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Orvis Bamboo Fly Rod Builders Throughout the Years
Born in Manchester, VT in 1831, Charles F. Orvis was the fourth of seven children of Electa and Levi Orvis. The Battenkill Valley was still haunted by tale-telling soldiers of the Revolutionary War then, and surrounded by deep and wild woods. Charles, like many rural boys, developed a sense of self-reliance and a passion for field sports, particularly trout fishing:
“I remember well my first trout; I remember as well, the first fine rod and tackle I ever saw, and the genial old man who handled them. I had thought I knew how to fish with a fly; but when I saw my old friend step into the stream and make a cast, I just wound that line of mine right around the “pole” I has supposed was just right, and I followed an artist. (I never used that “pole” again). I devote my time that afternoon to what to me was a revelation, and the quiet, cordial way in which the old gentleman accepted my admiration, and the pleasure he evidently took in lending me a rod until I could get one, is one of the pleasant things I shall always retain in memory.”
Unlike many other children, however, Charles adopted a keen inventiveness and an astute business acumen. By the age of twenty he was skilled with hand and machine tools and had mastered the basics of mechanical engineering, and designing and building rods for himself and friends.
In the 1850s, both Charles and his brother, Franklin, became immersed in the tourist trade. Charles and his brother both saw Manchester as a tourist destination, though many other locals scoffed at such a vision.
Here, Orvis was keeping his options open; he recognized the limitations of hard rubber and specified rubber plates were to be strengthened with “hollow embracing metal bands” around their outside edge. No rubber model is known to exist today, or to have ever existed. So we are left to wonder if the rubber version ever made it from original concept. Perhaps Orvis went straight to metal for his prototype, or perhaps, one day, a hard rubber model will surface from history.
Another rarity (and aluminum models were rare enough) has not yet passed through the Museum of American Fly Fishing’s workroom, and that is the “Heavy Gold Plate” model advertised for $10.00 as “For Prizes” in Forest and Stream in 1876. Such reels were advertised in the Orvis catalog, as well, so it seems likely a few exist. The standard model is stunning; the gold-plated model must be magnificent.
Though the reel was a great success, other attempts at innovation were not. One such effort was when Charles attempted to produce his own silkworm gut for fly leaders. He acquired cocoons of American moths, primarily from Spanish and Chinese suppliers, and raised them. But he found the resultant material completely unsatisfactory. He wrote up his failure in Forest and Stream and was applauded by his contemporaries for his efforts.
As hard as he searched for better products, and as fine as some were, it was his understanding of the angling market that made him a success. Unlike his contemporaries he did not advertise often in the popular magazines of the day. He used his catalogs instead, a far different tactic than that his competitors undertook, and one that proved commercially successful .
But Charles Orvis was not interested in financial success alone. Orvis was an enthusiastic supporter of enlightened fish and game management. Among his friends were noted fish culturists like Robert Barnwell Roosevelt, Seth Green, Fred Mather, and A. Nelson Cheney. Such friendships enabled Orvis to keep a close eye on the conservation movement of the day and participate in the dialogue. With his nearly proprietary attitude regarding the Battenkill, Orvis began a tradition. As early as 1882 he observed that the river was troubled by siltation and became an active campaigner on behalf of the river and its needs.
In 1883, Orvis co-edited an important new book, Fishing with the Fly; Sketches by Lovers of the Art, With Illustrations of Standard Flies “collected by Charles F Orvis and A. Nelson Cheney.” The 333 page book was cloth bound, the cover lettered in gold, and contained colored plates of 149 standard trout, salmon and bass flies, to accompany twenty-four articles by well known fly fishers.
It was an irresistible catalog, a book to treasure, in which the authors guided the reader and introduced him to trout waters he would never see; let him shake hands with outdoor writers he would never meet, and gave him the ability to marvel over the illustrations of the flies, seductively arranged for his appreciation and appraisal.
