Word just reached us that Tom Morgan, one of the great fly rod builders of his generation, passed away at his home today. Tom was instrumental in bringing R. L. Winston Rods from its original California home to Montana and turning it into one of the great brands in fly fishing. He built built bamboo rods in the tradition of the 19th-century masters, and even though he spent many years building glass and graphite rods, he continued to perfect his bamboo designs and came up with unique tools and techniques that made his handcrafted implements worth thousands of dollars. Tom was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1992, but continued doing what he loved, and building some of finest fly rods ever made, into the last years of his life.
I first met Tom Morgan in 1998, when he asked for some help with the Tom Morgan Rodsmiths website. I was fortunate to meet Tom and his wife Gerri at his elegant but modest home near Bozeman, Montana and to listen to Tom describe his operation first-hand. While there I also witnessed the extraordinary relationship between Gerri, who played indispensable roles in both in Tom’s everyday life and in his rod business, and the master craftsman, who remained a perfectionist even as he gave up more and more hands-on involvement in manufacturing.
Monte Burke wrote a bright and detailed story on Morgan and his success at continuing to build great rods despite his devastating battle with MS, which Burke compares to Beethoven’s loss of his hearing. “Facing a raft of medical bills and uncertainty about the future, Morgan petitioned David Ondaatje, the owner of Winston, to release him from the noncompete clause. Ondaatje gave his assent. That allowed Morgan to start Tom Morgan Rodsmiths in 1996. At that point, Morgan was unable to cast a rod from his wheelchair and needed 24-hour care. ‘We didn’t plan it like this,’ says Carlson. ‘It just turned out this way.’ They were married in 1996.”
Wright Thompson also wrote an excellent profile of Tom and his amazing wife Gerri for ESPN in 2013. By that time, Tom had been carefully instructing workers to craft his rods for many years, but he always kept tight control over the product. “People are my hands,” he said the article.
But the most memorable thing Tom ever said, to my mind, was a comment he made to an Associated Press reporter in 2007. Regarding his missteps in rod crafting, he noted, “You have to be able to throw away your work.” To me it revealed an honest appreciation of the role of mistakes in the development of extraordinary skill. Tom continued to accomplish extraordinary things throughout his life, despite obstacles that would have brought most of us to a standstill.
My favorite trout rod is made from a seven-weight blank Tom built in the late 1970s. It’s no exaggeration to say that it feels as graceful and lithe as a five-weight. It casts better than any rod of any size I’ve ever owned, and its existence describes, for me, the magic that a fly rod brings to fishing.