The Woman Behind The Feel

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Photo by Louis Cahill

Photo by Louis Cahill

By Louis Cahill

If she was a man, she might have been a cowboy.

The kind of quiet, earnest character Gary Cooper played in his old westerns. Raised on a Montana ranch with five brothers, she stands as if she were always ready to get to work. You wouldn’t be the least surprised to see her saddle a horse or mend a fence. She is serious, thoughtful, and when she speaks she gets straight to the point. And you’d better believe people listen.

Soft spoken, humble, completely unassuming and a bit on the quiet side, with short silver hair and perfect posture, Annette McClean doesn’t immediately stand out in a crowd. If you saw her at the grocery store you might think of her as someone’s mom, or grandmom, and you’d be right. She is those things, as well as being a great angler, a good friend and civicly involved neighbor. As it happens, Annette is also one of the most brilliant minds in fly rod design.

There’s no point in writing around it, Annette is unique in that she is the only woman to design fly rods for a major manufacturer. As far as I know, she is the only woman rod designer period. Not that it matters and it certainly doesn’t to Annette. There is a rich history of women in the fly fishing industry and though she is the first to hold this position, I’m sure she will not be the last.

“I never felt devalued at Winston because I was a woman,” she tells me.

Annette was working for a local conservation organization in the 1980s when she walked through the front door of the R.L.Winston Fly Rod Company. She wasn’t looking for a job, or even a fly rod. She was there to ask then owner, Tom Morgan, if he’d sell a piece of land.

“No,” Tom replied, “But I’ve got a job for you if you’re interested.”

The job was polishing reel seat hardware, and she took it. Not a glamorous position but she didn’t care. She enjoyed the work and before long Annette was doing a couple of other jobs around the plant, including working on bamboo rods with Glen Bracket.

Winston is the kind of place where employees take pride in their work and feel an ownership in it. Any employee can, at any time, take any part out of production if they find it to be anything other than perfect. They are expected to do it, and what’s more they are expected to take it back to the person responsible for the imperfection. It’s the kind of place where if you do your job well, you get more responsibility. The kind of place where your work ethic matters more than your resume and before long Annette McClean found herself in charge of operations, and then design.

DSCF2506Winston is one of the oldest and most storied brands in fly fishing, so it’s fitting that when you walk through the front door you find yourself in a museum. Glass cases hold old bamboo rods, many with world records attached to them. Old machinery and hand tools from the company’s early days line the walls. Black and white photos cover the walls. Photos of men who shaped fly fishing as we know it and most recently a photo of Annette McClean. None of them are more striking than the images of Lew Stoner, co-founder of Winston.

There is something haunting about this man who never looks at the camera.

You see him, his back bent from labor, working over a machine. Sitting in coveralls, lost in thought. He is intense and there is a sadness about him. A man who started a fishing rod company in 1929, the year the Great Depression began. A man who invented many of the machines and processes still used in rod making. Who built the machines to build the rods and supported his family those first few years selling only about twenty rods a year. He still walks that shop. At every station and every machine, standing silently beside every employee, guiding every hand. You can feel him there. When anglers cast a Winston fly rod, they talk about “the Winston feel.” That’s Lew.

“I never thought about it,” Annette tells me when I ask if that legacy weighed on her mind when she took over the job of rod designer. “I just had a job to do, and I did it.”

There is, however, a clear reverence for that legacy, and for those who went before her. A deep gratitude for the guidance she had along the way. She speaks with respect about Tom Morgan and Glenn Bracket and others who mentored her, but her tone warms when she speaks of her friend Joan Wulff.

“When I first started going to the shows,” she tells me, “the men wouldn’t let me on the casting pond. I would sneak to the edge and cast kneeling down so their lines wouldn’t hit me. Joan gave me a piece of advice that changed everything.”

“You don’t have to apologize to anyone Annette, take your place.”- Joan Wulff

“Sure, Joan taught me some casting strokes but she taught me to stand up for myself. That was the real lesson.”

Winston is as no-nonsense a place as I’ve ever seen. As you walk around the shop you see hard working, down to earth folks. Their work stations are decorated with pheasant tails, rattlesnake skins, photos of hunting dogs and at least one Marine Corps flag. You get the immediate sense that they are a team. A family even. They know who they are as a company, every one of them and you know that if you mess with one of them, you’re messing with them all. There is an interesting irony there. Most people think of Winston as a rich, old guy’s brand, but the folks who make those rods are the salt of the earth.

DSCF2710Nothing I saw on my visit to the Winston rod shop summed up the company culture more than a young man named Jessie. Jessie cuts the precise sheets of graphite, boron and fiberglass which are rolled to make a rod blank. It’s done by hand and must be within a few thousandths of an inch. “What’s your fuck-up rate?” asked my friend Steve Duda. Without hesitation, Jessie reached for a clip board and pointed out a column titled “waste” with a string of zeros.

“This goes back for years,” Jessie replied. “My fuck-up rate is zero.”

The company is as authentic as they come. They are Montana, through and through. If they have a fault as a company it’s that they don’t give a damn what people think of them. They know who they are and they know what they want their rods to be. They are one-hundred percent certain that they make the best “fishing rod” on the planet. If you think so too, you’re part of the family. If not, they aren’t going to waste a lot of time trying to change your mind and they sure as hell aren’t going to change their rods. Winston owners like that and they are as much a cult as a customer base.

“I knew what the Winston feel was long before I worked here,” Annette tells me. “Mastering the science and the math to make it happen was a challenge.”

