Remembering the Man Who Invented the Fly-Fishing School

Bill Cairns was a pioneer in fly-fishing instruction and a Master Caster.

If you’ve been an Orvis customer for a while, you’re surely familiar with the photo above, of an angler laying out a gorgeous loop over the Battenkill. It has become an iconic image—used in catalogs, retail stores, and on the Web—because it captures the grace, power, and beauty of fly fishing so brilliantly.

The artist holding the rod in the photo is longtime Orvis casting instructor Bill Cairns, who passed away last month at the age of 81 at his home in nearby Arlington, Vermont. In casting circles, Bill was a legend, and along with Dick Finlay, he launched the world’s first fly-fishing school at Orvis Manchester in 1966. No one knew if the venture would work, so expectations were modest. If they could get 20 students, they’d be all right. Instead, 150 people signed up for the weekend-long course, making it an overnight success. (Read more about the history of Orvis schools here.) He continued to work at Orvis for many years, running the school and managing the Travel department.

The original 1966 ad in the Orvis News for the Fly Fishing School.

But he was more than a caster: Bill was a brilliant angler, built fly rods, owned his own shop, wrote articles in all the major sporting publications, and authored two books—Fly Casting with Bill Cairns and Backpacking for Trout. He was truly a fly-fishing renaissance man.

I met Bill a few times over the years and always found him to be great company. But I knew that those who worked closely with him would have a better perspective on his legacy. Truel Myers, who currently directs the Orvis Manchester Fly Fishing School, says that Bill was an inspiration to him and to all young instructors at the beginning of their careers. He was also a master storyteller, whose favorite subject was the history of fly fishing in the northeast.

Bill offers a student some advice, while Truel Myers films the interaction.

And Pete Kutzer, known to all Fly Fishing blog readers as the host of a series of brilliant casting videos, sent me this tribute:

I was fortunate enough to work with Bill during my first few years as an instructor, and he was a huge influence on my casting. I would constantly try to cast as far as I could. He would just look on and not say a word, then Bill would make a cast twice as far, with a fraction of the effort. I would try to get tips or tricks from him all the time. He would show me a cast, and I would spend hours, days, even weeks trying to figure out how he could make it look so easy. When I would finally give up and ask Bill, “What am I doing wrong”? He would just say, “Don’t use so much wrist.”
I will never forget the first school I worked with him. During the river trip portion of the class, I was running up and down the river trying to talk to every student. I had no idea who Bill was at the time. Exhausted, I asked him why he wasn’t running around like I was. He just smiled and said “Seniority.” Later on, I realized he was giving me a lesson in quality over quantity, and I will never forget it.

One great thing about Bill was that he was always honest and straightforward, albeit sometimes brutally so. I once asked him what he thought of a lesson I’d just given, and he replied simply, “It sucked.” No sugar-coating. Just the truth. And, of course, looking back on it, he was right.

I could listen to his stories of fishing around the world, getting a fly rod from Ted Williams, or stalking what he called ‘big-ass brown trout’ and never get tired. Bill was one of the best instructors, casters, and mentors I’ve ever had the privilege of working with. The Fly fishing world has lost one of the greatest contributors to the sport. Thanks for everything Bill.

Bill was most at home on the water, chasing “big-ass brown trout.”

15 thoughts on “Remembering the Man Who Invented the Fly-Fishing School”

  1. Bill Cairns was the best casting instructor I’ve ever known (and Pete Kutzer is a fine instructor), but more to the point – he was a man of character. He’ll be missed. Incidentally, he was also left-handed (the photo of the cast was flipped for ad copy).

  2. I drove up from Jersey back in 62 to get an Orvis rod and a Hardy reel, line and other stuff. I picked up an 8′ 3 piece Battenkill Rod and with Bill went out to the casting pond. He was an amazing caster and flung a line that was a piece of artwork. Last saw him at the Somerset Fly Show about 3 years ago. Sorry he is gone. I still remember the Rod was $125 and the Hardy LRH was $35.

  3. Bill would stop in the store once or twice a week while “running errands” to hang out and talk fishing, or baseball, or just about anything. I swear his wife Norma probably thought he was running all over Vermont finding the perfect groceries! I learned so much from him over the 7 years I knew him and will never forget our friendship. When I’d tell him about a trip I was going on he’d always have some dead-on advice… even if he’d never been there. Our world has lost one of it’s great ambassadors. Thanks for everything Bill.. you will be missed!.

  4. Thank you for this heartfelt article about Bill and the great photos. Bill is my Father-in-law and much loved and missed by his family. I am happy to know that his legacy lives on in the students that he taught.

    1. What an experience to spend 10 years with Bill at the Orvis School. Teaching a student was always great, but watching Bill handle a rod and listen to his stories was the best.. Our several trips were always enjoyable and a learning experience.
      Bill was a one of a kind individual with talent , whit and just fun to be around. He is missed. Glad I had the opportunity to drive upto Manchester to take part in his memorial..
      We never got together in Rhode Island but Bill is always there when I have a Blue or Stripper on the line

      E.W. Rucci January 10th 2014

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  9. I met Bill in the late 80’s at the Al Caucci school on the Delaware. It was the best fishing investment I ever made. Yes, Bill was an expert with a fly rod and consummate teacher, but I think I learned more from him in the quiet times between class sessions. Standing next to him in the Delaware and watching him target a fish to cast to was a thing of beauty. My most prized possession is a rod that Bill made for me after that school. I remember him fondly every time I’m on the water with it. Rest in peace, Bill.

  10. I was most fortunate to meet and experience the instructional qualities offered by Bill Cairns a few times. In Connecticut and in salt water near Groton… way of Orvis…..with memories heightened now that he is regrettably gone…. A most knowledgeable and humble fellow. Taught me the ability to cast with each hand and be confident with either……. Soft spoken yet direct …..a talented teacher .

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