The Old Men and the Sea : Loren Grey, 78, Fell Hook, Line and Sinker for the Fish Tales Told by His Father, Zane Grey

TIMES STAFF WRITER

He claims to have once seen a mutant shark that was 50 feet long, "with a head the size of a living room."

He swears he once saw a blue marlin with a bill on its lower jaw.

He also says he once caught a striped marlin off Catalina that was bigger and heavier than the state-record 339-pounder, landed in 1985.

Such claims might be taken with a grain of salt.

But they aren't.

Loren Grey, after all, has seen and accomplished a lot on the high seas.

And he learned from a master.

His father was the author and noted outdoorsman, Zane Grey, who was known to exaggerate from time to time, but who probably saw and caught more marlin and swordfish than most hard-core anglers will ever dream of seeing or catching.

Indeed, Zane Grey's fishing exploits were legendary.

By 1937, he held 10 all-tackle world records, one of them being the first 1,000-pound marlin caught on rod and reel. He was said to have hooked more than 100 swordfish in one year, many of those around the Channel Islands.

In 1925, he battled a monster of a swordfish well into the night in the waters off Santa Catalina Island. The giant broadbill, 11 1/2 hours into the fight, surfaced under the light of the moon and stars and started to feed on a school of flying fish, seemingly unaware that it had even been hooked. The fish broke the line and won its freedom half an hour later.

And although Loren Grey never matched his father's exploits on the water, he accompanied Zane on many a trip and was no slouch with a rod and reel.

He is 78 now, and the countless hours he spent under the sun during his youth show on his weathered face. And judging from the enthusiasm he shows when spinning yarns about the good old days, about traveling the world with his father and uncle, R.C., or later about his days as a boat captain, taking the rich and famous out to try their luck on billfish, one gets the idea that Loren Grey benefited in more ways than one from being the son of Zane.

Loren caught his first fish when he was 5, while Zane was offshore searching for giant billfish. Zane left Loren at Avalon in the care of a nanny.

"I had to slip away," Loren recalls. "I went to the end of the pier and caught a rock bass."

He caught his first yellowtail when he was 9 and, when he was 14, his father thought it time he became a man, which in this instance meant it was time to tackle a marlin.

"My father sent me out for two weeks and I kept missing them," Loren remembers. "We averaged about one strike a day but I couldn't catch one. So finally he got mad and hooked the fish for me himself."

Loren fell in love with the sport. He reeled in everything he could get his hooks into, going deep for giant sea bass and fly-lining for marlin and swordfish.

He and his father once caught and released 12 marlin in one day near San Clemente Island. The two spent lots of time around the islands, particularly Catalina, where the outspoken Zane was once vice president of the prestigious Avalon Tuna Club.

Zane Grey was and still is revered for the prestige he brought the club, but he brought controversy as well, most notably what Loren calls the Spaulding incident.

Seems in 1926, Mrs. Keith Spaulding--the petite wife of the president of the club--caught a broadbill weighing 426 pounds. Zane had battled a 418-pound broadbill three weeks earlier and said there was no way a woman as small as Spaulding could have reeled in a fish so big and strong. Club records were a measure of one's talents and Zane's pride was at stake.

"Well, everybody thought it was a phony," Loren says, "except most of them talked about it quietly between beers at the bar. But Zane didn't. He said right out, 'Yeah, I think it is a fake.' "

The Tuna Club convened a meeting of the board of directors and decided that Zane should apologize. He did, but at the same time he tendered his resignation. His brother R.C. also resigned. Their photographs were taken from the walls and their club records stripped.

Zane had also been at odds with the club and its insistence on allowing nothing heavier than 24-strand linen line--equivalent to about 70-pound test monofilament. After he quit, he spooled his huge reel with 39-strand line--equivalent to about 120-pound test--and went out and landed a 582-pound swordfish. R.C. boated a 588-pounder that Loren says "is still the biggest game fish ever caught at Catalina."

Zane has since been posthumously reinstated. And, ironically, two of the photographs put back on the walls of the Tuna Club were of the two swordfish taken on the "illegal" line.

Loren, who lobbied to have them reinstated and who is now an honorary member of the club, calls it poetic justice, while at the same time adding that his father probably got what was coming to him.

Before Zane died, he and the fishermen in the family took several trips to the South Pacific in search of the giant billfish for which the region was notorious. On one such trip they had heard from the natives of a giant shark that ruled the water around Rangiroa near Tahiti.

Zane went out fishing one day and returned saying that he had seen the shark, which he said was at least "six fathoms long," or 36 feet.

"I thought, 'No, that's just foolishness,' " Loren recalls. "Well, two days later, while on the boat we saw birds flying erratically over a yellow-colored patch of water."

That patch, Loren said, was the giant shark swimming just beneath the surface.

"I thought it would have been a whale, but its tail stuck 10 feet out of the water," Loren remembers. "It was not a whale shark or a basking shark, it was brown like all the smaller ones in the area, which rarely get up to 10-12 feet long. I looked right down at him, and the head was as wide as this room. It had to be 50 feet long.

"And not only did I see it, everyone on the boat saw it. And then Pa, who had been up on the deck, comes running down and said, 'See, son, I told you; I'll make you eat crow!' "

Zane Grey later wrote about the shark in his book, "Tales of Tahitian Waters."

It was near Bermagui, Australia, that the blue marlin surfaced, showing off a bill on the wrong end of its jaw.

"When we went fishing we always had two boats out and one time, I swear, we saw a blue marlin with its bill on the lower jaw," Loren says. "It came along and it followed the bait for quite a while.

"About three or four days later I was fishing with dad and I hooked this marlin, and he went all over the place. It looked to me to be a regular blue, but Pa swears it was the fish with the bill on its lower jaw."

No one will ever know. Bad bill or not, the fish got away.

Zane suffered a stroke and died not long thereafter, on Oct. 23, 1939, at his home in Altadena. Loren, meanwhile, had established himself as an able boatman and fisherman. He operated a charter boat while attending college from 1938-40, taking out those who could afford the high price of $25.

"That type of fishing was a rich man's field," Loren says.

His clients included actors Robert Montgomery, Errol Flynn, Nigel Bruce and Ronald Coleman.

"Coleman was the only one I ever got a marlin for, though," says Grey, adding that Montgomery and Bruce were on the boat that day. "Unfortunately, there was no canopy on the boat and everybody got (sunburned) and didn't show the next day. I always thought that if I met Montgomery again--of course he's passed away now--I'd hit him up for the money he forgot to pay. He stiffed me out of $15."

Loren Grey caught his huge striped marlin off Catalina on Sept. 4, 1940. It tipped the Avalon scale at 344 pounds. In 1932, a Tuna Club member had caught a striper weighing 405 pounds.

When Grey, who went on to become a professor of educational psychology at Cal State Northridge, read in The Times recently about the state record being a 339-pounder, he wrote a letter asking for an explanation.

A quick investigation revealed that the California Department of Fish and Game didn't start keeping records until the late 1940s.

Making the striped marlin record a Grey area indeed.

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