In our Spring Edition, we published Part I of
an interview with Tom Morgan, one of the great rod
builders of his generation, That piece covered his
thoughts on rods that work best for fishing in
Part II describes the best ways to buy your
Buying a Fly Rod
MD: Now that we have your thoughts on the best
rods to own for fishing Yellowstone Country waters, I
think our readers would enjoy your ideas on the best
way to buy that next rod. A daunting task, to say the
least. Like other fly fishing products, there are
just so many fly rod options available. And, with the
price of rods, the wrong choice can be exceptionally
TM: Yes. There are lots of things to consider when
buying a fly rod.
For most people, including me, I would never buy a
rod through the mail unless I was really confident
that the rod maker produced it with the action I
liked. I'm now in the business of selling rods
through the mail, but the people I sell them to are
using rods I've designed before and they know what
the action is. And, even though they know the rods
I'm selling now are a little bit different than the
ones I sold before, they know the action is going to
be similar and it's one they like.
The other exceptions might be if I had cast that
rod somewhere else or a friend of mine had tried it.
Or possibly if an accomplished angler I trusted would
recommend a rod for the situations I'd be fishing.
But to just pick up a catalog and order an 8-foot for
a 4-weight? I'd never do it. Because even though
there are a lot of quality rods out there, the action
of the rod and the stiffness varies so much and rod
action is such a personal thing, I don't think you
can make a good decision buying through the mail.
MD: Is it essential for all anglers to try the
rod before they buy it?
TM: Well, no. We're really talking about two
levels of anglers. If you're a beginner, and you
don't know much about rod action or you're an
intermediate and you've used only one type of rod,
you may have difficulty determining which rod is
really appropriate for you. That can be a problem.
But if you're an experienced angler and know what you
want, then you can truly evaluate a rod.
What I see with people who try out rods in a shop
is that in most cases, especially light rods, they're
usually casting much longer distances than the
distance they're going to fish the rod. So they
really get a skewed idea of how the rod's going to
perform. From my experience, fishing for trout and
guiding people, most of trout fishing takes place
under 60 feet with most of that being from 25 to 40
So if you go in and buy a rod that casts well and
loads well in the 40- to 60-foot range, unless you're
fishing unusual circumstances, that rod's going to be
too stiff to be a pleasant rod to fish under your
normal fishing conditions.
MD: When you're in a fly shop, how do you
evaluate a rod off the rack?
TM: This is where you get into opinions, and not
everybody would agree with me and that's fine. But
let me build a case for what I'm talking about.
When you're looking for a rod, before you take it
out to cast it, the thing I like to do is first I
check out the overall stiffness of the rod by just
flexing it. And I don't mean flipping it back and
forth and just wiggling the tip. The proper way to
flex a rod is to swish it back and forth so you're
bending the whole rod and you can get a sense of
where the rod bends and how stiff it is.
Then the next thing I check is the tip. I hold the
rod in one hand maybe 3 feet down from the tip and
with the other hand I flex the tip. What you see with
a lot of the rods is the tips are very stiff. This
prevents you from controlling the loop and casting a
variety of loop shapes. This is particularly true on
the less expensive rods, although some of the
expensive rods also have stiff tips.
But one thing that separates a low-priced rod from
a high-priced rod in many instances is that the tip
is much stiffer on the lower-priced rod and the
reason for this they're easier to make this way. They
can use bigger diameter mandrels and can put more
cloth on it which makes them straighter and makes the
overall production easier. But it doesn't make a
great fishing rod.
Then I would take 2, 3 or 4 rods that felt good in
the store and go cast them. And I would choose rods
of different lengths. Today, it's very fashionable to
use longer rods...9 feet or more...but I feel there
are many situations where a shorter rod is a better
choice . Especially for less experienced casters.
I'd start casting those rods at short distances
and work up to longer casts. (Now we're just talking
about trout rods. If you're buying a saltwater or
steelhead rod you're looking for distance.) But, with
a light trout rod, I start at 20 feet and work out to
the maximum distance I think I'll be fishing that
rod. I spend a lot of time casting the rods in the
30- to 50-foot range or 25- to 40-foot range...where
you're going to be fishing the rod most of the
And I try to cast different loops with the rod,
like a tight loop you'd use casting into the wind or
driving the fly in under the brush. Then I'll open
the loop up 4-foot wide so I can see how the rod
handles line at a lower line speed. And I do that a
number of times to get a sense of the rod.
