Bozeman Road Trip – And R. L. Winston Rod Company Tour

Simms

My son David, and his wife Jamie and daughter Bridget moved to Bozeman Montana last Spring.

Two weeks ago I made a driving trip over to see them and their new house. A flight would have been quicker but I prefer driving and seeing the country whenever possible. And this was my first solo road trip since I got married.

Coming into Montana was a treat. It’s been about a decade since I’d been there; way too long. As I crested the Continental Divide east of Butte, I recalled it’d been 40 years that month since my first visit to Montana and Yellowstone.

I was living in Idaho Falls at the time while training at the Naval Reactors training site 40 miles west of Idaho Falls. Long, long days and not much sleep was the norm; good practice as it turned out for life later in the submarine service.

But the rotating shift schedule we worked did offer 5 consecutive days off once per month. And that gave me the time to make my first visit to Yellowstone; saw a moose in the park. Coming out on a late snowy Sunday afternoon I saw a man wading in the Madison river. That was my first time seeing someone fly fishing.

Back to the current trip.

The time in Bozeman was fun. Got to see the Simms building – the source for so much gear for so many fly fishers. Sampled the local beer and had a great meal at the Montana Ale Works. Did a quick day trip to Big Sky and West Yellowstone. And just had a wonderful time. Driving out of town I was figuring ways to stay.

Rather than heading back on the interstate, I headed southwest to drive through Ennis and Virginia City on the way to Twin Bridges. Ennis may be among the most storied fly fishing towns around and Virginia City is a historic gold mining town.

The final part of the trip was along the Ruby River, a tributary of the Beayerhead River, which joins the Big Hole River near Twin Bridges to become the Jefferson – one of the tributaries of the Missouri River.

Winston Fly Rods

I got to Winston Fly Rods about 20 minutes early for the daily 11AM tour. Winston Fly Rods sits at the southern end of Twin Bridges, Montana, which has a population of 375 per the last census (the entire county has less than 7,000 people). It was quiet except for the wind. With the rivers and mountains, I thought if you were going to choose a place to build fly rods this would be it.

I was greeted by Adam who asked if I wanted to cast any of the rods while waiting. The office was lined with all the rods in the Winston inventory. I chose the Boron III Plus in a six-weight saltwater version and took it out to the casting lawn in front. It was smooth and easy to cast both against and with the wind. Quite a change from the rod it’s replacing – the Boron III SX.

The tour started near the front of the rod building area and gave me an overview of the rod building process – stopping to indicate a door behind me where the green paint is applied that makes Winston rods so beautiful. He said he couldn’t say much about it except that it’s all proprietary and closely guarded. And later in the tour he said the green thread used for trying on the guides was also proprietary to Winston.

He showed me a rod blank after it comes out of the rolling and heating steps – it looked like the natural finish of a Scott rod. He explained why Winston believes the sanding process is required, by saying they find very small numbers of errors that can only be detected by the operator of the sanding machine. Any blank section that fails at this point is destroyed.

We walked through the various stations in the rod building process. Along the way I met a number of the Winston staff who without exception were friendly and extremely proud of the work they did. I talked to the guy who does all the repair work, the woman tying on a guide on a returned bamboo rod (she said can do all guides on a typical rod in about one hour). While she wasn’t there (it was lunch hour) Adam mentioned they have one woman who has been doing all the script work on the rod (model, weight, and serial number) for over 15 years.

We wound up in the room where final inspections are done. Adam showed me a couple of the rods that were marked for minor rework. He looked at one of the rods and saw the problem. Handing me the rod he indicated where the problem was but I couldn’t see it.

Winston has 30 employees working at the facility; in addition, they have 12 contractors in the local community who do the tying of the guides. It was clear to me everyone of those people build every Winston rod with pride and attention to detail.

I had thought going in the tour would be a quick walk through. But I spent almost 50 minutes on the tour and likely could have stayed longer if I had more questions. As I left the tour Adam invited me to come back anytime I was in the area.

I have appreciated Winston rods for some time. But this tour gave me a peek at what truly makes them exceptional – and that’s the people who put so much of themselves into building them.

