Most Yellowstone Country outfitters and guides agree: anglers know less about fly rods and spend more money on them than any other piece of equipment.
So I decided to visit Tom Morgan about the subject.
As someone who has lived here all his life, guided and fished rivers all over the world and designed what many people believe are the finest fly rods ever made, Tom was The Choice to discuss fly rods.
Specifically, what fly rods work best for the fishing that's done in Yellowstone Country.
Mike Dry: To most of us, everything you hear about fly rods seems very obscure. It's all a very mysterious, arcane science. So, when it comes to choosing a rod for the fishing they do, many people just don't have the experience or knowledge to make a good choice.
Your thoughts on the subject would be a big help.
Tom Morgan: I admit I'm definitely prejudiced and have a different idea than what's commonly expressed. A lot of articles in magazines or people you talk to might disagree with my views. But among fisherman I respect, I think we're pretty much in tune.
MD: To get started, how important is the fly rod to angling success?
TM: Rick Smith at Tom Travis' shop told me a great story. This guy came in with a brand new rod and hired Rick to guide him out at Nelson's spring creek. The fellow didn't catch any fish the first day, though he had several on. He asked Rick what he was doing wrong and Rick said, "It's the rod!"
The guy was astounded. "How can that be?" he said. "This is an XYZ rod and everybody says it's a great rod." Rick says, "It's not a good rod for this kind of fishing. It's too stiff. The tip's too stiff. And when you set up on the fish, you break the tippet. And, if you don't break the tippet, right after you get the fish on, he breaks off."
So the guy went out and bought a Winston rod. The next day, they go back to Nelsons and had a great day. Hooked and landed lots of fish. The guy just couldn't believe the difference.
MD: That sounds painfully familiar. When I first came out here, I picked out one these pretty but super-stiff Sage Rods. I could really throw lots of line with it. But the first two months I fished it, like you said, I broke off fish after fish. Finally, I tried a Winston. Quite a revelation.
TM: You have to remember: a really expert angler could still use that rod very effectively. But the margin of error -- even for an expert -- decreases dramatically.
MD: OK. Simple question: if you' best friend was coming out to fish Yellowstone Country, what rods would you suggest he bring?
TM: I'd bring two rods and, possibly, a third if I wanted to fish a river like the Yellowstone or the Bighorn with heavy, weighted streamers. I don't like that kind of fishing, but if I were going to do it, I'd bring another rod.
So my choices would be a 4-weight, a 6-weight and an 8-weight.
MD: Tell me your thoughts about the lightweight rod choice.
TM: I feel a 4-weight gives you the delicacy that's adequate, while a 3-weight is just a little bit too delicate and a 2-weight even more. A 2-weight is very, very specialized. And I always resisted selling 2-weights. If someone wanted a 2-weight, they really had to convince me because it's so specialized and doesn't fit many people or situations.
MD: What's the fascination so many people have with the ultra lightweights, the 1 and 2's?
TM: People like the idea of having a very light rod and the way it feels in their hand. The light line, the light weight. They like knowing they're after fish with the ultimate in lightness. I understand that. And it does suit some people if they have a lot of rods or if they're catching small fish.
But, unless you're a very skillful angler, using a 1- or 2-weight -- particularly on bigger fish -- you'll probably overplay the fish and really hurt them. So they don't suit most angling situations. And they're not much good in the wind.
If you want to use them in special situations because you've advanced to that point in your fly fishing expertise, that makes sense. But the 1- and 2-weights are not rods for the average angler.
MD: I don't hear you ruling out the 3-weight as a useful rod.
TM: No. It's a good spring creek rod. And I've used 3-weights in many angling situations and they can be very effective. I wouldn't discourage any one from bringing a 3-weight. For the light fishing, the 3- or 4- are the rods they should have. But just picking the ideal rod, the 4-weight is my choice. You have good delicacy and you can use long leaders.
MD: What leaders do you like for the lightweight rod?
TM: Almost all my leaders were 15 to 18 feet with a 4 to 5 foot tippet. What a lot of anglers don't see, is the micro-drag they get on the spring creeks or any other flat water. It makes all the difference in the world.
When you're fishing for those sophisticated fish in the spring creeks that see all kinds of flies presented to them, a long leader that presents the fly on the water very delicately and comes down--not straight but with slack--allows that fly to drift much more naturally. So I always used a really long leader. My favorite was Dan Bailey's Platlon leaders or his tied up leaders. And I also like George Anderson's hand-tied leaders. They're very good.
There's no doubt they have improved the knotless leaders these days. Some of the new drawn ones--the knotless tapered leaders--are pretty good. But they're not even close to being as good for casting as the knotted leaders.
MD: What's the big advantage of hand-tied?
