Photographer: Randy Harris for Bloomberg Businessweek

Will the Orvis H3 Be the One Fly Rod to Rule Them All?

With the all-new rod, Orvis hopes to change the game for anglers at all skill levels.

The lovely thing about fly-fishing is that the fishing itself is enough; the catching is a bonus. Casting a fly-line, like driving a golf ball, is such a tricky thing to do—such a complex physical equation—that there’s plenty of pleasure in the motions alone, getting the fly to where a fish might be. 

On a cloudy May afternoon on Vermont’s Battenkill River, I wasn’t catching a thing, and neither were the Orvis employees hosting me on their home waters, but the casting was spectacular. In the chilly spring weather, the fish were sluggish and tucked up against the shoreline where they could ambush an unsuspecting minnow with little effort. Or  that was the theory. Cast after cast, our big fur-wrapped hooks slapped into the water inches away from the bank. From across the river, under overhanging trees, over logjams, the rod I was using whipped through the air and plopped the fly into its intended pocket time and again. 

From left: Sam Orvis, Shawn Combs, and Don Swanson.
Photographer: Randy Harris for Bloomberg Businessweek

The four guys bobbing along next to me and in the adjacent boat were doing the same—casting with uncanny accuracy, smoothly stripping the line back, and smiling. They had worked on a five-year project to ensure these lines flew straight. 

This week, Orvis Company will unveil what it claims to be the finest fly-fishing rod ever made —dubbed the H3—in the biggest product launch in the company’s 161-year history. My comrades that day—Shawn Combs, Sam Orvis, Tom Rosenbauer, and Jesse Haller—all worked on the team that helped build it, so they had a reason for the smiles. The goal of the new rod is to make even an amateur angler instantly better, just by using it—the way shaped skis in the 1990s made it substantially easier for a generation of skiers to descend mountains with grace. By making it easier to pick up the sport, Orvis is hoping the rod will hook a whole new wave of people on fly-fishing, a somewhat fussy and meditative hobby with an aging, largely white male audience that hasn’t seen a major boost since Brad Pitt led the cast of A River Runs Through It in 1992. If all goes as planned, the $850 piece of hardware will shoot the company well beyond its current $350 million in annual revenue.

Making a Rod 

Most contemporary fly rods are made in essentially the same way. Sheets of carbon fiber treated with a sticky resin are sandwiched in two layers and rolled around a metal tube before the cylinder is wrapped in cellophane tape and cooked hanging vertically like a sausage. Then comes the cooling, sanding, and painting. 

What makes a rod great are the materials used and how exactly they are fitted together. Most critical is the angle at which the layers of carbon fiber cross-hatch, how finely the wand tapers to a point, and how snugly each lengthy  section, or blank, fits inside another. Getting any of those wrong makes for a rod that’s too heavy, too bendy—or “slow” in fly-fishing terms—or one  that vibrates like a spring when it is flexed and unloosed. 

Traditionally, rod makers have relied on trial and error and years of experience to get the recipe right. Orvis, for example, used to build a prototype, put it against a whiteboard, bend it, and trace the outline with a magic marker. If the team didn’t like the curve, they started over. 

Graphite rod material is measured and cut at the Orvis factory.
Photographer: Randy Harris for Bloomberg Businessweek

In 2011, however, the company hired young engineer  Shawn Combs to lead R&D on its fly rods. Combs, a native of Kentucky who was 34 at the time, is a gearhead with strong opinions about everything from fishing rods to skis. Most importantly, he’s an unabashed trout bum and a mechanical engineer who had most recently been devising ways to fuel nuclear submarines at a Navy lab in New York. 

Under Combs, Orvis steered away from trial and error and tradition and started leaning more heavily on science. Instead of putting a prototype against a white board and bending it, the R&D team added weight to each section and measured its resistance by the inch. It spent close to $500,000 on new machines to cut carbon fiber more uniformly and wrap, sand, and paint each section. It hired an outside lab to measure and chart the oscillations of the rod tip when it was plucked like a guitar string. And when the company’s executives gathered to test prototypes, they no longer hollered their feedback across the casting pond; they diligently recorded it in a purpose-built app. 

Orvis also secured a thermoplastic resin that allows its rodmakers to cook the rods at a much higher temperature than before, thanks to an anonymous executive at a defense contractor who happened to have a weakness for fly fishing. Orvis was able to buy a license to the resin because the outfitter wouldn’t be using the goo to craft helicopter blades the way the guy’s other customers would.

After line guides are coated with epoxy, rods are dried on a carousel.
Photographer: Randy Harris for Bloomberg Businessweek

The finished product has more in common with a racecar than the bamboo poles that were once seminal to the sport (though Orvis still makes those, too). The entire process, from cutting the carbon to sliding it into a rod tube, takes eight days from start to finish and comprises 50 different sets of hands. 