And I’m going to have take another look at the Boron III Plus rod.

Sage SALT Five-Weight Review

Sage SALT

Most anglers looking for a fly rod for Puget Sound saltwater fishing typically start with a six-weight. The thinking is that it’s a good all-purpose line weight to handle most of the year’s fishing: from Sea Run Cutthroat Trout to Pink Salmon (in odd number years) and smaller Silvers (Coho). Chum salmon, however, require an eight-weight or better fly rod.

I started with a six-weight Winston BIII-SX. Beautiful as all Winston rods are, but it was stiff and heavy. Even worse was its big brother in eight-weight. Both soon found their way to eBay. After trying many rods (and I mean many – sometimes going back to an earlier candidate), I wound up with a great six-weight: the Scott Radian. It meets all the requirements for a good all-purpose rod for Washington. In addition to Puget Sound saltwater, I think it’d be a great rod to take over to the Yakima.

But it’s still a six-weight and I had been thinking I wanted a five-weight for Puget Sound. The truth is that most of the year’s fishing is for Sea Run Cutthroat Trout. Salmon season is four or five months long at best. And last year was a bust as no one had much luck with all the Coho that should have been coming in.

So I wanted the lighter-weight fly rod that would provide a bit more fishing fun with the smaller fish, but still land them quickly to make sure they weren’t exhausted when released. Lucky for me at about this time Sage had released its new SALT fly rod in line weights 5 to 16. it was the replacement for the well-regarded Xi3.

Gig Harbor Fly Shop’s writeup of the rod (here) convinced me, so after test casting the rod in nearby Skansie Brothers Park, I brought one home.

It is a sweet rod, from the beautiful dark sapphire color of the blank to the always excellent cork Sage uses, to the anodized aluminum up-locking reel seat and rubber fighting butt. One thing I thought was very useful, particularly if one gets the SALT in a number of weights, was the laser-etched rod weight on slide band.

The rod itself weighs 3 11/16 ounces. What’s interesting is that i think it feels and casts like a much lighter weight rod.

The tip response is fast but loading the rod further down the blank seems to be a more moderate action. Sage has said the tip provides the quick shots required in tropical saltwater fishing while the rest of the blank provides the action to go after longer range targets. Who am I to disagree? All I know is that it’s a fun rod to cast.

I did start casting it with a Rio Outbound Short, but found the casts and loops were too ragged for me. I switched to a full length Rio Outbound and everything settled out.

One thing to note is that Rio no longer offers the full length Outbound Floating / Intermediate in five-weight (the Outbound full floating is still sold in five weight). I went looking on eBay and was able to get a couple of the lines. Hopefully Rio will introduce a new line soon to replace the WF5F/I.

This feels like a rod that will be a good companion for many years to come. And while it may not work for dry flies, it can probably toss a streamer on the Yakima or in Montana (as Blake mentioned in his writeup).

To Buy a Spey Rod Means Actually Having to Spey (Cast) One

Farbank Spey Day

The latest newsletter from the Gorge Fly Shop has a blog post on a recent Farbank (Sage, Rio, Reddington) Spey Day held in Bend, Oregon on March 22nd, 2015. John Garrett, one of their Product Specialists, noted that it’s much easier talking with customers who’ve actually cast a rod than someone is mired in YouTube videos and online reviews – and having no actual experience with the rod(s) they ask about. He tells of his experience with a customer who had called fly shops all over the country and was frustrated by all the conflicting opinions; said customer had actually never gone into any local fly shops and tested any rods.

I confess – I’ve been guilty of that too (too many times in my life). Given life working in a corporate cube, it’s often easier to surf the web and get absorbed in product reviews and videos than going down to the fly shop after work or on weekends and putting cork in one’s hands.

And it’s not just Spey Casting or fly fishing. I was in a bike shop once (actually testing and buying a bike). The owner said he had these kids continually coming in with the latest issue of some bicycle-related magazine. They’d spend hours discussing and asking him about gear ratios, frame geometry and the like. He said to me, “I always tell them…why don’t you just go out riding.”

You can read the blog post here.

