A Zane Grey Odyssey

I had forgotten what tropical air smelt like, it’s technically subtropical air, but still, it reminded me of equatorial pacific. My legs were stiff from the fourteen-hour bus ride and my mind tired from the lack of sleep. I had been told the night bus would be quiet. I envisioned climbing aboard and sleeping the whole damn way, I wanted to wake up in this subtropical Eldorado with no memory of the journey. But of course, things rarely play out the same as they do in your mind. The bus had been full of Justin Bieber fans heading north to Auckland for a concert; needless to say I did not sleep. I stumbled off the bus in the morning light and wandered along a quiet road to the Opua Township, a small town in the northern tip of New Zealand. I discovered a general store and a fishing supplies outfit, everything a man could need. I consulted an old text and made my way to pier number 4 as instructed. My friend was not there to greet me so I gave myself a tour of the boat I would come to call home over the next week. On seeing her my arduous bus ride became trivial. The Otehei is a 40-foot game fishing legacy that is synonymous with the Bay of Islands. She was commissioned by Zane Grey in the 1920’s and is nothing short of stunning. I had never read any of Zane Grey’s work before but his reputation as a fisherman has a way of preceding him, even after death. Grey was first and foremost an American author however, who is best described as a Hemingway type of character, though I am sure Grey would argue Hemingway was a Grey type of character. Zane Grey reportedly fished for three hundred days out of the year and was the first person to catch a Marlin in New Zealand waters. He held the record for the largest Yellowtail Kingfish, amongst other species, and pioneered rod and game fishing in New Zealand. He was so mad keen in fact, that he very nearly brought the Tongariro River off the local tribe so he could fly fish all day long undisturbed. Being on the Otehei I couldn’t help but feel connected to this rich history and a part of what Maori call Mana, which while not entirely translatable, means respect, prestige and authority. Mana is a spiritual power, a supernatural force in a person, place or thing and the Otehei has it.

I watched my friend Claudie walk down the dock laden with supplies, Soy sauce and Wasabi for the Sashimi and Rum for everything in-between. We had a week of game fishing ahead of us in the Bay of Islands, or what Zane Grey aptly named, ‘The Anglers Eldorado’. My excitement boiled to the surface and I let out a loud and immature ‘yahoo!’ Claudie promptly answered the call and began to dance.

We left the marina and found a mooring after a few hours motoring. I tied the thick rope around the Pohutukawa bollard on the bow and watched as the sky turned blood red. We caught a couple of Snapper for dinner that we fried in butter while we drank beer and reminisced on our childhood together. After dinner we consulted the charts and formulated our game plan. Neither of us had ever caught a Marlin before, but what we lacked in experience and knowledge of these waters, we made up for in excitement and the sweet feeling of time, graced upon those of the unemployed.

We rose before the sun had hinted at its coming presence and motored out to the two hundred meter mark where the blue water of the tropics was brought down in ocean currents. We set the rods, staggering the lures and running two off the outriggers and two off the stern. Flying fish began to surface and glide past the red hull of our boat as the sun gained confidence in the blue sky. I felt content and truly happy scanning the endless horizon that stayed irrevocable. I made us bacon and eggs while battling the sway of the ocean, then tea and cake as the morning neared midday. We both stood with our heads out the roof hatches sipping our teas when we saw the first free jumping Marlin of the trip. It was undoubtedly one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen; fifty meters off our starboard side I watched as a large Striped marlin broke the surface in pursuit of a Skipjack tuna. It reached its apex and caught the sun in cliché fashion before slamming back into the water with an epic splash. It’s incredible how half a second out of an entire life can stand out so much, how half a second can inspire hours and hours of trolling and a desire so strong it borders on addiction. We worked the area, making sure our trolling speed was just right and our lures were set perfectly. The adrenaline slowly wore off and we returned to our neglected teas. As we both went to take a sip the near orgasmic sound of a lure being taken reached our ears. We looked at one another across the roof and sheared a moment of disbelief before springing into action. I looked back off the stern and saw the Marlin cut a line across the wake inches from the surface, it seemed to be looking at the boat and the two dumbfounded men who watched on in awe. The Marlin dove and ripped the thick mono from the reel at an unprecedented speed. I wound the other lines in as quickly as I could and strapped Claudie into the harness.

“We don’t use the game chair on this boat, we fight standing up.” He had said earlier that morning.