TM: The butts on the knotted leaders are much heavier than those on the drawn leaders. So, if you try to put together a 15 to 18 foot drawn leader, they just won't turn over. From my experience, the only way you can use that long of a leader very effectively is to have it hand-tied with the heavy stiff material in the butt.
MD: Getting back to the lightweight rods, are there any other advantages to the 4-weight?
TM: With the longer leader and a 4-weight you can get all the delicacy you need. But the big advantage of the 4-weight over lighter weight rods is that it will handle some wind. And anybody who's been out here -- wherever you're fishing -- knows you're frequently faced with wind. The 4-weight will deliver the fly when it's breezy or gusty when a 2- or 3-weight won't. If it's fairly windy, I would shorten a leader because you don't need the delicacy and you can get it to straighten out and cast better.
MD: Where does the 5-weight fit in your rod arsenal?
TM: You can use a 5-weight with a long leader for the light fishing. But the trouble with it is it's harder to set the line on the water without much disturbance. Most people find with the 4-weight the line just settles down better.
A 5-weight is a compromise between the 4 and 6 weights and doesn't do the job nearly as well as either. But, if you're fishing dry flies (not the big bushy ones, but medium sized) on a freestone type water like the Yellowstone, the Madison or some stretches of the Gallatin, the 5-weight gives you good distance and delicacy.
For that kind of water and for casting flies in the medium sizes or lightly weighted, the 5 is a nice line weight.
MD: OK. Let's take a look at your choice of the 6-weight.
TM: This is the ideal rod for fishing out of a boat or fishing dry flies or small nymphs.
You can even fish some nymphs that are fairly heavily weighted. Some of the stonefly nymphs, for instance. You can cast them fairly well with a 6 wt, although it takes some practice. And if you can master the Belgian cast--where you bring rod back on the side and loop it over your head so the fly doesn't start and stop but the path of the line and fly is actually in an oval--you can cast fairly heavy flies with the 6-weight.
The 6-weight really takes care of the all-round fishing where you're fishing locator type patterns like the royal wulff or humpy or terrestrial patterns like hoppers and beetles. A 6-weight will handle a fair amount of wind and you can cast all the distance you need to for 99.9% of all the fishing you do.
MD: What about the rod for the kind of fishing you don't care much for...heavily-weighted streamers and big nymphs?
TM: Going up the scale, a 7-weight is a rod I used to use a lot. It's not very popular. Most people go to an 8-weight. And if you're casting the heavily-weighted sculpins and some of the heavily-weighted nymphs, trying to get them in to the strong, deep runs, the 8-weight really does that better and handles the tough wind conditions better than the 7-weight does. And you can cast farther distances which is often an advantage when using streamers in the bigger rivers.
I didn't like the 8-weight because it's a stiff rod for a lot of the trout you catch. So it's not that you have an 8-weight for the fish you normally land, but for the ease of casting the bigger, heavier flies. And, for this, the 7-weight is not a bad compromise if you're not going to use the heaviest flies because you can still cast streamers and stonefly patterns really well. And, if it's really windy, you can cast out a sofa pillow or a big hopper a good distance.
The thing I liked about a 7-weight over the 8 and why I chose it was that if you are casting streamers or big flies all day, it's a lot less tiring than the 8-weight. It's hard to get an 8-weight rod that's really what I would call a trout rod. Most of them are steelhead, salmon or light saltwater rods. So it's hard to find that rod that's soft enough to be comfortable to fish for trout in many situations with the rods available today.
But you can get a 7-weight and put an 8-weight line on it and that would make a nice trout 8-weight even though it's overlining it. It won't hurt the rod and I recommend it all the time.
MD: Well, that covers the rod weights. Let's talk about length.
TM: With the 4-weight rod -- and this would also apply to the 3-weight -- I like rods that are shorter than a lot of the rods recommended these days. If you fish a lot of small streams, I think they should be 7.5 foot, but for normal fishing out here, either 8 or 8.5 are best. I really don't like the 9 or 9.5 foot rods that you see a lot now.
MD: The longer rods get a lot of support, especially in some areas of Yellowstone Country--like the Beaverhead area -- where you'll see quite a few long rods up to 10 feet.
TM: They are good casting rods, but I don't think they're the best fishing rods for most situations. The 8 and 8.5 foot rods are lighter, livelier and just generally more fun to fish which I think is a big aspect of fishing and one that's lost on a lot of people. It's true that the longer rods are a longer lever, but they're also heavier and, in my opinion, too slow. If you cast a 9 foot rod, then go down to an 8 or 8.5 foot, you'll find it just feels better.
MD: Tell us some more about your love affair with the 8-8.5 footers.
