The Orvis Story
Fly Fishing Schools from Orvis

To one who has not acquired the art of fishing with a fly, let me suggest that a day or two with an expert will save much time and trouble. There are many little things that cannot well be described, and would take a long time to find out by experience, that can be learned very quickly when seen. It is not easy to tell one exactly how to fish with the fly.

-Charles Orvis, 1883

Fly Fishing School Diploma
A student who earns a diploma from the Orvis fishing school learns the values and ethics of good sportsmanship.
The Need for Teaching
Leigh Perkins, the chairman of The Orvis Company since 1965, was convinced there had to be a lot of people out there who were just waiting to fall in love with the sport of fly fishing. Whatever their reason for holding back, whether intimidation by experts who made it sound too difficult, bewilderment at the vast array of gear available, or fear of just looking foolish, Perkins suspected that they wouldn't need much prodding to be "converted". He approached long-time Orvis employee Dick Finlay and another Orvis employee and expert fisherman, Bill Cairns, about overseeing a fly fishing school. Finlay was and experienced ski instructor and Cairns a gifted angler—a good combination for a school—so in 1966 Orvis announced the opening of the country's first fly fishing school.

Perkins later recalled that they hoped to get about twenty students for that first class. But 150 people signed up, and the fly fishing school was an instant success. Orvis had identified a completely unknown market among American sportsmen, who craved the opportunity to learn from experts about this exciting sport. Orvis was hardly prepared for the result. As Perkins said, "he practically had to close down our rod-manufacturing shop," to recruit temporary instructors until full-time fly-fishing school staff could be hired.

Orvis Fly Fishing Lessons Fly Fishing Instructors
Fishi (second director of the fishing school), and Ben Upson, instructors at the fishing school in the late 1970s. Tom Rosenbauer, Ace Manley, Bruce Bowlen, Tony Skilton (second director of the fishing school), and Ben Upson, instructors at the fishing school in the late 1970s.

Comprehensive Fly Fishing Lessons
Fly Casting Lessons
A few minutes casting under the watchful eye of a skilled instructor can save the new fly fisher countless hours of confusion later, and prevent the development of many bad habits.
The original fly fishing school was an all-expenses-paid weekend of casting lessons, knot-tying lessons, lectures on choosing flies and reading the water, and, of course, some actual fishing. Though nobody goes from tyro to old pro in three days, students were given a thorough introduction to the sport, including more than a few moments spent on conservation, natural history, and stream etiquette.

More than 10,000 students graduated in the first fourteen years alone. As the school program expanded, with the Manchester school eventually being joined by the trout-fishing schools in Missouri, Michigan, Virginia, and Idaho, and a school on Cape Cod focusing on striper and bluefish fishing, the total number of graduates had passed 39,000 by 2005. In 2006, Orvis hosted students at seven fly-fishing schools and three shooting schools, and projected the addition of twelve fishing and six shooting schools by 2008.

The Legacy Continues
Fly Fishing Casting Techniques
Instructor Ben Upson coaching a young fly fisher at the Orvis Ponds.
The rise of fly fishing and shooting schools is an intriguing phenomenon in American sporting history. The school phenomenon that Orvis launched in the United States revealed yet another way in which American sport was evolving. Several generations ago, in much of America, shooting and fishing were simply part of growing up. As a steadily increasing proportion of the population became urban, some traditional experiences were lost. Rather than learn fishing and shooting from parents, other relatives, and friends, modern people came to these sports at all stages of life, and from many backgrounds. With no other source of first-hand information than what they could read (the schools were established before the proliferation of video and DVD instruction), the new sportsmen needed answers to countless questions, and they needed a thoughtful, patient hand to guide them through the intricacies. The schools were above all else hospitable, with courteous, good-humored instructors and the most pleasant imaginable setting for instruction.

From a purely commercial viewpoint, Perkins and his Orvis team knew that the more people who were attracted to the fly fishing schools, the better Orvis business would be. But in less immediately tangible terms the schools were (and still are) also important. They represented the formalization—to an extent previously rare and often nonexistent—of an American sporting style. Judging from the response of the Orvis customers, it is clear that there are a great many people very interested in just such a style.

Excerpt from the "A Sporting Education" chapter of The Orvis Story by Paul Schullery. This book is available on our website and covers 150 years of the history of The Orvis Company.