George Cook on Your First Spey Rod

spey casting

Blake Merwin, owner of Gig Harbor Fly Shop, had a conversation with George Cook – the outstanding Pacific Northwest representative for Sage – about Spey rods.

Any discussion about Spey rods and Spey casting can soon sound like a foreign language for single-handed fly casters thinking about picking up two-handed casting. Blake ignored the complexities of head lengths, grain weights, and T14 and asked George three simple questions: would a switch rod be a good rod for learning to Spey cast (the short answer is no); what should someone new to Spey look for in a first rod; and what’s the best rod for local anglers looking for a do-it-all Spey rod for Washington waters (13′ 6″ – 7 or 8 weight).

You can read the interview here.

Gink & Gasonline: Giving Scott Some Love

Gink & Gasoline has praise for Scott Fly Rods – discussing the new Scott Tidal and the Bamboo SC rods in a video interview with Jim Bartschi, Scott Fly Rods President and their chief designer.

I’ve cast the Tidal on the lawn – very smooth and easy casting. I’m still considering adding an 8-weight for local salmon and that’s in the running with the Scott S4s. I’ll let you know what I decide.

You can hear the interview here.

A Question of Balance: The Rod’s Butt Section

Beginners to fly fishing read, or are told, that a rod and reel should be a balanced outfit. That is further amplified by the instruction that each should be of the same weight – so a reel made for an X weight line should be used with a rod built for a X weight line.

Then as the fly fisher continues in the sport, another consideration emerges – the feel of the rod in hand, i.e., the notion of a rod being tip heavy or butt heavy due to the relationship of the physical weights of the rod and reel (particularly the latter).  Common sense thinking is that a heavier reel doesn’t work with a lighter rod – creating a butt-heavy combination, or a light reel with a heavier weight rod becoming too tippy.  And this doesn’t even get into the arcane discussion of whether the balance test should be done with line on the reel or how much line should be stripped off to measure the balance. Or the even more esoteric static balance versus dynamic balance (balance during actual casting).

I came across an even more interesting twist on all of the above.  I had mentioned in a previous post that I had been doing some testing of rods and lines, both to test fly lines and potentially finding a replacement for a BIII-SX (read here).

One of the interesting things I discovered during the testing was the way in which the rod’s butt section affected my perception of the rod. I was casting a Scott Radian 9’ 6” 6wt. I had a Hatch Finatic 5 on it, loaded with a Rio Outbound 6-weight line.  When picking up the rod I found myself thinking it felt clunky and unbalanced.  It was noticeable though somewhat less during the casting.

I then picked up a Winston BIIIX (also a 9’ 6” 6wt) and put on the Hatch reel. It had a less clunky feel though I could feel the weight of the reel. The weight was apparent but it felt better. Casting was no problem.

I then disassembled the rod and took the reel off. I closed my eyes and had both butt sections given to me. It was noticeably obvious that the Radian’s butt section is much heavier than the Winston.

I’ve not been able to find any published rod weights on the Radian yet, but feel in hand suggest the overall rod weight is about the same range as a BIIIX or Helios 2. In looking at the rod butt lengths they are all approximately the same length (some differences in blank length

A visual and tactile inspection of the Scott leads me to think the reel seat itself is heavier than the other rods. Given its position in the rod it has a more noticeable affect than weight spread along the rods length (say from the weight of heavier guides).

I put a lighter weight Galvan Torque on the Radian (with all four sections assembled) and the rod felt right in hand. Casting was easy and the Radian is a terrific rod.

After all of the above, is there some mystery of the universe (or of fly fishing) revealed?

Of course not. The only thing to be relearned is that all of the received wisdom and technical specifications are meaningless in the face of actual experience.  True of fly fishing – or life.

The Alchemy of Fly Rods and Fly Lines: Rethinking the BIII-SX

I’ve been out in my backyard over the last few days to do some practice casting and continue my evaluation of a few fly lines. It’s been sunny and relatively warm (high 50s), something that’s not going to last, with rain and wind coming tomorrow.

This time out has reminded me that much like ancient alchemists, we seek our own philosopher’s stone of mixing rod and reel to create fly fishing gold. Unfortunately, sometimes we wind up with lead.

