I grew up in a trout fishing-mad family. As a kid, my parents relocated to Taupo so my father could take up a job with the Taupo Council. The real reason for the move, however, was so that he could be closer to the lake and the rivers that he loved to fish. I don’t remember much of those years, however I do remember the rods my father fished with. Kilwell, without exception.
Made in Rotorua, New Zealand, these were the “go-to” rods for a lot of Kiwi fisherman, and so it remained that way for a long time. When I bought my first rod as a 16 year old, it was a Kilwell “Silver Fern.” In later years, before his death, my father was living on the sickness benefit in Taupo, a permanent resident at Waitahanui Lodge, and then Windsor Lodge further down the road. He was “fishing for the government” as he liked to put it, and most days were spent either at the famous “picket-fence” or, upstream on the river itself, looking for the monster browns that frequented the river. Again, he was fishing a Kilwell rod – a 9ft, 8wt Kilwell “Lake Fly” to be precise.
Fig 1. – Anglers at dusk. “Picket Fence,” Waitahanui River Mouth, Taupo, New Zealand
As I became more absorbed in fly-fishing I upgraded my gear. First it was a monstrous 9ft6 9 wt IM7 Composite Developments rod bought with the sole intention of fishing the big waters around Taupo. A move to the south island saw this rod sold off and replaced by my first “non-NZ” rod – a 6wt Scott S4 purchased for a steal off trademe. A move back to the North Island saw me do something I have regretted ever since – I sold the Scott in order to purchase another “big rod” for fishing Taupo (times were hard, and money was tough – to justify buying a rod, I had to sell another one). Trademe saved me, and I picked up the same Composite Development model that I had sold several years earlier. But something had changed. The rod felt awful to cast, like trying to cast a broomstick. The Scott had changed how I cast.
After several months, I bought my first real “expensive” rod. It was a Composite Developments GHR. CD, like Kilwell, is made in Rotorua, New Zealand. Back then (the early 2000s) they were picking up all sorts of awards. The GHR was being heralded as the best rod for New Zealand conditions, and was backed by a lifetime guarantee. And it had a price tag to match. As luck would have it though, an outfitters in Turangi had a bunch of them going cheap. It was becoming an obsolete model, but still a fine rod. I purchased one, a 9 ft 8 wt,…and then I purchased another from a sports store going out of business – a 6wt. The 8wt has had significant use – as 90% of my fishing is done on the Tongariro. The 6wt gets dusted off for the occasional outing when in Napier for family holidays, or the odd evening at a stream mouth on Lake Taupo when there is no wind, and I want to have a bit of fun on the big ‘bows that show up after dusk.
Fig 2. Tongariro Brown and Rainbow taken on a CD GHR with a Kilwell Reel – the old set-up.
And then it happened. I bought a Sage.
The GHR was getting a bit tired, and I was now earning a lot more. I had become more obsessive about my fishing, and was now getting pleasure out of not only the fishing itself, but from owning and fishing with nice gear. I had often thought about buying a sage, but at over $1000.00 for a rod, it was hard to justify. Then, an overseas trip enabled me to purchase one direct from the US. Taking advantage of the high NZ dollar, and the lower cost of fishing products in the states, I managed to pick up a Z-Axis 8wt, and while I was at it, a Lamson Litespeed 3 reel. Now, I do not profess to be an expert when it comes to describing the feel of a rod, but this definitely felt more lively than the GHR. Another factor in buying the Sage was the warranty that comes with it – a lifetime, unconditional warranty. In fact, as I write this, my rod is sitting in Montanna somewhere having a cracked stripping guide repaired. It will cost me $50.00 in postage,….but thats a small price to pay.
CD also had a lifetime warranty on their rods, which was a factor in my decision to purchase the CDs that I have owned. I have used the warranty twice – once after a girlfriend slammed the tip of a rod in the car door (and not long after, became an ex-girlfriend), and once when an errant cast caused a tungsten weighted nymph to shatter the shaft. However, CD have since changed their warranty to a 5 year unconditional warranty. I am not sure what the reasoning was behind this, but I am picking it was driven by cost. Personally, I wont spend over $600.00 on a rod that doesnt have a lifetime warranty these days, so that pretty much rules CD out for me.
Fig 3. – The new set up. Sage Z-Axis and Lamson Litespeed 2 reel, with a prime condition Tongariro Raibow.
Now, a move of locations has seen me focus back on the smaller waters. The 6wt GHR is fine, but the reel (a cheap Kilwell Genius) has seen better days. Again, I have turned to the US, and have purchased a Lamson Litespeed 2 for the smaller rod,…and now I am contemplating upgrading the rod.
Again, I find myself looking at the offshore brands for a solution. Part of the reason is they seem to be everywhere. And Kilwell and CD are conspicuous by their absence. Walk into most outfitters and you will see displays set up showing off Sage, Scott, GLoomis, Temple Fork Outfitters, Airflo, and other brands from overseas. One can also turn to the internet an access rods not available in New Zealand. One of the Fly Fishing Film Festival movies featured a film called “Reverb” about a Chicago punk-rock band who are also fly-fishing fanatics. The lead singer has gone as far as setting up his own rod business – including having the blanks custom made for him. The rods sell under the name of Flying Pig for around $200.00USD. A quick search of the internet reveals a number of very positive reviews for this rod, including this one by Field and Stream. And at that price – even if it doesnt have a lifetime warranty – then who cares?… but guess what, it does. I am seriously considering purchasing one of these rods.
So what has happened to the great New Zealand flyrod?
You might be lucky and find some CD rods in your local outfitters,….and even luckier still to find some Kilwell. But their grip on the NZ market seems to have slipped. And so has their ability to promote their products.
A quick look at Composite Developments website reveals a site in serious need of an overhaul. I – and I’m sure I am not alone – like to arm myself with some research before shelling out a considerable amount of money on new gear. Often the first place I will turn is the manufactures website. CD’s website offers very little in the way of information. It is messy, difficult to navigate, and many items lack pictures (and a picture paints a thousand words). Its as though the website is stuck in 2004.
Kilwell’s site is better, and at least there is information on their flagship rod, the Innovation II, but compared to others, it’s still pretty sparse. Take a look at Sage’s site set up to promote their ONE rod, and you will find technical data – for those who want to geek-out on details, as well as videos and other useful information.
It seems that New Zealand’s rods are being left behind. The internet is partly to blame for this. Consumers now have so much more information at their finger tips than they used to. They are no longer solely reliant on the salesman in the shop, or the ads placed in local fishing magazines. They can instead do their research first online, and make the decision on what they are going to buy before even setting foot in a shop.
Are CD and Kilwell any better or worse than Sage or Scott??, I honestly don’t know. I am not “anti” Kilwell or CD. What I do know however is that I am unlikely to buy one of these rods again in the foreseeable future. To me, they are no longer the premium brand that they once were, and this is largely due them taking their “eye off the ball” while the other brands pushed forward with research and development, interactive websites, and aggressive marketing. I don’t know much about their current rods, because they don’t seem to be promoting them. Simple as that.
I am not sure what rod my father would be using were he alive today, but I am picking their is a high chance that it wouldn’t be manufactured by the Kilwell brand that he held in such high regard throughout his years of fishing.