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The number of American sporting goods brands that have been operating for more than 100 years—and still do today—yields a very short list. Often working in the realms of hunting and fishing, these foundational outdoor brands began building gear before the popularization (and even creation) of many of today's most popular outdoor pursuits: rock climbing, trail running, mountain biking, and so on. With its founding in 1856, Orvis stands near the top of that list today.
To better understand what gives the iconic outfitter such lasting power, I loaded up my Subaru and drove north from Philadelphia with Manchester, Vermont in my digital GPS crosshairs.
As much of the American West remained wild, Charles F. Orvis was busy supplying wealthy anglers in the Northeast with finely crafted wooden fishing rods made by his own two hands in his Manchester shop, just a stone's throw from the storied Battenkill River. In time the modest enterprise grew into the Orvis mail-order catalog business, the first of its kind that predated even those of Sears & Roebucks by over 20 years.
More than 160 years later, Orvis invited us to experience their Rod Shop Tour to get a look at the operation where all of their American-made fly rods are researched, developed, and produced by the company's team of artisans and craftspersons. We may have even had the opportunity to test drive a new super-secret rod on the Battenkill and its tributaries, but an ironclad NDA is keeping us from sharing any of those details.
Situated behind the brand’s flagship Manchester store, the current Orvis Rod Shop employs a team of 60 employees who produce nine different graphite, fiberglass, and bamboo fly rods, on location from start to finish. As we entered the production space, we took notice of a board displaying the team's roster, organized by seniority. It's easily apparent how many of those names fall within the 20-plus and 30-plus-year rankings.
Guided by plant manager Frank Hoard and Shawn Combs, director of product design and development, we began our tour in a room where two of their most well-known rods, the Recon and legendary Helios, begin their life cycles. Here, a computer-guided cutting plotter traces sections of woven graphite sheets with precision before gloved workers carefully organize each piece according to the corresponding model and taper section.
From here, pairs of rodsmiths wrap the paper-thin graphite trapezoids around steel mandrels, giving the material a shape to conform to while it bakes with a resin coating in a super-heated industrial oven. From here, each proceeding step is made with considerable care by the hands of these practiced makers; cork shaping, guide wrapping, painting, and meticulous quality assurance inspection before the rods find a home that comes with an industry-leading 25-year warranty.
Anglers with some years under their belt (or just the accident-prone) know all too well how susceptible these delicate tools are to breakage through accidents or even just manufacturing imperfections exacerbated by the occasional (and all too regular) yank against a tree-limb-snagged fly.
The process of repairing a broken stick from most stateside makers often involves sending it to their shop and waiting months for skilled hands to carefully craft a replacement section with a seamless taper. With an impressive and obsessive level of quality control and tight manufacturing tolerances, however, Orvis is able to simply pull a replacement section from their warranty stock and ship it right out to a once teary-eyed fly angler. All in, the process will only take you off the water for five days.
Following our day at the rod shop, we spent the rest of our trip testing the unreleased rod aboard drift boats on the neighboring West Branch Delaware River for wild rainbow and brown trout, along with local Vermont waters for some thick browns and more modest brookies on the Battenkill. We’ll make a pitstop in Manchester on future Vermont trips to check in with Orvis and see what else we can hook up with on the Battenkill.