Photo Essay: The Soul of a Fly Rod

Written by: Toby Swank, Fins & Feathers Fly Shop

Vice President of Manufacturing Jim Logan in front of the Manchester, Vermont rod shop.
All photos by Toby Swank

I like fly rods and fly reels…always have ever since the first time I wiggled my 8-foot Martin combo. Growing up as a bass fisherman, multi-piece fly rods were weird to me, as they were longer, heavier, and “noodly.” My first rod weighed about a pound and made that old flagpole on my first bike seem like a piece of re-bar. Even though, there was something to the feel of that fly rod in my hand that seemed to slow the world and gave the act of fishing more meaning that I had not known before.

Over the years, I have come to appreciate fly rods more for their “personalities” than the specifications listed and touted by the manufacturer. The truth today is that it’s not too hard to find a great fly rod across a wide range of price points. A rod with “soul,” however, is something that is harder to appreciate on a fly shop rack, casting in a parking lot, or even fishing a favorite stream. Honestly, not everyone really gives a crap about whether a fly rod has “soul” or not anyway…but it is something that’s important to me.

Fly-rod designer Shawn Combs (left) and Graphite Supervisor Jim West.

I’ve been fishing and selling Orvis rods for over a decade now. The mega-corporate image of Orvis can be hard to overcome at times. I’m always amazed at how many educated fly-fishing enthusiasts think that Orvis doesn’t even actually make fly rods. I’ve enjoyed watching—even participating a little—as Orvis has transformed their fly rods from overpriced mid-range performers to what have become the best of the best in value and performance at the high end of American made graphite performance rods with the Helios 2.

There is no debating the performance, workmanship, and versatility of the Helios 2 fly rods. Well, there is always room for debate, I suppose, but I am yet to run into anyone that has not been impressed with how these rods feel, look, and cast. That’s not to say that all these folks have ranked the Helios 2 as the “best of the best.” More often than not, the idea of Orvis making the best rods on the market can be hard for many longtime anglers to overcome. This comes back to that whole “soul” thing I referred to, not the performance and specifications.

I had the chance to visit the Orvis “mother ship” last August, and while I walked away form that visit with some new perceptions (not all positive, by the way), my appreciation for the Soul of Orvis fly rods was cemented. While the corporate headquarters felt like Eddie Bauer meets Office Space, the rod shop was an entirely different beast altogether.

Located behind the Manchester retail store, the rod shop looks like a warehouse occupying space at the back of a well-manicured parking lot. As you step through the front doors and into the rod shop, the similarities to the rest of the “Orvis Persona” evaporate with every step.

You won’t find any middle-aged men and women wearing Barbour coats talking dog beds, driven bird hunts, or leather-bound coolers in the rod shop. Here, I found a bunch of hard working American people, building fly rods from start to finish with a personal connection to each step along the way. Although I don’t recall all their names or what everyone does specifically, everyone’s attention to detail and commitment to doing their job well was evident throughout. More impressive to me was their attitude and ability to focus on what really looked to be pretty monotonous work.

Every step along the way, from “marrying” graphite flags together, to rolling the flags on mandrels, applying coatings, milling cork, cutting bamboo strips, wrapping guides, lining everything up just right, and doing it all plus more with an eye to detail and quality takes a commitment to the task at hand more so than anything else. I was, and am more so now, simply blown away by the human effort involved in building an Orvis fly rod from scratch.

The rod designers and engineers are talented and constantly pushing the limits of both manufacturing techniques and materials. If you follow fly-rod technology at all, it’s hard not to appreciate the body of work that Jim Logan and Jerry West have been a part of in the last 30-40 years. The “young guns” have come in and pushed this knowledge and experience even further with a stricter adherence to specifications, both in terms of the manufacturing process and materials being used.

At the end of the day though, the people making the rods are as ordinary as you or me, and it is their burden to bring it altogether with care and attention to detail. So, when you see an advertisement or a review of a fly rod, try to remember that there are actual, hard-working American moms and dads putting the “Bling in the Thing” in that slightly subdued big brown building behind the glitz of the Orvis retail store.

