Webster's defines the word Master as “An artist, performer, or player of consummate skill” Tom Morgan is a “Master” of the art of rodmaking…period. A craftsman in every sense of the word, Tom Morgan is one of the few rodmakers in the world today possessing the knowledge and ability to develop and build rods from cane, glass and graphite. Coupled with this ability is a dedication to quality and perfection rarely seen in a craftsman. Very few rodmakers in the world today can boast such credentials as this.
Tom Morgan's story begins in 1941. Born in Hollywood California, Tom's parents moved to Ennis Montana in 1946 shortly after his birth. Introduced to the art of angling at a young age by his father, Tom was dealt the fortunate hand of being able to grow up in the same town that was home to some of the most famous Trout water in the world. In 1949 Tom's parents opened up a motel that attracted fishermen from all over the United States to the small town of Ennis. Although he had started out as a spin fisherman fishing mostly with live bait, Tom quickly made the jump to angling with the long rod exclusively after rubbing elbows with many of the expert fly fishermen that frequented his parent's motel. Refining his skills on rivers such as the Madison, the Beaverhead and the Ruby Tom quickly became an exceptional angler and began guiding on many of his home waters. Having the opportunity to fish along side literally thousands of anglers, Tom began to understand that there was an obvious correlation between rod action and angling success. It was during this time that Tom began to develop some very definite ideas about the proper design and function of the flyrod.
Then in 1973, Tom got to live a dream that most of us could only hope for, he got to own a fishing rod company…well not just any fishing rod company. For 18 years Tom Morgan was the man who carried the torch lit so long ago by Robert Winther and Lew Stoner when they formed The R.L. Winston Rod Co. Purchased from renowned rodmaker Doug Merrick, Tom's ownership of R.L.Winston afforded him the luxury of immersing himself in the world of rodmaking fulltime. As President and owner of R.L. Winston Tom was responsible not only for carrying on the tradition of making some of the most revered cane rods in the world, he also designed and perfected so many of those beloved glass and graphite tapers we all know and love so well.
After selling R.L. Winston in 1991, Tom began redefining the boundaries of the flyrod again in 1995 with his current company, Tom Morgan Rodsmiths. One needs only to catch a glimpse of a rod made by Tom Morgan Rodsmiths to understand the true level of his skill, and his passion for excellence. Working alongside his wife Gerri, they are annually producing a limited number of graphite rods in select line weights for the Trout fisherman. From the proprietary tapers to the custom accouterments, each rod is without a doubt, truly a tribute to perfection.
With one foot firmly rooted in the past and the other one constantly pushing the envelope of the future, Tom Morgan continues to raise the bar for all of us trying so desperately to build that perfect fishing rod.
Andy Dear: First of all I want to thank you for taking the time out of your schedule to do this interview with me. I have wanted to put together some documentation about the history of this industry for a while now. I think there is a real need for this kind of knowledge among the custom rod builders out there, and I really appreciate your willingness to participate.
Tom Morgan: Well I am happy to do it Andy, and I agree with you. It is good to pass on this information to new people.
AD: I was wondering if you could detail for me how your purchase of R.L. Winston came about?
TM: Sure. Well, I have always loved Winston Rods and a number of my clients when I was a guide used Winston rods, so I was familiar with them. I was running the motel in '73 and my friend Al Wilson who had been in the Air Force during the Second World War with Doug (Merrick) was staying at the Motel. He told me that he had heard that Doug was selling the Rod Company. So I immediately called Doug up. I knew Doug because I had stopped by the Winston shop before that and I had purchased three rods from him over different years. He didn't know me really well, but he knew me some. He said “Yes” that it was true that he was going to sell the company. So I said “Boy I am really interested in buying it!” Actually I had kind of day dreamed about owning a rod company someday. He said he had four other people interested in it as well, so as soon as I could I got on an airplane and I went down there and met with Doug. He showed me through the shop, and I gotta tell you I was in heaven! (Laughter) On the way down I had stopped to see my friend Sid Eliason whom I had guided and been friends with for a number of years. I asked him if he was interested in joining with me to buy Winston, and he said that he was. So Doug and I talked a little bit, on the way home I stopped to talk with Sid again in Salt Lake City to tell him I thought we could make a deal. I came home and wrote up a proposal for Doug and sent it to him and he accepted.
AD: Right then and there?
TM: Well I did pay him $10,000.00 more than he was asking!
AD: Just as a kind of insurance that you would get it!
TM: You bet!
AD: One of the things I found interesting in researching your career was that prior to purchasing Winston you had only built one rod. Is that true?
