On the Batten Kill…
Angling Art and Artifacts at the American Museum of Fly Fishing
At 25 years old, Manchester-native Charles Orvis founded the country’s first mail order outfitter. More than a century and a half later, his namesake company “Orvis” is the longest continually-operating fly-fishing business in the world with a massive catalog distribution and nearly 100 retail venues, including the flagship store here in town. Mr. Orvis had four children; three sons and one daughter, Mary. Mary grew up to be an expert fly tier and dedicated researcher. Her milestone book, Favorite Flies and Their Histories cataloged nearly 300 patterns with technical and historical precision and has been reprinted at least ten times.
For Chicago’s Columbian Exhibition in 1892. Mary’s elegant flies were presented alongside photos like those below in beautiful cedar frames. Uncovered in storage and restored, these original exhibition panels are always on display, with their romantic century old scenes and her meticulous work. A treasure in the museum’s permanent collection, for sure.
Bob Ruley is the museum’s new director. He’s a Nantucket native, a devoted angler, and conservationist. Along with his wife and two daughters, he’s loving Vermont. “I vacationed here some years ago, and always retained a nice spot in my heart for it. The job here at the museum sold itself but, the town sealed the deal for my family. One of the nicest surprises, I’ve realized, is that there’s really a twelve-month season; things going all year long. There’s an old saying about Nantucket… Six months out of the year, we roll up the sidewalks and turn on the wind.” I wonder if he means he’ll be fishing more here?
About the Fly Fishing Museum
The museum is located on Main Street, next to the Orvis Flagship Store. It’s open Tuesday through Saturday from November to May, and Tuesday through Sunday from June to October. Ruley underscores that while dedicated to research, preservation, and angling history, you needn’t be a fisherman to thoroughly enjoy a visit.“Our exhibits appeal not just to the angler, but also to the historian, naturalist, and to lovers of art and culture.” Kids love it, too. “This is a very approachable museum. We have a gift shop downstairs. We have giant fish and canoes hanging from the ceiling. Little kids love big fish. They love contraptions, they love the hooks and gear. It’s fun!”
The museum’s collections include some of the earliest flies ever tied; like 1700’s. But the heyday of American fly fishing was midcentury; the 1950s and 60s. A cool micro-exhibit of Field & Stream illustrations is on display in the library. Feels like Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post for anglers and is wonderfully nostalgic.
“Now, everyone knows about our collection of rods and reels, but maybe people don’t know that we have a really terrific collection of sporting art. I’ll be the first one to admit, sporting art can just be terrible. Ours is not that kind. We have probably the best collection of shadow box flies in the country and some really beautiful paintings.”
A Cultural Touchstone
“Fly fishing started in England. The early brass reels exhibit that movement from Europe to the United States. A lot of the early reel makers were trained German or Swiss watchmakers. German immigrants who came here, there was a huge reel making renaissance in Kentucky. People couldn’t afford watches but they could afford fishing reels. And they made these tremendous pieces, that were a hundred years ahead of what we had because they were these trained, cold chisel carvers who could make these gears that were incredibly precise. If you ask me, some of those early Kentucky reels are the most interesting artifacts in the world. And later, as steel became available, our reel collection offers up a voice of the industrial revolution. It’s fascinating stuff.”
The Developing Collection
“We’re supported by a very large group of people who have a love of angling. These are people who want the history to live on. It’s not the catching, it’s the fishing. Your greatest days have no fish. There’s no body count.” He laughed. “When someone has an exceptional collection, or they’ve inherited a collection, they want it to be taken care of, and we’re happy to do that. I’ve never thrown a fishing reel away in my life. You give them to people as important gifts. You keep them for the memories.”
“We’re particularly strong in our library, and our collection is probably the real touchstone. With about 22k individual flies and over a thousand rods and reels, each, the best of the best of them are what you’ll see here. Plus, the depth of knowledge among our board and the fly fishing museum staff is also giant. If you have an arcane fishing question, chances are somebody in the back office can answer it. If they can’t, they know who to call.”