From my experience, what I've found is that really
to be an effective fishing rod it needs to bend a
fair amount when you're casting in those intermediate
distances. To relate how much it's bending is a
little hard to do, but at those distances, the rod
should bend well down below the ferrule. It shouldn't
be so soft in the butt that it would bend clear down
to the handle because you wouldn't have the reserve
power that you need to make a reasonably long cast.
But at those distances, the rod should flex a lot and
you should feel it bend well down into the rod. If it
doesn't, it's a tip action rod or a real fast
MD: When rod builders talk about Rod Action, it
starts sounding very ambiguous, often other-worldly.
Can an ordinary mortal understand this?
TM: OK. Let me talk a little about the terminology
of stiff and fast.
In the old days, a fast rod in the bamboo era was
a rod that had a light tip, a stiff butt and, like
the old Leonards, would have been called a tournament
dry fly rod. And that was a fast action rod with a
tip that bent quite a bit so it made effectively a
shorter rod out of it. Because the top part of the
rod didn't support the line very well, it made it a
faster action rod.
Today, almost all of the manufacturers make stiff
rods that overall may have a very pleasing bend, but
be rated in my opinion one or two line sizes lighter
than what the rod should carry and still bend the
MD: You mentioned overlining rods earlier and
this is something lots of anglers I know have been
fooling around with a lot in recent years. They like
to "tune" rods for different situations by using
different lines. How do you feel about this?
TM: A few years ago, I built a 4-piece 4-weight
for my brother. Because we didn't make a 4-piece rod
at Winston, I bought another manufacturer's 3-weight
rod and didn't tell him. I marked it as a 4-weight.
He thought it was still a little stiff for a
4-weight, but he liked it a lot. And that's what you
A rod will often be rated for a 4-weight, but to
get the bend I'm talking about -- when you cast it in
those intermediate distances, you get that bend down
into the middle of the butt -- you're going to have
to put one or possibly two line sizes heavier on that
rod to bend it the way it should bend for the kind of
fishing most anglers do.
MD: That bend is what really gives the caster a
"feel" for the rod, doesn't it?
TM: Yes. That's exactly why I like the rods to
bend like that. In order for the rod to communicate
to the caster what you should be doing, the rod has
to bend quite a bit. And, if the rod is too stiff,
you don't get that feeling of the rod communicating
to you. It makes it much more difficult to vary your
cast with the rod. So from a casting standpoint, it's
not communicating to you what you need to know to
MD: The importance of the bend is a Big Concept
because this "communicating" is one of the things
people most like about the rods you built at
TM: One of the most popular Winston rods ever is
the Tom Morgan Favorite, a very soft 4-weight. I said
when I built that rod that it was maybe a 3.5-weight.
But people love the rod because it bends a lot and
communicates to them what they need to know when
MD: How will anglers like casting these softer
rods versus the more popular stiffer rods?
TM: One thing about them is they are a little bit
harder to cast than the rods that are a little bit
stiffer. And I think that's one reason a lot of the
manufacturers have made the stiffer rods. Because
people just entering the fly fishing tend to have a
much faster casting tempo than what they're going to
end up with or what I would say they should have just
from a natural mechanical rhythm. And, many tend to
overpower the rod by using their own strength rather
than the rod's power.
Those stiff rods have a more familiar feel to
athletes who have played other sports like golf or
baseball and they make it easier for them to learn to
cast. Which is not a bad thing. But, here, we're
talking about what the ideal rod is for the kind of
delicate fishing that's required on heavily fished
waters these days. If you are a beginning fisherman,
getting a rod that's a little bit stiffer for your
first rod is not a bad thing.
However, if you buy the right rod with the right
flex and, even though it takes a little bit longer to
learn to cast it, if you work at it a little bit,
you'll end up in the long run liking the rod better
and you won't be buying two rods. You'll be buying
the right rod first.
MD: You've covered the bend in the rod, but
let's get back to the rod tip. There's so much talk
these days about tip design.
TM: That aspect of the softer action rods is
important. If the rod is properly designed, the tip
flexibility is appropriate for the line size and, as
the rod bends and gets progressively stiffer, it
works together well as a unit. And from my
experience, most of the rod companies are building
rods that are pretty well balanced between the tips
and the butts, even though they may be stiffer than
what I think is appropriate for that line size.
