Most Yellowstone Country outfitters and guides
agree: anglers know less about fly rods and spend
more money on them than any other piece of
So I decided to visit Tom Morgan about the
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
MD: Tell us some more
about your love affair with the 8-8.5
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
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
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
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
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
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
This is the first of a two-part series on Tom
Morgan Rodsmiths. The second part is an
interview with George