© St. Petersburg Times, published May 26, 2002
Years ago, as a neophyte police reporter for the Ledger in Lakeland, my city editor often entertained me with tales of fishing in New Zealand.
"Huge trout in water that is crystal-clear," Harry Allen said. "And the beer ... you'll love the beer."
Allen worked as a reporter Down Under, then returned to the United States with his Kiwi bride and taught journalism at the University of Western Kentucky. But as a Florida native, he had the bug for bass, and at least once a week, we would head to a phosphate pit, drink black coffee and fly-rod for largemouths before heading to work.
"They call it the Angler's Eldorado," Allen said of his adopted country. "It is a true fisherman's paradise."
But Allen wasn't the first Yank to fall in love with the tiny country's incredible fresh and saltwater fishing. In the 1920s, Zane Grey, a former dentist and baseball player whose Riders of the Purple Sage set the standard for the classic American Western novel, traveled to New Zealand to fish for trout, black marlin and huge mako sharks.
Grey was a colorful and controversial figure, and through the years he set numerous saltwater records. He was the first to catch a fish -- a Pacific blue marlin -- that weighed more than 1,000 pounds.
Caught off the coast of Tahiti in 1930, it tipped the scales at 1,040, even though sharks had torn a 200-pound chunk out of the tail.
The author also set all-tackle records for sailfish, tuna, swordfish, dolphin and shark. He was one of the first fishermen to target snook, bonefish and tarpon.
Grey recorded his exploits with a pencil and paper and published them in a series of timeless books that recently been have republished by the Derrydale Press (derrydalepress.com or 301-459-3366).
Readers will enjoy Tales of Tahitian Waters, Tales of Fishing Virgin Seas and Tales of Swordfish & Tuna. But it was Anglers Eldorado that captured my attention. For years it was out of print, a fact that I lamented, especially when I found myself alone on the black gravel beach of Orupukupuku Island one fall afternoon more than a decade ago.
I had taken a mail boat to the tiny island located off the coast of the North Island of New Zealand for one reason: I heard that Zane Grey once had a fish camp there.
But as a weary backpacker, I had no big-game tackle, even though the waters offshore were rumored to be the feeding grounds of the fabled black marlin, the largest of the marlin species.
So I spent my days scraping crustaceans off rocks and fishing the blue-green waters with a simple hand line of monofilament line. Days went by without a bite and it soon became apparent that the only sport on Orupukupuku was counting the 100 or so sheep that called the rock home since Grey returned to California.
So I began to wonder if the trip had been worthwhile. That golden era of fishing was gone. Nobody could recapture the innocence and adventure of a time when men were men and fish were scared.
Just as I was about to give up hope, a rubber raft appeared on the horizon. I watched as the dinghy made its way to the beach, then out jumped two men in black wet suits.
"G'day," I said. "G'day," they responded.
The two pulled out a couple of burlap sacks, then dug a hole in the sand with a shovel. They gathered some driftwood for a fire, and when it was ready, they threw a grill across the pit.
The bags were full of sea scallops, as big across as a man's hand, which they threw onto the grill and cooked. As each shell opened they would drop a wad of butter inside, wait for it to melt, then cut the muscle with a knife and take a big bite.
"Join us mate," they hollered and I quickly obliged.
"Man," I said to my knew friends. "If you only had some beer."
Just then a second raft appeared off the beach. The men said they had been anxiously awaiting their "mates" who had been told to bring the beer.
I looked up at the blue sky and white clouds and knew Zane Grey was smiling.