On Fishing the ‘Kill
Of course, we asked about the Batten Kill which some call the birthplace of Eastern Fly Fishing. “As I understand it, and don’t quote me, the Batten Kill’s got some of the smartest brown trout in the world. I think it’s a fishery for very accomplished anglers and I’m looking forward to trying it this spring. I’m an accomplished saltwater angler — I grew up on the beaches. So, this is going to be chastening. I’m a neophyte.” He smiled. “And I’ve been trying to suss out some things. I’m going to embarrass myself a lot this year, so if you see me on the river this year, just be kind.” And you will, won’t you?
Brookies in the Hood
“Along with Maine, we have one of the great remaining native brook trout populations. They don’t tend to be particularly large, ten inches is a good one. But they’re native, they’re supposed to be here, and they’ve been here for millennia.”
“One of the coolest things to do in fishing right now is to fly up to Labrador and catch giant brook trout. But you can come to Manchester, and catch ones that are a little bit smaller, but it’s the same native fish in their native drainage.”
Feel a curiosity coming on? You can come up and stay at one of our lovely local inns and grab a couple of classes with Orvis. Choose a one-day or two-day school, and you’ll leave with the knowledge and know-how to cast like a seasoned angler. Expert instructors help with everything from setting up the rod and choosing flies to how to safely release your catch. Classes are held in Orvis’ state-of-the-art schoolhouse, on their fully-stocked casting pond, and out on the river.
Another feather in the AMFF cap, their quarterly American Fly Fisher. “I love fishing magazines. I love those we’d call grip and grin. That’s not what this is. It’s well researched, footnoted, article-sited appropriate content highlighting luminaries of the sport, fisheries, very interesting relevant, and even contemporary topics. We get to work with terrific writers and our editor (of twenty years) is also here on staff. The whole thing is produced here in-house, printed locally, mailed locally. It’s not light reading but it’s worth doing the work because it’s really excellent.”
On the Horizon
“Going digital. We’re digitizing our collection to it can be available online, especially for folks doing research. And we’re hard at work on a Saltwater Exhibit which will launch next year, commemorating our fiftieth, and traveling the country.”
Fit to be Tied & Iron Fly
Each year the museum hosts a calendar of special open events; Hooked on the Holidays in December, Canvas and Cocktails, and a spring training event. In February, the best New England fly tiers gather for Fit to Be Tied & Iron Fly. If you go, you get to hang out with these pros, learn the basics — dry fly, wet fly — or get the details from experts; saltwater, pike, bass, etc. Those competing in the tournament are given a mystery bag of ingredients to make a winning custom fly. Cool prizes, craft beer always a plus.
A Rainy Day Place
“I love to see people come in who have angled for years, or are just starting, but have never really looked at the other side. They’ve bought their first rod and reel, caught their first few trout, they get the catalogs and magazines. They’ve attached to the sport. And then they come here and discover everything behind it.” It’s like going to Cooperstown if you’re a baseball fan.
“We’re also the great rainy day place. Manchester’s got wonderful outdoor activities, but when it’s too cold to ski or it’s raining in the summer, we’re a go to. You can come before lunch, it doesn’t take more than an hour to have a really nice experience.”
Whether you’re an aspiring angler, an expert or you’ve never given it a thought, one visit to AMFF will confirm there’s something about fishing that’s indelibly linked to the soul. That it’s important to our personal and our cultural history. As Norm Maclean once wrote, eventually, all things merge into one. And a river runs through it.
Plan A Visit
See the Mary Orvis Marbury panels that inspired it all. Ogle the reels and rods, and keep an eye out for gear that belonged to beloved American characters; the likes of Babe Ruth, Aldo Leopold, and Ernest Hemingway, for starters. Fall in love with fly fishing. Attend an upcoming event! Here’s everything you need to know; website, social media, map, and contact info.American Museum of Fly Fishing
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