Recently, I received an unexpected invitation. An old friend telephoned to say that he was taking his grandson to the Orvis Fly-Fishing School in Manchester, Vermont, and to inquire whether I would care to come along. I have fly-fished for most of my life, and few things have given me more pleasure over the years than sight fishing for trout on transparent streams in Patagonia and New Zealand, or for bonefish out on the flats in the Bahamas or the Seychelles. My enthusiasm notwithstanding, my abilities have remained modest, and I have never really mastered the double haul to my satisfaction (a technique that allows you to cast a fly around 30 percent farther than would otherwise be the case). Maybe Orvis could teach an old dog some new tricks. Besides, there would be the pleasure of reimagining myself as an 11-year-old boy, learning to fly cast for the first time.
Manchester is located in southwestern Vermont, a four-and-a-half-hour drive (211 miles) north of New York City. In winter, it provides a dormitory for the nearby Stratton Mountain Ski Resort, and in summer, it attracts golfers and hikers, as well as trout fishermen, who come to try their luck on a classic Northeastern stream, the Battenkill. Since 1968, Manchester has been home to the American Museum of Fly Fishing. But it was 1856, the year that Charles F. Orvis opened a tackle shop, which really shaped its destiny. Subsequently, Orvis began to distribute catalogs to a list of satisfied customers, thereby laying the foundations of the modern mail-order business.
Today, Manchester can feel almost like a company town. The Charles Orvis Inn is part of the Equinox resort and spa (long a Harper-recommended hotel), while a little way down Main Street are both the magnificent 12,000-square-foot Orvis flagship store — of interest to anglers and non-anglers alike — and the Orvis Fly-Fishing School.
The school was launched in 1966 by longtime Orvis CEO Leigh Perkins. Since then, 14 others have joined it, spread the length and breadth of the country from Bend, Oregon, to Key West, Florida. But when we arrived, at 9 on a cool spring morning, we felt that we had returned to the fountainhead of fly-fishing wisdom. The Manchester school occupies a white single-story building with a wraparound porch. Inside, we found a comfortable changing area festooned with waders, as well as a large, simply furnished classroom. (All equipment is provided and comes in sizes appropriate for men and women, as well as for children over age 10.)
We had opted for the standard two-day course. (At Manchester, though in few other locations, Orvis also offers one-day, one-day advanced, parent/child and women-only courses.) After an introductory talk from Truel Myers, the company’s head fly-fishing instructor, a lean and good-humored 25-year veteran, we watched an excellent video on fly-casting technique. The 16 students were then divided into two groups of eight, which alternated between indoor and outdoor activities. After 90 minutes of theory, our group moved over to an adjacent casting pond, inhabited by leviathan, slothful, pellet-fattened trout. Myers and his three fellow instructors — all of whom were extremely pleasant and articulate — quickly sized up their pupils’ abilities and began to dispense appropriate advice. Around half of the students were complete beginners, with the rest ranging from competent to extremely proficient.
A catered lunch on the porch was followed by a second video, more casting instruction and a knot-tying seminar. My friend’s grandson was beginning to look rather comatose by now, and after struggling manfully with his Triple Surgeon’s knot, he was clearly relieved when 4:30 rolled around and he was free to head back to the Equinox for a dip in the indoor pool. The second day began with coffee, blueberry muffins and a fascinating (to me) lecture on entomology (specifically those insect species of consuming interest to trout fishermen). This was followed by a humiliating period of video analysis of the students’ casting techniques, after which Myers and I spent a half-hour working on my double haul outside on the grass. Finally, the entire class of 16 moved over to the Battenkill to try our newfound expertise on its long-suffering trout. Having seen this performance a couple of hundred times before, the fish were highly unwilling to be deceived. Indeed, if trout could laugh, they undoubtedly would on this particular stretch of the Battenkill. Overall, Orvis runs a superb operation. The Manchester school is impeccably organized and is staffed by exceptionally charming and knowledgeable people. It certainly delivers a memorable experience to share with your children or grandchildren (ideally when they are between ages 11 and 15). Despite a slightly glazed appearance during some of the indoor tutorials, my friend’s grandson seemed energized and motivated by the experience. And he clearly relished the opportunity to hang out with a bunch of 20-something professional fishing guides. As he put it: “Seriously, what could be cooler than that?!” — A.H.