I’ve been using my Winston BIII-SX (9’ 6” 6 weight) for this practice. In addition, I’m using the time to decide if I should keep it or sell it on eBay. I’ve had mixed feelings about the Winston BIII-SX since I got it.

It was my second Winston (my first was a 9’ 5 weight BIIIX). The BIIIX was, and is, a joy to cast. But after moving over here to Gig Harbor, I decided to spend more time focused on beach fishing for sea-run cutthroat trout and resident Coho. That meant a 6-weight in 9’ 6”. And I chose the BIII-SX as I thought it’d give me a bit of heft for the bigger Coho’s as well as being a stronger performer than the BIIIX on the steeper beaches in wind.

Initially I was excited with the BIII-SX as it was a Winston. The line choice recommended by the Gig Harbor Fly Shop was a great match: the Airflo 40+ Floating/Intermediate. Initial casting was somewhat easy and fun (if by no means as fun as with the BIIIX). The rod weight was more noticeable and at shorter line lengths it did feel more like a club than a fly rod. I’ll confess and say I hadn’t cast it before I bought it – dumb me.

So I might have just consoled myself that it was a Winston and kept on using the AirFlo 40+, except for two things.

The first was that I wanted to go with floating lines for casting some beach poppers, and that’s when I started to see the BIII-SX had some major issues with its dependency on lines. I first got a Rio Outbound (OB) Floating in 6 weight. I figured the 37.5 foot head would cast approximately like the the Airflo with its 35-foot head (though the Airflo is heavier at 261 grains versus 240).

It did take some practice to get my casting down with the OB, but once I did I was hitting around the 70 foot mark as with the Airflo. Shorter casts were doable – but as with the Airflo – without any feel. For both lines it seems I needed to have at least 30 feet of line out – making approximately a 50 foot cast the minimum for the BIII-SX.

I then got the Outbound Short (OBS) Floating in 6-weight and put that on. I thought the compact head (30 feet versus 37.5 for the OB) would load the rod better. The OBS was almost as heavy as the full length OB (235 versus 240 grains).

But all the theory was irrelevant. The rod never really seemed to come alive; heavy and unresponsive. I have a sense a 7 weight OBS might work better. But that points to the problem with the BIII-SX series: I they are all actually at least one rod weight higher.

Late last year I had also tried casting the BIII-SX in 8 weight with an 8 weight OB and it was like casting a broom stick. The rod wouldn’t load at all. Even when putting a 9 weight OB on it was not much better. I’m guessing it’s at least 1.5 – 2 weights heavier than stated. Winston blew it with this series.

Then there is the other thing – how the BIII-SX compared to casting other rods. I’ve had the chance to cast the Orvis Helios 2 Tip Flex, Sage One, and the Scott Radian.

They were all superior to the BIII-SX, at least for me. I didn’t like the Sage One in a 9-foot as it’s too stiff too, but it was still better than the BIII-SX (and much lighter).

The Scott was definitely a fast rod, but I was able to feel it at distances less than 30 feet, while at longer distances I could feel the power and speed of the rod. It was a different casting experience than a Winston and while it’s a very fine rod, the thicker grip was something that felt uncomfortable. A person’s muscle memory sure plays a part in evaluating a new rod. If I had a couple of weeks to cast it to get used to the grip I might change my mind. Adding it to the list for future consideration.

The Helios 2 was the best of three as far as I was concerned on this day of testing – easy to cast at all distances. Feel wasn’t great at short distances; it was sort of there but not as noticeable as the Radian. At longer distances, there was feel and control. The only problem I noticed was that with longer casts, I had to work a bit – more than with the Radian. So not perfect, but very close. It’s definite candidate to replace the BIII-SX.

After all of the above, I’ve come to see the BIII-SX is a much more specialized rod than an all-around rod. Maybe that’s what Winston intended it for – heavy flies in heavy winds at distance where feel and easy casting are not part of the equation. That narrow use may make it a standby rod, but not the first choice for many trips around here where sea runs and Coho are closer to the beach.

