after ­petitioning the board of directors to allow the use of heavier tackle. Courtesy IGFA/igfa.org

“Bluefin tuna weighing 120 to 300 pounds and some wahoo were still being caught near the end of 2019,” Lassley says. “This is the third cycle of bluefin tuna in my lifetime,” he continues. “They first showed up in the early 1990s around San Martin Island, and again in the early 2000s off Ensenada, about 60 miles south of San Diego. Now, we’ve had bluefin tuna off our coast for five years, and it seems like with each cycle, they are pushing ­farther north by 60 to 100 miles.” While the swordfish are not as prevalent, the bluefin tuna and marlin fishing remains as good as it’s ever been in the past.

A school of bluefin tuna.
Although it is a ­cyclical fishery, bluefin tuna continue to be a mainstay for anglers fishing off Southern California. Guido Montaldo/shutterstock.com

The South Sea Connection

Grey traveled across the Pacific to New Zealand and Australia by ocean liner several times before he purchased and refitted Fisherman. Based on the huge fish that had been fought and lost, he knew that the marlin there would again require much heavier line and tackle to subdue, so he had rods and reels custom-made to fit the conditions. His largest reel, made by Arthur Kovalovsky, was as close to a 130 as you can get, and it was that combination that allowed Grey to earn six of his 10 record catches in Vairao and Bora Bora, Tahiti.

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In May 1930, Grey was fishing his last few days in Tahiti before his mothership planned to transit to New Zealand. On his 32-foot fishing boat, they were discussing their plans while sitting in the cockpit, watching the lures and teasers splash and smoke in the wake. The strike was sudden and strong—200 yards of line flew off the reel in an instant as a huge marlin began to greyhound away from the boat. The fight began, with the fish leaping and easily stripping another 500 yards of line off the reel. The captain chased down the fish, only to have it turn and race ahead. Controlled chaos ensued, and they almost lost the fish when the line wrapped around the prop, but the crew cleared it and Grey regained control once again, but not before the marlin had taken them 5 miles out to sea.

A large blue marlin breaking the surface around Tahiti.
The blue marlin fishing remains as good as ever for anglers visiting the many islands and atolls of Tahiti. Henry Badenhorst

Just as the fish was subdued, sharks surrounded the boat. Grey felt the sudden jerks and knew the sharks were attacking his fish. With gaffs and cleavers in hand, three crewmembers fought off the menacing sharks, as Grey and his mate tried to get the fish into the boat. Wishing they had a rifle to end the melee, they attacked left and right until there were several dead sharks floating nearby; Grey and his crew had lashed the fish to the side of the boat. When they finally reached the shore, it took 12 men to carry the marlin to the scales. Even with a large area above the tail bitten off by sharks, the marlin was 14 feet, 2 inches in length, with a girth of 6 feet, 9 inches, and a weight of 1,040 pounds. From the dimensions of the fish when it was weighed in, the full weight before the mutilation would have been somewhere between 1,200 and 1,300 pounds. At the time, the American Museum of Natural History was keeping the big-game world records, and it denied Grey the record due to the mutilation, even though all on board swore that it was after the fish had been gaffed that the attack began. A larger marlin was not landed for nearly 25 years, when Albert Glassell caught his all-tackle black marlin of 1,560 pounds in Cabo Blanco, Peru, in 1953.

A large custom sport fishing boat named Ultimate Lady.
Ultimate Lady, a 91-foot custom sport-fisher, offers long-range ­liveaboard trips. Bill Boyce

As Good as It Ever Was

Modern air travel has made Tahiti and the surrounding islands and atolls much more ­accessible to billfish anglers today, which is a great thing when you consider the thousands of square miles of virgin seas and the large blue and black marlin, wahoo, dogtooth, yellowfin and ­bigeye tuna, and other gamefish species that are there. There is a very small charter fleet but only one operation—Ultimate Lady, a 91-foot twin-hulled custom boat built in New Zealand—that can handle seven-day trips around the many atolls of the Tuamotu Archipelago. In 2020, a 50-foot ­sport-fisher will join Ultimate Lady, and they will both offer light-tackle fishing.

After fishing in New Zealand, Australia and the Marquesas, it’s this area of the Society Islands that has filled Ultimate Lady’s Capt. Tom Francis’ logbooks with his biggest and most notable catches. “Fishing has been excellent the past couple of years,” he says. “We’ve seen increased whale shark activity, with yellowfin and marlin mixed in. Blue marlin are the prominent billfish species caught here, and some are massive. In early December, a marlin over 1,000 pounds was landed, and every year there are at least 12 blues caught weighing over 900 pounds. Black marlin are rare, but every year a few big ones are caught as well.”

Techniques are the same as most anywhere, with lures and dead baits being the primary methods. “Some years ago, there was a local fisherman who caught some very large blue marlin on dead bait—one weighing 1,283 pounds and another 1,148-pounder,” Francis says. “About seven years ago, a girl hand-lined a 1,477-pound blue marlin. And there’s the famous fish, whose head was once mounted in the airport, that was a 1,563-pound blue caught by another local.” French Polynesia is one of a scant few locations in the world where blue marlin larvae has been found, indicating it’s a spawning ground for the species and an area where populations are strong. Aside from being one of the most beautiful places on earth, it still has the reputation of being one of those virgin seas that Zane Grey loved so much. And it too is just as good as it ever was in the past.

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