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Orvis 101: Fly Fishing for All

I had come to Manchester, Vermont, to take the Orvis Fly Fishing 101 class, check out their flagship store and rod factory, and explore the town itself.

Orvis Fly Fishing 101 in Manchester, Vermont. Credit Orvis.

By Bart Beeson

Just a few dozen feet from me is a picturesque pond teeming with beautiful rainbow, brown and brook trout – with some real trophy fish among them – and they look hungry.  But I’m facing the opposite direction, repeatedly casting a piece of red fluff on the lawn next to the pond, focusing on having this mock fishing fly gently unfurl onto the grass. Instructors move amongst me and my fellow classmates, providing pointers: “Keep your wrist straight…don’t bring the rod too far back or forward…pause longer on your back cast.”

I had come to Manchester, Vermont, to take the Orvis Fly Fishing 101 class, check out their flagship store and rod factory, and explore the town itself. While the course is generally geared towards people who are new to angling, I found it to be both fun and enlightening even though I did have some previous fly fishing experience. Before we practiced casting, the class instructors ran through the basics of fly fishing – including the mechanics behind it, how to assemble and string a rod, a couple of basic knots, and the most common flies to use.

Dale Robinson demonstrates a knot. Credit Bart Beeson.

Our instructor, Orvis Fishing Manager Dale Robinson, said the goal of the class was “to make the introduction to fly fishing painless, fun and accessible to everyone.” He pointed out while a lot of people are hesitant to try fly fishing because they’re overwhelmed by the all the things they need to learn and to buy, in reality you can start out with an entry level rod and a few basic flies and go from there.  He said the classes they offer are “not teach you how to be a world class fisherman, but to give you the tools to start your own adventure.”

The casting pond at Orvis. Credit Bart Beeson

Orvis offers the free fly fishing classes at nearly all of its retail stores throughout the U.S., as well as in the UK, during the summer months.  And while providing the free classes is obviously in the company’s self-interest – they’re creating new customers for themselves – all the Orvis employees whom I met seemed genuinely interested in sharing fly fishing knowledge.  According to Orvis President Bill McLaughlin, it was that spirit within the family-owned company that convinced him to come out of early retirement and take the helm. “The passion to teach and share info has been part of the company since the beginning,” he said.

Orvis has done a good job of making a visit to their flagship store in Manchester more than just a shopping experience.  Just across the parking lot from the store is their rod factory, which offers daily tours at 10 a.m.  Even for those who aren’t into fishing, the tour provides an interesting look into the intensive labor that goes into making each rod, as well as the history of Orvis and of fly rod production.  I was surprised to learn that as recently as 1974 all rods were still made out of bamboo. And while Orvis still makes bamboo rods, the vast majority of rods these days are made through a combination of high tech materials and old-fashioned manual labor.  I found it somewhat mesmerizing to watch one of the factory workers use a simple device to spooled thread around each metal guide to attach it to the pole.

Stained glass window of a hungry trout. Credit Bart Beeson

Our tour guides walked us through each station, chatting with workers, detailing the different steps in the process, and explaining the different kinds of rods they make.  Manufacturing Supervisor Mike Elwell pointed out that certain rods will work better for certain people depending on their casting style, reminding me of the Harry Potter scenes where the wand chooses the wizard.

For those who have no interest in fishing, Manchester is a great destination in its own right.  In addition to the Orvis flagship store and their neighboring outlet store, there are over 40 designer outlet stores in town, including Brooks Brothers, Armani, a recently opened Le Creuset, and my personal favorite, the Vermont Bread & Cheese Company.  There’s also plenty of outdoor activities available — during some down time between fishing class and the factory tour, I was able to explore a great network of trails within the Equinox Preservation Trust, which are  ideal for hiking, biking and cross country skiing in the winter.  While I was short on time, I resolved to come back this summer tackle Manchester’s Mount Equinox, either by making the steep 3-mile hike to the summit from the preserve, or taking the more leisurely Skyline Drive toll road.

Back at Orvis, I was given a brief tour of the company’s fly fishing school building, the main room of which has a lodge-like feel where you can easily imagine people sitting around and talking about the day’s fishing adventures or the merits of one fly over another. The company offers a variety of classes at stores throughout the country, as well as organized trips to locations all over the world, including Mongolia, Patagonia, and most recently, Cuba.

It was hard not to get bit by the angling bug after spending two days talking about fishing and looking at the beautiful images of people fly fishing throughout the store and in the Orvis catalog. Luckily for me the season is just getting started, and as a Vermont resident there are some great fishing spots throughout the state.  For now, until find I find the time to get out on the water, I’m just going to concentrate on improving my cast, getting that little red piece of fluff to unfurl just right and land delicately on the water.  How could a hungry fish resist?

For more information, visit Orvis 



Bart Beeson is a Burlington, Vermont-based freelance travel writer and photographer. He is a regular contributor to Travel Weekly, and has published in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy and other media outlets. When he’s not travelling, Bart can be found hiking with his dog Kesey or spending time at his family’s New Hampshire lake house.

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