Fishing Lines: Reeling in the Grey legend

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The Independent Online
WHEN Zane Grey caught a 418lb broadbill swordfish in 1920 off the Californian coast, he should have let the capture alone do the talking for him. As I wrote last week, he was the world's best-selling author and an excellent angler. Though the fish was not a world record, it was still the largest of the year and a notable catch. Grey, however, failed to consider that others might not be quite as enthusiastic, especially in the fiercely competitive Catalina Island Tuna Club.

Members were regaled tiresomely with how he had rowed all winter to keep in condition, how he had soaked his hands in salt water against the possible challenge of a record fish, and how hooking the big swordfish in the mouth, rather than in the stomach, had enabled it to give a more sporting account.

The next year, Grey got his come-uppance. Mrs Keith Spalding, one of the club's best anglers though less than 5ft tall, captured a 426lb broadbill. That evening nearly every Tuna Club member phoned Grey's house. They recounted how far she had rowed the previous winter, how she had used hand lotion to keep her palms supple and other remarks that turned Grey's boastful tale back on himself.

Petulantly, he claimed that Mrs Spalding couldn't possibly have landed such a big fish herself. His unwarranted remarks prompted a club letter stating that Grey must apologise or resign. He did both.

Behaviour like this resulted in a decreasing circle of friends at a time when he was at the height of his fame from cowboy books such as The Heritage of the Desert and Riders of the Purple Sage. He had negotiated a contract giving him an unprecedented 20 per cent royalties on all sales over 10,000 copies printed, which produced a great deal of money for the world's best-selling author.

His sad personal life, however, should not overshadow his achievements as a tremendously exciting writer on all outdoor matters, especially fishing, and a pioneering angler.

He caught a world record bluefin tuna off Nova Scotia, then travelled to New Zealand and landed the first swordfish ever caught on rod and line there, along with a record 450lb striped marlin and a 111lb yellowfin tuna. It was the start of big-game fishing in New Zealand, now one of the leading spots in the world.

Grey's adventures resulted in some of the greatest books on big-game fishing: Tales of Fishing Virgin Seas; Tales of Tahitian Waters; Tales of Swordfish and Tuna, but once again, things went wrong. He took a British ex-army captain, Laurie Mitchell, to New Zealand as his companion but he never forgave Mitchell for capturing a 976lb black marlin, then the largest fish ever taken on rod and line. Their relationship ended in a legal battle, which forced Grey to sell his beloved boat, Fisherman II, at a huge loss.

When he returned to the US, things had changed. It was the Depression. The public had tired of hearing about Zane Grey and he died in 1939 in relative obscurity, ignominiously having had to pay people to go fishing with him.

Ironically, his fishing books are now hugely sought after, and cost upwards of pounds 100. And on Wednesday a big-game reel named after him is expected to make between pounds 1,500 and pounds 2,500 at Sotheby's in Billingshurst, Sussex. For Grey, this would have been the respect he sought but never found during his life.