Growing up in Montana with its wealth of fishing opportunities would be a dream for almost any fisherman. It certainly was for me. During the late 1940s, when I was a kid, most of the fishermen in Montana fished with bait, and that was how my father taught me. My first memories of fishing were in a small, crystal clear mountain stream with an old, dilapidated fly rod and live grasshoppers for bait. Even though these wild rainbows and cutthroats were small and rarely saw a fisherman, they were very shy and would dart away, if I carelessly let them see me. They taught me my first lesson in the importance of being stealthy and keeping out of sight.
As I grew older, I inherited a hand-me-down spinning rod from my brother. I used this rod to prowl Bear Creek, which was a small, brushy creek, right behind our house, that was loaded with brown trout up to three pounds. I would sneak up above a pool, toss out a frog-colored floating flatfish, and tease the browns into grabbing the lure. These were my first experiences of fishing for big trout by myself and are still very memorable.
In 1950, when I was nine years old, my parents built and began operating the El Western Motel and fishing resort just south of Ennis, Montana. Even then, the Madison River and some of the other local waters were famous worldwide for their great fishing opportunities. The motel attracted lots of anglers from the Midwestern and Eastern United States, and almost all of them were fly fishermen. Growing up around the motel, I became friends with many of these anglers and some of them eventually became my fly fishing mentors.
One man, in particular, Howard Sykes, became my main instructor when I was fifteen. An avid dry fly fisherman, Howard was from New Jersey, and he fished not only in Montana, but also all over the world. As I recall, he was in his seventies when we started fishing together. Our first trips were to Dillon, Montana, which is located on the Beaverhead River, about seventy-five miles west of Ennis. We would stay in the New Creston Motel and fish several long days well into the evening, stopping only for a streamside lunch and to share our experiences. Howard wanted a fishing companion so he wouldn't be alone, and I believe he enjoyed teaching me about fly fishing, as I was an eager student. Those were unforgettable experiences for a young fly fisherman.
Howard was from the old school of fly fishermen, and he used a Leonard bamboo rod, Hardy reel with a tapered silk line, and silkworm gut leaders. He would have nothing to do with any of the new nylon leader material, and neither could I. He gave me several William Mills & Sons dyed gut leaders and an old aluminum box, containing felt pads that you soaked in water, to keep the leaders moist and supple. I used a four-piece Silaflex fiberglass rod for an HDH (DT5F) line and a Pflueger Medalist reel.
Those outings were in late 1950s before the Clark Canyon dam was built on the Beaverhead, making it a tailwater fishery. In those days, the ranchers drew most of the water out of the river for irrigation, and, in late July and August, when we fished, the river was very low and the water was so clear you could easily see all the fish. It was what I think of as a perfect dry fly fishing river with slow moving pools that were 75- to 100-feet long, shallow riffles between the pools, and lots of big brown trout up to 21 or so inches long. In addition to the browns, there was a substantial population of Rocky Mountain whitefish. There were always steady hatches of Pale Morning Duns in July, followed by prolific hatches of Tricos in August. Howard and I always had the stream to ourselves, except for an occasional blue heron that would startle us with its squawking as it jumped up and hastily flew away.
The brown trout would always be collected at the head of the pools, while the whitefish were always in the tail outs. In the beginning, I thought the splashy rises from the whitefish were the ones to go after, but Howard would patiently point to the brown trout gently sipping in the flies at the head of the pool. As if to prove a point, he would make a medium length cast to one of the bobbing noses, and, it seemed to me, he would hook a brown almost every time. He would play them with the gentle grace of a master angler and quietly release them to go on their way.
Then it would be my turn. My casting and hooking skill developed quickly, but playing the fish on the delicate gut leaders was another story. I can't tell how many trout I would break off on the 4X or 5X gut leaders, but, in the beginning, it seemed like almost every one. I gradually learned to play the fish with a delicate touch to keep from breaking them off. I didn't realize it at the time, but these were the first lessons in the importance of having the correct rod to help hook and play trout. I used gut leaders only a couple of years because they were difficult to use and generally not available in Montana. Gladding soon brought out Platyl tippet material, and that was my choice for many years.
I had always enjoyed fishing, but as my expertise with fly fishing grew, so did my passion for it. During the summers, I fished at every opportunity. I liked fishing the Madison River, but my real love was the spring creeks. Just out the back door of the motel is one of the greatest spring creeks anywhere, O'Dell Creek. Fishing its variety of waters is like being at a fly fishing university. And, when I was growing up, I could fish it anywhere I wanted to. The wily brown trout were my teachers, and I was their apt student.
