Tom Rosenbauer has been a household name in the fly fishing industry for decades. With well over half a century of experience in the sport, he’s helped thousands of anglers get their start with a fly rod via his many books and instructional videos. These days, Tom hails as Orvis’ Chief Enthusiast, a title Tom shrugs off as over the top. He’s seen multiple waves of fly fishing popularity, and he’s the first person to tell anyone “Relax, it’s just fly fishing.”
We caught up with Tom as a part of our first annual Trout Week with Trout Unlimited to chat about his upbringing in the sport of fly fishing, meme pages, young people picking up fly fishing, having a sense of humor, and how Trout Unlimited helped fuel his passion for the sport of fly fishing!
Flylords: You just celebrated 45 years working with Orvis, was that your first job in the fly fishing industry?
Tom: Actually, it wasn’t. I started out tying flies commercially for a local shop when I was about 14 in Rochester, New York Carl Coleman’s Fly Shop. I think Carl’s still around in guiding. He doesn’t have a shop. But he sold some Orvis and Leonard and fly tying materials and he liked my Catskill style dries so I tied a lot of Catskills, Hendrickson’s, March Browns, and stuff like that for him as well as a bunch of nymphs. And then I went to the forestry school in Syracuse, tried to concentrate on fisheries. While I was there, I started working for a guy named Frank Vidala whose father had started a bait shop in the 1930s in the depression.
Frank was a fly fisherman. But what’s really funny is that they had the Orvis bamboo rods right next to the minnow tanks. I remember going down the basement for hours and counting worms into bait containers, then bagging minnows, and the next minute I’d be talking to a guy about a Hardy Reel or something. It was a cool place. Eventually, Frank started a mail-order fly tying material company called Hackle and Tackle. I did some stuff for him, packaging materials and stuff like that, just basic stuff. I taught some fly tying classes for him on Saturday mornings. When I got done with college, as usual when you get done with college, you don’t know what you’re going to do. I thought I might go to grad school and then I was an Orvis customer for years and I saw a help wanted ad for a clerk in the retail store. So I said, well, maybe I’ll try that for a while, that’s where I ended up.
Flylords: When you first started fly fishing and tying, when did you tie your first fly or how did you get into that side of fly fishing?
Tom: I don’t know. I was maybe 10 or 11. I just thought fly fishing looked interesting and I bought a fly tying kit and hacked my way through teaching myself how to tie flies because there were no videos, very few books and the books that were around were horrible. So, I taught myself fly fishing. I didn’t have a mentor. Carl Coleman, the guy I tied flies for later on really, really brought my fly fishing up to the next level. He’s a great nymph angler and really taught me a lot about reading water, nymphs, and dry flies.
Flylords: What do you think the largest shifts in fly tying have been since you started whipping up flies as a kid?
Tom: Well, I think that in the ’70s when Swisher and Richards first came out with “Selective Trout” and their no hackle flies, and Caucci and Nastasi came up with Comparaduns, I think that was a big step where we really started seriously thinking about imitating insects. And I think we’ve gone away from that since then.
In the ’70s and the ’80s, it was all about matching the hatch and insect hatches and identifying bugs. Remarkably, the Henry’s Fork was much more crowded than it is now because that’s just a bug factory. That was a big change when we realized we didn’t have to have an expensive hackle, which was pretty shitty in those days too. The hackle we had was, I mean it would take sometimes three hackles to dye a dry fly.
Flylords: And at that point, Metz and Whiting Farms hadn’t popped onto the scene, had they?
Tom: There were a few guys, Andy Miner and Harry Darby and a few other people were raising chickens, but you had to know somebody. They were also horribly expensive, I mean they were $100 then in 1970s dollars. I was lucky enough to get to know one of the early hackle breeders Bill Tobin, who nobody’s ever heard of, but he was in Cortland, New York and he had some beautiful duns and light gingers.
When I was in college, I got to know Bill and of course and then Mets came him along and really changed the hackle business and then later Hoffman, and Tom Whiting, and Bill Keo, another really great hackle breeder. I’ve been lucky enough to know most of those people.
I think the no hackle style or the more emerger style of dry flies was a big thing. You no longer needed a fully-hackled Catskill dry to catch fish, in fact, the other flies often worked better.
Bead heads also changed everything, I mean, the nymph game has changed so much. In those days, I mean, when I first learned how to fish nymphs it was floating lines straight upstream, not necessarily to visible fish, but you watch the tip of your floating line. Nobody had strike indicators, nobody really knew about them.
So, I’d say strike indicators and then beaded nymphs really changed the game and made it really more accessible to lots of people. I mean, nymphing then was a dark art. People didn’t know how to do it and they didn’t trust it. And you could be pretty effective, but not many people practiced it.
Flylords: What would you regard as the birthplace of American fly fishing?
