When Zane Grey came to New Zealand and ticked off the local fishers

by Redmer Yska / 15 May, 2018
Zane Grey’s son said he fished 300 days a year. Photo/Alamy

Zane Grey’s son said he fished 300 days a year. Photo/Alamy

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Bestselling author of pulp westerns Zane Grey loved fishing in the waters around New Zealand, but the locals finally tired of his big-noting ways.

A flamboyant adventurer with a rod and reel, Zane Grey had a love for our waters that ignited the passion for big-game fishing in New Zealand.

The writer of bestselling novels of the American West was a dedicated fisherman – his son once claimed he fished 300 days a year – and when he came here in 1926, local tourism officials virtually bowed before him, offering him, among other things, free rail travel and a government photographer and dark room.

In an era when the idea of compassionate angling would have drawn hoots of derision, the rugged American chased trophy fish around the Bay of Islands and elsewhere on three visits and used books – notably Tales of the Angler’s Eldorado, New Zealand – and movies to put the country on the map. No visitor ever did as much to create our global brand as a sportsman’s paradise.

His showboating arrival caused a sensation. He reached Russell in a convoy of cars and trucks filled with rods and tackle. Minister of Marine George Anderson popped by, a sign of how seriously the Government regarded Grey’s visit.

Zane Grey. Photo/Getty Images

Locals lined the streets as Grey and his entourage of cooks, cameramen, launch crews and millionaire companions passed by. The author of dozens of westerns, including the 1912 classic Riders of the Purple Sage, later said that the crowds had “expected to see me in sombrero, chaps, spurs and guns”.

The beauty of “lonely, wild and rugged” Great Mercury Island, off Coromandel Peninsula, dazzled him. “I pronounced it the most wonderful site I had ever chosen to pitch camp,” he said, and he and his fishing mates hauled in whoppers. His companion, Laurie Mitchell, landed a 442kg black marlin that set a world record.

But Grey kept returning to the Bay of Islands to catch swordfish and mako sharks. He later established the Zane Grey Sporting Club lodge and camp at Otehei Bay on Urupukapuka Island. His own exclusive hideaway was Camp Pohutukawa on Great Mercury.

Tales of the Angler’s Eldorado, New Zealand contains this unforgettably purple description of a shark landing in his boat:

Grey, left, with Miss MK Smith and Captain and Mrs Laurie Mitchell, Wellington, c1927. Photo/Getty Images

Grey, left, with Miss MK Smith and Captain and Mrs Laurie Mitchell, Wellington, c1927. Photo/Getty Images

“A mako so huge that he absolutely paralysed me with terror emerged with a roar of water to go high in the air. … I was thrown from my chair … He looked at least seventeen feet long … A peculiar feature of the mako is that his eyes stand out prominently from the sides of his head and these were fully as large and round as half a grapefruit. They were intensely black and full of fiendish fire … he shut his jaws with a convulsive snap like that made by a two-foot bear trap.”

Grey’s luxury lifestyle – he and his companions were the original glampers – and constant self-promotion increasingly jarred with locals as the 1920s ended and economic depression loomed. The American then crossed a line on a return visit when he dared criticise Kiwi fishing practices.

Grey carried the whippier rods and geared reels with which he had had proven success in catching marlin and swordfish off the California coast. He knew that pulling a lure behind a boat (his were pearl-inlaid) also helped attract fish.

Big-game fishing was still in its infancy here, but he ruffled feathers when he described as “obsolete” the unwieldy long rods used by locals, adopted from English salmon fishing. He later apologised, but worse was to come. Every time Grey caught a big fish, he’d pull out a megaphone as he approached shore in his jumbo-sized launch. He’d then run up a pennant as the scales groaned and camera bulbs popped.

At home on Santa Catalina Island, California. Photo/Getty Images

At home on Santa Catalina Island, California. Photo/Getty Images

It was not the New Zealand way. One paper wrote: “He runs his fishing on circus lines. When he caught a swordfish he announced through a megaphone in grandiloquent tones, ‘Mr Zane Grey has caught another swordfish: weight 273lb’, as the case might be. Then there would be run to the mast head a pennant with ‘swordfish’ printed on it.

“One Australian, who regarded the procedure as swank, announced when he caught a swordfish, that it weighed 6000 pounds and in the place of the pennant ran up the mast head his pajama pants instead.”

Grey spent two months fishing here in 1933 and never returned. Kiwi fishers, meanwhile, quietly adopted the big-game equipment and techniques he promoted – and still use many of them today.

This article was first published in the April 14, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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