It’s no angler’s tall tale – this rod and reel collection really does get bigger and bigger
He loves fishing, but Ian Kearney spends more time at home with his fishing tackle collection than he does by a river. The collection takes time to research, restore and catalogue, so casting for a trout is a once-a-week pleasure. It’s squeezed between business commitments that include chairing both the energy company Network Tasman and Nelson’s private scientific research organisation, the Cawthron Institute.
When Ian does get to the Rai, the Waimea, the Motueka or any of the other famous trout rivers of the upper South Island, it’s usually with an antique rod and reel from his collection or with one of the old-style split-cane rods he makes himself. He owns 120 rods, 400 to 500 old reels, several hundred items such as creels (wicker fish baskets) and fly wallets, as well as a library of fishing books and catalogues. Ian has become more selective in his buying, but even so his collection grows at a startling rate.
“I have two rooms full and two racks of rods that I need to restore. Whenever I see a rod or reel with a New Zealand connection, either New Zealand-made or containing our native timber, I’m keen to have it.
“There’s a special satisfaction in seeing battered or neglected fishing tackle with its lustre and mana restored.”
The New Zealand connection started as early as the 1860s when English fly-fishing rods were made from Caribbean greenheart timber, with tips of New Zealand lancewood (horoeka). In the following century, rods and reels were being made here on a small scale. “There is a tradition of reels being made in Timaru from the 1930s to the 1960s,” says Ian. He owns one such reel he wants to learn more about. It carries the words “Maker, J.S.A. Anderson, Timaru 7.54.”
From the 1950s to the 1970s, a former English reel-maker named Ernie Brown made copies of Hardy reels in Christchurch. These were labelled with a variety of names after the Hardy company of England began legal action. Ernie Brown reels are historically interesting and Ian still fishes with one, but the Hardy reels – especially the Hardy Perfect – are considered among the world’s finest. It was a Hardy Perfect – bought in a box of old tackle – that started the collection more than 20 years ago. Ian now seeks out Hardy reels with the Tisdalls name attached – imported here by Tisdalls as early as 1908.
Sea-fishing tackle is also in the collection, including a home-made kauri big-game-fishing reel.
“With import restrictions after World War II limiting availability, New Zealanders made their own reels and some are very well engineered,” says Ian.
Ian swaps but has never sold any of his collection, though he once donated one of the split-cane rods he handcrafts to a charity auction. It raised $4000 for Starship Hospital.
Split-cane rods were first made in the 1880s, replacing solid wood rods. The bamboo cane is split and glued together to give steel-like strength. Since about 1960, when fibreglass took over, split-cane rods have been made only by enthusiasts such as Ian.
They are rods for purists – “The kind of rod Bill Gates fishes with,” says Ian. “It is partly nostalgia, but a good split-cane rod is considered to have an easier action and to be simpler to cast than a modern fast-action rod.”
Ian’s rod-making dream focuses on a sea-fishing reel he has seen only in photographs. “I want one day to find a game-fishing reel made by John Mowlem in Tauranga in the 1930s. It’s designed to attach to a rod made out of tanekaha. If I can find the reel, I would like nothing better than to restore it and make the tanekaha rod.”
Story: Pam Neville
Photographs: Daniel Allen