A Heritage Business

This is pretty high-tech for a 150-year-old company that peddles goods for one of the oldest pastimes in the world, but Orvis has long sold itself as cutting edge. When it came along in 1856, the company positioned itself as a specialist, selling rods and gear out of Manchester, Vt. It was a niche outfitter, offering equipment and a small amount of outdoor clothing to those in the know. (In the 19th century, those in the know when it came to fly fishing still tended to be only those in the upper class.)

Sam Orvis, a distant descendant of the original Orvis family, fishes the Batten Kill River with an H3.
Photographer: Randy Harris for Bloomberg Businessweek

The Orvis family sold to a group of Philadelphia investors during the Depression, who in turn sold the business in 1965 to a man named Leigh Perkins, whose family owns it today. Eventually, the mail-order catalog saved customers the trip to Vermont, but competitors moved in. Orvis’s biggest rivals in fishing, G. Loomis Inc., now a unit of Shimano Inc., and Sage Manufacturing Corp., were launched in the early 1980s. Without having weighty origin stories, both brands pitched their products as scientific breakthroughs, more techy than tweedy. 

The recreational fishing industry in general received a boost, according to Orvis retail staff, after A River Runs Through It hit theaters in 1992, making fly fishing seem glamorous, all-American and frankly, much easier than it actually is. The audience peaked 1996, when 4.5 million Americans waved fly rods over water, but many of those folks didn’t stick around long. In a 10-year period, Orvis lost one-third of its potential customers. “It’s a really leaky bucket,” said Tom Rosenbauer, the 40-year employee who heads Orvis marketing. By 2006, only 3 million people in the U.S. fished with flies.  

Facing more rivals angling for customers in a tiny pool, Orvis sought to expand its range of potential customers. In 2009, it started offering free casting clinics at many of its retail stores, in addition to the paid lessons that it has long sold. Some 12,000 first-time fly-casters came out that year, and another 15,000 signed up in each of the years since. 

 

The Orvis H3 was designed with an eye toward sporting equipment like skis and mountain bikes.
Photographer: Randy Harris for Bloomberg Businessweek

Simon Perkins, 34, is the implicit heir to the chief executive's seat and grandson of Leigh. He helped craft the strategy shift.  Before moving into a job at the corporate headquarters in 2011, he spent 11 years guiding fisherman in western Montana. He knew better than virtually anyone who was fly-fishing and what products they used. 

“Fifteen years ago, it was a sport for the rich, white male who could afford to take the once-in-a-lifetime trip to Montana or Alaska,” said Perkins. “It was clubby, and we needed to break down the barriers to entry.” 

What’s more, Perkins realized that a great fly rod could act as a halo product, helping to sell by association all the apparel and home goods that have come to make up most of the Orvis revenue stream. A space-age, nine-foot wisp of carbon is one of the few competitive advantages Orvis has over an outfit such as L.L. Bean, which makes a vast array of products but less respected rods. 

Slowly, the fishing conditions have improved. The government found 4.3 million fly anglers in its latest count, and Orvis estimates that another 8 million Americans go out and cast a couple of times a year. (Of total anglers, the U.S. government estimates roughly one-quarter are women. Orvis hopes to attract a bigger number.) Last year, the company sold 50 percent more fly rods than it did in 2011.

The Halo Effect 

Apple has its iPhone. Porsche has its 911. Orvis has its fly-rod. The H3 is the company’s raison d’etre, the one product at the epicenter of its 100 retail stores and 5,000 other things—from dog beds, to sundresses, to guided vacations. Its current top-of-the-line rod, the Helios 2, is the company’s second-bestselling product in volume of units, despite its $795 price tag (the No. 1 item is a shirt). 

A worker attaches a burl wood reel seat to an Orvis Recon rod.
Photographer: Randy Harris for Bloomberg Businessweek

Whether the H2 is "the best," however, would be hotly contested at any fly shop in the world. Many anglers swear by Sage, which is known for making “fast” rods that can cast long distances. Last summer, G. Loomis, now a unit of Shimano Inc., broke the four-figure barrier when it unveiled its “Asquith” rod with a suggested price tag of $1,000 to $1,700. Despite its efforts, Orvis says it only holds about 15 percent of the fly-rod market at the moment.

Plus, creating a space-age fly-fishing rod is a relatively anemic business proposition. Even at 4.3 million, the market is relatively puny. And for something that looks easy, the sport is surprisingly complex, which can be a frustrating barrier to entry for new fisherman.