TM: Yep, I had only put the guides on and coated one Phillipson blank.
AD: And why did you not pursue rodmaking after that…. did it not interest you, or did you just not have the time?
TM: (pauses) Andy, I don't know that I have a good answer to that! (Laughter). I just didn't do it.
AD: After your purchase of the company went through, I understand that Doug stayed on with you for a couple of years. There must have been a pretty steep learning curve for you not ever having really built rods before…especially cane rods. Had you studied Cane Rod construction at all?
TM: Nope, not at all.
AD: So what was it like getting past the learning curve?
TM: Well when you buy it, and you have to do it, you learn real fast! (Laughter)
AD: And I guess you had some of the best teachers at the time as well. Doug had to be quite a mentor.
TM: Yeah, he was somewhat, but the person who really helped me the most with bamboo was Gary Howells. He would come over every Saturday. He had worked for Doug for a number of years, actually since Lew died in '57. Gary worked with Doug until '71. Gary really built a better quality bamboo rod in my opinion than Doug was at the time. So Gary was very helpful, he came over every Saturday and we would talk about things.
AD: Was Winston producing Fiberglass rods at the time?
TM: Yes they were.
AD: Those were coming out of the Fisher plant is that correct?
TM: They were, yes. Doug was having Fisher do some of the finished rods, and then we did some there too, so it was kind of a combination.
AD: I see, so did you start out with Bamboo and then move to Glass and then later to Graphite? How exactly did your design skills progress?
TM: Well I kind of did both. Doug and I worked on Bamboo right from the start. I also worked some on the Fiberglass as well. So really it was both at the same time.
AD: Were you guys designing your own mandrels and such at the same time, or were you just using the ones that Fisher had been using?
TM: Well that had previously been done by Doug, except for the Stalker Series which I designed. That was either '74 or '75.
AD: I think Winston still makes that series of rods, do they not?
TM: They do, they brought them back, oh I don't know maybe three years ago or so.
AD: How would you say that Doug influenced your ideas about flyrod action and how a flyrod should be made? Did he have quite a bit of an impact on your thoughts about the subject?
TM: He really did, Doug knew a lot about rod action. I felt that I did too. I had seen a lot of rods, and felt I had a good feel for rods. The reason that I wanted to do the Stalker rods was because I felt that most fly rods were much too stiff. The way I designed those rods was…well actually it was very similar to the way it is now, in that I did actually buy two or three 3wt and 4wt rods. They were fiberglass blanks at the time but they were much stiffer than they should have been. They were one or two line sizes stiffer, so I decided I wanted to make a rod that should be soft and supple to handle the line at normal fishing distances. So I got Fisher to supply some mandrels, which were actually spinning rod mandrels. They were smaller in diameter than the fiberglass mandrels. The fiberglass mandrels were quite big in diameter in order to make the rods lighter. However, to make the 2wt. 3wt. and 4wt fiberglass rods we had to have a smaller mandrel and Fisher had some with not as fast a taper as the regular fiberglass mandrels were. That was what I built the Stalker series on.
AD: That's interesting, so they were actually spinning rod mandrels that you used?
TM: Well you do have quite a bit of flexibility in what you can do with the mandrels based on the cloth pattern. I wouldn't say that you could make any rod from any given mandrel though. You could say they were “Mandrels used to make spinning rods”, but not really “Spinning Rod Mandrels” if you know what I mean.
AD: Were you exchanging a lot of design and construction ideas with other makers in the 70's after you got started in this?
TM: No not really. After the Stalkers or right when the Stalkers came about that was when graphite hit the market. In the beginning, Fisher wasn't doing graphite blanks. So I tried to find some blanks that we could use. The first ones that we used were Exxon blanks that we brought from Leonard and they were terrible…almost everyone broke. Then around the end of '74 or early '75 Fisher started doing graphite. I was in LA and went by Fisher, and they were also making graphite golf shafts. They showed me a golf shaft that they had colored green, and I said “Boy we have got to have that on our graphite rods!” They said that they wouldn't let anybody else use that. So Winston was actually the first one to have colored graphite blanks for many years. Everybody's were black except ours. I made a big mistake not advertising them as a green graphite rod, so that we could have maintained that color. We let that one get away from us!
AD: Regressing back to what you said about the Leonard blanks having breakage problems. I am wondering, in the early days of graphite, or even now for that matter, how difficult is it for you to balance the attributes of durability, fishability and still make a rod that is pleasant to cast. Was that, and is that still a difficult balance to achieve?
