January 04, 2023
By Ross Purnell
This article originally appeared in the 2023 Gear Guide special publication of Fly Fisherman.
In the world of American whiskey, a handful of companies control most of the business. Jack Daniels, Jim Beam, Evan Williams, and Maker’s Mark own most of the market, with brands like Jim Beam selling 12 million cases per year. Distilleries like Bulleit, Wild Turkey, and Woodford are also big business in the whiskey world, but in the recent decades there has been a trend toward “small batch” whiskey, a tip of the hat to the microbrewing revolution that preceded it. This small batch whiskey might be just 15 to 19 barrels made from a mash bill of 200 bushels of grain, or it could be much smaller than that. In some cases, “small batch” producers don’t even have their own whiskey stills. They buy select barrels from other vendors and mix them to produce the taste they want for their own bottled product. It’s part of the “buy local” movement and it’s also fueled by intense individuality among consumers—especially millennials—who want to find something that suits their own tastes and personality.
This trend toward alternative purchasing has also come to the fly-fishing world, where a new generation of fly fishers don’t want to use the same brands their dads used to fish with. Or, just as common, lifelong fly fishers are searching for distinctive, heirloom-type tackle that their friends don’t have. Some people just enjoy swimming their fly against the current. Sometimes it’s an Abel reel with a custom paint job no one else has, and sometimes it’s a “small batch” fly rod.
These kinds of boutique manufacturers have been around since split-cane fly rods were first produced. Fly fishing is by definition a “small batch.” It’s just a tiny part of the overall fishing market, but these boutique manufacturers have found new ways to create a niche within a niche. Some, like Tom Morgan Rodsmiths, own their own proprietary mandrels, and have a bigger U.S. rod shop roll their rod blanks for them. Others buy the blanks with the feel and the action they want for their brand, and then customize the rods with their own wraps, epoxies, hardware, cork, reel seats, and other embellishments to give it the distinctive look and feel they want.
What consumers get in return for these efforts is a rod that not only catches fish, but something that speaks to their fly-fishing journey. They invest in a fly rod that isn’t just a tool, it’s a testament to their passion and their taste for homespun craftsmanship.
Wicked Fly Rod & Reel Co. Origin Series
Thomas Pytel, Jr. grew up fishing creeks, rivers, ponds, and lakes throughout New England with his grandfather, and discovered a passion for fly fishing at the age of 22. “I remember fishing this one stretch of the Farmington River in Riverton, Connecticut,” said Pytel. “I’d get there early to beat the fly fishermen to the water. I knew that stretch like the back of my hand, and could catch-and-release 20 to 25 fish in two hours. I’ll never forget this one day when an old guy yelled out, ‘Hey! You’re not a real fisherman. Try fly fishing.’ I’d seen this gentleman for years fishing the same time of day in the same hole, so there was definitely a fondness and respect for him. After that comment, I went to the local Cabela’s and bought my first and only starter fly rod setup. The next week I was back on the water with a fly rod. With my first cast into the hole with a Light Cahill, I hooked into and landed a 14-inch rainbow. The rest is history.”
More than 30 years later, Pytel was shopping for a new rod and reel when soaring prices got him thinking that he could build exactly what he was looking for.
Using his degree from the Rhode Island School of Design, and decades of experience in corporate marketing, Pytel in 2017 launched Wicked Fly Rod & Reel Co. Over the next four years, the Wicked Fly team worked with guides in Montana, British Columbia, New England, and the Pacific Northwest—and with a factory overseas—to design and produce a carbon fiber blank that could compete with the upper tier of the fly rod market. The result is their proprietary Precision Power Taper. With it, the company in 2021 launched the Origin Series.
“I had a goal to build something that could compete with the brands I grew up respecting. I didn’t want to do it with an off-the-shelf blank. So we invested the time, money, and resources to design, engineer, test, and manufacture something so different and special that I’d put my grandfather’s name on it. It’s my way to continue honoring his legacy while fueling passion for the sport we both shared. We took a year of development just to get the taper right. It needed to have enough backbone and recover quickly to be a true fast-action rod, and I wanted it to delicately drop a fly with incredible precision at 60+ feet. We achieved that.”
“We named this series Origin, because everyone has a story about how they got started fishing. Mine includes my grandfather, and we want Wicked Fly to be right there at the beginning of incredible fish stories for generations to come.”
