Tom Morgan, former fishing guide, rod maker, and owner of R.L. Winston Rod Company, passed away June 12 from pneumonia. He was 76.
Morgan was born in Hollywood, California, in 1941, moving with his family five years later to Ennis, Montana. Living along the Madison River, he began guiding fly anglers at the age of 15, doing so for 14 years.
In 1973 he and a friend purchased R.L. Winston Rod Company, moving it in 1976 from San Francisco to Twin Bridges, Montana, to be closer to trophy trout water. For 18 years Morgan helped produce exquisite rods, turning the company into a byword for excellence.
“[E]ven now, decades later, every fly rod we make continues to incorporate an element of Tom Morgan’s rod design philosophy that to be a great fly rod, it should be a joy to cast,” David Ondaatje, current owner of R.L. Winston, wrote on the company’s website. “But more than a talented angler and rod designer, Tom’s tremendous optimism, passion for life, and resilience were inspiring. He was a role model, a generous and unfailingly supportive mentor, and a friend. We will miss him.”
During Tom’s tenure at R.L. Winston, he developed the company’s first line of two-piece graphite rods, as well as its first two- and three-piece rods using the then-new IM6 graphite. His namesake creation, the “Tom Morgan Favorite,” is a special two-piece, eight-foot four-weight for close- to mid-range trout work. The rod was introduced in 1989 to commemorate Winston’s 60th year in business and can still be purchased today on a special-order basis.
In 1991 Morgan sold the company to Ondaatje and struck out on his own. Tom Morgan Rodsmiths opened its doors in 1995, allowing him to craft custom rods to his own satisfaction and in his own time—roughly 125 per year.
The slower pace was due to more than just his eye for detail, however. By that time Morgan was suffering from multiple sclerosis, the ailment which ultimately led to his being wheelchair-bound. His wife, Gerri Carlson, began doing the business’s manual tasks for him, enabling his designs to still come to fruition despite his disease.
Matt Barber and Joel Doub bought the company from Tom in February, promising to stay true to his slow and stellar pace. They also agreed to keep the company in Montana. The two apprenticed under Morgan in his home workshop for five months to learn the business inside and out, an arrangement that was cut short by Morgan’s passing.
“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 told Great Falls Tribune.