TM: It was then, but Fisher did most of that work. The fabrics that they used back then were thicker so the blanks were heavier. They also still had the fiberglass scrim in them so there wasn't a lot of breakage actually Andy. That wasn't much of a problem after we switched from the Exxon blanks. I don't know what they (Leonard) were doing, whether they didn't have a scrim in them or what. You need a certain number of wraps for structural integrity, but for the most part it is not really a big issue. People in the business seem to say, even now with the unlimited lifetime warranty that the breakage rate is seven to ten percent. Even those numbers are questionable with people abusing the rod. You do have to be careful though that you don't make the walls too thin.
AD: Is Tom Morgan Rodsmiths doing anything with glass or is it strictly cane and graphite?
TM: No, not at the moment Andy.
AD: Do you have any plans to do anything with glass?
TM: Well, I wouldn't say that there are no plans. I am pursuing the idea of making some glass blanks. We wouldn't make any rods we would only sell blanks. I am not sure if we are going to do it or not, but there is a possibility.
AD: When you are manufacturing blanks, or having them manufactured for you out of different materials like graphite, cane, and glass, are you looking for different attributes from each material? In other words, do you say to yourself “This is the end result that I am looking for, so this probably needs to be made out of glass” I guess what I am asking is this; Is there quite a bit of crossover between materials and design ideas?
TM: I would say there is quite a bit of crossover in that a good rod is a good rod is a good rod. What you are really looking at are attributes and characteristics. For example, if you took a category of Trout Rods, the weights of the different materials don't make a lot of difference. Even though Bamboo is heavier than Fiberglass, which is heavier than graphite, i have really strong convictions that you need to make a rod that is going to fish for Trout in the 20 or 25 foot to 50 or 55 foot range. If it doesn't really bend or flex in that area, then you have got the wrong rod. So with any one of the materials the characteristics of the rod in my opinion should still be the same. Now, the inherent weight of Bamboo is going is going to make it flex more when you shake it, than it will in fiberglass or graphite. Even with a graphite rod in my opinion I can shake one and tell you whether it is going to be a good rod or not. A lot of people feel that you can't do that with graphite. So when you get the line on them Andy, they all should flex about the same in my opinion.
AD: Regardless of what material they are made out of?
TM: That's right
AD: Do you have a preference between the three materials? Is there on that you enjoy working with more than the others?
TM: No, I really enjoy all of them. I think that each material has it's own attributes, but as far as designing with any of them, no I really don't have a preference. I do however think that graphite is the most versatile material and offers the widest range of design possibilities because of its loading characteristics and light weight. However, very few manufactures seem to understand what makes a great fly fishing rod, so I think there are more bad designs now than ever before.
AD: You know after reading previous literature that you have written, it is obvious that you have very strong ideas about the way that a rod should flex, especially for Trout fishing and the distances that one should be comfortable fishing with. It seems these days though that everyone is hung up on being able to throw a really long line. Certainly being able to throw 100 feet of line is a skill that we should all strive for, but it seems that so many companies marketing philosophies revolve around how far a given rod will cast instead of how versatile the rod may be. What is your opinion on this?
TM: It is absolutely Madison Avenue stuff, even with saltwater rods, Salmon rods and Steelhead rods, I think those are much too stiff also. Lets take for example Salmon and Steelhead rods that people cast all day long. Those really stiff rods that are still one or two line sizes too stiff to bend adequately, those rods are really hard on the elbows and shoulders. People get a lot of tennis elbow from fighting those rods. Whereas if they had a rod that flexed more that you can load over a little longer period of time, and you don't have to load them so sharply, they are much easier on your body and actually easier to cast.
AD: And I guess more forgiving on light tippets as well.
TM: Yep, now let's go to the saltwater rods. What has happened to a lot of the saltwater rods now is that they are just really too stiff to be good fishing rods. You have probably noticed this. Usually you are standing there on the deck, or maybe wading then you see a fish and you need to make a fairly quick cast. Well what happens with the rods that are too stiff, particularly if the tips are too stiff is that you can't get that rod loaded! You are standing there with not a lot of line out of the tip and the fly in your left hand and you have maybe 30 feet of line out in a loop. If the tip is too stiff you can't load that rod easily and quickly to make your cast. So actually those stiff tipped rods don't work as well as a softer tip that you can load faster and get that fly out.
AD: You're so right. It is amazing to me that more anglers have not voiced their opinion about this.
TM: Yep, they don't get it, and I don't understand it either! The Loomis IMX rods are really good though. They have really soft tips that you can load fast.
AD: Do you have any plans to produce a saltwater line of blanks/rods?
