This interview was first publish I believe
in 2003 in Rodmaker Magazine. Since then I have
interview was done by Andy Dear.
Websters defines the word Master as An artist,
performer, or player of consummate skill Tom Morgan
is a Master of the art of rodmakingperiod. 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 Morgans story begins in 1941. Born in
Hollywood California, Toms 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 Toms
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 parents
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
companywell 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, Toms 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
Andy Dear: First of all I want to
thank you for taking the time out of your schedule to
do this interview with me. For a while now I have
wanted to put together some documentation about the
history of this industry. I think there is a real
need for this kind of knowledge among the custom rod
builders out there. 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
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 didnt 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
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
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 dont know
that I have a good answer to that! (Laughter). I just
didnt 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 beforeespecially 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
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
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 dont 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 waswell 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: Thats interesting, so they
were actually spinning rod mandrels that you
TM: Well you do have quite a bit
of flexibility in what you can do with the mandrels
based on the cloth pattern however, 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 70s 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 wasnt 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 terriblealmost 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 wouldnt let
anybody else use that. So Winston was actually the
first one to have a colored graphite blank for many
years. Everybodys 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
wasnt a lot of breakage actually Andy. That wasnt
much of a problem after we switched from the Exxon
blanks. I dont know what they (Leonard) were doing,
whether they didnt 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 sayeven 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 dont make
the walls too thin.
AD: Is Tom Morgan Rodsmiths doing
anything with glass or is it strictly cane and
TM: No, not at the moment
AD: Do you have any plans to do
anything with glass?
TM: Well, I wouldnt say that
there are no plans. I am pursuing the idea of making
some glass blanks. We wouldnt 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 dont 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 is still 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 cant
do that with graphite. So when you get the line on
them Andy, they all should flex about the same in my
AD: Regardless of what material
they are made out of ?
TM: Thats 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 its own
attributes, but as far as designing with any of them,
no I really dont 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
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
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 dont 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 lets 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 cant 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 cant load that rod easily and
quickly to make your cast. So actually those stiff
tipped rods dont work as well as a softer tip that
you can load faster and get that fly out.
AD: Youre so right. It is amazing
to me that more anglers have not voiced their opinion
TM: Yep, they dont get it, and I
dont 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 dont.
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 ODell 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 cant 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
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 fabulousI love to watch
him myself. You dont however dont need to be able to
cast those long distances in order to catch fish
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 weve not let rods go out that had one
little scratch on them that you probably could not
even see! Ill 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
cant 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 dont deflect properly or they are too crooked or
they have blemishes on them. You know it is expensive
and most companies dont 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 dont use those either. It is just
attention to every single detail like that. The rod
tubes cant 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 cant 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
qualityquality 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
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
AD: Well, I didnt get the
opportunity to cast that rod, but if it fishes half
as good as it looks, you guys are still doing top
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
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
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
TM: No I really dont. 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 castem. On the bamboo rods we
have three models, and we probably had forty tips and
butts or something like that. You just mix and
matchem 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 dont have
anything new with the exception of the Bamboo rods
and the possibility of some glass blanks. Other then
those, I dont think Ill be designing anything
AD: Do you guys sell graphite
TM: No we dont. 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
AD: What would you say that the
most fulfilling thing about owning R.L. Winston
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
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
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 wont do any
more designing with graphite.
AD: As far as the cane rods go,
are those proprietary tapers that you guys designed
TM:They are, we are making a
7-foot 3wt. A 7-foot 4wt. and a 7 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 its
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.