From Sport to Science: The Evolution of Game Fishing

American author-adventurer-sportsman Zane Grey started the craze for hunting Bay of Islands billfish in bulk, but today’s sport fishers take a more measured approach.

Blue marlin tag and release at Eldorado Billfish Tournament

Blue marlin tag and release at Eldorado Billfish Tournament

Western author Zane Grey was President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s favorite writer, and New Zealand, specifically the Bay of Islands, was one of Zane’s favorite places in the world. Hailing from Zaneville, Ohio, he was an avid fisherman and lover of nature who was immediately captivated by the unspoiled Northland landscapes of New Zealand when he first visited in 1926.


His 1953 book Tales of the Angler’s El Dorado, New Zealand helped establish the Bay of Islands as a premier game-fishing destination. To this day, the Russell-based Bay of Islands Swordfish Club hosts an annual billfish tournament named for him, this year held from 14 to 17 March.


On that first Bay of Islands visit, Zane caught many large fish of various kinds, including a mako shark, known as a ferocious fighter. He and his fishing companion Captain Laurie Mitchell also set a world record by catching 10 striped marlin in a single day, effectively putting the Bay of Islands on the game-fishing map while falling hook, line and sinker for the place. He would visit New Zealand three more times between 1927 and 1933, during an era when international travel was far more difficult than it is today.


A prolific writer and angling addict who was said to fish an average of 300 days a year, Zane penned numerous magazine articles praising the uniqueness of New Zealand fishing, which has produced 16 of 22 line-class world records for striped marlin as well as heavy-tackle world records for the major billfish, black marlin, blue marlin and broadbill. But New Zealand sport fishing was a thing before Zane arrived, originating with a few enthusiasts at the turn of the century. In February 1915, Major A.D. Campbell caught the first recorded marlin by rod and reel in the Bay of Islands. In those days, fish were almost always killed, even if they weren’t eaten, and brought back to be weighed or for preservation as trophies. There were no restrictions on size or quantities taken.


Now, with the growing global concern for environmental sustainability, many fisheries around the world support catch and release, usually with barbless hooks, to conserve target species. In the United Kingdom, coarse fisherman, who fish for freshwater species, have been doing it for more than a century. United States anglers began promoting the idea in the 1930s, and the practice gradually caught on in Australia in the 1960s. Generally, a quick weigh-in and measurement are taken before returning the fish to the water.


Taking that idea a step further is tag and release, where a tag is attached and data manually recorded on a postcard that is then forwarded to the appropriate government agency for the purposes of tracking and managing fish populations. In sport-fishing competitions, anglers use a pole fitted with an applicator to tag fish in the shoulder or dorsal area, the fleshiest part, to cause the least irritation possible. With good aim, angling and crew work, fish can be released in good health to live another day. 
Blue marlin tag and release at Eldorado Billfish Tournament

Team Oceanmax tagging and releasing a blue marlin at the Eldorado International Billfish Tournament earlier this year.


In recent years, GPS-driven satellite tags have been used to gather detailed data on post-release mortality rates, migration habits, preferred water temperatures and more to help researchers better understand pelagic fish and marine species from manta rays to Indonesian whale sharks. Propspeed foul-release coating has been used on these tags to inhibit marine growth in the warm Pacific waters these species call home. Because of their high cost, satellite tags are largely unsuitable for recreational fishers and, for now, limited mostly to the world of marine research.


The Zane Grey International Billfish Tournament is one of the few that has a satellite tagging program. Around this time last year, they deployed six pop-up satellite tags provided by the International Game Fish Association. These high-tech tags pop up after 180 days to relay detailed information about the fish they were attached to that will then be analyzed by researchers at Stanford. The tournament also awards no points for sharks, reflecting changing attitudes worldwide.


Of the organizations and programs that champion tag and release, the most internationally recognized is the Billfish Foundation, founded in 1986 by the late Winthrop P. Rockefeller. The foundation established its tagging program in 1990 and is today the world’s largest and most comprehensive, focusing on education, research and advocacy for responsible fisheries management.


In New Zealand, the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) and the Ministry of Fisheries provide thousands of tags to fishing clubs, fishing organizations and recreational anglers every year to conduct research and record data. Efforts by the New Zealand Sport Fishing Council to actively manage and conserve marlin populations have been ongoing since the early ’80s, which saw a steep decline in marlin catches, leading to a government moratorium on commercial billfishing that is now a permanent ban.


Together, we've all come a long way. Oceanmax continues to be invested in working with groups from around the world to preserve the planet, its oceans and the life in them for future generations.

By Anna Ngo

Oceanmax International

Blog post published 14 March 2018