Renowned Montana rod maker dies

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HELENA — Tom Morgan, a past owner of the R.L. Winston Rod Company whose quest to build flawless fly fishing rods continued long after he was paralyzed by multiple sclerosis, has died. He was 76.

Morgan died of pneumonia Monday in a hospital not far from his home, said Matt Barber, who bought Morgan’s company, Tom Morgan Rodsmiths, earlier this year with Joel Doub. For the past five months, Barber and Doub have been Morgan’s apprentices in Morgan’s home workshop west of Bozeman to learn how to craft perfect bamboo, graphite and fiberglass rods.

“Tom’s legacy will be that he really brought modern rod building to the forefront, and a lot of his designs at Winston will be remembered forever,” Barber said.

Morgan’s philosophy was to make the best fly rod possible, regardless of cost — every detail, fit and finish had to be perfect, Barber said. While other fly rod manufacturers were producing stiffer rods that are forgiving when handled by beginner anglers, Morgan created full-flex rods that acted almost as an extension of the arm of experienced fly fishermen.

He described himself to Rodmaker Magazine in a 2003 interview as “totally uncompromising.” If he spotted a scratch or a blemish, the rod wouldn’t be sold.

“You’d think that since I couldn’t go fishing I’d lose interest in it, but it’s always been a pursuit of perfection,” Morgan told CBS News in 2014. “I know that I provided thousands of people with great enjoyment in their favorite sport. It almost brings tears to my eyes.”

Morgan was born in 1941 in Hollywood, California, and five years later his family moved to Ennis, Montana, along the Madison River, renowned as a blue-ribbon trout stream. His parents ran a hotel that was frequented by avid fly fishermen, and he started guiding anglers at age 15.

He was a guide for 14 years, which he said helped him learn how some rods worked better than others.

But Morgan had only built one rod before buying San Francisco-based R.L. Winston Rod Company in 1973 with a friend he’d guided with. They moved the company to Twin Bridges, Montana, where Morgan pursued his craft for 18 years and turned the company into a renowned rod maker.

He sold his stake in Winston in 1991 and opened Tom Morgan Rodsmiths in 1995 so that he could continue crafting rods without the pressure to produce more at the expense of quality.

By that time, he was suffering from multiple sclerosis, a disease that affects the brain and spinal cord. He was in a wheelchair, and his wife, Gerri Carlson, became his hands.

Morgan and Carlson worked together to transform his designs into rods out of their home west of Bozeman, not far from where he grew up in Ennis.

They turned out a limited number of exquisite rods, about 125 a year, purchased by anglers across the globe. That perfection comes at a cost — a bamboo rod sells for just under $4,000 while graphite and fiberglass rods can cost up to $1,500.

Doub and Barber bought the company in February after agreeing that they would keep the company in southwestern Montana and that they would stay true to Morgan’s philosophy and not ramp up production to sell greater quantities of rods.

Barber said Morgan was working right until he had to be rushed to the hospital Friday, studying how different rods bent and looking at new bamboo rod prototypes.

Carlson said her husband had a belief in the universe, and his place in it, though he was not a religious man.

“The nurse told us the night before he died that he said, ‘I’m ready to climb to the stars,’” Carlson said.

Barber said plans are being made to hold a memorial in Ennis next month.

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