Fishing with the Fly was one of the finest of America’s angling books, as it reflected an age when the American fly fisher was developing his own graces. He was a sportsman tourist anxious for the full creel yet at the same time the deep woods and waters became pastorals he could always remember. Certainly both Orvis and Cheney were sensitive to the sportsman’s love of nature and perceptive in their understanding of his environment. Adjacent to each page of color plates were quotations from angling literature, many taken from authors who had contributed to Fishing with the Fly. The book was so well received that it was continued in print for four editions. At the same time, the use of color was promoting sales for a wide variety of artificial flies. For $2.50, as the annual catalog stated, the purchaser enjoyed “color illustrations, the most correct and the finest ever produced.”
Charles F. Orvis left his mark as a businessman who clearly understood the passions of his customers, because they were his passions, too. His patented reel is seen as the model for modern fly reels. His vision of Manchester, VT as an international tourist destination, and its river, the Batenkill, as one of the world’s finest trout fisheries worthy of conservation efforts has proved true. His business philosophy of building quality fly rods at a reasonable price has outlasted each and every one of his, and his legacy lives today in the pride with which Orvis rod builders continue to craft each premium rod, which are still sold today through the world’s longest continuous-running catalog.
In 1853, Franklin built the Equinox House and the success that followed allowed Charles to turn his love of rod building into a business. In 1856, Charles formed the C.F. Orvis Company, setting up in a small stone building next door to his brother’s Equinox House. In 1861he built the Orvis Hotel on the same street.
By the 1870s, following the Civil War, Charles took advantage of the country’s expanding railroad services that afforded thousands of sportsmen access to remote lakes and streams. However, despite a booming sports trade, Orvis was not without grave competitors vying for the angler’s dollar. It was Charles’ inventive mind and knowledge as an angler himself that would help him to further succeed and expand.
Through the 1870s the bamboo fly rod remained an inferior product. Much of the cane, even “Calcutta Cane” from India, which was considered the best was unreliable and inferior for casting and responsiveness. The cabinet-makers glue of the time was not adequate for the rods’ hard, planed surfaces, and an entirely new technology, including new machine tools, was needed to advance the rods’ abilities in the field.
During the 1880s many of the problems pertaining to bamboo rods were solved. Primitive ferrules, that ruined rod action and allowed rot, were replaced by efficient ones. Milling techniques were improved to split bamboo into narrow strips. With its light weight and elasticity, bamboo could be made into eight to ten foot rods, much more manageable lengths than the fourteen foot rods of the previous generation. By the end of the 19th century, the bamboo rod was considered superior to rods crafted from other woods, though these other rods continued to be made, and made well, to allow anglers a choice between traditional and cutting edge materials. Charles Orvis, realizing the importance of providing choice in a competitive market, experimented extensively with various rod-building materials. He handled and evaluated rods of various properties, likely that of U.S. shadblow, ironwood and cedar, as well as Mahoe, Pingo and Dagame from Cuba, and beefwood of Australia.
None of his experiments in rod-building were revolutionary, but Ned Buntline, a then prominent outdoor writer, reported in a fishing journal that, in the Orvis rod, “I think I have the best bamboo rod of its weight – six ounces – in America; yes, in the world. Put that down, not as a puff, but as a truth that I’ll stand by and fish by as long as I and that rod last.”
Charles Orvis’s contribution was perhaps more philosophical than artistic. He did not produce rods in enormous numbers, nor did he create custom rods of very few numbers. His goal was to build as many quality rods (to be fished, not collected) as he could personally oversee. A passionate angler first, he achieved his goal and produced quality rods at a good price. A. Nelson Cheney, a fisheries authority, claimed: “ every rod passes through his hands so that when delivered to the purchaser the seal of the master hand is upon it. His rod makers are not only of ingenious mechanical skill, but anglers of repute.”
Where fly reels were concerned, however, Charles’s inventiveness was highly noted. In 1874 he received a patent on a new design of fly reels. Patent Number 150,883 is regarded as a milestone in American fishing tackle history. The 1874 reel was a major breakthrough on a previous design. Its spool was narrow, quite unlike most fly reels of the time. It also boasted perforated side plates that lightened the reel and permitted air circulation through the line while on the spool. As the patent claimed: “A current of air is continually forcing itself through the wound-up line, and all mildew and rot thereby avoided, as under these circumstances the line soon becomes thoroughly dried.”