Maybe eBay will be getting a listing soon. But I think I’ll get some time on a BIIIX first. I may have just made a bad decision based on moving away from a rod series I like a great deal. And maybe take another look at both the Helios 2 and the Radian.

Lawn Casting the Scott Radian

I had an opportunity to take a 9’ 6” 6-weight Scott Radian out for a bit of lawn casting. Based on the buzz I’d read about it being a “fast rod with feel”, I had high expectations for it. After approximately one hour of casting, I thought it was a really nice rod, but I don’t think I would sell the rods I have just to buy it. I still think the Orvis Helios 2 is a better casting rod at distance; and within about 50 – 60 feet, I’d give the edge to the Winston BIIIX.

All the testing was done with a Rio Outbound 6wt Floating and a 7-foot practice leader.

I started with about 10 feet of line out. Pickup and lay down casts were easy. I could feel the line (lightly it’s true but still feel it). It was something I could never feel with that amount of line with either a Sage One or Winston BIII-SX.

I stripped off another 10 – 15 feet of line and the tip started loading more, making casting easy and fun. I stripped more line until it I had about 55 feet of line out. False casting (without stripping) was simple. The rod was loading more and I could really begin to feel how fast a rod it was. Same thing when I added a haul or two.

And I think that’s when it lost its luster for me. It wasn’t the rod as much as me not really liking the fast feel at longer distances. I’ve cast enough to know I don’t like rods that feel like broomsticks to me. If I had to rank the order of broomstick feel of faster rods I’ve cast, I’d say the Sage One was easily the stiffest and the one I liked least. Between the Radian and BIII-SX it’s a bit of a tossup, but based on memory, I think – at least in 6 weight – the BIII-SX is stiffer.

I think I like rods that are a bit slower – the so-called “medium fast” rods like the Orvis Helios 2 (Tip flex) and Winston BIIIX rods. Of course, that’s just me. If I had a chance to cast the Radian for a longer period and got used to its speed I might change my mind.

If you like faster rods with a bit of feel, particularly ones made in the USA by our fellow citizens, then I think the Scott Radian would be a terrific choice.

Oasis “Lazy Susan” Fly Tying Organizer

Oasis Lazy Susan

After I took an introductory class on fly tying at the Gig Harbor Fly Shop, purchasing fly tying materials and tools became the obsession. It became almost immediately clear there would be a need to find someplace to put “stuff”, to borrow the metaphor from George Carlin’s brilliant comic routine.

The material was easy – I have a few organizer plastic boxes I got at Target. In them go the feathers, hair, flash, eyes, and hooks. Easily stacked, translucent, and able to be stored in a drawer.

The bigger issue was tools. I didn’t want to have to put everything in a box or bag and have to pull everything each time it was time to tie. In addition, I thought keeping the tools and vise on display would serve as a reminder to get tying; and would make my desk look like a little bit of a fly shop.

After seeing what was available, I decided on Oasis Fly Tying Benches’ The Lazy Susan. Compact (8 inches by 8 inches by 9 inches tall), with room for a lot of things in little bit of space, the small bench is perfect for someone who needs a small footprint on a desk or work area.
This is a two-layer platform – the top for tools, the bottom for spools and other materials. The platform attaches to the base via a metal ball bearing roller, making rotation of the unit very smooth and easy. I like that feature.

The top platform has 24 holes for tool storage – scissors, bobbins, bodkins, bobbin threaders, and anything else. My only criticism is I wish a few of the holes were a bit larger for bigger scissors or forceps, but it’s only a small nit.

The bottom layer has 12 brass rods (that you install yourself – so you have to be a bit careful to get them all at the same height) making space for 24 spools of thread or other material. There are large holes around the lower layer, providing room for glues, hair stackers, etc. The only problem I’ve found so far is that my Zap-a-Gap bottle is too large for the medium holes and too small for the large holes, so it tends to fall over if I spin the unit.

In addition, there is a hook to hang hackle pliers and a foam insert for bodkins. And there is a magnetic patch on the lower layer for hooks and razors.

For me, it’s about perfect.

You can find it at a number of online retailers or directly from Oasis. I’ve found prices vary a bit, but it’s basically around $90. You can order it from Oasis here.