Every Origin series rod is manufactured in Phoenix, Arizona, and has the name of Pytel’s grandfather W.B. Hardwicke written on the rod blank. The rod is made from a 3.25 Toray Precision Power Taper carbon fiber blank with a fully machined aluminum gunmetal reel seat with hollow “windows” exposing the rod blank beneath. It has a reverse half wells AAA grade cork handle with a cork composite at the butt and tip of the handle for durability, and the Wicked Fly logo—a stylized dragonfly—burned into the cork right about where your index finger sits. It has a titanium-frame stripping guide, nickel/titanium alloy snake guides, matte green finish, and each Origin Series rod comes with a protective carbon fiber rod tube.
$595 | wkdfly.com
Maine Fly Company Kennebec
When Jeff Davis’s father passed away, he inherited his father’s extensive collection of fly-fishing equipment. It wasn’t until then that he became consumed by fly fishing. “It was a wave that hit me, and I couldn’t stop thinking about fly fishing. It’s all I wanted to do,” Davis said. “It was incredibly inspiring to me, and I just wanted to know more.” As Davis tells it, he immersed himself in fly fishing, and never forgot how important and inspirational your tackle can be. Even a box of flies passed down from his father had meaning. That was the genesis for his company Maine Fly Rod Company . . . to create tackle that is attached to a place with special significance.
Maine Fly Company’s Signature Small Batch Rods include the Magalloway, Carrabassett, and Kennebec for fresh water, the Casco Bay for salt water, the Big Black River for Atlantic salmon, and many others. Each series is designed to perfectly match a certain river in Maine, and a specific quarry. The hope is that the 8'6" 5-weight Magalloway might also be just at home on Colorado’s Big Thompson River or Montana’s Ruby River.
The Kennebec River is widely regarded as the best trout river in Maine, and we tested the 9' 5-weight Kennebec fly rod on Pennsylvania’s Yellow Breeches Creek. Available in 4-, 5-, and 6-weight models, the Kennebec design was inspired by a local Maine guide. It is a stiffer, fast-action rod for long casts, and it has the rugged, powerful character you might expect from the backwoods of Maine, or from a rod that could hook an 18-inch brown trout on one cast, and a running, leaping Atlantic salmon on the next. It has a matte green finish (Maine is the “Pine Tree State”) and burnt orange wraps that match a vintage Maine Registered Guide shoulder patch. The rods have AAA grade cork handles with a full wells on the 6-weight, and a reverse half wells on the 4-weight. It has singlefoot chrome guides, a hardwood reel seat, and aluminum hardware with a light gunmetal finish. Starting in 2021, all Kennebec rods use renewable plant-based formulas to replace the old epoxies made with petrochemicals.
$319 | maineflyco.com
Mystic Fly Rods M Series
Mystic Outdoors was founded in Portland, Michigan, by Dennis Klein in 2005. Klein was an engineer by trade and he spent part of his professional career in South Korea, where he was able to build strong relationships with blank manufacturers. He used those personal relationships to work with his partners to create high-quality carbon fiber rod blanks built to his specifications. Today, every Mystic rod is still built on rod blanks designed by Klein. Jeff Brady bought the company in the fall of 2019 and promised “We will never buy a commercial blank and just slap a Mystic logo on it. They all are, and all will be, designed by us.”
Today the rods are still built in Portland, and the rod builders are two women, a mother/daughter team who have built Mystic fly rods for more than a dozen years. This is the secret reason why every rod leaves the shop perfectly identical. They are also part of the reason why Mystic has a popular female-specific rod called the Sapphyre.
The flag ship M-Series is Mystic’s most popular freshwater rod, and helped build the company’s reputation for high-performance rods that deliver high value as well. The rods use a blend of multi-modulus carbon fiber and a proprietary resin system to build both power and delicacy in the places you need it. The 10-foot M-Series rods load deep into the midsection and recover quickly to release energy smoothly and efficiently. They come in sizes ranging from a 10'3" 3-weight that is perfect for Euro nymphing or delicate dry-fly work, to a 10'3" 8-weight that can launch a fly to the other side of the river and handle steelhead and salmon on any Great Lakes tributary.
M-Series rods have black wraps with silver trim, titanium quad-leg stripping guides, light wire stainless steel snake guides, alignment dots, and machined aluminum reel seats with burled rosewood inserts. Even the 3-weight has a fighting butt.
$499 | mysticoutdoors.com
Moonshine Rod Company Midnight Special II
Moonshine Rod Company was started by three fishing buddies—Tate, Nick, and Jon—who assembled their first fly rods rods in a shed in Virginia that also contained a handmade copper moonshine still. At least one of them figured that if they could make a still, they might also be able to make fly rods. They started as a blue-collar company with a mission of making more affordable fly rods, but quickly found a niche in making highly customized fly rods for customers who wanted something as unique and special as the fish they were catching.
