Angler of the Year 2011

Angler of the Year 2011

Author and Orvis Marketing man Tom Rosnebauer is helping to direct fly-fishing's furture.

  • By: Greg Thomas
  • Photography by: Joe Healy
Angler of the Year 2011 Tom Rosenbauer

If you ask Western anglers to paint the face of The Orvis Company, you might end up with an illustration of some stuffy Classics professor in tweed casting a bamboo rod on a manicured streambank, trying to lure some minuscule brook trout from the brush with 7X tippet and a standard Adams dry fly. Somewhere along the fly-fishing timeline, that’s the vision my hard-core Western friends and I developed. Fortunately, that stereotype got quashed a few years ago when I attended a trade show and met Tom Rosenbauer.

Instead of tweed, Rosenbauer, who is Orvis’ marketing director and in social and business gatherings is often the public face of the company, waltzed up to me in blue jeans and a T-shirt. He sported a big grin and wore a delinquent salt-and-pepper beard. A bulk of uncombed hair curved off his head and fell to his eyebrows. It looked like he may have either just rolled out of bed, or just unhitched his waders and wandered in from a trout stream. He spoke with a gravelly voice, pleasant, not polished. Wow, I thought, this sure isn’t the Orvis tweed guy and who knew Chuck Norris (whom Tom resembles) had stepped into fly-fishing?

I was equally surprised when Rosenbauer refrained from immediately introducing me to all of the company’s new products (his job) and, instead, went into details about bluefin tuna and the demands that catching one on a fly requires. Most striking, Rosenbauer spoke with passion, as if he would have preferred to be on the water at that very moment. Here, I thought, is a guy who is in the business because he loves fishing. Here, I determined, is a guy I could fish with.

Rosenbauer, 56, may surprise people with his laid-back looks, but it’s no surprise he ended up with Orvis and has remained with the company for 35 years. During that time, he’s worn many hats, beginning as a clerk in the Orvis retail store.

But he is probably most respected for being a lifetime proponent of fly-fishing and an effective educator, first through several super-successful books and now through a variety of media, including his popular Orvis Fly Fishing Guide Podcast series, which to date has received more than 800,000 downloads.

Rosenbauer’s interest in the outdoors began when he was young, growing up in Rochester, New York, close to quality fishing and hunting grounds. His father, a chemist for the optics company Bausch + Lomb, took him fishing at an early age and planted the seed for his son to enjoy a life outdoors.

“My dad was a worm fisherman and that’s what I did, too,” Rosenbauer recalls. “Then, when I was 10 or 11, I thought, This fly-fishing looks interesting. There was no Web or video at that time so I found a couple books on fly-fishing and read them. But it took me years to learn anything.”

By the time he was 14, Rosenbauer had “the fever.” He started tying flies commercially and describes himself during those years as a “nerdy kid who ran a little track and played the French horn until I got sick of it. Mostly,” he adds, “I was the kid who went off fishing instead of going to football games.”

Rosenbauer’s fishing fever and fly-tying interests followed him to Syracuse University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in forestry. To put himself through school he continued to tie commercially and worked in a tackle shop and in a small mail-order house. He was on the water so often that friends nicknamed him Rosenbobber. He remembers, “I had a lot of experience in the fishing industry by the time I got out of college.”

And that’s why Rosenbauer never went back to school. He’d intended on earning a graduate degree and becoming a fish biologist, but a clerk position came up at the Orvis retail store in Manchester, Vermont. “I took the job and I loved the rural lifestyle and the hunting and fishing in Vermont.”

Today, Rosenbauer lives on a trout stream with his wife and six-year-old son and stays active and close with his 23-year-old daughter from a previous marriage. He has plenty of interests outside of fly-fishing, including picking wild mushrooms with his family. If he could choose one concert to see tomorrow he would either check out Wilco or a Shostakovich symphony. If you offered him any drink he would wrap his hand around a sour-mash whiskey (on the rocks). If he could eat anything at this very moment he’d take vanilla ice cream with “all kinds of crap on it—maple syrup, hot fudge and almonds.” If he could jump on a boat and fish for any specie in the world he would go for bluefin tuna. “I’m obsessed with them,” he says. “It’s the most magnificent animal in the ocean. When they crash bait there is nothing more heart-pounding, not even a school of tarpon going by. Forty pounds is the biggest I’ve landed with a fly rod. A 40-pound bluefin is like a 200-pound tarpon.” If Rosenbauer didn’t have a day job, he says he’d move to “Cape Cod or the Bahamas, with Montana being a close third.”