TM: Another big aspect of the shorter rods is that when fishing, I get down close to the water. I see too many fishermen being too visible to the fish. I know on the spring creeks, the fish are used to seeing people. (In fact often times you can look behind you and at your heels you'll find fish following you, eating the nymphs you're kicking up!) But, if you're in a situation where the fish are wary...well you just can't be visible. So, I spend a lot of time low to the water, and I like the 8 and 8.5 foot rod because your line is traveling more parallel to the water.
But when casting the longer rods--particularly if you're standing up--the line is coming down at too steep of an angle. When this happens, it's difficult to control how hard the line, leader and fly are going to hit the water. If you're casting more parallel to the water, you can cast the line out, stop it and let it settle down on the water very gently. And I think this is a real advantage.
I also think the shorter rods can generate more line speed more easily, even if the wind comes up. The other thing the shorter rod does is give you better loop control. So if you need to put a fly in under a little piece of brush, you can throw a real narrow, tight loop with a shorter rod much more easily than you can with a longer rod. You can drive that fly in under a brushy spot and get to a lot of fish that a normal angler can't.
MD: What about the heavier sizes? Do the longer rods work better for you?
TM: When you get up to the 5 and 6 weights and you're dry fly fishing, I also like the 8.5 foot rods for the same reasons: they're lighter, livelier and more fun to fish.
However, if you're using the 5 and 6 wt as an all around rod, I would consider the 9 foot rod. Because when you're nymphing, a 9 footer makes it a little bit easier to pick the weighted fly out of the water and make the next cast. If you're using an indicator, the longer rod will do a better job keeping more line off the water and get a drag-free drift. They're not as good out of a boat because the shorter rods are a little faster and allow you to put a fly into a pocket or behind a rock when you need to do it in a hurry.
Overall the 9 foot rod would be a strong consideration if you're going to use it for an all-round rod. But if you want just a dry fly rod, I'd stick with the 8.5 foot rod.
MD: Thoughts on the extra long rods?
TM: Some of the 9.5 foot rods are good for nymph fishing because it seems like they will allow you to throw a weighted nymph more easily than the shorter rods. But, for most angling situations, I think the 9.5 is too specialized and you're better off choosing an 8.5 or 9 foot rod.
MD: Do you feel the same way about length for the heavier weight rods?
TM: Yes. In the 7- and 8-weight rods, I think the standard 9 foot rod is the best. There are some advantages to the 9.5 -- like nymphing -- but unless you're a real strong caster and fish all the time, that extra 6 inches can be a lot more tiring at the end of the day. So I think that for most people the 9 foot rod fits the bill the best.
MD: Thanks, Tom. That's a great overview of the rods you like to fish out here. How about some thoughts on matching the rods to the various types of Yellowstone Country water?
TM: That's a good idea because there are some misconceptions about this.
Lots of fly fishers, for example, think the 3/4 weight rods would be used primarily on spring creeks. But from my experience, that's not necessarily so. My 4 wt was the rod of choice in late summer on the Madison because I was fishing flies in the # 14 to 18 range, even on that rough water. That was the size of fly the fish were taking. It's easy on a river like the Madison to think you can get by using a # 10 and 12, but using the smaller flies will in many situations catch a lot more fish. And I would enjoy the lighter, livelier rod a lot of the time.
It was the same for the Yellowstone. I've also fished the Bighorn some and the Missouri a lot. On the Missouri, I also used a 3- to 4-weight rod because even though it's a big river it's just like fishing a spring creek. You're fishing close to the fish and not casting long distances because the fish are generally in close to the bank, feeding on small flies. And a big part of the season tiny tricos. You're using small flies and light tippets. So even though it's a big river--and this is true of the Yellowstone, too--when you're fishing small flies and close in, you'll want to use a smaller rod. They're not just for spring creeks.
MD: The situation really determines rod selection rather than specific rivers and lakes.
TM: It is the situation.
I've got friends that even on some of the lakes where they're catching big fish, they like to use lighter rods for some of the reasons I gave before. Small flies, light tippets. You get some of the fish in these lakes that are very wary, and even though they're big fish, you're not going to hook them on 2-3X tippets. You're going to have to go down to small tippets. And there again, the lighter rods will help you land more of those fish.
The 5- to 6-weight rods are for more general situations where you can use heavier line sizes so you can't go down in size as easily as you can go up in stream size with the lighter rods. Because when you get to the spring creeks, unless you're using really long leaders, it's hard to make a delicate presentation. But on the other hand you can also look at rivers like the Henrys Fork where they get lots of wind and the preferred rod up there is the 6-weight. You get those windy situations and the fish are still feeding on the surface, but the 3/4 wt. just won't handle the wind.
With the exception of the 7- to 8-weight lines where you're pretty much stuck with fishing the bigger flies and bigger waters, you have to look at the situation and the size fly you're using and react to that rather than to say that one rod is for one situation.
This is the first of a two-part series on Tom Morgan Rodsmiths. The second part is an interview with George