I took these photos of the process and the people during my tour. I think of these moments more and more every time I pick up an Orvis fly rod. I appreciate the time and hands that are required to transform a sheet of graphite into what just might be the greatest fly rod of all time. I definitely have a much better appreciation for the dollar value of these fly rods!

So, the next time you hear yourself whine about how much a high-end fly rod costs today…stop and think about all these people that took the time to make this rod just right. That’s not a comment exclusively meant for Orvis rods either. Whether you’re a Sage, Winston, Scott, or Loomis fan (plus many more), the value of American labor is second to none. All those hands along the way, American hands, put the soul in that rod. So find it.

Toby Swank owns and operates Fins & Feathers Fly Shop in Bozeman, Montana.

13 thoughts on “Photo Essay: The Soul of a Fly Rod”

  1. Nice! Makes me appreciate my Helios even more. Good to know the Orvis Rod Shop is there and that all the craftspeople/artisans are appreciated.

  2. Sorry to report that I lost my Helios when I took an unexpected swim just before Xmas in a local river. It was a 5wt and it had soul. It helped me catch a lot of fish! Haven’t decided what to replace it with yet, but will check out a Helios2 and a Superfine.

  3. Thanks for the great look into the people behind the technology. I’ve had the occasional chance to rub shoulders with some of the people pictured here. To hear them talk about rods, the challenges of making them better and better, and their hopes that anglers will appreciate their work is truly inspiring. Thanks for giving us a look at the druggery involved, too. It’s easy to glorify rod making as pure inspiration, creativity and innovation. All of that is important, but if these folks don’t put the attention into to creation of each individual rod, our days on the water would be significantly less.

  4. This is a welcome conversation.

    I appreciate and applaud Orvis for publishing a post that acknowledges its credibility legacy while simultaneously poking a little fun at itself. During my guiding years in Montana many considered Orvis a company not to be taken seriously; Orvis simply had a history of producing uninspiring products, in particular waders and rods that were of questionable performance, quality and value.

    For some this is the “elephant in the room” but it’s 2014 and this is not your Grandfather’s Orvis.

    The H2’s are phenomenal by any measure and gorgeous to boot. The Superfine series makes my heart flutter and for $500 they’re a steal. The Silver Sonic waders continue to impress and strike a remarkable price to performance balance. But one thing that has never faltered is Orvis’ service–you won’t find better.

    And for transparency I’m a proud employee of Orvis (but these comments are of my own initiative and volition).

  5. Every time I think I’ve bought my last fly rod, something new comes along that I have to try. I’m glad to see glass fly rods making a comeback. They seem to have their own inherit action that I loved with my old glass rods. Kudos to all the manufactures.

  6. Hi,Im fly fishing over 30 years,and just want to let you know how much I enjoyed your article on the background to the making of Orvis rods.It really lets me appreciate why I love American made gear.Whenever possible I try to support US companies.The best in the world! I have Orvis,Sage and Allen rods and reels,and also rods made in S.Dakota.I have fished in Montana,S.Dakota,Colorado,Minnesota ,Wyoming and N.Mexico.When im not fishing,I take out one of my reels , my gold Orvis Access reel and just look at it and think of days fishing! Tight Lines! JAMES TOYE, DERRY CITY,N.IRELAND

  7. A very good write up.
    I have always enjoyed Orvis products. I think their fly rods are second to none and their warranty is outstanding. I have used their products for many years and still have my first fly rod. A mid flex silver label. An old friend that can still get the job done. If/when I upgrade, it will be an Orvis. Service is always friendly and easy. Qualities I looked for then and enjoy now.

  8. I have a Orvis fly rod that is over 30 years old 9 ft weight 4 1/4 9 line and graphite trying to fine out what it many be worth. thank you

  9. I, too, have had the opportunity to visit Orvis in Manchester. If you ever get the chance to do it, go! There is so much there that you would be foolish to pass it up.

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