A larger-than-life battle with a yellowfin told in the purple prose of yesteryear

Editor’s note: Noted big-game angler and writer Zane Grey in 1919 fought a yellowfin tuna estimated at more than 150 pounds on light tackle for five hours off Avalon, California, before the drag froze and the line parted. This is an excerpt from his book, Tales of Swordfish and Tuna.

I would lift him and wind him up a hundred feet or so, and then he would take the line away from me. It happened so often that it must have looked funny. All of a sudden my tuna started to sound. He did not run. He just plugged down and down and down. The reel screamed zee—zee—zee! This procedure grew alarming. Two hundred yards — three hundred yards — three-fifty and finally four hundred yards of line he took straight down. This was the deepest I ever had any fish sound up to that date.

Zane Grey in the midst of one of his many epic battles.

Zane Grey in the midst of one of his many epic battles.

Captain Dan stood beside me, watching the reel. He shook his head at every zee. My rod lay in the hollow of my left elbow and the tip was doubled straight down. The zee—zee—zee grew markedly shorter in time and farther apart. Tremendous pressure of water on that tuna had begun to tell. Most remarkable about this incident was the fact that the nine-thread line [breaking strength of about 27 pounds] had not broken. It resembled a very tight, wet banjo string. Finally the tuna stopped. I had half an inch of thickness of line left on the reel spool. Then I began to work, carefully lifting and winding. Inch by inch! And after a while foot by foot! This was harder work than heavy tackle. It took an hour to pump that tuna back up to his original position. I was as wet as if I had fallen overboard.

For two more hours I heaved and wound, gaining and losing in about the same proportion. What spurred me on was a certainty that little by little the tuna was weakening. But it was so little! The others on board stopped making game of me. They began to realize that this was a fight seldom recorded in the annals of angling. My tuna hung around near the boat, sometimes rising toward the surface, to one side or the other, but mostly straight down. That is what makes a tuna fight so laborsome.

The very thing I feared he began again. He started down. Zee—zee—zee! Slower this time. Captain Dan left the wheel and stood beside me, watching the reel. I laid the rod over my left arm and watched, too. Zee—zee—zee! It was terrible to see all that hard-earned line slip off and off and off. I would lose him this time. That was inevitable. Zee—zee—zee! He plugged down. I could feel him banging the leader with his tail. Slower and slower the line paid off. It seemed ages in going. I began to see red. I wanted him to hurry and break off. But more than that I hoped desperately that he would stop. How short and slow and squeaky the zees! At last he got out as much line as he had taken on the first occasion. There were four hundred and fifty yards on the reel. Captain Dan threw up his big hands and groaned: “Goodnight! It’s all off!”

I suppose he meant the fight was all off. Assuredly the tuna was still on. Zee—zee—zee! I bade him a mute and despondent farewell. But the line still held. It seemed to me that the thing which had to snap was in my head. I was nearly crazy. The making of angling history is sometimes painful. Zee—zee—zee! Slower and slower! Then, incredibly, when a couple of zees more would have pulled all the line out and broken it, the tuna stopped. The strain eased. He could not stand the pressure of water. He had started back. I wound and wound and wound that reel until I thought my arm would fall dead at my side. With a small reel it takes a great deal of winding to get in even a little line. This time it took perhaps half an hour to get all the line back. My tuna did not come readily all the time. He rested occasionally.

Mayer Yellowfin LG

But I got him up, closer than ever before. He lazily rose to the surface about sixty feet or so from the boat. I heard him break water, but as the light was bad I could not see him. R.C. was on top of the deck. Captain Dan leaped up on the stern. They both saw the tuna. How strangely silent and tense they were! But I was too much exhausted and riveted to my post to have any thrills left. The tuna rolled around out there. He was a beaten fish. I realized it.

“Easy now,” warned Captain Dan. “He’s licked. Pull him along easy.”

Then all of a sudden the reel stuck tight. The handle would not turn. The line would not run out. I could not tell Captain Dan. I was speechless. But he saw it. Quick as a flash he grasped a screwdriver and began to loosen the screws in the reel plate. How swiftly he worked! I heard him pant. My tuna was lolling around out there. Once I saw his saber-like tail and the size of it would have paralyzed me if I had not already been paralyzed.

Captain Dan got some of the screws loose. The spool grew less tight. One moment more and he would have the friction eased! But in that moment my tuna decided to loll and roll a little farther off, and he snapped the line. Five hours!

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2019 issue of Anglers Journal magazine.

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