How Two Men Are Revitalizing a Legendary Fishing Rod Business

March 4, 2019

When Joel Doub is fly-fishing one of his favorite rivers near a club property—like the Frying Pan River near Aspen, Colorado, or the Gallatin River near Big Sky, Montana—he enjoys using a fine, handcrafted fly rod. The difference between Doub and other fanatical fly-fishers is that Doub not only owns his fly rod, he also owns the company that built it.  Doub and business partner Matt Barber bought Bozeman, Montana-based Tom Morgan Rodsmiths (TMR) in the summer of 2016, just a year before Morgan, a legendary rod-builder renowned in fly-fishing circles, died of pneumonia. Following the purchase, Barber and Doub both moved their families from Denver to Bozeman, and the two are now taking steps to modernize TMR while still honoring the history of Morgan and his unique rod-building methods.

“We talk a lot about Tom Morgan and his philosophy as a rod designer,” Doub says. “Many rods at other companies have been designed by competition casters, built for distance or for a particular feel. But Tom—because he was a fishing guide first—always designed rods based on watching people fish. And for him that meant fishing on creeks in Montana. So the foundation of our rods is based on small-creek fishing because they are based on accuracy and presentation at shorter distances. They’re not really built with a 70-foot cast in mind.” Barber tells the story of Morgan giving a casting presentation at a fly-fishing show, when the guy standing next to him pulled about 70 feet of line off of his reel before starting to cast. “Well, now we know the reel works,” Morgan said to the man. “Now, why don’t you put half of that line back on the reel. If you’re trying to catch a trout beyond 50 feet, you should get closer.”

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While TMR has been in business for more than two decades, Doub and Barber are keenly aware of momentum in the modern “maker economy”— where the popularity of quality, small-batch products like their fly rods mimics the more general distaste for mass-consumer culture. “Many people are just looking for that throwback craftsmanship as a response to all the fast-paced technology,” Barber says. “It’s the idea of slowing down and getting to know the person who hand-planes bamboo for your rod, or who makes your leather belt. It’s the opposite of walking into a big box store or ordering off Amazon and having it show up on your doorstep.”

Doub feels their fly rods also offer a sense of longevity that’s increasingly rare in our throwaway consumerist culture. “One of our models is essentially the same rod that Tom Morgan designed 22 years ago, and that rod has a permanence to it,” Doub says. “If you buy a fly rod, and you buy it really well, then that should always be your fly rod, and possibly your kid’s fly rod. The idea is that, if you buy from a maker that you know and trust, and they’re making a semi-timeless good, then there’s a connection to history and excellence that maybe you don’t get when you’re buying the cheapest, newest, fastest, lightest thing.”

Practically every fly rod on Earth is built from one of three materials—bamboo, fiberglass, or graphite, with graphite being by far the most common. But Doub and Barber have continued the Tom Morgan tradition of producing rods out of each of the three materials, something rare among even large manufacturers, much less small-batch builders. Roughly 80 to 90 percent of their rods are graphite because it’s the most versatile material. And since it takes about 80 hours to build a bamboo rod, they limit those to just two a month. As for fiberglass? “Fiberglass rods are a niche that’s developed as a response to hyper-stiff rods, and people are nostalgic for the first Fenwick they ever cast,” says Barber. “It’s a fairly small category for us. We sell more fiberglass blanks to at-home builders than we sell assembled fiberglass rods.”

Despite the variety of methods and equipment available to modern anglers, enabling them to chase almost any species of fish, Doub and Barber intend to keep their focus primarily on building the best fly rods for trout. “I grew up on the East Coast and love fishing for albacore and stripers,” Barber says. “And we love going to Mexico and fishing for bonefish and permit. But as a company, we’re not trying to be every rod you own. We both love spey casting and salmon fishing, but we’re trying to do one thing and do it really well: build a single-handed, 2-through-7-weight freshwater rod. We know that the travel market has gotten big, and that saltwater is growing, but for right now, we’d rather not expand into things that may compromise quality because we may have to learn a new skill set.”

There are other reasons for sticking to smaller rods. With much of TMR’s customer base living in cities like New York, Denver, or San Francisco, finding solitude for your fishing is at a premium. And that solitude is most-often found high in river drainages, where longer, heavier rods aren’t practical because the fish are smaller and the space for casting is condensed.

“Being in the Adirondacks as a kid, I fished a lot of creeks,” says Barber. “Then I moved to Colorado, where small water is the key to your sanity. So if you can convince yourself to fish with a 3- or 4-weight rod, and get into small alpine lakes and small spring-creeky areas, you’re better off than trying to battle the masses.”

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This unpleasantness of battling the masses applies not just to fishing but to running a company as well. “As business owners, we talk a lot about waypoints and focus,” Doub says. “When we look around the industry we see companies trying to be everything to everybody, and it can be hard to figure out what they’re about. But for us, we’re still working on building the perfect trout rod. We want to make the best rod in the world for fishing for trout in Montana.”