Orvis: Hooked on Florida
The first fly fisherman may have been an ancient Roman teacher/writer named Claudius Aelianus, who lived in the Second Century. He used a six-foot-long rod with a snare or lure. And he left us a written record.
“The fish, attracted and maddened by the color, comes straight at it, thinking from the pretty sight to gain a dainty mouthful when, however, it opens its laws, it is caught by the book and enjoys a bitter respite, a captive,” Aelianus wrote.
Through the ages, the art of fly-fishing had been handed down to younger generations by fathers and grandfathers. And these younger generations took it up with the same enthusiasm their elders had.
By the second half of the Twentieth Century, though, fly-fishing pretty much on the “endangered sport” list. But the Chairman of the highly-respected Orvis Company wasn’t convinced the sport was on its death-bed…and he put his money where his beliefs were. Chairman Leigh Perkins believed that, if modern-day fishermen could learn about the sport, they’d fall for it just as previous generations had.
Perkins decided to start America’s first fly-fishing school. He scheduled the first program for a weekend in 1966, in Manchester, VT. He had relatively modest aspirations for the first session of the Orvis school, hoping that maybe 20 people would show up. So he was understandably bowled over when 150 showed up, to learn how to choose flies and “read the water” to find out how to reel in fish with artificial lures.
It wasn’t a one-time fling, either. Orvis opened schools in other locations, too, and each proved popular. Today, the company has fourteen fishing schools in the United States, three of them in Florida. (In fact, the newest Orvis school in Florida just opened this year, at the Old Mays Plantation in Monticello, in the Tallahassee area.)
“We try to welcome people to a sport that’s really exciting after just a few lessons,” says Scott McEnaney, who heads up Orvis Schools. “But (the schools) also do help to bring additional attention to our business.”
Leigh Perkins’ hunch back in the sixties has paid off handsomely for the company…today the Orvis fishing schools had graduated 40,000 students.
Founder Charles Orvis, born in 1831, was an avid fisherman and a genuine entrepreneur – he founded the company in Manchester, VT, in 1853, when he was only 22. His company was America’s first mail-order business…predating the Sears catalogue by more than half a century.
Today, Orvis sells fly-fishing tackle, hunting gear, and shotguns, as well as clothing, artwork and gift items, by mail and through 62 retail stores in the U.S. and another 16 in the United Kingdom. Orvis also has a network of over 500 dealers worldwide. Although the company is now headquartered in Sunderland, Vermont, its flagship store is still in Manchester. Its offerings have expanded exponentially, though, and now include chartered vacations and lodging, along with a clothing line.
Through the years, Orvis was been known for its fly rods, and the evolving technology that keeps improving them. Even back when the company first used bamboo for its rods, they were considered technologically-advanced, because neither weather nor decay could put them out of order. Because of this focus on quality, Orvis is now the largest manufacturer of fly rods in America. And, in his book “In Search of Excellence,” Tom Peters named the Orvis fly rod one of the five best products made in the U.S. in the 1980s
Orvis sponsors conservation programs ranging from restoration of trout populations in areas such as California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains to the protection of migratory songbirds in Jamaica. One of its recent projects was an $800,000 matching grant on land adjacent to Yellowstone Park, to help save the bison.
Scott McEnaney comes to the leadership of the Orvis schools naturally. He grew up in rural Vermont, where his father started him fishing with worms as bait. After graduation from Southern Vermont College with a B.S. in Business Management/Hospitality and Resort Management, he worked his way up at Orvis.
McEnaney says there’s no “typical” student at the fishing shcools. A surprising number – about 40% – are women.
Various trade journals have noted that the number of women who are learning fly-fishing is growing dramatically, and this belies the myth that it takes great strength.
Lee Wolfe, a famous fly-fisherman who’s now deceased, once said, “Nothing could be further from the truth. The most challenging aspect of teaching is to get them (fishermen) to stop overpowering the cast. Fly-fishing requires timing, not strength. Women are at least 75% easier to teach then men, precisely because they seldom overpower the cast.”
The Orvis Schools can teach the basics of fly-fishing in about a half-day, but it’s not unusual for first-timers to take repeat courses.
“It’s just like professional baseball players,” says McEnaney. “They take a lot of ground balls. Or golfers. They go to the driving range to practice. It’s like any sport in that there’s a natural progression with practice.”
McEnaney’s not sure how many other schools may be started in the future. But if demand is any indication, there will be more. There are strong signs that fly fishing has caught on in the U.S. Norman Mclean’s poetic ode to the sport in “A River Runs Through It” was made into a popular movie several years ago. President Barak Obama once joined the ranks by fishing for trout in Montana.
According to a 2005 survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, more than 3,000,000 Americans practiced fly fishing.
And if Orvis has anything to say about it, that number will continue to grow – rapidly!
It’s no accident that Orvis recently opened up a new fishing school in Florida – its third in the Sunshine State.
“Florida is a fishing destination,” Scott McEnaney says. “And saltwater fly-fishing is a growing segment of the business. The natural fit here is that people already are traveling to Florida to fish…and many other people are looking to learn to fish when they are there.”
The newest Orvis school is at Mays Pond Plantation in Monticello, is sponsored by Cape Harbor Outfitters of Tallahassee. The school focuses on bass, panfish and North Florida coastal species such as redfish. The Big Bend area of the Gulf Coast is renowned for a variety of saltwater species. The cost of the one-day school is $235.
The company’s other two schools in Florida both stage two-day programs, for $470. That price covers fly casting, tackle, knots and fly selection, fish-fighting techniques, and how to release fish.
There’s a school at The Westin Key West Resort & Marina, on the waterfront of Key West’s “Old Town.” Instruction is at the Saltwater Inn inside the Westin, and good local fishing includes bonefish and tarpon. Opportunities to cast are plentiful; however, due to space limitations, students do not throw out lines to actually fish.
The other school is at The Ocean Reef Club School in Key Largo. The Ocean Reef Club is on 4,000 tropical acres, participants learn to fish what Orvis calls “the most coveted saltwater flats in the world,” full of tarpon and bonefish.
“Some instructors are local,” McEnaney says, “and others are part of our core team that work the Vermont Schools in Manchester during the summer. and the Florida Schools during the winter.”
For more information, contact the company at firstname.lastname@example.org, or www.orvis.com/schools.