Howard Steere, a modern fly rod pioneer.
Howard Steere started his 25-year career at Orvis in 1970. He was hired as superintendent of the Orvis rod shop by owner, Leigh Perkins. Perkins had at first passed on hiring Howard, the youngest and least experienced of the candidates, though Perkins saw in Steere “a talented, self-confident, can-do young man.” When Perkins’ original choice did not pan out, Steere was hired and quickly had a positive effect on the Orvis rod shop and on the fly rod industry.
When Steere, then a toolmaker in Maine, accepted the position, bamboo rod production was falling short by 40% of potential demand. The rod builders were older craftsmen who made rods at their own pace. Besides heading the rod shop, Steere made ferrules and reel seats. He was one of 18 employees at the old rod shop on Union Street in Manchester Village. Steere recalls the place, now the Fly Fishing Sales Outlet, as being “a classic, great old building, not modern, but well aged with antiquated equipment and good skilled employees.” Three of those employees were women who wound 3 thousand bamboo rods a year. Through his mechanical wizardry, Steere designed better machinery, tools and processes for building bamboo rods. He coupled such progress with his natural leadership abilities, and in short order, the rod shop was up to full capacity and consistently building premium bamboo rods.
With Orvis now fulfilling demand for their quality bamboo rods, Steere began to design lighter weight bamboo rods to meet various fishing conditions and species of fish. He was the first to develop and produce an Orvis bamboo rod that was less than a 5 wt. He designed many superior bamboo rods of 3 and 4 wt. His finest rod was perhaps the 7-foot 3wt with ten ferrules.
However successful and superior the bamboo rods were under Steere’s watch, and however smoothly he’d managed the operations to meet customer needs, it became apparent to Steere that the bamboo (Arundinaria amabilis) was in short supply and would continue to remain that way. As it stood, less than 2% of even high quality Chinese bamboo met the standards of an Orvis rod. To have the supply greatly diminished was a potential disaster. Steere conducted many tests with other species of bamboo, but none that he found came close to making as fine a fly rod as Arundinaria amabilis.
Though Steere loved bamboo rods (his personal favorite being the bamboo small stream special) and he cherished the tradition of bamboo rod making, he also saw that Orvis could not survive on making bamboo rods alone.
Although Steere realized the operation and the materials for Orvis’ rods would have to change, he also saw that bamboo rods ought to continue to be made by Orvis, even if it was far less profitable than the new graphite materials. There was too much tradition, too much craftsmanship and the rods too fine a piece to stop their production entirely.
In 1973, Steere, seeing the potential of graphite that was then just becoming known, lobbied Perkins for an entirely new rod shop whose purpose would be to produce graphite rods. At the time, the Union St rod shop was in the basement, and was not the most suitable environment to grow rod production or use as a rod shop to manufacture graphite rods. Steere was finally given the authority to oversee the design and construction of a new rod shop. “I didn’t waste any time,” Steere said, “I submitted drawings, drew plans, hired contractors and sub-contracted and supervised the project.” Construction started late in 1972, and in August 1973 the new rod shop was up and running.
In his basement at home, on weekends and weeknights, Steere constructed a machine for wrapping bamboo rods. He built three saws to cut graphite material, as well as a cutting table, the tack table and many other tools. The trucks and dollies were built specifically for the rod shop, on site. They were one-of-a kind and not available from suppliers. To increase safety, Steere redesigned the lathes so they stopped more quickly when shut off. He also planned and built the heat and speed controlled rubberized finger system workers use when handling blanks during the process of curing graphite and glass.
During this era, no company yet knew how to build a satisfactory graphite fly rod. A couple Orvis competitors led the way in graphite rod production, but their results were rods that suffered a high ratio of breakage.
Steere, working closely with the Celanese Corporation, perfected a graphite resin ideal for rod making. Steere had designed the tooling plant in the rod shop himself, and the inaugural Orvis graphite rods proved a great success with almost no breakage concerns.
These rods included rods that remain popular to this day: The Orvis Superfine Series of the 8’3” All Rounder 7wt, the 7’9” Far and Fine 5wt., and the 8’ 6wt. Trout rod.
Steere went on to create the High Line Speed Series. He met his greatest challenge by producing 2 wt. and 1 wt. Rods. In 1984 he crafted and made available the first 2 wt. graphite rod, called the Ultra Fine. He also produced a 7’ 1 wt.
Though industry demands and low supplies of quality bamboo prevented Steere and Orvis from continuing to produce bamboo rods as their mainstay, neither Steere nor the company relinquished the long and revered tradition of making superior bamboo rods. Both Steere and Orvis respected the craftsmanship, the craftsmen, and the finished product too much to discontinue bamboo rod production. Most companies, in pursuit of only efficiency and profit, ceased bamboo rod production altogether. Many of those companies no longer exist. Orvis has a long history of innovation, but an even longer, and more deeply-seated one of tradition. This tradition includes an affinity with the roots of fly fishing, the enjoyment of being on a stream, the feel and action of a bamboo rod in hand, and a fish being played on it. It still takes over one hundred hours to craft an Orvis bamboo rod. It is an expensive and labor intensive undertaking. It is also one of great appreciation and love for quality and tradition.
In part, it was Howard Steere’s balancing of graphite as the new rod materials and a reverence for traditional craftsmanship that helped make it possible for the Orvis bamboo rod to still be made today, in a workshop in the very same building Steere designed for the new age of graphite rods back in 1973.