Tom: Technically, Pennsylvania sounds more like the birthplace based on the history that there were people fly fishing in Pennsylvania before the Catskills, but the Catskills was mostly a bunch of wealthy New York guys. They had those private clubs and went to Harry Darby’s shop and bartered for flies. That’s really where we got a lot of our traditions from. And a lot of it was borrowed from the English, obviously.
Flylords: What contributions do you think American fly fishing has given to this sport or the pastime as a whole?
Tom: Well, certainly indicator fishing I think is a purely American thing and terrestrial fishing. I mean, they had terrestrials in England, but not it wasn’t as serious as Vince Marinaro and Charlie Fox studied it. Terrestrial fishing certainly the heavily hackled flies, Wulffs, and parachutes and things like that, I think are an American invention.
Parachutes might have been tied in England previously, but Americans really made them popular and then foam. Foam is revolutionized Hopper fishing and big stoneflies and any big fly or just attractor flies in general. I mean, you can’t fish some of those big Western rivers these days without fishing foam. So the big burly foam rubber-leg flies are really an American contribution as well.
Flylords: What about on the streamer side of things?
Tom: Tommy Lynch, Mike Schmidt, and Kelly Galloup were all originally from Michigan. I mean, streamers are particularly a brown trout phenomenon. Rainbows and cutthroats aren’t so interested in those bigger pieces of meat. I think rainbows and cutthroats eat a fair number of crayfish. But I don’t think they eat as many baitfish as brown trout do and that’s become a big American contribution: throwing meat. I mean who thought we’d be fishing six-inch flies for trout?
Flylords: What was the fly fishing culture like before A River Runs Through It, before social media? How did the folks who were already in the sport react to the wave of newcomers?
Tom: Yeah, yeah. It was very clubby, it was very white-male and I was an anomaly because I was a young kid in the ’70s and even during the ’80s. There weren’t many people my age that fly fished, and most of the anglers were much older than me. It was very clubby and snooty for the most part.
I mean, you always had your locals who really knew it better than the clubby snobby guys, but they didn’t write books, and they didn’t invent fly patterns that they would share with people. I don’t know why I kept up with it because I’m not a clubby or elitist kind of person, but I guess I just love fly fishing and I just I ignored the snotty aspects of it.
After A River Runs Through It, people complained about all the new people trashing the streams, and that they did’t have any ethics and they don’t know what they’re doing. And of course, they forgot that they, in fact, were those same people 10, 20, or 30 years ago. They didn’t know anything when they first started and there were lots of complaints. And then the film brought a lot of junk products in the fly fishing industry, you could put a trout or a fly on something and you could sell it.
The old Fly Tackle Dealer Show, which is now IFTD, was a lot of people that shouldn’t have been there, selling stupid jewelry and knick-knacks. But after a while that died off, and I think a lot of people stuck with it because of “A River Runs Through It”. They won’t admit it. But they were at first intrigued by fly fishing by “A River Runs Through It” and then I think the internet age, particularly videos really brought young people into fly fishing.
Now when I go to shows, I have lots of kids coming up and introducing their fathers to me or their mothers and telling me that they got their parents into fly fishing rather than the other way around which is really cool. And so the whole youth thing has been really exciting and fly fishing has got a lot more democratic and more people of color, a lot more women, a lot more kids. And the internet did that obviously, social media did that, the internet did that, yeah.
Flylords: Do you think there’s a parallel between the way the industry and hard-core anglers reacted to those new entrants post-A River Runs Through It and during this latest boom?
Tom: Sort of a parallel, I mean “A River Runs Through It” brought a lot of what you call yuppies and it became really cool on Wall Street and places like that, corporate outings “to do fly fishing” and yeah, and a lot of them were kind of posers at it, but the social media revolution and COVID really brought a lot of people out into the outdoors.
These latest entrants have embraced the culture because they really wanted to be a part of the lifestyle and really appreciate the outdoors and the ecosystem. So, it’s different, I think it’s a better stimulus to the fly fishing world and yeah, things have gotten crowded for sure. But, we have lots of places in this country where we can go and not see anybody fishing. I think it’ll settle down a little bit, but I think that we’re definitely seeing a new resurgence of people into the sport.
Flylords: You spoke about kids getting into fly fishing. It seems as though they already focus quite a bit on ethics, etiquette, and conservation. What do you think about that?
Tom: It’s almost innate with them which is the greatest thing. It’s just like they know it and we don’t have to teach about ethics either. People say, “Oh, these new people in the sport, they don’t know anything about ethics.” That statement’s total bullshit.
They’re the most considerate people I have met on particularly on trout stream because that’s where the crowds are most of the time. They’re the ones that come up to me and say, “Hey, are you working upstream or down? Do you mind if get in a couple of pools ahead of you?”
The old guys will just go and fish right in front of you. That’s why I’m so excited about the future of fly fishing because they’ve got conservation ethics, they support brands that give back to the resource and they have good ethics.
