Insights to Rod Design by Tom Morgan

  • December 01, 2014

This is an email received last week from Tom Margan outlining his thoughts and theory of fly rod design.

Mike McCoy built one of my 6-weight Streamer Special fiberglass blanks which is a copy of a special rod I built just for myself when I owned the R. L. Winston Rod Company. He couldn't believe what a fabulous rod it was and, not only did he love it, but he showed it to a number of friends and they couldn't believe how good it was either. I think they were all surprised it was fiberglass. Of course, this was not a surprise to me since I have always loved fiberglass rods and know how wonderful they can be if properly designed.

I have loved streamer fishing ever since my first great successful day fishing them in September 1963, on the upper Missouri above Townsend, Montana. Since then I always fished the smaller, unweighted streamers with a floating line on, or very near, the surface either from a boat or wading. I use a special technique I call the Morgan Twitch which I developed over many years. You can read about this unique technique on our web site at this URL:
[ed - This will make you a more accomplished fly fisher.]

My technique requires the fly to be moved in very small increments and rhythmic twitches of 4-6 inches with a distinct stop between twitches. This requires a rod with a supple tip that overall isn't too stiff and a full flex which is perfect for fiberglass. Everyone who has ever cast this rod thinks it's one of the best they had ever felt so I decided to copy it when I brought out our new fiberglass blanks and rods.

I would like to relate to you how my years of being involved with fishing and my experiences have driven my philosophy of achieving great casting and fishing rod designs.

During the more than sixty years I have been fly fishing or working with fly rods, four major influences have helped form my rod design philosophy: my own personal fishing experience, my guiding experience, my experience as an owner of the R. L. Winston Rod Company, and now Tom Morgan Rodsmiths.

As many of you know, I grew up in southwestern Montana with its abundance of great trout streams and it was there I learned to fish. There are all types of streams from rushing mountain streams to the boisterous Madison River, gentle spring creeks, small rivers, medium-sized rivers, the big but quiet Missouri River, and many lakes. From an early age my passion was fishing, and I explored most of these waters and learned many of their secrets. During this part of my life, I fished first in mountain streams with grasshoppers with an old Montague bamboo rod, then fiberglass spinning rods, and finally bamboo and fiberglass fly rods. After I began fishing such a variety of waters, I assembled a broad collection of fly rods well suited for each particular type of water and condition.

With my knowledge of fishing and growing up at a motel that catered to fishermen guiding seemed like a great way to make money so I started guiding when I was fifteen and guided on a regular basis for fourteen seasons in Montana. The anglers came from around the United States, and they fished with a broad variety of rods. In the beginning, most of the rods were bamboo, but these were gradually replaced by fiberglass. Some of this time was spent in drift boats, but more time was spent on streams wading beside anglers and watching them fish. By observing the streams, the fish, and the anglers, I learned the finer points of effective angling, and I could see some rods worked much better than others. By also fishing with many of these rods, in addition to watching them in use, I soon developed a sense of which designs worked best.

Glenn Brackett
Glenn Brackett

For the nearly two decades I was an owner of Winston, I designed and built fly rods from bamboo, fiberglass, and graphite. This experience gave me a unique opportunity; one few other rod designers have had. Many of my design ideas came from the desire to build a rod for myself for a particular type of stream or fishing situation. Many of Winston's fiberglass rod designs were done when I bought the company and I liked them but I added the Streamer Special and the 7-weight Unity with the Universe rods and the still popular Winston Stalkers in 2-weight, 3-weight, and 4-weight. During this time, the bamboo tapers were also refined. My partner, Glenn Brackett, and I cast every bamboo rod we made before it left the shop. This, in itself, gave me an opportunity to cast several hundred bamboo rods in addition to casting many customers brought to the shop.

