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ArticlesFeatured Columnist : Georges Corner

Early Zane Gray Billfishing
by George Van Zant

Zane Gray probably did more to uncover the Southern California fishery of marlin and swordfish than anyone. The early 1900s was a time when if a private boat sped along at 10 knots it was considered a "blazer"! Fishing range was highly restrictive because it took many hours to go a few miles. To sail the 27 miles from San Pedro to Catalina Island was an easy 5 hour trip even aboard the weekly steamer and you better not miss the return trip or you spent the week in Avalon, sleeping on the beach. Some present day cruisers get there in an hour. 

Zane had the largest sportboat in Avalon, where it was moored year round. He used the boat mostly to fish for the 100 lb bluefin tuna that cruised up and down the lee side of the island. In those days there was no live bait capabilities and they used dead flying fish most of the time to troll with. They caught the flying fish at night by building bon fires on the beach as close as they could to the water. A large canvas was placed behind the fire to reflect light out over the water. The flying fish sailed off the water and crashed into the lit up canvas where they ended up in a bait bucket. Sometimes they could catch as many as 100 flyers a night. They had other methods of catching bait also. The towns people of Avalon were all avid fishermen and of course needed bait. Occasionally, they got together and strung a long seine net out into the harbor and wrapped it back to shore catching all kinds of bait for the community. The net caught barracuda, bonita, mackerel, smelt etc. Most of the residents did not own sportfishing boats, they rowed rowboats out into open water to catch all the fish that we catch today, even marlin.

It wasn't surprising that Zane Gray introduced techniques to catching marlin. The local fishermen in their rowboats lacked the heavier tackle and mobility necessary to stopping those monsters that spooled them on occasion. But Zane with his heavy split bamboo rods and strong woven linen lines could stop them and indeed did. There was a time when most thought the truly behemoths of the era, the "two finners", or the giant swordfish, could not be caught. Zane once did hook a swordfish of giant proportions at 7:00 am and chased him back and forth out in front of Avalon until 9:00 that night . It finally fell off the hook and Zane promptly fired the boat skipper for not keeping up with the fish.. He devised the way to bait a swordfish that worked on rare occasions. To explain how he did it, you have to understand the the life style of the swordfish. In Southern California waters, the swordfish has a habit of sleeping on top of the water with his dorsal and tail fin jutting up into the air. In those days (as well as now), from a distance, it was an ominous sight to see 2 sickle fins sticking out of the water.

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