Regarding Rosenbauer’s love for bluefin tuna, fishing friend Jeremy Cameron, who owns a Web development business in Portland, Maine, says, “When I found out Tom had fished for bluefin tuna for three years and hadn’t caught one I invited him to fish with me. I thought he wouldn’t do it—you know, the trout guy from Orvis—but he jumped on the opportunity. He showed up at four in the morning wearing a torn shirt. He wasn’t what I expected. He fished all day and didn’t eat a thing. Just drank coffee. Gallons of it. Black. It was August and the days were long. Most guys called it quits at six. But he fished right on through into dark, nonstop. In fact, he kept fishing even when he drove a size-2 hook through his ear. Blood was gushing terribly. We were trying to help, but Tom said, ‘What are you doing? Forget about me. Look at those fish! Start casting!’ He fished like a wildman with that fly sticking out of his ear.”

Rosenbauer gets equally excited about his work and he’s more amped about it now than he’s ever been. Currently he’s finishing a new book called The Orvis Guide to Small Stream Trout Fishing, which will be added to his list of 10 successful titles, including The Orvis Fly-Fishing Guide; Prospecting for Trout; Trout Foods and Their Imitations; Nymphing Techniques; The Orvis Guide to Dry-Fly Techniques; and The Orvis Fly-Tying Guide. According to Nick Lyons, former owner of The Lyons Press and fly-fishing’s unofficial senior spokesman on books (not to mention Rosenbauer’s first book editor), these offerings represent an exceptional gift to the fly-fishing community.

“Tom doesn’t act like a fly-fishing star and he doesn’t present himself that way; but the solidity, thoughtfulness and practicality of what he says is almost unmatched,” Lyons notes. “He’s offered practical work ranging from the most basic approach to a much more sophisticated level. And he’s covered it all—from the knots, to stream observations, to saltwater.…He’s provided a complete library and given a tremendous number of people the tools to be better fly fishers.”

Rosenbauer says he’s most proud of Prospecting for Trout, even though he points out, “It’s not my best-selling title.” What has him more stoked than print are the Podcasts he’s creating and releasing, for free, to anyone who will listen. “I’m having a ball with the Podcasts. It’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. I get ideas from our Facebook page where people request certain topics. They are geared toward novice and intermediate anglers and we get 10,000 downloads a week.” Those Podcasts (go to orvis.com) also allow him access to a youthful demographic, something that gives him additional drive.

“I’ve been in the business for 40 years and right now is the most exciting time because there are truly a lot of young people getting involved.…and that wasn’t the way it was when I was a kid,” he said. “It was me and the old-timers. Now there is cool energy. Orvis and a number of other companies are bringing those people in. We’re telling them it’s not just a bunch of old white guys, that fly-fishing is a fun way to fish and not nearly as hard as they might think. All of this makes me very optimistic about the future of the industry. Fly-fishing is not going to die out.”

Rosenbauer says he has either the best job…or the second-best job in fly-fishing: “Some of the guys who do the travel stuff may have a leg up on me.” But that doesn’t mean he hasn’t had challenges at Orvis, the greatest being that aforementioned stuffy stereotype. “There is a natural Western chauvinism toward Orvis,” Rosenbauer says. “Orvis is family-owned by people who are rabid about fly-fishing and bird-hunting. The management here is the least corporate of all.”

People who meet him know this: Rosenbauer is as valid a fly fisherman as they come—honest, approachable, generous, dedicated and enthusiastic. It’s that kind of enthusiasm and the written and verbal legacy he’s providing that make Tom Rosenbauer Fly Rod & Reel’s 2011 Angler of The Year.