I've talked with hundreds of anglers about their rod preferences, I've spent years thinking about rod design principles, and talking with other knowledgeable rod designers about different actions. I've come to believe there are three main rod actions: traditional "fast action" with a stiff butt and a flexible tip, "slow action" with a stiff tip and flexible butt (or a rod that is overall too flexible for the line weight it is casting), and "progressive action" with a uniform increase in stiffness from tip to butt. My preference has always been for the progressive action because I believe it provides the best feeling and most effective fishing rods.

It is important to point out "fast action" has taken on a new meaning in recent years when applied to graphite rods. Most of today's rods have fast action, regardless of their bending pattern, because they are overall stiffer than rods of previous eras. In other words, most of the contemporary rods would have been rated to cast lines one or two sizes heavier in years past. Many of today's anglers started using these stiff, fast rods, not even realizing there are different designs that may be better suited for their trout angling situations. In my opinion, many anglers of today's generation have never learned the joys of fishing with truly great rods that bend and flex as they should and thereby communicating back to the angler how the rod, line, leader, and fly are performing.

I would like to offer two suggestions for anglers who find their rods stiffer than they would prefer to make the rods load enough to help bend them to provide a better "feel". Shop owners tend to recommend weight forward lines over double taper. In line sizes 2-weight through 4-weight, and some 5-weight situations, I think double taper lines provide more load and make better presentations and making it "feel" more like traditional action rods should. In line sizes 5-weight and above for floating lines I think the long belly weight forward provide the best combination of short to medium performance while offering greater distance if wanted and they provide more load.

The other option most anglers won't accept, but should, is over lining the rod by one or two line sizes. The taper of the stiff rod is often good so by putting on a heavier line the rod will load more and "feel" like it should. Angler's resistance to this is usually two fold. First, they say the manufacturer designates this rod for this line size and I shouldn't change it. Nonetheless, if it performs better with a heavier line, and you enjoy it more, use the heavier line. The other, and even more powerful resistance, is the angler is afraid of damaging or breaking the rod by using the heavier line. This just isn't true. Rods are designed with plenty of extra strength so loading them with one or two line sizes heavier will not damage the rod. I know this from personal experience and from talking with a number of rod manufactures.

How rods bend under a load and how the stored energy flows through the rod as it unloads in a cast is what we consider to be rod action. Great rod action is one of those things in life you know you like when you feel it, but it can be difficult to describe. However, from my experience, there are three attributes in rod design most prized by knowledgeable and accomplished anglers, regardless of the rod material.

The first is smoothness of action. This means the rod loads and unloads when casting in a uniform manner from tip to butt without any "kicks" or "hinges". I have chosen the progressive action with a good balance between the tip and butt for all of my rods providing this smooth action. This is what makes a rod feel sweet when you cast it. For graphite rods, another important aspect of this smoothness of feel is the ferrule design. My graphite rods have a continuous taper from tip to butt with a sleeve ferrule designed into the tip. Many of today's graphite rods have a thin-walled tip fitting over a smaller diameter, thick-walled butt. Although this ferrule design allows for good production efficiency, it doesn't let the rod transmit the flow of energy in a smooth and continuous manner. The fiberglass rods are also designed with mandrels with a continuous taper from tip to butt while the bamboo are designed the same way.

The second attribute is the rod has the right amount of bend for its rated line size. Remember my previous observation was most rods today are too stiff or fast for their rated line size. It is extremely important for a rod to bend sufficiently to communicate to the angler how the line is behaving during casting. If it doesn't, the angler won't have the feel needed to make the accurate and delicate casts necessary to obtain a high level of angling proficiency. I have carefully designed the Tom Morgan Rodsmiths rods to have the correct stiffness for good feel and yet have sufficient power for a wide range of casting distances. Under normal circumstances, my rods won't cast a line one size heavier than they are rated to cast. The exception to this would be if you were continually fishing short distances with the designated line you might choose one line size heavier to load the rod at the shorter distances.