“Feel” is a huge word in the Winston lexicon. In their minds, the brand lives and dies by feel. It is the thing of which they are the most proud and they own it. As many rod makers have moved to stiffer and stiffer rods, Winston has held onto the idea that a rod must bend.

Anglers who are used to super stiff rods will take a minute to understand these rods. Some unfairly deem them slow, or soft. I don’t think that’s a fair characterization. The new Winstons have surprisingly quick recovery rates and plenty of power. I picked up a 5-weight Air and had no trouble casting the entire line. I fished the new Kiros in some heavy Montana wind with no issue. It’s clear that Annette did pretty well with her math and science. The new Winstons strike me as the best rods the company has ever made.

DSCF3255I was thrilled to have the chance to spend a day on the Big Hole with Annette. I am a little enamored with rod designers and am fortunate to know some of the best in the world. I always find that when I have the chance to fish with one I gain new insight into their rods. I wasn’t at all surprised to find that Annette is a great angler. I wasn’t surprised when she out-fished me either. I was surprised, given what I thought I knew about her rod designs, that she loves to throw big streamers. So do I, but I’ve never picked up my Winston to do the job. The 6-weight Kiros did an amazing job. That rod will be seeing a lot of days on the water.

I don’t know if I’m the right person to define the “Winston feel.” I can tell you that after spending a day at the shop, and a day on the water with Annette McClean, I have a whole new respect for a great old brand. I see a lot of Annette in these rods. I see her passion for fly fishing. I see her elegant casting stroke. I see her sterling work ethic and her deep pride. I see her gentle nature, her respect for the past and her vision of the future. I also see her holding big brown trout, again and again.

I think it’s funny, and a little condescending, when fly rod companies release a “women’s rod.” I’ve never been very clear on what that means, but I can tell you one thing. If you want to see a real woman’s fly rod, take a trip to Montana. To the Big Hole, or the Beaver Head, the Jefferson or the Madison. You’ll see them everywhere. Just remember, they aren’t pink, they’re green.

Editor’s Note: Since I wrote this, Tom Morgan has past. It is impossible to calculate his impact on the world of fly fishing. We are all fortunate that he spent his life in service of our sport. Our condolences go out to his loved ones.

Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
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14 thoughts on “The Woman Behind The Feel

  1. Great piece. As a Winston cultist, I appreciate your respect for the “feel”, the legacy, and the great people who are Winston.

  2. Hi Louis. I’ve been an avid reader of G&G for some time. Thank you for the kind words regarding Tom Morgan. We have been overwhelmed by the support we have received from the Fly Fishing design community since we began working with Tom. It’s been a once in a lifetime experience to work at the knee of a master builder. Tom often spoke of his time at Winston and the “feel” of a great rod. The people at Winston really understand it too.

    Annette has been particularly supportive of our efforts and it’s great to see a profile of her. You are 100% correct, she should be more well known but somehow I think she likes it just the way it is. Those green sticks have always been my favorite. Authentic, uncompromising and unique. They are Montana personified.

  3. Great feature, well done. I own one Winston rod and I love it…I may have to binge on a new Air. I do have a question, however. Is the new rod Kairos as in Greek for perfect timing or is it Kiros, not sure since neither rod name is on their website. It must be a new rod model. Anyway, thanks for bringing it, day in and day out, much appreciated.

    Sincerely,
    Aaron

    • Aaron, the spelling is indeed Kairos and it’s a very nice rod. Thanks for the comment and thanks for the support!!
      -JP

  4. My first Winston rod is still my favorite. It’s an IM-6, 8′ 4 wt. It definitely has the Winston “feel”. I’ve had the privilege of spending a little time with Annette. She is a genuine, 1st class lady that has all of my respect & admiration.
    I’m proud to be a Winston “cult member “.

  5. As I friend of Annette’s I have to say this writer captured the spirit of this gal perfectly! She is a peach!

  6. Well written and very enjoyable piece Louis. Having too been fortunate to visit with the folks at Winston, I share your admiration for Annette, the rest of the team and for the rods they make. I encourage anyone passing through Southwestern Montana to take the time to visit. Doing so is an eye opening experience.

    Cheers,
    Jason

  7. Thank you for a great article. Winston Rods are my absolute favorite. I have always felt these rods have soul and you truly expressed that in your writing.

  8. I have had my Winston Rod for many years and I love it. Used a few others before and there is nothing that compares to my rod. My grown children are fighting over who gets my rod when I die. Told them I’m taking it with me. Love Love that rod. I fish the Madison River every summer. I have been going to Montana for over 70 years. Yes, I am 80 and female. My Grandfather taught me to fly fish on the Madison when I was 5 or 6. No one in my family is from Montana, we just like to spend vacations there. I now have a Great Grandchild learning to fly fish. What a joy that is.

  9. “Take your place.” I love seeing more and more women stepping up, not apologizing to anyone, and taking their place. I was the only female guide on the Deschutes for years, the only female steelhead guide….things are changing, boys. Make room for the ladies and we will out fish you no matter what color our rods are!

  10. Some years ago when Annette heard I was diagnosed with breast cancer, she sent me a small box filled with fragrant Montana wild flowers as a reminder of what to hold dear. A treasure I will always cherish.

  11. Pingback: Women Are Here To Fish | Fly Fishing | Gink and Gasoline | How to Fly Fish | Trout Fishing | Fly Tying | Fly Fishing Blog

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