During my high school years in the late 1950s, and up to the early 1970s, my summers were spent fishing and guiding fly fishermen around southwestern Montana. I fished the Beaverhead River extensively, along with O'Dell Creek, Blaine Spring Creek, the Upper Ruby River, the Madison River, and the many spring creeks in the Gallatin Valley. My clients came from all over the United States, and occasionally from overseas.
Naturally, they always brought with them their favorite rods. They were often bamboo rods made by Winston, Orvis, Leonard, Powell, Payne, Phillipson, or sometimes they were better quality fiberglass rods such as Silaflex or Fenwick. During this era, from my observations, avid trout anglers must have designed the fly rod actions because most of them were perfect for what I would call normal fishing conditions and distances. The rods would bend and flex comfortably when you were casting them, yet, when necessary, you could reach out to a good distance. The rods had a fluid action, and the tip stiffness was forgiving enough to let you hook and play fish easily without breaking them off.
During the years that I was guiding, I would spend much of my time walking along beside anglers watching them fish. These years of personal fishing experience and of guiding anglers continually reaffirmed how important the correct rod action is to an angler's success. These were lessons that I have never forgotten, and they have always driven my rod designs.
Since my early days as a fly fisherman, I have had a great love for fly rods. When my friend, Al Wilson, told me in 1973, that Doug Merrick was interested in selling the R. L. Winston Rod Company, I couldn't contain my excitement. The same day I called Doug to see if it were true. It was! I immediately made arrangements to fly to San Francisco to visit with Doug about buying Winston. On the way down, I stopped in Salt Lake City to visit an old fishing friend, Sid Eliason, to see if he would be interested in being my partner and helping financially. Doug, Sid, and I came to an agreement, and Sid and I soon became the owners of Winston. Sid and I remained partners for two years. I think it's interesting to mention that I paid Doug $10,000 more than he was asking for the business. There were other potential buyers who were also interested in buying it, so I had to make sure that I was successful.
When I bought Winston, the company made only bamboo and fiberglass rods. I was familiar with Winston bamboo because I owned several, but the fiberglass rods were a revelation to me. J. Kennedy Fisher made all of the Winston fiberglass trout rods on a single mandrel, so they had a perfectly uniform and continuous taper. The Winston fiberglass rods were, and still are, some of the smoothest casting and best fishing rods I have ever seen or used. They had tips that were just the correct stiffness for hooking and playing fish, while still having enough power in the butt to cast normal fishing distances.
Soon after I bought Winston, the Fenwick Rod Company introduced graphite as a rod building material. Graphite produced rods that were lighter yet more powerful than any rods anyone had ever seen. To this day, graphite is still the material of choice for most rods.
The early days of graphite rod design were really exciting because we were working with a new material with properties vastly different from those of traditional materials. The greatest benefit was in steelhead, salmon, and saltwater rods because they were bigger and heavier, but it was easy to see that graphite would make exciting trout rods, too. The first graphite fabrics that were available were quite a bit thicker and heavier than today's materials. In addition to the heavier material, the steel mandrel technology at the time didn't allow for the manufacture of fine tips. This material worked fine for the larger rods, but on trout rods it was impossible to get the tips soft enough to match traditional actions. To help overcome this design limitation the trout rods had softer butts with stiffer tips, which produced a parabolic rod action. They were great for casting long distances, but they lacked the finesse of traditional trout rods.
Starting in the late 1970s and early 1980s, newer generations of graphite materials came along as did better mandrel technology and improved manufacturing methods. Trout rods could now be manufactured that rivaled the smoothness of traditional bamboo and fiberglass designs. They could have supple tips and overall finesse without the inherent weight of previous rod materials. I used this capability to design what I felt were great trout rods based on my extensive fishing and guiding experiences.
In the early 1980s, another phenomena happened to fly fishing. The sport became very popular as a result of more media attention, more fly shops, and a greater awareness of the beauty and grace of the sport. Prior to this revolution, individuals often fished by themselves, or, at most, two or three together shared companionship on the stream.
American companies began to dominate the fly fishing industry like never before. It also became a sport driven by Madison Avenue advertising and the desire of the companies to gain market share. The mom and pop businesses supplying a limited market were quickly coming to an end. As the companies became larger and production capacity increased, more and more rods and other tackle had to be sold to support this infrastructure. It was not a matter of designing and building one great rod and being satisfied. Different rod designs were introduced to the market, whether or not they were needed by fishing conditions. I do not intend to say, however, that all the new designs were poor fishing rods, but, from a fishing standpoint, certainly many of them were not justified.
