Fishing Lines: Zane's world of no pain, no gain

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I THINK it was the pop star David Lee Roth who said: "The perfect woman has a brilliant mind, wants to make love until four in the morning, then turns into a pizza." There should be something similarly epigrammatic for the ideal angling companion, though this paragon would probably possess none of the aforementioned qualities (except perhaps the bit about the pizza).

Suggestions gratefully received, but I suggest it would be something along the lines of: "The perfect angling companion carries all the heavy items including a six-course lunch with a decent bottle of claret; always catches less than you but still admires your fish and talks about what a great day it was; picks you up in the morning and drives you home at night, not complaining when you fall asleep on the way home. She is also your boss and insists that you fish more, or lose your job."

There is an assumption that writers and top anglers will make excellent angling buddies. Me apart, this is rarely true. John Bailey, star of the acclaimed Casting at the Sun, the best film ever made about Indian fishing, is another exception. But he tells the story of one big-name writer who would sulk for days and refused to come out if John caught a larger fish.

Another who would not have qualified on any of those counts is Zane Grey. He may have been a great writer, an extraordinary angler and a fearless adventurer, but he was a bit of a shit. Even Tom Fort, compiler of The Best of Zane Grey, finds his subject an unpleasant character. "He seems to be to me to have been vain and vainglorious, prickly and jealous, censorious and oversensitive, more than a touch short on humility and humour."

You might find it odd that Fort would bother putting together 300 pages of Grey's work when he thinks so little of the author, but even now, 70 years on, few have come close to capturing the spirit of fishing so well.

He had a tough start. His parents christened their fourth son Pearl, which must have been a bit of a handicap even in Zanesville, Ohio. It is no surprise to read that Pearl was often involved in fights. As soon as he could, he dropped that dreadful name, reverted to his middle name and changed his surname from Gray to Grey.

His first published article, written when he was 30, was about fishing. He gave up dentistry, his father's trade, and there followed a series of westerns that made him the most popular fiction writer in the US. More than 100 movies have been based on his cowboy yarns, and his book sales are numbered in the millions.

It brought Grey a fortune, and enabled him to fish for the monsters that his heart desired. But his angling was not a matter of taking the weekend off: it was, as Fort observes, "more obsession than diversion". At one stage, he fished for 83 days without a fish. "That is a record that will stand," Grey said.

The literati will spot a similarity between this and Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. In his desperate quest to be seen as one of his own heroes, Grey challenged Hemingway to a round-the-world fishing competition, even offering to fund it, to show him who was really Papa. Hemingway, realising that Grey was the better angler, declined.

If I have put you off reading Grey, let me apologise. His writing displays remarkable sensitivity, observation and is among the most evocative stuff ever penned on the man v fish story.

I have no wish to go through the agonies Grey endured to catch fish and I can find little in common with his "no gain without pain" philosophy. He writes: "It would not be any achievement to catch a great fish without toil and sweat, endurance and pain. Accidents happen, and the lucky-fluke captures of giant game fish are on record. But I never had one and I do not take any account of them."

Give me a fluky catch rather than a crippled back any time. And give me a companion who thought I was very smart to catch it that way.

The Best of Zane Grey is available from the Flyfishers Classic Library, 3 North Street, Ashburton, Devon, TQ13 7QJ, telephone 01364 653828.