I worked the boat, ignoring the now rather perturbed sea in order to ensure the line ran off at a favourable angle. The fight lasted forty minutes before we saw the Marlin again. It jumped just out from the port quarter before trying one last run. Claudie fought the Marlin calmly and gracefully, having years of practice on Kingfish in Kapiti and Tarpon in the Caribbean. He wound it in and the Marlin was soon relaxed on the surface next to the boat. I pulled in the leader with thick welding gloves on, careful not to wrap the line around my hands. We stared at the Striped marlin’s magnificence, trying to figure out how we could get a photo as we had agreed we would not keep an animal of such beauty. I’ve been a hunter for most of my life yet somehow I felt sure I would never kill a Marlin, I have no interest in tasting its flesh nor posing beside the weigh station. Perhaps it’s because of their rarity and the vulnerability the ocean faces from overfishing. Claudie felt the same but before we could act on our good faith the Marlin dove; its desire to live and fight reigniting at the sight of our flushed faces. It dove deep and fast into the blue water and cut the line instantly on the belly of our hull. Silence filled the boat for a few seconds before Claudie smiled and began to laugh in utter rapture.

We trolled the rest of the day, drinking beer and asking one another every few minutes if we were dreaming. I was hungry for my turn in the harness and a chance to fight such an incredible animal. I remembered Hemingway’s novel ‘Islands in the Stream’, in which Thomas Hudson’s son fights a Marlin for hours and proclaims he would have died fighting it, he wouldn’t have cared. I remember ‘Old man and sea’ and decided I would have the same standpoint. I wanted to feel that animal on the end of my rod more than anything, it seemed so important, so worthy of fixation. That afternoon we saw a few free jumpers but nothing took the lures except Skipjacks, which I fought with a perfunctory attitude. We went jigging late in the afternoon and I caught a large thirty-five pound Kingfish. As darkness set in we ate it raw and discussed the extraordinary day on the long cruise back to the marina.

We continued to put in the same hours over the next week, up before light and back after dark. Each night I fell asleep with aching arms from all the jigging and hot skin from the hours in the sun. Every day we continued to see free jumping Marlin and we mapped their depths and locations to better determine our trolling pattern. We saw Sunfish, Sharks, Sardines, Flying fish, Tuna and massive bait schools everywhere. We scanned for birds and lost our minds in the most pleasant of ways as we stared at the horizon. We would talk in British accents for entire mornings then switch to Bogan New Zealand or American for the afternoon. We sang and discussed everything from politics to poetry, woman and weather. We caught countless fish but still the Marlin evaded our efforts. We developed superstitions, like wearing Claudie’s Marlin hat, ensuring the same lures were in the same arrangement, making sure the harness was out of sight and drinking a beer at midday. Superstitions are a landmark trait of all fishermen I think, perhaps it’s so we have something to blame when things don’t go according to plan or maybe it’s just nice to feel like you are doing something when patience is required.

Towards the end of our week we parked at the town wharf and had dinner at the yacht club. An American yachty greeted us and offered to buy us a beer. Word had gone around town that these two, twenty-something, mad, sunburnt, drunk fisherman were at it sunrise to sunset on the Otehei and had caught a Marlin. We accepted his offer and traded stories of the ocean. We had a nice dinner and refuelled the boat under the glow of the Milky Way. Tomorrow would be our last full day fishing.

The ocean was the calmest it had been and the weather the warmest. We trolled all the way to the Cavalli Islands, almost thirty-five nautical miles with no sightings of free jumpers. We decided it was probably best to fill the chilly bins with Kingfish instead of chase the elusive Marlin. I jigged with a slight taste of disappointment on my lips, though I still found absolutely no reason to complain. Over the week the novelty of it all had not withered one bit. I still breathed in deep the sea air and smiled to myself in awe of the country I lived.

We started to wind up small rat Kingfish that we threw back, only interested in the monsters. Our arrogance was our downfall however, as a pair of Bronze Whaler sharks cruised into the area. We wound up nothing but fish heads for the rest of the day, until one of the sharks took the jig and we fought it to the surface. I brought the leader in and cautiously lowered my hands in front of the wide mouth of the two and a half meter shark. I cut the jig off and felt its skin as the shark regained its senses. I watched it dive and become angry people had allocated such a misconception around such an incredible animal. We left the Cavalli’s with nothing but a fat Kahawai I caught on a spinner for dinner. As we motored home I watched a Marlin jump in the dusky light and thought to myself ‘I will never tier of that sight.’ Claudie quoted Zane Grey in a voice distorted by the wind, “I need this wild life, this freedom.”

We had the Kahawai raw and put a sizable dent in a bottle of Havana club. I slept soundly that night but awoke a little hung over around seven for my bus ride to Auckland airport. I caught a plane back to Wellington and went fishing for Hāpuku and Blue nose with my brother the next day. The air was cool and heavy with the smell of decay that autumn brings. I lent over the side and felt the cold water brought up from Antarctica. We were miles out to sea with a decent swell running and a grey, melancholic sky. I longed for the northern air and the sight of a jumping Marlin. As my mind started its unwilling returned to city mode, so too did the feeling of complete freedom escape me. We had been pirates for a week, infamous and soaked in mana.

I watched an albatross fly south until it became a dot on the horizon. The remedial sway of the ocean silenced my mind and I became lost staring at the raindrops collide with the milky sea. My rod twitched violently, dragging me back to the present just in time to watch the colourful braid spill from my reel.

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