Perhaps the greatest innovation, since neither the narrow nor the perforated spool themselves alone were entirely new creations, was the mounting of the narrow spool upright in what is now the traditional position of modern fly reels. The combination of shape, ventilation and position made the Orvis reel the true forefather of modern fly reels.
The reel was debuted in the Trout model for $2.50 with a black walnut case. This first model did not have a click. Orvis sent an introductory model to Charles Hallock, editor of Forest and Stream. Hallock loved and praised it:
“C.F. Orvis, the celebrated rod maker of Manchester, Vermont, has sent us a beautiful German silver, perforated trout reel, which he is now manufacturing, the most unique we have seen, and we might say, equal to any other reel in its various features. In some respects it is unlike other reels, and the improvements which the patent cover are quite marked. It is a narrow reel; its diameter is larger in proportion to its width than is usual, so that it winds more rapidly and lays the line more evenly than if the spool or cylinder were wider. Its perforations make it quite light – yet heavy enough to balance the line comfortably, and also serves to dry the line rapidly by admitting circulation of air. For our own preferences we should wish a click but others would think differently. It is a pretty toy, as well as a useful implement and can be carried in a very small space by unshipping the crank. Price is $5.00 in case, We should think a salmon reel after this patent may be even more desirable, as metal salmon reels are always ponderous.”
By the following summer of 1875, Hallock’s preference for a click was honored, though, surprisingly, a salmon model never appeared.
Model Number Two was a bass reel with a wider spool which had a line capacity of seventy to eighty yards, compared to the trout model’s forty to fifty. Both the trout and bass models had detachable handles. Both models remained standard items for about forty years. Around 1900 the reel was also offered in aluminum for $1.00 more.
In 1920 the Orvis reel was discontinued.
Some intrigue and mystery surround the patent of the Orvis reel.
The original patent called for hard rubber.
The reel is composed of four concentric perforated disks,
Placed in pairs at a suitable distance each from the other.
And, later in the patent:
I have described above the reel in which the perforated disks are
Made of hard rubber; but do not wish to be confined to this material, as the reel may be made of metal throughout…
“The construction of a properly balanced split bamboo rod for fly casting is a work of art and the art maker should be an expert fly fisher and a man of mechanical accuracy.” – Charles Orvis, 1900
Wesley D. Jordon was born in Massachusetts in 1894. As a young boy, Wes fished the streams and ponds around Lynn, initially using a safety pin and linen thread. Soon, however, he bought his first cane pole and was catching brook trout.
Wes caught his first brook trout when he was 10 years old, in a brook that was a 12 mile walk from home on the old gravel toll road traveled by horse and wagon. Wes was fishing a worm when he caught his first brookie, but it was good enough to land a 13" trout. "He was the most beautiful fish I ever caught," Wes said. "I half ran and half walked all the way back with that one fish."
After short stints at GE and as a carpenter, Wes joined the army in 1917, where he was a dispatch rider on motorcycle.
1919 saw him home again and returning to his love of fishing. That year, he won a Field and Stream prize for landing a seven pound, 25 3/4" trout on a lancewood rod. Soon after, he went to work for the Cross Rod Company
During a successful career at Cross, Wes invented a milling machine and a gluing machine for bamboo rods, some rods consisting of up to 12 strips. He received a patent for a reel seat he constructed. He also built a custom eight foot, three inch, three piece rod for George LaBranche, author of The Dry Fly and Fast Water. Personally, Wes continued to improve his fishing technique. At one point he cast 132 feet to win a tournament. He also discovered for himself the double haul cast, long before he'd heard of it.
In the 1930s, South Bend Bait Company bought out Cross Rod Company with the condition that Wes would remain at least long enough to train new rod makers. Wes relocated to Indiana, but soon found that South Bend had no interest in quality rods, but were interested in mass manufacturing. "I made a machine that would split thousands of segments [of bamboo] a day," Wes said, "I made rods for $.83 for Sears and Roebuck. After ten years at South Bend, Wes left for his hometown of Lynn, Massachusetts.
