As the sun begins its descent behind the craggy outcrops of Montana’s Pioneer Mountain range, a lone figure stalks along a meander in the Beaverhead River. The August sun burned hot all day, leaving the grasses parched and the cottonwood leaves dry and dancing gently in the evening breeze. The figure’s shadow moves slowly above the deep, undercut bank and anyone can quickly tell that this person’s methodical movements involve the pursuit of trout.
As the mountains swallow the sun, the river, once clear and blue, becomes a palette of colors -- pink and orange now dominating the slightly riffled surface. Within minutes, the evening hatch of tack-sized pale morning duns begins fluttering out of the water, emerging from one world into another. And with this turn of events, the previously slow-moving figure becomes a vision of fluid beauty. The wait is over. The performance begins.
It is clear from the fisherman’s effortless motion, tightly looped line, and delicate presentation of fly to the water that he is, indeed, an artist. For the fly fisherman, the river is his canvas and the fly rod his brush. His instrument is a finally crafted piece of art, in and of itself.
The fly rod is the most cherished possession of any angler -- an extension of the fisherman’s body; the direct link to the line, fly, water, and thus, the fish. Only a true craftsman can create a fly rod with proper flex and action to meet the demands of each angler. Montana is full of such craftsmen. While the waters found under the Big Sky are unsurpassed, perhaps it is time Montana’s reputation reach beyond its rivers, to some of the finest fly rod builders, designers, and manufacturers in the business.
Oddly enough, the story of fly rod design in Montana began on the streets of San Francisco when, in 1929, Lew Stoner and Robert Winther purchased the Western Fishing Rod Company of San Francisco. Winther and Stoner promptly began making bamboo rods that were recognized for their unparalleled performance and quality. Thus began the R.L. Winston Rod Company. By the early ‘70s, legendary rod maker Doug Merrick helped Winston become a household name in the fly-fishing industry. But change was around the bend.
In 1973, a young man named Tom Morgan sold the family’s motel in Ennis, Montana, to fulfill a lifelong dream by purchasing Winston. Morgan had spent fourteen years guiding the waters of southwestern Montana. He would use the knowledge gained on the water, and his attention to detail, to lead the Winston Rod Company to new heights. One year later, Morgan brought on Glenn Bracket as co-owner, and by 1975, Winston began building rods from graphite. Then, in 1976, Morgan made a momentous decision. He moved the company to the quiet back roads of Twin Bridges.
The move proved to be a huge success. Within no time, the name “Winston” became synonymous with Montana. With Morgan and Bracket at the helm, the legacy of Montana fly rod craftsmanship had begun.
By the early ‘90s, the Winston Rod Company’s operation had grown dramatically. In 1991, Morgan and Bracket decided to sell the company. While Morgan left Winston, Glenn Brackett stayed on-board.
New ownership brought change to the little town of Twin Bridges. Today, as the Winston Rod Company continues to expand its production of the more popular graphite rods, it remains the only major fly rod manufacturer to continue the ancient art of bamboo rod building. This, the ultimate in craftsmanship, occurs in a dark little shack of a shop, where, for over thirty years, Brackett—the guru of bamboo—built what most fly rod aficionados consider to be the finest bamboo rods ever created. Brackett considers his work to be a form of meditation, working with a once living thing to create the ultimate in beauty and performance.
In February of 2006, after sharing his knowledge with the next generation of bamboo craftsmen, Glenn Brackett left the Winston family. A new generation of bamboo builders has taken over the modest steel-sided shop, where bamboo rods in the $1800 to $3000 price range are still produced, continuing the long tradition of Winston and its humble beginnings.
On the opposite side of town sits the impressive state-of-the-art graphite building where Winston continues its pursuit of perfection. While those who work for Winston or who already own a green stick -- green rods are a Winston tradition—take great pride in the company’s craftsmanship and attention to detail, not even the most devout Winston followers were prepared for the release of the new Boron IIX fly rods. The Boron IIX is the fastest action rod Winston has yet created. Inability to load at short casting distances constitutes a major flaw that most experienced fly fisherman find with the new world of stiff, fast action fly rods, but the Boron IIX retains the traditional soft tip of a Winston, allowing it to load properly for the short presentations, while maintaining its ability to throw pinpoint casts at longer distances. Winston has also created the lightest rod in the industry, making the $595 Boron IIX one of the hottest rods on the market.
Still, Winston remains true to its roots. Annette McLean, production manager of the graphite shop, says, “The basic philosophy of this company, in terms of producing fly-fishing rods, not tournament casting rods, but rods with solid design parameters designed for actual fishing situations, is what Tom Morgan put into this company.”
While the story of fly rod builders in Montana began with Winston, it does not end there. Montana is home to a number of specialty rod builders -- independent spirits inspired by Winston, but hungry for something more. These men and woman can be found scattered throughout the state—near one of Montana’s blue ribbon trout streams--in garages, bedrooms, and sheds, indulging themselves in a love for people, rivers, and trout.
Again, Tom Morgan served as a pioneer. It was this connection to people and their love for fly-fishing that inspired Morgan, after selling Winston, to establish a small-scale fly rod business (Tom Morgan Rodsmiths) that specialized in creating a limited number of individually crafted fly rods.
