Southern California has been a prolific incubator of outdoor sports and lifestyles. The roots of big-game fishing, a multibillion-dollar industry with millions of participants around the world, began right here in local waters, spearheaded by the Tuna Club of Santa Catalina Island, whose members were some of the sport’s most colorful pioneers.
Founded in 1898 during the time of the Spanish-American War, the club provided a break from the headlines, as members chased “leaping tunas” with hickory rods and “knuckle-buster” reels.
“In those days the angling world really was the Tuna Club,” says Michael L. Farrior, a past president and club historian, who recently published “The History of the Tuna Club 1898-1998.” The 225-page book, which contains dozens of rare photos, newspaper clippings and illustrations, provides a fascinating account of the early days of Catalina, the evolution of the sport and the many personalities with ties to the club.
The group was founded by naturalist-author Charles Frederick Holder, who cited a need for guidelines to protect several species of game fish he found under assault by a growing number of fishermen. The club allowed only rods and reels, to give the fish “a sporting chance.” Its ranks included such luminaries as Zane Grey, Bing Crosby, Charlie Chaplin, Cecil B. DeMille, Theodore Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover, George Patton and Winston Churchill.
On June 1, 1898, Holder became the first person to land a giant tuna with a rod and reel, after a four-hour struggle. He used a 7 1/2-foot rod, a “knuckle-buster” reel spooled with 600 feet of 21-thread linen line and a leader made of piano wire. At the weigh-in before a curious crowd, boatman James Gardner reported to the angler: “Six-feet four, a hundred eighty-three pounds, sir!”
When the club was founded there were no bag limits. Smaller species, such as yellowtail and white sea bass, were being slaughtered with impunity. Holder hoped the establishment of a gentlemen’s club would “appeal to the innate sense of fair play that is found among all anglers.” Club members were restricted to linen line no stronger than 24-thread. The club worked to protect local spawning estuaries and would ultimately win protection of certain areas from commercial-fishing exploitation. As early as 1912, the group used its influence to gain passage of a bill that protected the waters three miles around Catalina from commercial fishing.
As equipment evolved, the catch got bigger. A 251-pound bluefin tuna reeled in by Col. Clinton P. Morehous in 1899 remains a linen-line record. In the early 1900s, the first marlin were landed and some giant sea bass topped 400 pounds.
The Tuna Club built its first clubhouse in 1908. Though there were lots more fish around in those days, they didn’t always show. In 1909, the return of the leaping tuna after a five-year absence caught anglers by surprise. Many had to switch to lighter tackle in pursuit of smaller game fish. “Broken fingers, broken hands, broken lines and terrible sunburns revealed the first round had been won by the bluefin,” Farrior writes.
Churchill made his first and only visit in 1929. He reeled in a 125-pound marlin and came ashore wearing a look of triumph. According to Farrior, “The victorious angler retired to the Bait Box with his host, lit a cigar, and downed a scotch and soda, saying ‘I see why you chaps enjoy this, it’s great fun.’ ”
Perhaps no one brought more notoriety to the club than Grey, who was as prolific an angler as he was an author. He qualified for the coveted “gold button” during his first year as a member by catching a marlin weighing more than 200 pounds. That was in 1914, at a time when marlin and broadbill swordfish were lumped together as marlin. When the distinction was made and swordfish became known as the most powerful game fish on Earth, Grey began to target them almost exclusively in outings around the world. His passion for angling would find its way into many of his writings.
It would also lead to his abrupt departure from the club in 1921-- a year after he had reeled in a 418-pound swordfish, the largest of the season. He told other members that he prepared for his sea battles by working out with a rowing machine and soaking his hands in saltwater. But in 1921, Mrs. Keith Spalding, the petite wife of the newly elected club president, upstaged Grey by catching a 426-pound broadbill. When someone suggested that Grey should have soaked his hands in lotion instead of saltwater, he responded by strongly suggesting that Mrs. Spalding could not have landed her swordfish without assistance.
The club president took offense and demanded that Grey apologize. He did so -- along with a letter of resignation.
In the years that followed, the club continued to uphold traditions. It required the use of linen line up until the 1960s, when Dacron was allowed, but it has yet to embrace monofilament. It still requires the angler to bring his fish to gaff unassisted to qualify for club awards. Today the club has 158 members and remains an exclusive group. “You have to know someone, be involved in conservation issues or be a gentleman angler, that type of thing,” Farrior says.
Currently, the club is working with the United Anglers of Southern California and Hubbs-Sea World on a project aimed at restoring the white sea bass fishery through hatchery rearing and stocking. For marlin and other billfish, the emphasis is on tagging and releasing.
With increasing fishing pressure from all sectors, the fabled runs of these species will probably never be what they were. But sizable appearances do occur. Even the leaping tunas can still be found, Farrior assures, although “chances are, you’ll have to travel a good distance from the island to find them.”
Limited-edition copies of “The History of the Tuna Club” (only 1,000 were printed) are available via e-mail at tuna firstname.lastname@example.org.
To e-mail Pete Thomas or read his previous Fair Game columns, go to latimes.com/petethomas.