In the lightweight rods, the tip stiffness is
really critical. It's out at the last 18 to 24 inches
of the tip where you need that suppleness. Because
when you're buying a rod for delicate fishing with
small flies and, in most cases, tippets that are 5, 6
or 7X, the value of the softer, more supple tip will
soon become apparent when you start fishing with
Because when you set the hook on a fish -- out
here in Yellowstone Country you're apt to be hooking
pretty good-sized fish from 13 to 17 inches with
18-inch and bigger fish thrown in -- that softness in
the tip will protect the tippet so you don't break
off the fish. Or, if you're using a small fly, it
doesn't pull the fly through the fish's mouth. And,
after you get the fish on, that supple tip protects
the tippet much better than a stiffer rod does. When
the fish is playing against the rod, it's more
flexible, bends easier and is more forgiving. You'll
lose a lot fewer fish.
MD: So what's the key test of a light trout
TM: If you're trying out a 3- or 4-weight rod, I
would physically step off 40 feet and work the rod.
When you're satisfied the rod bends the way you want
it to and has the action you want at 40 feet, then
you can cast the other distances. But absolutely do
not go out there at an indeterminate distance and
cast all the line you can cast to evaluate the rod
you want to buy. Because if that's the way you select
your rod, I can almost guarantee you're going to buy
the wrong one.
MD: What about the heavier stuff?
TM: A lot of the same things apply to the bigger
rods -- the 5- and 6-weight rods. When you cast them,
you should work at a little bit longer distance.
Probably in the 30- to 50-foot range. Because that's
where bigger rods like that will be used for fishing.
But there again, you want to avoid simply finding out
how far the rod will cast. You should start casting
the rods at the shorter distances to see how they
work and then work on out the intermediate range for
that line size.
Now when you get up to the 7- and 8-weights, it's
a different story. There you're almost never going to
be casting short distances. Unless you're going to be
dry fly fishing with a big fly and not casting very
far because of the circumstances of where you've seen
a fish rise. And, with heavy nymphs, you may not want
to cast a long distance with them. But, generally,
the 7- and 8-weight rods are designed to cast 50 feet
With these bigger outfits, you're not going to be
fishing delicately with a dry fly. You may be using a
dry fly, but it's going to be on freestone type
streams or where the water is very broken. So, in
those cases, you'll want to try the rod in the 50- to
70-foot range. But there again, many of those rods as
with the 5 and 6's are typically too stiff for the
line size to bend that rod midway down into the
And, with any rod you buy for trout fishing, they
should bend mid-way down into the butt when you're
making the typical cast you'd be making with that
rod. Your typical cast varies from the 30- to 40-foot
range with the 3- to 4-weights; 40- to 60-foot range
with the 5- to 6-weights; up to the 50- to 70-foot
range with the 7- to 8-weights. All those rods should
bend midway down into the butt, so you'll know your
really loading the rod properly and the rod is
communicating with you.
MD: That's a great overview of what to look for
in a rod. But another thing that comes up so often is
"How much do I spend on a rod?" It's confusing when
you see nice looking rods that vary so much in price.
By hundreds of dollars, sometimes.
TM: This can be a difficult thing to determine.
Just because it's cheap, doesn't mean it's a bad
casting rod. Or not a good fishing rod. There's no
doubt, if you look hard, you can find an inexpensive
rod that will get the job done.
Generally speaking, the better rod companies that
produce more expensive rods have rod designers who
spend more time developing rods that are well
balanced and well designed. However, one thing I've
observed is that some of the rod companies use rod
designers who are tournament casters. And I think
this may be where we get some of the rods that are
too stiff for the line size they're rated for.
Because these people are very accomplished
casters, they can load a rod and cast long distances
with it. That's how they expect a rod to perform. But
the average angler doesn't have that casting
expertise to cast the rod the way they can. And in
fact they shouldn't. Because, as you've heard me say
so often, that's not the distance they're going to be
using the rod when they're fishing it.
MD: Then what are you getting when you spend
the Big Bucks on a rod?
TM: First of all, manufacturers who sell higher
priced rods have spent lots of money field testing
and refining the action of their rods. They've put a
lot into their design work. The result is a variety
of rods that fit many different angling situations
their customers face out in the field.
