Life in the Cast Lane

The knowledgeable experts at Orvis cast light on the history and craftsmanship of the legendary Orvis fly rods.


An experienced angler wades out into a clear and cool stream. After finding a suitable spot, she pauses to situate herself, then surveys the scene for noticeable signs of activity. As she holds her rod and flicks her wrists back and forth with elegant flair, her casting line waves through the air in a mesmerizing two-step dance. Casting her line forward, she watches intently as her fly falls onto the water, making subtle and nuanced adjustments to alter its course as it travels downstream. Suddenly, the surface of the water starts to churn imperceptibly. There is a rush of excitement as the line begins to tense. Moments later, it is clear that a fish has taken the bait. As the angler pulls the fish back in towards her, she is overtaken by a satisfying feeling of primal fulfillment as she finally secures it in her hands. It’s just another day out fly fishing in Southern Vermont, but for one priceless moment, the whole world seems to stand still.

People have been experiencing similarly unforgettable and triumphant moments in Southern Vermont since the day that Charles Orvis first opened his tackle shop in 1856 in Manchester. Over the course of the last century-and-a-half, Orvis has grown into one of the most beloved and well-known outdoor lifestyle brands in the world. As Orvis continues to expand and broaden its market reach to include a wide variety of high-quality products, the Orvis fly rod development team is moving the sport of fly fishing forward with its innovative line of fly rods. Some are made with cutting-edge composite materials and use state-of-the-art technology. Others are carefully crafted with high-quality natural materials that offer a uniquely luxurious and timeless fishing experience.

Over the years, Orvis fly rods have gone through several distinct phases of evolution. According to Orvis’ Director of Product Development and Design Shawn Coombs, it all began with the creation of the world-famous original Orvis fly reel in 1874. “The Orvis Fly Reel was a significant advancement in terms of fly reel technology, because it was mounted vertically and featured a ventilated spool. Before the Orvis Fly Reel, vertically-mounted fly reels existed, as did ventilated spools, but the Orvis Fly Reel was the first to combine the two of them together. It really set the stage for the development of more modern reels, such as the ones with disc brake systems that we see today.”

The introduction of the original Orvis fly reel occurred during the first of four distinct phases in Orvis fly rod development. Before the emergence of modern fishing technologies, the earliest Orvis rods were made out of wood. Orvis’ early rods were made mostly of ash, lancewood, or greenheart wood. According to Coombs, the wood rods were essentially a modernized and refined iteration of a primitive fishing stick fashioned out of a flexible tree branch. “I consider the

wooden rods to hold the same type of historical significance as the original wooden skis that were used in the winter sports community before the development of lightweight synthetic materials. It’s interesting to see that with both skiing and fly fishing, the improved and updated version of the primary equipment is still somewhat in line with the shape and design of the original idea.”

One of the first true quantum leaps in Orvis fly rod design occurred when the company started mass-producing bamboo rods in the early 1950s. Taking advantage of the natural flexibility of the bamboo, they impregnated it with synthetic Bakelite resin to improve its durability and water resistance. In the years that followed, the advent of the aerospace age allowed for the incorporation of new materials, such as fiberglass. Due to the stretchy and soft nature of the fiberglass resin composite material, the fiberglass rods only had a short-lived stint as the centerpiece product of the Orvis fly rod line. As the space age brought lighter and stronger materials to the market, Orvis made the full transition to graphite rods in 1974 due to their sturdier composition. The company’s main fly rod line has been made of graphite ever since, but Orvis still produces fiberglass and bamboo rods to this day. Coombs is proud that Orvis has been on the cutting edge of modern fly rod design for nearly fifty years, and also proud that Orvis continues to push its products forward by incorporating modern design concepts. “These days, we use thermoplastics in our resin systems and all kinds of incredible proprietary technologies, many of which we have patented. Truth be told, it’s pretty humbling to see where we are now in relation to where we came from, in terms of the materials that we use. There have been such amazing advancements in such a short period of time.”

Today, the bamboo and graphite rods are still crafted at the Orvis workshop in Manchester. Both types of rods are made using efficient techniques that have been perfected over generations by the Orvis rod craftspeople.

Orvis first started making Bamboo Rods in the 1870s and developed a “six-strip” method of construction in which dry bamboo strips are glued and bound together. Orvis still uses a modified version of this construction method today in its rod production. In order to make the bamboo rods, wide strips of dried bamboo cane are split into small strips, and then graded and grouped into bundles. Once grouped, six strips are milled into long, thin, tapered triangles. The triangle strips are then glued together, bound, and cured. Once the cure cycle is finished, the binding is removed, and the blank surface is scraped clean. The handle and reel seat are subsequently attached, and the rod is then complete.

The manufacturing process for the graphite rods is equally complex and nuanced. To begin, multiple sheets of carbon resin material are cut into proprietary shapes, then layered together and rolled onto a tapered mandrel shaft. A compression tape is then wound on the outside of the mandrel after the carbon material has been rolled onto it. At this point, the mandrels are placed in an oven, and the heat-curing process begins. After the curing cycle is complete, the mandrels are removed from the oven and cooled at room temperature. The rod section is then removed, sanded and painted. After the components, handle and reel seat are attached, the rod is then ready for action.