The announcement that the legendary rod designer and builder was embarking on a new journey in fly rod production created a storm of excitement in the fly-fishing community, and a lot of work for Tom Morgan and his wife and business partner, Gerri Carlson. One hundred orders were placed before a single rod was built. Although they produce both graphite and bamboo rods of unmatched beauty, Tom Morgan Rodsmiths’ specialty remains the graphite rods that made the Morgan brand a legend. Morgan’s experience is paired with the caring hands of Carlson, who finishes each rod by performing a multitude of tasks that include sanding the cork handles, delicately wrapping thread and a fine gold wire trim to attach the snake guides in place, six applications of coating (giving the rod its translucent shine), and a 26-step process to fit the elegant custom reel seats. Thus, their specialty instruments have become the Rolls Royce’s of fly rods, and well deserving of the $1145+ price tag.
And for Morgan, the best aspect of the business remains “the people you meet from all over the world, who become your friends and your family.”
Morgan’s reach goes beyond his new company and his role in the Winston legacy, extending to the next generation of Montana-based graphite rod builders. One such builder is a high school student from Clyde Park whose garage sits one hundred feet from his company’s namesake water, the Shields River. Morgan served as an inspiration for Sam Cornthwaite’s Shields River Rods. For Cornthwaite, building fly rods is yet another way to immerse himself in the sport he loves.
While Morgan, Carlson and Cornthwaite can be trusted to keep the graphite tradition going strong, a resurgence of that other art in Montana—the one Glenn Brackett pioneered, along the headwaters of the Jefferson River—has quietly been taking place as well.
Eric Ramsey and Wayne Maca -- former bamboo rod builders for Winston—strive to keep alive the artistry of bamboo craftsmanship under the Big Sky.
Both Ramsey and Maca came to Twin Bridges to learn from the best. Maca’s career change represented a dramatic shift from his past work as an innovative snowboard manufacturer. After building snowboards used in the World Cup, Maca felt burned out. Deciding that change was in order, Maca began building fly rods with bamboo before arriving in Montana. He came to Twin Bridges with a vision for his company, Beaverhead Rods. Maca feels he has accomplished his goal of creating a bamboo rod that reduces the amount of energy the fisherman needs to put into making it work properly by building “the lightest, fastest, strongest fly rod for its weight.”
Maca’s new design led him to follow in the steps of pioneers in bamboo, E.C. Powell and Lee Stoner, who trademarked their designs. While Maca came to Twin Bridges to see how a production style bamboo shop operated, during his first season fishing the local waters, something happened that changed his philosophy and revolutionized his design.
“It started after getting to Twin Bridges and missing big fish on the Bighole,” he explains, “which prompted me to tie a big fly--part streamer, part dry fly. The fly was huge, and casting it with a heavy bamboo rod blew out my elbow and all I had was this heavy thing I built. When the elbow went, something had to change. I wasn’t going to give up the fly, or fishing bamboo, so the rod had to be changed.”
A complaint often heard by those used to fishing the faster and lighter graphite rods is that they find bamboo rods slow and heavy. These complaints, along with a sore elbow, led to Maca’s revolutionary design, which he calls “the first truly high performance bamboo rod where you can still have line speed and fish it all day, without getting tired.”
The journey to Twin Bridges proved a little less direct for Missouri native Eric Ramsey. His passion for fly-fishing led Eric and his wife to Montana, where he first worked as a graphite and glass rod builder in Winston’s main shop. But his journey took a sudden and life changing turn when he was asked to join the ranks of the infamous “boo” boys on the other side of town. After three years of training under Glenn Bracket, in 2004, Ramsey started his own bamboo rod business, Ramsey Rod. Ramsey has combined his respect for the ancient art with his desire for a more modern tool that performs under the harsh windy conditions often present on our Western rivers.
In fly-fishing, Ramsey has discovered what makes the sport much more than a hobby for so many anglers. For this confessed workaholic, fly-fishing is “the only thing that I have ever found where I can lose myself.” Ramsey’s love of the craft of rod making goes even deeper. “I really enjoy sitting here,” he says, “with the dog at my knee, doing what I love, something that doesn’t harm anyone. And I am fortunate that everything I do sooner or later will give me a story about fly-fishing.”
Perhaps this is Montana rod builders’ greatest gift to the fly-fishing world. These men and woman leave us with a cherished tool, an instrument that allows us to be more graceful and in tune with the natural rhythms of the creeks and rivers than we ever could have imagined--a tool that allows us to lose ourselves, and ultimately, gives us a story about fly-fishing.
Back on the Beaverhead, the sun’s descent has given way to stars and moonlight dancing on the now-blackened water’s surface. The evening hatch has ended, and the solitary figure begins his march back to the road. Upon reaching his truck, he cuts off the fly and begins the process of breaking down his rod--a bamboo wand, built and designed right here under the Big Sky. It has worked its magic for another day.
Rod companies featured in this article:
Tom Morgan Rodsmiths
21505 Norris Road
Manhattan, MT 59741
R.L. Winston Rod Co.
500 South Main Street
P.O. Box 411
Twin Bridges, MT 59754
Shields River Rods
P.O. Box 251
Clyde Park, MT 59018