The complexity comes in several stages: If you’re really die-hard, you can tie your own flies, painstakingly binding tufts of feathers and fur onto a hook to approximate the look of an insect, egg, or in some cases, a small fish. When it comes to the deed itself,  it is the physics that makes it both difficult and beautiful. Because the lure is so delicate, it is typically weightless, and the angler is required to cast the line itself—the opposite dynamic of spin-fishing. 

But even the most ardent fishermen, who will spend winter tying boxes full of new flies, tend to own only a small number of rods. Unlike iPhones, they don’t become obsolete in a few years. 

Sam Orvis with his collection of flies.
Photographer: Randy Harris for Bloomberg Businessweek

Of course, fly-fishing has never been a mass market. Historically, it’s a precious, exclusive thing to do. Most of the seminal literature and techniques came from England in the 16th and 17th centuries when the only people who fished rivers were those wealthy enough to own them. Public access was not an order of the day. 

A Magic Wand 

The H3 is designed to accelerate the momentum that has been slowly building since Orvis started its free casting lessons. For one thing, it doesn’t look much like a traditional fly rod. The apparatus that clamps on the reel is made from a flat metal, lacking the traditional, fancy burled wood. Above the cork grip the fancy filigree that would typically list the rod's details, is replaced by a long, white wrap that wouldn’t look out of place on the handle of a tennis racket or ski pole. “Everybody who sees this rod from across a river is going to immediately be able to tell,” said Combs. “That’s the new Orvis.” 

Most importantly, each H3 is 20 percent stronger than the Helios 2, a rod widely regarded as one of the best ever when Orvis began selling it in 2012. As we walked through the factory, Combs clamped an H3 prototype onto the wall and triggered a “break test.” We watched from a plexiglass barrier as a machine pulled the rod into a tortured “U”—the tip was almost touching the butt before the spine finally splintered graphite around the room. 

Tom Rosenbauer’s Hydros reel on his Orvis rod.
Photographer: Randy Harris for Bloomberg Businessweek

The hope is that if the rod truly is as good as they say, it will, in itself, be a growth catalyst, not unlike when larger-size tennis rackets were introduced in the 1970s. In that case, the change was binary; the sport was immediately easier for beginners and players at most levels, and those picking up the sport for the first time became far more likely to stick around. 

The new H3 is intended as sort of a magic wand, designed to make an unpracticed caster sling line like a rusty veteran and to put an otherwise errant fly right where it needs to be. 

“At the end of the day, we want to own the best rod the world has ever seen,” Perkins said. “That’s what gets us fired up.” 

Tracking True 

Ultimately, pronouncing a fly rod as “the greatest” is a hollow exercise. Different rods suit different casting styles, and over time anglers slowly evolve their technique to suit the rod they are using. 

I learned to fly-fish in the late 1980s by catching—or at least trying to catch—slender Wyoming trout with a hefty, fiberglass rod built for wrangling 30-pound salmon. Eventually, when I failed to quit the sport, my father sprung for a new rod more suited to 12-inch fish. It was an entry-level model and overly pliant—lacking the stiff punch most contemporary rods use to sling line through the air. But it was graphite and sensitive, and I fished with it almost exclusively for the next 20 years. 

If the H3 isn’t unilaterally the greatest rod ever made, it will certainly be the greatest for quite a few anglers. Though Sage loyalists may be unconvinced, it’s pencil-light, swings smoothly, and can shoot long casts with ease. 

That foggy day on the Battenkill River, insects were scarce. Halfway through the float, Shawn Combs finally saw a trout methodically sipping bugs off the surface. “Try this one,” Tom Rosenbauer said, handing me a 4-weight version of the new H3. Sam Orvis, a distant descendant to the original Orvis family, watched. As I whipped out line in ever increasing lengths, my arm motion slowed, giving the loop time to unfurl in back of the boat and correspondingly in front. 

A brown trout caught with an H3.
Photographer: Randy Harris for Bloomberg Businessweek

At 45-feet something odd started happening. The rod was still sling-shotting the line through the air more powerfully than its weight would suggest. Yet, when it loosed the loop forward, like a bow releasing an arrow, the tip of the rod didn’t shiver with dissipating energy. It was alive in one instant and dead the next. 

This, more than anything else, is what makes the H3 great. A rod that doesn’t track completely straight as it flexes can skew the path of the fly slightly. And a rod that oscillates after it springs straight tends to wiggle the line from side to side a tiny bit. Both these things are all but imperceptible to even experienced casters, but over 50 feet of line, they can mean the difference between putting a fly in front or four inches away from the only feeding fish five anglers have seen all day. 

The line rolled straight in the air, the furry hook fluttered down and floated naturally, the trout rose and sipped, the rod tip, sober as a dancer, rose up.

(Corrects the year Orvis was founded in the 12th paragraph.)