Coombs believes that the bamboo rods and the graphite rods are both perfectly suited for different types of fishing – it all depends on the type of experience that you want to have. “If you were to compare the rods to high-end cars, I would say a Bamboo Orvis rod is similar to a 1964 convertible Ford Mustang. It’s a classic and iconic fly rod that offers a nostalgic and relaxed experience, but it still performs powerfully and effectively. On the other hand, a Helios 3 graphite rod is like a top-of-the-line truck with a formula one racecar engine. It’s the pinnacle of modern fishing technology, and its ease, versatility, and intuitive feel is unmatched by any other rod on the market. People have different preferences in terms of what they’re looking for. Some people want to relax and enjoy a classic fly fishing experience, and others want to take advantage of the latest technological achievements, material science breakthroughs, and rod design innovations. Neither is better than the other. They just provide two very distinct ways to experience the joy of fly fishing.”

In addition to the Helios 3 line and the bamboo fly rods, Orvis offers multiple additional lines of fly rods to suit a wide range of needs and budgets. “It can be intimidating to look at our catalog and try to figure out what rod is best for you,” says Coombs, “but we merchandise under the basic philosophy of ‘good, better, best.’ Regardless of the price point, you’re going to end up with a rod that provides a wonderful fishing experience. For example, our Clearwater rods start at around $200. We honestly believe that the Clearwater is the best performing fly rod that you can buy at that price. If you step up to our Recon series, the rods are lighter, and the accuracy improves, as well. The Helios 3 is paramount in terms of accuracy. It’s incredibly lightweight and easy to use. We use it to teach all of our classes at the Orvis Fly Fishing School. People think that because it’s our top-tier rod that it’s more difficult to fish with, when actually the opposite is true. It’s the perfect fly rod for beginners. Every time you use one of them, your eye, your thumb and the fish all come together in perfect harmony.”

Once you’ve selected the right rod, it’s best to consult the experts at the Orvis fly rod shop to find the right gear for your expedition. Each rod has a different weight, which corresponds to a different type of line, ‘leader’, and ‘tippet’, which connect the fly, streamer, or lure to the casting line. Flies and fly boxes abound at the Orvis flagship store, as do additional specialized items, such as wicker creels, specialized vests, waders, and more.

According to legendary author, angler, and fly-fishing guru Tom Rosenbauer, it’s always best to sign up for an educational program at the Orvis Fly Fishing School before heading out on your first fishing trip. Rosenbauer is a passionate expert who has dedicated his life to teaching people about the sport of fly fishing. Over the past several decades, he has channeled his encyclopedic knowledge into several well-known and respected books, including the original Orvis Guide to Fly Fishing. Through his comprehensive online “Orvis Learning Center” video series, he deconstructs and demystifies the art of fly fishing through a riveting sequence of demonstrative videos. With the help of his knowledgeable friends, including instructors at the Orvis Fly Fishing School, he breaks down the basics of the sport in an approachable and accessible manner.

Rosenbauer says that although fly fishing can seem a tad intimidating to beginners, Southern Vermont is the perfect place to come and learn. “There are a number of wonderful resources available in the Manchester area to help
people discover the joy of fly fishing. The Orvis Fly Fishing School is a wonderful place to start. You can sign up for a one or two-day program where you can learn the basics in a pressure-free environment. All of the classes are taught with high-quality equipment by incredibly knowledgeable instructors.”

According to Rosenbauer, the main thing that distinguishes fly fishing from spin fishing is the actual physics of the casting process. “Fly fishing is unique, because you’re using the weight of the line itself to cast the lure out, and not the lure itself. In order to cast correctly, you have to complete a proper transfer of energy from the rod to the line.” To ensure that happens, the rod has to bend and stop twice before it is cast – once behind the angler, and once in front. To accomplish this, the angler grips the rod in a relaxed yet steady fashion with their dominant hand in front with the thumb on top, and the secondary hand behind the reel. After the rod is bent back behind the angler’s head, it stops, and then bends forward, where it is stopped once more. That second stop where the line is cast out is where the crucial energy transfer happens between the rod and the line. “You have to make sure that you take a pause between the back and forward casts to watch line fully unfurl behind you. When the end of the line, or the ‘leader’ is about to completely straighten, that’s when you cast forward. The energy held in the bent rod then transfers to the line, which results in an even and accurate cast. The other thing to keep in mind is that in order to cast in the proper way, the rod tip has to be pointing completely straight. You also don’t want to curl the rod around you. You want to keep your cast on an even, straight plane.”

Rosenbauer says that after learning the basics and purchasing the right gear, it’s always best to go with a fishing
guide who can provide expert insights to help elevate your first experience – and it’s also important to remain aware of your surroundings. “It’s vital to take time to observe the world around you at every stage of the game. You’ll have a much more enjoyable experience, and you’ll also learn more about your immediate environment in the process. Fly fishing is a very visual sport. You don’t want to just charge into a river and start flailing about. You want to stand on the bank, look at the water, and truly immerse yourself in the area in which you’re fishing. Watch the current. Watch the insects and how they’re moving. Fly fishing is all about replicating the natural movement of the flies and small creatures that the fish are eating. A keen eye and a patient attitude will take you a long way.”

The way Rosenbauer sees it, the most gratifying part of fly fishing isn’t the fish that you catch – it’s the experience of fishing in itself. “There are days when I haven’t caught any fish when I went out with friends that have been some of the most memorable days of my life. Those days motivated me to try harder, and gave me more knowledge that I could incorporate into my next expedition. My advice is simple: don’t be afraid to ask questions. Give yourself time to learn the basics, then build from there. Every fly fisher in Vermont wants to go out and catch a trout on the Battenkill on their first try, but it’s not the easiest place to fish – even for an accomplished angler. There are a lot of great lakes all around Southern Vermont, such as Lake St. Catherine, Emerald Lake, and Lake Shaftsbury that provide accessible and pleasurable fly fishing that the whole family can enjoy. At the end of the day, the point of fly fishing is to have fun, make memories, and savor the beauty of nature.”