With most of the high-priced rods, you also
usually get better components. Better guides, reel
seats and finish. You'll also get a better cork
handle. A better bag and tube. Overall, better
Another thing you'll often times get is a rod with
more guides on it which makes it cast better. One way
manufacturers cut down on the cost of a rod is
putting fewer guides on it. It takes less time and
money to make the rod. But when you're casting the
rods, you'll get more line slap between the guides
and the rod won't cast as well.
MD: No doubt most expensive rods give you some
important advantages over less expensive ones.
Anything else to consider in the buying
TM: I think the best analogy when comparing rod
prices is with automobiles. People buy different
price levels of cars because of the intrinsic value
of the brand they're buying. A car with a more
perceived value -- like a Cadillac -- is going to
cost you more money. So that's a choice you can make.
You may not get a better car to get you from point A
to B, but it will get you there in better style.
And that's really what you're talking about to
some degree with rods. When you buy one with a
prestigious brand name, you're getting perceived
value. You're going to get one with more pride of
ownership. The basic blank may not cast that much
better than some of the cheaper rods, but the
perceived and actual value is higher.
You really need to go to a store and cast
different rods to understand for yourself which rods
suit you best for the fishing you do.
MD: One thing you hear about is not all rods
from the same line cast the same. A 4-weight from
company X's particular line may cast very differently
from a 6-weight in that same line. What's going on
TM: That's very true. I've cast many different
rods from most of the major manufacturers and what
I've found is that there's often a bit of
inconsistency from an individual rod manufacturer in
the style of action between one rod and another even
in the same series.
Some companies will have more than one style of
rod action to try to address different people's
individual desires. So you need to cast the different
styles to see which one you like the best. Then
within those styles -- when you go from one line size
to another -- often times the transition is not as
smooth as it should be and one rod in the same style
will have a different design concept than the other
one. Even though it shouldn't.
MD: So just because you like a particular
manufacturer's rod in a specific weight and model, it
doesn't mean you're going to like all the rods in
TM: That's exactly right. The only way you can
tell if you're going to like an individual rod or not
is take it out and cast it. Most manufacturers do try
to have a consistency in action between their
different line sizes. I know we worked very hard at
Winston to maintain that consistency. If you bought a
3- or 5-weight rod, the basic style of action was
going to be the same. We felt that was really
critical. So once people determined a type of action
they like, they knew they could get that same action
in another rod. But all manufacturers aren't real
fastidious about that.
MD: Any tips on what to look for when
evaluating a rod's workmanship?
TM: Here's a little check list you can follow when
looking at a rod:
the blank should be fairly straight with a smooth
and blemish-free finish
guides should be aligned straight
threads should be wrapped evenly and have a nice
ferrule fit should be good so the rod won't come
apart when fishing
cork handle should be good quality with little
reel seats have great variation in design, so I'd
try the reel you're going to use on the reel seat to
check the fit
MD: I know the straightness of the blank is a
very big deal for lots of people I fish with and,
yet, I've heard you never get a perfectly straight
TM: Almost all blanks of all rods have some kink
in them. It's extremely rare to find one that's
perfectly straight. But having a little "out of
straightness" isn't a big concern for me.
MD: OK, you're recommending we go to a dealer
who's got lots of rods we can try and, using some
buyer's guidelines, identify the ones that work
But what's the key to actually making the final
TM: Like designing a rod, buying one is a very
personal matter. In simplest terms, you need to buy a
rod that you like.
The most important thing is to cast the rod at the
distances you'll be fishing. The way it casts and
feels. But the way it looks is also important when
choosing a rod that will please you for a long
MD: As you mentioned earlier in your car
analogy: lots of cars will get you there, but our
buying decision is heavily influenced by taste,
TM: That's exactly right. And, like buying a car,
you need to take your time and avoid the pressures of
a salesperson. Trust your own judgment about how the
rod feels, your own sense of good taste. You
shouldn't settle for anything less than what really
Because owning a fine rod you enjoy casting and
that's aesthetically pleasing is one of the most
satisfying aspects of fly fishing. Casting a great
rod can become for many anglers one of the best parts
of fly fishing, an experience as exciting as hooking
and landing fish.
So buy the best rod you can afford. It's an
investment that will give you a return in ways no
other piece of fly fishing equipment can provide.