The Hardy Creative Team-The Zane Connection

In the last few days there has been quite a bit of chat at Thomas Turner about Zane Grey, Hardy and the Zane rods and reels that the company has made over the years. I’m not in a position to comment with any authority on the nuts and bolts of the design and the manufacture of the various models but I do have some background colour enthusiasts will find interesting…I hope. This comes about because from around 2001 until 2013/4 I was a member of the three man Hardy Creative Team. John Wolstenholme was the leader, product manager with the company and a giant of a South African. I’d first met John when he was manager of the Sportfish shop in London and was immediately captivated. This man knew his stuff. I guess he was in his thirties then and there was hardly a fish he had not heard of, pursued or caught. He could be a spikey customer – show me a Springbok who isn’t – but I relished the thought of working with him and I was not to be disappointed.

That leaves Jon Ward Allen and me as the other two. Jon, as publisher of Medlar books and Waterlog magazine, needs no introduction. Boy, can he write and, with wife Rosie, can he edit too? He is, of course, hugely affable, great fun and about as knowledgeable as JW. I was the one weighing less than thirteen stone and without the beard. By the turn of the century, I’d already fished in 40 countries or more, lead 50 odd expeditions to India, Mongolia and the like, written a fair few books and was passable with a camera. It all seemed a good fit and indeed we worked well together for over a decade. It is my abiding disappointment I never kept diaries of those days so I accept my dates might well be way out. Our job included writing words for all the brochures during those years along with those for Greys and even Chub which the company then owned. Throw in the advertisements we were responsible for and all the lifestyle photography and we were kept busy. 

For me, this was a dream job. My heroes Richard Walker and Fred Buller had worked for the company when I was a child and my dreams then were to follow in their footsteps. In my time, Richard Sanderson was MD, bright as a reel off the production line, with huge vision and ambition and exuberantly supportive. Ian McCormack was Commercial Manager and a joy to work with. On the production and design side there were maestros like England International Howard Crosten, Chris Bond, Charlie Norris and Colin Skene. Throw in the fact that I spent half my working life travelling around the world with cameras, kit and with some of the best fly fishers in the world to use it and there was not much not to like about the gig at all! One trip, amongst scores of them, stands out. We are back to the Zane!

The thinking was that Hardy could conquer the US market by producing a top line saltwater rod and reel range, appropriately enough named after a hero both sides of the Atlantic. It was my job to write the copy for both, including the Rolls Royce of it all, the reel crafted in titanium. It’s not really my role to comment on the truth here: let’s say that I trotted out all the usual brochure spiel. The rods were the product of years of research and design. The reels were silky smooth and the titaniums were 100% indestructible, as they should have been for 10,000 dollars or thereabouts. Sadly I never kept a diary, as I have said, and neither did I keep all the reams of Hardy words I wrote in that period. All I can go on factually are the couple of Zane reels I still have in my garage and imaginatively, all my memories of some crazy days. And those on the Zane shoot were the craziest of them all.

If the Zanes were to conquer America, then it was decided we should take them there to photograph and fish with. The legendary Andy Murray (angler not tennis player) was part of the company then and he, John Wolstenholme, Howard Crosten and I jetted off to Florida to get the job done. Which we did. Sort of. I’m not saying this was a bad shoot because we got some nice stuff but from start to finish it had a mad feel to it. It was like we were just holding it all together and that we could spin off the rails and drown in the deep dark waters any time. For a start, our guide, Dave, was about as bonkers as anyone I have travelled with. He could fish all right but you had the feeling he might kill you any time soon. His temper could erupt from a clear blue sky and have you swimming for shore, risking a bite from the sharks than mad dog Dave. Then there was Howard. Someone had told him to be careful of the sun and, man, did he take this advice on board? Remember he was our star fisherman and I had to take pictures of him looking all rugged, handsome and, well, Zane-like. At his best, he looked like a bee keeper, swaddled in scarfs, voluminous shirts and hats with his pants tucked into his socks…always a nice look I have thought. At his worst he looked like a demented washing line with rod as a clothes prop. David Bailey couldn’t have made him look anything other than a lobster-red Brit way out of his depth. Only the knotted handkerchief was missing. 

And we didn’t catch any fish, or not much bigger than a gudgeon anyway. This fact wasn’t made easier by the fact that our blisteringly hot breakfast waitress was catching clonking great tarpon every night of our stay. She’d show us her photos, her bikini knees deep amongst silver sided monsters. How I wished I was photographing her. One morning, early doors, we did get close ourselves. It was dark, oppressive, thunder in the air and an eerie calm all around. Dave took us way out to a tide rip between islands where the tarpon, he said would be hunting in numbers. And by God, was he right?! Tarpon, enormous tarpon, were shearing the water a Zane’s length from the boat. We looked deep into the coal black of their eyes, we marvelled at the unreal sheen of their perfect scales. Never in my own life of travel have I ever seen fish their wondrous like. We yearned to make contact, to meld with these sirens of the sea that were driving us to the limits of sanity. The Zane rods were swishing, the Zane reels were purring but never a take did we get that two-hour morning of torment. The storm approached. Menace was everywhere, static was in the air and the lines quivered in it, airborne, a foot above the tarpon tormented sea. A rod of lightning exploded the water to our left and that was enough for Dave to gun us towards the shore and safety. What happened next was more deadly still.

Hemingway was our hero and the afternoon of that dark day we made the pilgrimage to Key West and to Sloppy Joe’s bar to pay homage. Things now get hazy. We got in there around 4pm, give or take. We ordered margaritas, all of us, from the off. I was sent off as the ding-dong, smooth (!?) Englishman to round up some girls. By midnight, I was living the Hemingway dream. We were the centre of the action, the stars of the show. Guys and gals of all shapes and sizes were flocking to us. Anglers, bikers, boaters, they were all happy to drink our margaritas and tell us their stories. Photos of Ernest looked down on us, ever more fondly as the booze flowed. By the time dawn was more than a promise I swear he looked down with respect. Yes, respect, especially when the fighting broke out. And best of all, I think it was us that started it. Hardy by name, Hardy by nature, I thought, as we were thrown out onto the street. Rumour was, later back in Alnwick, that the Hardy credit card had paid for it all, this bill of a thousand margaritas. 

I don’t know. I couldn’t say but we’d certainly wetted the Zane baby’s head. Not that long after, Hardy was sold, I was sacked and I’ve never had a tarpon yet.