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In Montana, the Art of Crafting Fly-Fishing Rods


At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, with travel restrictions in place worldwide, we launched a new series — The World Through a Lens — in which photojournalists help transport you, virtually, to some of our planet’s most beautiful and intriguing places. This week, Janie Osborne shares a collection of images from Montana.

I live only a few miles away from Tom Morgan Rodsmiths, a custom fly rod shop in Bozeman, Mont. But entering the workshop feels a little like stepping off a plane in a foreign country.

I walk in and take a good look around. It’s a place with lots of moving parts, where craftsmen make reel seats from rosewood, inscribe calligraphy with gold ink, and wrap shiny agate guides on bamboo, using garnet thread and extra fine brass wire.

The language that circulates around the shop catches my attention. When read aloud, custom orders rival espresso-shop vernacular in their breadth, speed and rhythmic efficiency: “I’ll have a nine-foot, five-weight, four-piece graphite rod in clear blank with a Western grip.”

The shop’s owners, Matt Barber and Joel Doub, lifetime fishermen who purchased the company in 2017, translate the shorthand for me.

Nine feet, Mr. Barber says, is the length of the rod — which, among other things, affects line control and casting performance. “Five-weight” refers to a system of measurement specific to the line weight of fly rods. (Weights between four and six, for example, are ideal for trout fishing.)

A “four-piece” rod breaks down into four pieces, which is great for travel. “Graphite” is the lightest material from which T.M.R. rods are built. “Clear” refers to the rod’s coating, an aesthetic choice. And “Western grip” is short for “Western cigar handle,” which has a tapered shape similar to a cigar.

As is true when traveling to a foreign country, mastering the language is as important as understanding the customs and ethos of a place. Alas, mistakes, atonement and self-betterment are part of the journey. So it is at the shop, too; it’s how I feel about my use of the “p” word.

“Approximately how many poles do you make in one year?” is the sort of question I initially ask. Another: “How long does it take to build one pole from beginning to end?”

I learn that T.M.R. aims to make 250 rods a year, and that it usually takes about six weeks, from beginning to end, to build one. (Bamboo rods take closer to three or four months.)

But as Ric Plante, a full-time bamboo rod maker, playfully warns: “Never say pole. A pole is what you use to hold up your tent.”

I’m a freelance photographer in Montana, a state where the total population — just over 1 million — is spread over 147,040 square miles. Niche photography isn’t all that common.

In the past 15 years, I’ve photographed everything from glamour shots of gourmet sausages in Billings to hobbit houses in Trout Creek, oil rigs in neighboring North Dakota, a giant paper clip across the border in Canada, a vast property near Livingston from the vantage of a doors-off helicopter, an underground coal mine in Roundup, the Sandra (a cataract boat used to navigate the Grand Canyon), President Trump at the airport in Bozeman, and, more recently, Gov. Steve Bullock and the National Institutes of Health lab that’s conducting important Covid-19 research in Hamilton.

In short, over the years, photographing the unfamiliar has become, well, familiar.

T.M.R.’s handles are made of cork that’s sourced from Portugal. The multi-step process of crafting a single handle includes a lot of inspecting, sorting, sanding, boring, gluing and clamping that culminates at the lathe, where the handle is shaped with six different grits of sandpaper.

There are usually between 40 and 50 rods in different stages of production at the shop. While the glue is drying for two days between the cork rings of one handle, a spigot ferrule — a separate piece that is used to join two sections of a rod — is being fitted for another, and strips of bamboo are being hollowed on the Morgan hand mill, a tool used specifically for bamboo rod building. (The mill stands as a monument to the company’s previous owner, Tom Morgan, who was a fisherman, guide, rod designer and guru.)

Wrapping, coating, inspecting also all happen in concert with each other. The ultimate aim with each rod, Mr. Barber and Mr. Doub say, is to achieve the desired action, or the feel of the rod when casting.

Spin fishing, the type of fishing that most of us are familiar with, involves using a heavy lure with a relatively weightless line. When casting, the weight of the lure is what propels the line. Fly fishermen use a heavy line with a relatively weightless fly. “This combination necessitates a focus on casting,” Mr. Doub explains, “because the cast is what moves the fly to the fish.” (He emphasizes that this was a very basic explanation of the differences.)

There are lots of rivers in which to fly fish in Montana: the Madison, the Gallatin, the Blackfoot, the Flathead, the Missouri, the Yellowstone. A trout that is 20 inches and up is considered to be a trophy size. (There’s a 20-inch fish mark on each T.M.R. rod to measure if the occasion arises.)

“One thing about Montana,” Mr. Barber says, “is if there’s a moving body of water, there is probably a trout in it.”

And, if, in this sport of fly fishing, the hope for a larger-than-life experience springs eternal, then heightened emotion — as epitomized by Paul Maclean’s oversize trout in “A River Runs Through It” — is part of the allure.

Other facets of the allure include patience, nostalgia, passion, connection, perseverance, resilience, gratitude and grace. Perhaps all of these are at the heart of spigot ferrules, casting accuracy and, yes, the rods.

“For me, a little fish can be as meaningful as a big fish,” Mr. Doub says. “It’s the feeling of forgetting how long you have been standing in one place or how long you’ve been casting — you lose your sense of time, your schedule, what you have to do next.”

Outside the shop, at the end of the day, as lines are reeled in and rods stowed, as the light eases to the obscuring orange hues of autumn, the essence of fly-fishing feels close at hand.

“We are all looking for those ineffable moments that we can get lost in,” Mr. Doub says.

Janie Osborne is a photographer based in Bozeman, Montana. You can follow her work on Facebook and Instagram.

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