Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Orvis H3: One Fly Rod to Rule Them All?

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.

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.

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.

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.

by Kyle Stock, Bloomberg |  Read more:
Image: Randy Harris