Fish you were here

Gary Kiernan

Gary Kiernan shows off a few of the custom fishing rods in his home studio. He says the rods sell for between $300 and $1,500.

Gary Kiernan shows off a few of the custom fishing rods in his home studio. He says the rods sell for between $300 and $1,500.

Photo By brad bynum

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Gary Kiernan calls the Truckee River home. He grew up near Ambrose Park, just west of Reno, and he spent as much time as he could find down by the Truckee.

“I’ve always been good to the river,” he says. “I’d keep it clean. Growing up, every day, I’d go down there, go fishing and swimming and picking up trash. The river’s been good to me, so I try to be good to it.”

He’s now been fishing in the Truckee River for 30 years. “I know how to fish that river,” he says. “I know the seasons of the river, and I know how those fish think.”

His passion for fishing inspired Kiernan to start building fishing rods. He built his first rod as a Boy Scout, and then, when he was a little older, he made a few as gifts. He kept tinkering and learning more about rods, and then, as sometimes happens, what started as a hobby morphed into a business, Kiernan Custom Rods.

“Why build a custom rod if you’re not going to make it top of the line?” he says. “Many sportsmen, we like high quality goods. We like to use the best.”

He dedicates himself to the minutia of fishing rods: Lining up the spine of the rod with the guides, cutting down the weight, finding the right balance and the harmonic sensitivity to detect the slightest tug on the line.

About four years ago, Kiernan’s passion for fishing morphed again, this time from a business into an artform. He saw a rod with a feather inlay on eBay, and it was a revelation. The feather inlay—feathers fanned and encased in the rod near the handle—was a delicate thing of beauty. Kiernan emailed the guy who made the rod and asked how he did the feather inlay.

“He wouldn’t tell me how he did it,” says Kiernan. “So I had to figure it out for myself.”

Kiernan takes the feathers from a variety of birds—pheasants, peacocks and more—and cuts them, shapes them, and arranges them in colorful, spidery, kaleidoscope-like patterns. The feathers fan out in precise, intricate shapes. Kiernan says it can be quite time-consuming and tedious to do these arrangements—and he estimates that he’s one of only about four or five people in the world who do it—but the results are stunning objects perfect for midstream artistic contemplation.

“I never realized I was an artist until three years ago when my wife told me,” he says with a laugh.

He’s incorporated other materials into his creations, including amboyna burl wood, elk antler, and cork for the grips, as well as gemstones and insects for the inlays. He also does some marbleizing, creating galaxy effects with paint.

Each rod is an individual creation, tailored to customer requests for color schemes and fishing style. Kiernan’s fishing rods are art objects, tools with a practical use, and a unique item with a personal connection. He sizes each rod to the hands of the customer, because, after all, a rod is to a fisherman what a sword is to a knight or a lightsaber is to a Jedi.