In the original Midnight Special series, no two rods were identical. Each had Virginia-milled reel seats made from a variety of exotic and local hardwoods, each one with a different burl, dye, or finish. In the new Midnight Special II, Moonshine upped the rod performance using high-modulus, nano-matrix carbon fiber blanks made to their specifications in a South Korean factory. Now the rods still look cool and edgy, but they perform at an equally outstanding level.
The flor-grade cork is sourced and hand-turned by a veteran-owned company in the Pacific Northwest, and made specifically for Moonshine. They turn and stain all their hand-picked wood reel seats in their shop in Virginia, where each rod is lift-tested and finished. Every rod is unique, and each one inspected by a master craftsman before it leaves the shop.
The blank is a natural, unsanded gray color. It’s not coated, so it’s lighter and has a slight texture to it. It has sleeve-over ferrules with black bindings, metallic copper accents, and metallic copper alignment dots.
Each Midnight Special II has two titanium frame stripping guides with silicon carbide inserts, light wire singlefoot guides, a custom rod sock, and a powder-coated aluminum rod tube. For some people, the appeal of this rod is its styling and aesthetic charm. For me, it’s the light, responsive blank and the lightweight, performance-enhancing line guides. However, the thing most people appreciate is the extra tip. Each Midnight Special II comes with two tips in addition to the no-fault lifetime warranty for the original owner. So if you break a tip in the woods, in a car window, ceiling fan, or by high-sticking a large fish to the net, you’ll still be fishing that day, instead of heading to the UPS store with a package.
$579 | moonshinerods.com
Tom Morgan Rodsmiths Custom Graphite
Tom Morgan’s influence is woven very deeply into the fabric of our shared fly-fishing history. He purchased R.L. Winston in 1973, and in 1975 he introduced some of the world’s first graphite rods. He was a pioneer and advocate for a new material that was strong, lightweight, durable, sensitive, and efficient. In 1976 he moved his company from San Francisco to Twin Bridges, Montana. He felt that fine fly rods needed to be crafted by being on the water, and he wanted to be close to the Beaverhead, Big Hole, and Jefferson rivers. In doing so, he forever changed the character not only of the company, but of the small town and its surrounding community. In 1991, a healthy Tom Morgan sold the company and signed a seven-year non-compete clause. In 1992 he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and by 1995 he was confined to a wheelchair and unable to cast a fly rod. When he started Tom Morgan Rodsmiths in 1996—with the blessing of R.L. Winston owner David Ondaatje—it was the ultimate small-batch operation, with a contractor rolling the blanks on mandrels owned and designed by Tom Morgan. When they started, Tom’s wife Gerri did all the assembly and wrapping. The final inspection came from Tom’s watchful eye, and every rod was an heirloom.
Tom and Gerri Morgan passed this proud heritage of craftsmanship to Joel Doub and Matt Barber when they sold the company in early 2017. The two new owners are lifelong fly fishers, and longtime admirers of the Tom Morgan legacy. They worked under the tutelage of the Morgans for six months before the transaction was complete, and then moved the shop from the Morgans’ home in Manhattan, Montana, to a new facility in Bozeman. Tom Morgan passed away on June 12 of that year.
Although the shop changed locations, not much else has changed. Every aspect of the rod-building process is exactly the same as when Tom and Gerri were producing rods out of their home.
“We are strict adherents to the same jigs, tools, and processes that Tom and Gerri taught us,” said Barber. “We use the same prepreg material, patterns, and the same mandrels that Tom used to build his rods.”
Tom Morgan believed in starting with the most delicate tip possible, and a smooth progressive taper throughout the length of the rod. His rods load deeply for increased feel and accuracy, but they also recover quickly to provide plenty of power on longer casts.
Roughly 75% of the rods sold by Tom Morgan Rodsmiths are custom orders, the other 25% are “in-stock” rods that use the same blanks combined with popular grip, hardware, and reel seat choices. One of Tom Morgan’s favorite rods was a 4-piece 8'6" 5-weight, his choice for fishing the smaller waters around Twin Bridges. Every in-stock rod has a nickel silver reel seat, cork check, tip check, red agate stripping guide, custom-fit spigot ferrules, ECOated light-wire snake guides, a cigar grip, and an elm burl reel seat insert. On a custom rod they will sand the flor-grade cork to your desired shape and size, and use the wood of your choice. In-stock rods come with a Tom Morgan Rodmsiths red graphite rod tube, but they also sell upgrades to Al Swanson wood tubes or hexagon heirloom tubes.
$1,595 | tommorganrodsmiths.com
Ross Purnell is the editor and publisher of Fly Fisherman.