TM: No we don't
AD: One of the things that I have noticed in talking to various Rod Designers is that they have spent a lot of time in their lives doing one of two things: Guiding and/or spending a lot of time becoming a very proficient caster. How do you feel that your experience as guide influenced the way that you feel that a rod should be designed?
TM: Well Guiding and fishing I would say are both important. Fishing in Montana, the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia as I did, I really feel that I am only an authority on Trout and Steelhead. The saltwater I have done some of and I do feel that I have a concept of what is necessary, but the Trout is where I have done the most. So in southwestern Montana I have fished everything from small little streams to the Missouri and Madison. You really have to be in my opinion an avid fisherman and rods have to be your passion in order to have that experience of fishing in all kinds of conditions to know what kind of rod it is going to take to satisfy those circumstances. I have tremendous experience like that. Also, so much of my guiding was done on streams like the Beaverhead, the Gallatin and the Madison or O'Dell creek where you walk along with the angler and watch them fish. You really learn more from watching people than you do fishing yourself, and you just see that hardly ever do they make a cast over 50 feet. A lot of people can't cast very well at 50 feet anyway so almost all of the fish are caught in that 25-50 foot range. If the rod doesn't bend in that range and work easily and protect the tippet, then it is not doing the job that it should. What I think is that so many of the rods are being designed by tournament casters or to show off in the casting pond at the fly-fishing shows. They are not really designed by people who have a long background actually fishing.
AD: That is an interesting observation. When I was younger I used to play a lot of golf. It was obvious that the people who received the most attention at the driving range were those that could drive the ball the furthest, but more often than not, they were not necessarily the best player in the tournaments. I think fly fishing may suffer from that same dilemma, with everyone being impressed with the guys who can cast the furthest when in reality they may not actually be the best fisherman at all.
TM: Yep, well you know to go watch Steve Rajeff cast is fabulous…I love to watch him myself. You don't however don't need to be able to cast those long distances in order to catch fish though.
AD: One of the things I have noticed about your rods is the extremely high attention to detail. Of course among the custom builder community there is a great emphasis on aesthetics. Do you have certain aesthetic criteria that you look for during the production of a rod in regards to say guide wraps and finishing? I guess my question is how picky are you? Just what kind of standards do you hold yourself to when critiquing a rod that you have built?
TM: Impossible standards! (Laughter) Andy we've not let rods go out that had one little scratch on them that you probably could not even see! I'll tell you what the hardest thing is about building rods with a very high level of quality. For any company, like when I owned Winston for example, we would hire new people and it just takes people a long time to see what they are looking at if you know what I mean. It takes a lot of experience like I have had to see what separates a quality rod from a rod not necessarily being up to the maximum standard. First of all I think you have to know what you are looking for, and you have to be totally uncompromising. What I used to tell people that Gerri and I look for is this: The difference between your very best and your very worst should get narrower and narrower so that the difference is very slight. For example when we start out with a rod we look for any surface blemishes in the finish that can't be buffed or sanded out. The other thing is that you have to be able to get the rod blank really straight. Then, when we put the handles on we try to use cork that is the very best, we cull our cork and actually only use about half of what we get. With our blanks, we throw about half of them away also. Either they don't deflect properly or they are too crooked or they have blemishes on them. You know it is expensive and most companies don't want to deal with that. I am just talking about absolutely the highest quality. You know those little aesthetic things though are hard to learn Andy. It is hard for people to learn all those details and be totally uncompromising.
When we mount the tip-top we check to make sure that the solder is not too big or if it is done right. If it is not then we reject the tip-tops. We look at the guides, and if they are not formed perfectly we don't use those either. It is just attention to every single detail like that. The rod tubes can't have any blemishes on them. Then you have to have somebody that once you get all of the components that is able to do all of the wrapping correctly. You can't have any tags showing. They also have to know how to do the coating so that all of the threads get covered. It is having that commitment to quality…quality at any cost.
AD: That was one of the things I was so impressed with on your rods. The finishing job was so impeccable. There were no bubbles or tag ends and it was unbelievably level. The coverage was complete and adequate but not excessive or intrusive…. It was 100% perfect.
TM: Yep, well Gerri is the best!
AD: Is she the one who does all of that work?
TM: Yes she is. I have never seen work that equals hers. Let me go back a bit for a moment though. You said the Rodsmith rod you saw was really beautiful and the design was very nice. Number one though Andy, they have to be great fishing rods. That rod you saw in my opinion is a great fishing rod.
AD: Well, I didn't get the opportunity to cast that rod, but if it fishes half as good as it looks, you guys are still doing top notch work!
