SHARE

WHENEVER I TAKE the fly rod from its case, I’m struck by how pristine it still looks. The green blank catches light like the surface of a stream. The zebra-wood insert bears no chips or scratches. The nickel hardware glides along the threading. Only the handle—with its smooth patina of sweat, dirt, trout slime, streamwater, and tension imprinted on the cork—betrays the rod’s age. 

***

In June 2001, I moved to Craig, Montana, to work at a fly shop on the Missouri River for the summer. The gig paid minimum wage but came with one luxurious perk: access to the pro-staff discounts available from any brand that the shop carried. Finally, I’d be able to afford one of the flagship fly rods I had dreamed of owning. Because I had done my homework, I already knew which one I wanted—a Winston LTX 9-foot 5-weight. The LTX series was brand-new for Winston, billed as the first fast-action rod from a company best known for softer sticks. I placed my order the day my first paycheck hit my bank account.

Colin Kearns fly fishing in montana
The author, 20 years old at the time, takes his new Winston fly rod for a spin on the Missouri River. Colin Kearns

In the weeks while I waited for the rod to arrive, I fell in love with Montana—and my job at the shop. I got a kick out of chatting with the guides each morning before they’d hit the river. I enjoyed helping out-of-town anglers with the local intel on hatches and hotspots that I’d begun to learn on my own. I was even happy folding T-shirts and restocking store shelves. About the only time I can remember disliking the job was the day my LTX was finally delivered. The hours dragged that day, as all I could think about was using the rod on the end-of-day caddis hatch. When my shift mercifully ended, I burst through the shop door like a kid leaving school for the summer.

That evening, when I waded into the Missouri River carrying my new rod at my side, I felt like a gunslinger itching for a go. I approached the first hole and peeled line. As soon as I began to cast, I knew: This rod is perfect for me. Strong enough for distance and to drive line through gusts; delicate enough to land a small Spent Caddis precisely before the ring of wary risers. More than once, between casts or after released fish, I gazed down at the rod and was struck by how pristine it looked: a green blank that reflected light off the river; a flawless insert made from zebra wood; ornate nickel hardware that locked my reel in place; and a handle of cork so fresh the chalky feel of it almost gave me goosebumps. I just need time to break it in, I thought.

That evening, when I waded into the Missouri River carrying my new rod at my side, I felt like a gunslinger itching for a go.

Living in Montana proved to be something of a fly-bum boot camp for me. I fished hard every day—before and after work—and quickly became aware of the progress I was making on the water. For a 20-year-old, I was a skilled fly fisherman. The new Winston only made me better. With that rod, I started firing longer casts. I made more accurate presentations. I fought fish with more confidence.

brown trout caught on the Missouri River
The LTX handled this trophy brown trout admirably. Colin Kearns

That would’ve been enough. But what I never imagined, not back then, at least, was how much longer the Winston would remain my go-to trout rod—for what, at the time, would amount to another lifetime. I’ve now had the rod for 20 years and counting. With this rod, I’ve gone on to land trout all over the country. I’ve used it to divine a new home river, one unlike the Missouri in virtually every way. Most recently, I’ve thought about giving the rod to my 9-month-old son—one day, yet another lifetime from now.  

***

The steep discount Winston offered wasn’t the only nice thing about their pro-staff program: Each rod also came personalized, making it one of a kind. On the blank of mine, just above the worn handle, appears some writing—hand-painted in gorgeous, fluid cursive. The script is stacked, so you have to rotate the rod to read it all: 

LTX
9’ – 5
3 ¾ oz.
Colin Kearns

I’ve acquired a few new fly rods in recent years, and I’d be lying if I said I don’t favor one or two over the Winston these days. But that doesn’t mean they’re my favorites. Even though I own them, I don’t feel like they belong to me. Not yet. The Winston on the other hand—that rod is mine.

Read more F&S+ stories.