Shortly afterward, Duckie Corkran easily convinced Wes to work for Orvis in Manchester, VT, where he took over rod production. Within a year, Wes had created a screw-locking reel seat that was used in various models for many years. Most importantly, Wes rejuvenated the rod shop by rebuilding the milling machine, shopping for quality cane, and starting a plan to improve the finish and durability of fly rods.
Though other manufacturers had explored the process of impregnating bamboo rods with resin to make them more durable than the current varnished rods, Wes developed the process. At first he worked with the Bakelite Company, who impregnated strips of bamboo in their test labs. However, when Wes glued and assembled the strips into a rod, the bamboo performed poorly. It was clear this process was a failure.
Wes pushed on, as determined as ever to pursue his passion of manufacturing quality rods. Eventually, through experimentation and a few years of inspired hard work, Wes discovered a process that worked to achieve his end. Through trial and error, Wes settled on a process that slit bamboo cane in half. These halves were dried and tempered over an open gas flame, then split into several strips which Wes glued back together with a phenolic resin-based cement. The reconstructed cane was then impregnated under controlled heat with a Bakelite phenolic resin. Following this stage, the stick was then cured in a temperature-controlled oven which allowed the pores of the wood to be filled completely with resin, rendering the wood moisture proof, color fast and unaffected by extreme cold and heat. This entire process also darkened the bamboo cane to a handsome mahogany color. To further this distinctive look a series of sanding and buffing produced a beautiful luster.
The result was just what Duckie Corkran and Wes had wanted. A better fly rod was born. For his rigorous research and inventive experiments, Wes Jordan had Patent Application No. 2,532,814, Serial No. 662,086, dated April 13, 1946, named after him. The patent itself, dated December 15, 1950, was assigned to the Orvis Company. By 1954 all Orvis rods were impregnated.
For years, Orvis rods were put to the test and commonly applauded by the likes of Joe Brooks, who used them for bonefish in the South; and Lee Wulff, who landed many large Atlantic salmon with a six and a half foot Deluxe model.
Ever the purist and perfectionist, Wes knew that impregnation was not the sole characteristic of a quality fly rod and continued to work to better the Orvis rod. He conceived and built a two-ton milling machine capable of holding tolerances of a thousandth of an inch and to slice hair-thin slivers of bamboo. Twice, Wes redesigned the Orvis ferrule until it lived up to his and Orvis standards.
Wes Jordan possessed one of the most creative, visionary minds in Orvis history. When the rod named after him debuted in the 1966 Orvis catalog, Wes Jordan was one of the elder statesmen of fly fishing. By the 1970s, most of the rod makers of his time were gone. In 1975, at the age of eighty-one, Wes Jordan died. In a local paper's tribute to Wes, it was said that, when Wes Jordan was asked not long before his death to name the last of the old rod makers, he reflected for a moment, then said: "I guess I'm it."
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.
Ron “Whitey” White, a native of Arlington, Vermont, has worked in the Orvis rod shop for thirty-seven years. He learned to make bamboo rods under Wes Jordan when bamboo was still widely fished. Today, he continues to build Orvis bamboo rods with the same concern for quality craftsmanship that’s gone into every Orvis rod since 1856.
Charlie Hisey started in the Orvis Bamboo Rod Shop in January of 2006. He worked with Ron "Whitey" White until March of 2006, when Ron retired after 37 years and Charlie took over the shop. Prior to that, Charlie worked in the Rod & Tackle Department of the Orvis Flagship store. A lifelong fisherman from Maine, Charlie first learned to fly fish, in the English wet fly tradition, from his grandfather on the Peabody River in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Charlie inherited his first Orvis bamboo rods (two Deluxes, a Midge, and a Battenkill) from his grandfather. These rods inspired his own cane rod making, which he began in 1993, building most of his own tools — ovens, binders, roughing mills, planing forms, and more — for hand-planing rods. He's been building "hex" bamboo and quad rods for nearly a decade, and his rod making has come full circle, as he now builds Orvis bamboo rods himself.