TM: It does, I guarantee it!
AD: What is running a production shop like, and what do you think an individual builder could learn from a production environment?
TM: The idea in a production shop is to group processes together so that you have efficiency of scale and you save on setup to do an individual step. For example, we would work batches of graphite blanks through a process of inspecting for blemishes, straightness, and deflection to insure that they were the proper size. Then when we were ready to process the blanks cutting them to the proper length, ferruling them, and preparing them for grips and reel seats we could do a big batch of the same size. This not only makes the process go faster it makes each blank consistent with the others in the batch.
When working production in batches it allows you to learn to do processes consistently and, overall, more quickly. Our goal was always to keep improving the quality of our rods and workmanship. In my opinion, by working product through on a consistent basis in a flowing pattern you are able to examine your procedures to develop ones that gradually keep improving your product.
For most individuals that are building only a few rods a year it doesn't really matter since most of them are doing it for their personal enjoyment and the amount of time it takes to complete a rod is not important. However, for those trying to make a modest number of rods per year for sale they could benefit both in reducing the time spent and improving their quality by working the processes in bigger groups. This may not be possible if they are building rods from variety of lengths and manufactures but it may be with components.
Another big consideration in a production shop is the health of the workers. If you are coating an occasional rod the detrimental affects of the material is minimal, but if people work with it continually they have to have protection that prevents illness or long term health problems.
AD: Do you still tinker around with different design ideas for rods or with things like the Morgan hand mill? Is there any thing new on the horizon that you would be willing to talk about?
TM: No I really don't. You know when we designed the Bamboo rods that we are going to be selling soon we went through a lot of trial and error. A little while ago you talked about designing a rod. The only way I know how to do it Andy is to make interchangeable parts. You know about what you want and you start with a rod that is pretty close to what you want. Then you make interchangeable butts and tips, and then you cast'em. On the bamboo rods we have three models, and we probably had forty tips and butts or something like that. You just mix and match'em and find something that you like. If it isn't quite right then you go back and change that pattern a little bit. You just keep working like that. That is how I think you should design a rod.
AD: So it is just a constant trial and error process?
TM: It is, and I don't have anything new with the exception of the Bamboo rods and the possibility of some glass blanks. Other then those, I don't think I'll be designing anything new.
AD: Does Tom Morgan Rodsmiths sell graphite blanks?
TM: No we don't. We have talked about selling blanks, but I am against it. I think it would subtract from the value of our rods if we did that.
AD: What would you say that the most fulfilling thing about owning R.L. Winston was?
TM: Well two things. I think that being able to execute your ideas and design rods was really fulfilling. When I was designing rods, and even now I have in my mind a clear idea of what I want the rod to do. I think that is really important, and I got a lot of fulfillment out of being able to execute and make rods that I thought would be great.
The other thing is customer satisfaction. Ever since I have owned a Rod Company with Winston and with what we are doing now, the amount of customer satisfaction that you provide people and then you get feedback from them, that is really an important part of it for me. Over the years and now, we just get so much great customer feedback. People really love the rods. It is really touching how much they appreciate the rods and what they tell you.
AD: What kind of influence do you feel your ownership of Winston left on the company?
TM: I think a legacy of building great fishing rods. A real orientation of quality and trying to build a real quality rod that not only fished well, but also looked good.
AD: What are your plans for the future with Tom Morgan Rodsmiths? Do you have any plans for new graphite models, or are you devoting most of the time to the cane rods?
TM: Well we are not doing any more graphite designs. We only make maybe 70 rods a year in graphite. The models that we are making now really satisfy the customers so we just won't do any more designing with graphite.
AD: As far as the cane rods go, are those proprietary tapers that you guys designed yourself?
TM: They are, we are making a 7-foot 3wt. A 7-foot 4wt. and a 7 ½ foot 5 wt, and we are only going to make 200 rods total split among those three different designs. Then no more will be made after that.
AD: Judging from the way you talk about your work, am I correct in assuming that you still have as strong a passion for building fly rods as you did in '73 when you purchased Winston?
TM: Yes, I do. This business has been good to me and I feel lucky that I was able to make some great contributions to the sport.
AD: Tom, again I want to thank you for taking time out of your schedule to share a little about your life with me. It has been a real honor getting to hear your story firsthand.
TM: You bet Andy, I appreciate you doing the interview. I agree with you that it's important to inform your readers of people that have contributed to the great sport of angling. I'm glad that you let me be a part of the process.
Thanks Andy and RodMaker Magazine for kindly allowing us to publish this article.