Who is your rod shop?
Who makes your rods work for you?

article and images by Bill Byrd

Although I fish rods as heavy as my 9 foot 10-weight, I mostly fish 2 weight or lighter fly tackle. I began fishing ultralights more than 29 years ago, and I have had an INCREDIBLE time with them. With over 5000 hours fishing Triple ought- to 3-weight rods for most species, I have caught and released unharmed MORE fish and LARGER fish (like this Orvis Superfine 1 weight bass below right) with light/ultralight fly tackle! My Orvis Superfine 1 weight had a cork and ring reel seat.

In the beginning (mid 1980s) I fished the lightest ultralight fly rods then available. The primary rod was my Orvis Superfine 1 weight. I fished it in many circumstances and caught thousands of fish, plus fish as large as the 6 pound largemouth bass (right), a 19 pound grass carp, and bass as large as 8.9 pounds on 4 pound tippet. I had an amazing run with my rod, and find that fly fishers still have and fish Orvis Superfine 1 weights today.

Along the way I had negative experiences with cork and ring reel seats on several different manufacturers rods. I just put up with the hassles until January 2011. After all Orvis, which has given us the first 2 weight, the first 1 weight, and Sage who brought us the first Ought weight fly rod built their rods with cork and ring reel seats. Thomas & Thomas built a nice 1 weight a few years back, and Hexagraph built me a 1 weight with cork and ring reel seat.

What were some problems I had with the cork and ring reel seats?
(1) Sometimes the rings weren't large enough for reel feet.
(2) Unless the cork bed was flattened, reels would slide around the reel seat area and could fall off.
(3) Most rods with cork and ring reel seats had shortened handles too short for my hand.
(4) If you leave a rod rigged, the ring diggs into the cork base and can dent it. Over time it can be difficult to obtain a desireable snug fit. You might have to steam it out.
(5) I have had rings loosen while I was playing a fish, and almost lost the fish when the reel hit the floor of my boat, or fell into a stream!

For a full article on my issues with cork and ring reel seats, see Reel seats matter or look in the Technical section of my website.

Why would a manufacturer build rods with cork and ring reel seats?
(1) To reduce total rod weight!
(2) For a traditional look.
(3) To save expense.

Why bring this up? If you love cork and ring reel seats, then don't be offended by my comments, and keep on enjoying them. I'm not attacking cork and ring reel seats -- but one fine day I realized I really don't prefer them. It occurred to me that the handle and reel seat on my rod is just one of many things I can get custom fit to my hand and fishing -- if I know the right people. I do! and so can you.

On a trip to Bennington and Manchester Vermont, I had the opportunity to meet Jim West (image right) and he showed me his whole operation. Remember, currently, Jim is the living Father of ultralight fly fishing. Howard Steere along with Jim West co-created the original Orvis Ultrafine 2 weight back in the early 1980s followed closely by the Orvis Superfine 1 and 2 weights. Howard Steere died about a dozen years ago. Thank goodness we still have Jim West. When it comes to ultralight fly rods - Jim has created them since day 1. It is so great to have his knowledge, expertise, and skill plus his staff available to us today.

Particularly for Orvis fly rods I prefer the Orvis' rod shop to build, repair, customize, and service my Orvis rods. I've had them repair rods in the past, but this year Jim West and his staff in the Orvis rod shop have taken on some new challenges for me. That brings us right back to Cork and ring reel seats.

I have some wonderful Orvis rods -- original Superfines in 1 and 2 weight that feature Cork and ring reel seats. My original Superfine 1 and 2 weights have short handles and cork and ring reel seats. My newer Superfine Trout Bum 1 weight has a handle that is short for my hand plus cork and ring reel seat, so I am having Jim and his staff replace the handles and reel seats on all these rods with a longer handle and uplocking reel seat.

To me customizing fly rods is like fitting a shotgun or rifle to you. Once done, your performance always improves. I've been talking with Jim about doing this for several years, and decided to get into gear and make it happen in 2011.

I have toured the Orvis Rod factory in Manchester, VT.and it is awesome. They can do about anything to a rod that you might want done. They can custom build one for you, or they can customize a production line model. Either way they can create the best look, feel and function in the rod of your choice.

Once you walk into the Orvis rod factory you can see the fun being built right before your very eyes. Orvis staff of dedicated rod repairers and rod builders can do it all. That brings us to another interesting point: whatever your fly rod, they can probably repair, rebuild, or customize it for you. If the materials are available, they have the skill and knowledge to do just about anything for you.

The image left is my Trout Bum 1 weight as it came from the factory originally. Notice the handle and cork and ring reel seat. As I've discussed, I just don't prefer fishing cork and ring reel seats. I determined that a 6 inch handle is minimum for me, and my preference is an uplocking reel seat.

As you see in the image right, Jim and his staff did a beautiful job of removing the old handle and reel seat, and replacing it with the new longer six and a quarter inch handle plus uplocking reel seat that perfectly matches my rod. The rod looks great and is balanced just right.

The Orvis rod shop can work magic with rods from other manufacturers. My rod image left is a TFO 1 weight that has a new longer handle and uplocking reel seat. It looks great and is also balanced just right. I have more rods already sent to Jim West for customizing for this year's fishing season.

UPDATE: I spoke with Jim West on Friday, March 20th, 2015 and he told me he can't support the original Orvis Superfine rods any more. His cache of parts and materials has played out, and no replacements are available. But he still supports the Orvis families of rods.

Today, March 1, 2016, I learned that Jim West has retired. So the Howard Steere, Jim West team who pioneered ultralight fly fishing in the early 1980s are deceased and retired in that order. I just hope that Jim West knows how many hundreds of thousand of hours of fly fishing happiness his rod creations have brought to fly fishers all over the world. He has made so many fly fishers better with his Orvis products, so "thanks" seems hardly enough.

So as things reorganize at Orvis' rod shop, you may call 802-366-8235 Monday thru Friday 830AM to 330PM for the Orvis rod Building and Repair Department to find out what ultralights or any fly rods of even heavier weight they can build, repair, or customize for you. The best time of year to contact the rod building department is during their less busy season -- August to early March.

For more information on Orvis' new lines or to cast an Orvis Superfine Touch 1 weight, or any of Orvis' rods or lines in person, please drop by or call Orvis Atlanta, GA, at 404-841-0093, or call the Alpharetta Orvis location at 678-367-4767and ask for Shannon Ward, fly fishing manager, or any of his staff. He has most of the latest Orvis rods, reels, and fly lines described above in stock. You can order by phone. Shannon, himself an avid ultralighter, knows and fishes Orvis rods, lines, leaders, and tippets on true ultralights.

Have fun!

- Bill Byrd.


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