During this time, another development was taking place. With the new graphite rods, anglers could learn to cast more easily and could cast greater distances with less effort, all of which was a great benefit for those wanting to learn the sport. However, for most rod designers this was a siren song to make stiffer trout rods. American sportsmen shows proliferated along with their accompanying casting ponds. The trout rods that sold the best were those that would cast the farthest. The same thing was happening with most fly shops. The rods were demonstrated on lawns or in parking lots, and the rods that cast farthest won the sales competition. From my earliest days of making graphite rods, I noticed this shift, but I would never succumb to that design philosophy. My designs have always been based on my many years' experience as an angler and not on anything else. First, and foremost, the rods had to be great fishing tools.
I remember in the early 1980s working on a new rod design for a nine-foot, #5-weight graphite rod. When I was casting it on the lawn in front of the shop, I thought that it was probably too stiff for a #5-weight, but I decided that I would try it on the Missouri River near Wolf Creek on my next trip. A few days later, I was ready to fish one of my favorite stretches. It is about a mile below the Wolf Creek Bridge where the river runs west to east. Looking upstream, there are willows along the left hand bank with a tall, majestic pine tree overlooking the river. It was in mid-morning in early August and there were clouds of Tricos dancing along the banks looking like smoke from fires.
As I slipped into the river by the willows, there were lots of rainbows feeding along the bank. I was using my favorite Trico spinner pattern imitation, a size 18 Renegade. It doesn't represent a spinner as exactly as many other patterns, but, from my experience, trout will pick it out from the clusters of natural spinners covering the water where they may never find an exact imitation. As I began to cast, I could still feel the rod was too stiff and wasn't bending the way that I was accustomed to. It just wasn't communicating back to me the information I needed for a smooth presentation.
The first fish I raised was a nice rainbow about 18" long. When I set up with my normal strike, the 5X leader broke. I was very disappointed. I continued to work up the bank and was able, with a conscious effort, to adjust my striking power to the rod. However, I had to concentrate on the strike and on playing the fish, instead of the rod being part of my unconscious as I was accustomed to. After completing the morning's fishing, I estimated that the rod was probably a #6-weight or, perhaps, a #6 1/2-weight. This rod just didn't perform the way it should to be a great fishing rod. At sportsmen's shows I have cast lots of trout rods from other manufacturers, and almost all of them, regardless of line size, would be at least one line size stiffer than they should be. Or, in many cases, even stiffer!
Is my assessment of these rod actions and stiffness wrong? I'm convinced that it is not. During my many years in the fishing business, I've talked with lots and lots of exceptional anglers about their trout fishing and the rods they love. I have had many anglers ask me, "Why are companies making rods that are so stiff? Don't they know that they aren't great fishing rods?" Almost without exception, they profess to admire and fish with softer rods that flex like rods of past eras, that have supple and sensitive tips, and that are smooth casting rods. In some cases, they use a line that is one size heavier than recommended by the manufacturer in order to get the necessary smooth action they demand. If you feel that your rod is too stiff, increasing the line weight is a good strategy to soften its action without damaging the rod, even though it may result in using a line size heavier than you would prefer.
Another sign that my rod design philosophy is correct is that, in recent years, some manufacturers have started designing and selling rods that are softer than their previous designs. In my opinion, this is a positive development for the angler.
What makes a great trout rod? Most importantly, it has to become what I call a "thought rod." When you are fishing with it, you almost forget that you have a rod in your hand. It becomes an extension of your physical body, and, almost always, you think where you want the fly to go, and, as if by magic, the fly appears there. This fluid action comes because the rod is wonderfully smooth, bends sufficiently to communicate with the angler how it's working, and has an inherent delicacy. And, it does this at the normal distances that you fish for trout.
The rod must have a supple tip that supports the line during the cast, but which is not overly strong. When you strike a fish, even on fine tippets, the tip should be forgiving enough to protect the leader from breaking. Then, when you are playing a fish, the upper part of the rod acts like a shock absorber, tiring the fish while protecting the tippet. If the rod is too strong, or the tip is too stiff, when you strike a fish, the leader is broken before you can react. If you have to think consciously about the rod, as I did that day on the Missouri River, and make an effort to have it perform to your expectations, it's not the perfection you seek.
Great trout rod actions were developed over generations by skillful anglers. Today anglers are fishing the same waters, under similar conditions, as their predecessors did. They still need rods that behave and perform like rods of the past. When choosing a rod don't let manufacturers who are designing rods based on business goals or advertising hype dictate what you use for your trout fishing. Many rod designers don't appreciate our fly rod heritage, and, from my experience, they don't understand what makes a great fly rod. Spend time thinking about your fishing conditions and the distance that you will be fishing. Then select a rod that works easily at that distance, and, has the great fishing attributes needed for hooking and playing fish. One that will help you become a better angler and let you enjoy your sport more completely. Don't settle for less, for somewhere exists a rod that will deliver this exceptional fishing joy, and, with some effort, you will find it.