The third attribute in designing a rod is correct tip stiffness for each line size. This has always been easy to achieve with bamboo rods because the power fibers are on the outside and the strips are tapered from the inside. It has also been relatively easy with fiberglass because the material isn't inherently stiff but, until fairly recently, it has been difficult to do with graphite. Now graphite blank-making technology has become very sophisticated, and it allows me to design rods using mandrels with very small diameter tips. These small diameter tips have the suppleness needed to form loops correctly while casting. They also protect tippets when setting a hook and playing fish. This is very important, as anglers tend to use lighter tippets and smaller flies to fool wary fish on many of the heavily fished waters.

Another very important aspect of tip design associated with stiffness is tip weight. On many of the stiff rods today having heavy guides and tiptop is an advantage because they tend to weight down the tip slowing the rod action down. However, on rods designs like mine where I’m trying to achieve a tip with the proper stiffness for the light, lively feeling anglers love having heavy guides and tiptops greatly affects the action in a negative way by overloading the tip, slowing it down making the rod feel “sluggish”. Mike McCoy realized this many years ago when he was designing his guides and tiptops so he made them from light wire to reduce the weight and static load, particularly on the tips.

Tom Morgan Reel Seat

For my graphite rods, I have selected medium modulus graphite that is lightweight yet very strong. The individual mandrels I have designed provide precise tapers to best utilize the material for each line size. The fiberglass rods are rolled on mandrels with a similar taper to those I used on my original designs at Winston. The fiberglass cloth is E-fiberglass, which is what I used before, only with an epoxy resin instead of phenolic resin, which is substantially stronger.

With so many anglers traveling to their fishing destination now the demand for multi-piece rods has grown substantially. All of our rods except just one graphite 4-weight 3-piece rod are 2-piece. I have decided to design a series graphite rods of 4-piece in 8 1/2' 3-weight and 4-weight along with 9' 4-weight, 5- weight, and 6-weight rods. I am using a new graphite material with a slightly higher modulus (stiffness factor) and a greater strain (resistance to breaking) than our regular graphite. I'm very confident this material will provide light-weight rods with great durability just like our regular graphite rods have proven to have. These rods will have my very smooth designs using spigot ferrules for a continuous action feel. Since so many anglers are now using nymph fishing techniques with multiple flies, and often weight, these rods will be a little stiffer than my traditional designs but nothing like so many of the very stiff rods most manufacturers are making today. I expect them to be available sometime in the spring of 2015. I am confident anglers will love them as they do my other designs and they will prove to be great fishing rods.

One very critical aspect of my new designs, and actually all great designs regardless of who designs them, is the size and weight of the guides particularly on the upper half of the rod. The material or coating must also provide a smooth surface with great durability. These rods will use the latest Snake Brand guides that are light-weight, slick, and extremely durable.

Gerri Carlson, Tom Morgan, and Mike McCoy
Gerri Carlson, Tom Morgan, & Mike McCoy

In addition to my great fishing designs there are two other attributes they have our customers love: one is the overall color including wraps, the quality of the cork grips, the unique octagon tubes, the special caps and collars, and the bags; and the second is the wonderful workmanship my wife and partner, Gerri Carlson, provides. She has the same desire to work to the highest level of quality as I do and won't settle for anything but the best. I have seen many rods over my time in the business but Gerri's wrapping skills, her meticulous wrap coatings, and overall skill is the best I have ever seen making our rods truly outstanding. We often say to customers we don't sell disappointment.

The other part of our business we enjoy so much are our customers. Even though we have a wonderful website and most customers order using our order form we end up having many visit our shop which we recommend if possible, communicate over the telephone, or by email and we develop a close personal relationship with them. This assures, even though most of our business is done long distance, our customers receive the right rod with the correct fittings ending up with rods they cherish and heirlooms passed on to others to enjoy.

The Tom Morgan Rodsmiths fiberglass blanks and rods, graphite rods, and bamboo rods represent the accumulation of my many years of fishing, guiding, and rod designing experience. I believe they are my very best designs. I am confident you will find them to be exceptional casting and fishing rods.

Tom Morgan
of Tom Morgan Rodsmiths