Flylords: What’s your take on the birth of the fly fishing meme culture on social media?
Tom: Oh yeah. I love them.
Flylords: Do you think that kind of humor existed prior to social media and the meme format?
Tom: Not really. People took fly fishing way too seriously back then. There weren’t many people making fun of various factions because there weren’t that many factions. So there was a book, a great book by a guy named, it wasn’t his real name, but he was an advertising guy and he had a pen name of Milford Poltroon. And he wrote this book called How to Fish Good. And that was making fun of the fly fishing world, but it was one of the rare instances where somebody poked fun at fly fishing. It wasn’t even big enough to poke fun at them because nobody would listen.
Flylords: You’ve developed a cult-figure-like in the fly fishing internet community, what has that been like?
Tom: Yeah, I heard about that subreddit page Phil Mohan pointed it out to me. I’m not a big fan of social media for the most part. I mean I’ve embraced it because I’ve had to. I’ve embraced the digital world, but I don’t look at Facebook and I have an Instagram account that I post occasionally, but I don’t care for most of the social media. I mean the fishing part is fine, but all the other crap I just don’t want to deal with it. Life’s too short to spend time looking at Facebook. I’d rather be outdoors or tying flies or reading or something. So it’s fine, it’s just not something I’m really going to embrace.
Flylords: What does the title Orvis “Chief Enthusiast” entail? How did they come up with that title for you?
Tom: Well, it’s funny because it really happened right about the same time as COVID and where I had gotten to the point where people said, “Yeah, Tom’s a figurehead and we should take advantage of that because people respect him,” because I’ve always embraced newcomers.
I’ve always welcomed new people to the sport. No question is too stupid. I’ve never made fun of anybody for a dumb question. I think that’s why I have that reputation is that we were all there at one time and I know what it was like. So, in my books and podcasts and TV shows and whatever, I’ve always tried to just help people have more fun in fly fishing. That’s what I do. Orvis decided that that would be a good use of my time. Going to shows and being the public face of Orvis and then when COVID hit, a lot of it became electronic and live. I’ve even cleaned out my office at Orvis HQ. I’m not going back into the office, I’m not planning on retiring, but I don’t need it, I got everything I need at home. I got fly tying, my computer writing desk, work computer, video studio here, and my podcast studio downstairs. Why leave?
Flylords: How have you seen the conservation conversation within the fly fishing community shift since you got started in the space 45 years ago?
Tom: Oh, people never used to care much about it. There would be a few passionate, dedicated people that were Trout Unlimited life members and they joined Bonefish Tarpon Trust and whatever, and they would be really active, but most people didn’t give a shit.
For instance, take my podcast downloads when I first started 10-12 years ago. If I did a conservation podcast, it would tank. I’d have Chris Wood on my podcast and the downloads would be low, but now when I do a conservation podcast, some of them are the most popular. So, people do care about it more now than they did. They realized that there are a lot of threats to these things we love. We didn’t really know back in the ’70s what kind of things were threatening our way of life and now people you can’t get away from it. And it’s become politicized, unfortunately. And so companies and organizations have been forced to get mildly political just because you can’t get away from it. And in order to protect it, you have to so it’s not something that Orvis likes doing or I like doing personally, but you have to be there.
Flylords: When did you get first involved with Trout Unlimited?
Tom: Good question. I actually joined at Trout Unlimited chapter when I was 16. A buddy of mine and I used to go to these Trout Unlimited meetings which were all old guys. We were the youngest guys there, by the way, 20 or 30 and the guys would get us beer and we’d actually be able to drink beer when we were 16 years old. So, I had been a Trout Unlimited member since I was really young and I learned a lot there. I met these older guys who kind of took me under their wing and some of them took me fishing and taught me a lot of stuff. TU was a big part of my youth.
Flylords: What do you think is the biggest challenge facing cold water conservation right now?
Tom: I worry most about well, climate change obviously is going to change the way our fisheries look. I worry that 50 years from now the only place we’re going to be able to fish for trout are in tailwaters, that’s the overriding concern.
The other thing is, and I don’t know how much we can do about it because it’s difficult to monitor, but one of the things that worries me most is pesticide and herbicide use. I think that I’ve seen big changes in trout populations and insect life in my lifetime, big, big changes. I’ve got to believe that these things are resistant to changes in climate to a certain degree, but they’re not resistant to chemicals in the ecosystem. Unfortunately, it’s not something we as citizens can monitor. It’s very difficult without a chromatograph and some of these organic molecules are really difficult to detect but paying attention to what golf courses put on their lawns and the highway department sprayed herbicides right in front of my house, I’m 100 feet from a trout stream. I live in an agricultural valley and I have no idea what they’re putting on those corn crops. On the one hand, it’s none of my business because farmers are trying to make a living, family farmers are trying to make a living in a tough climate. But I worry about what they’re putting into watersheds.