When graduate student Tom Dorsey set out to build his own bamboo fly rod in the late 60s, little did he know his experimentation would lead to the founding of a rod making company that would endure the coming decades. In 2019, Thomas & Thomas Fly Rods (T&T) celebrates its 50th year of crafting fly rods in the United States, and with that, reflects on what it’s taken to make, “The rod you will eventually own.”
Consumed by a passion for fly fishing, but unable to afford the equipment, Dorsey and his brother-in-law Tom Maxwell (the two married sisters) set out to build their own bamboo rods. Trained by a relative, the two soon became full-time rod builders. Thomas & Thomas was founded in Chambersburg, PA in 1969. While the American fly-angling scene became saturated with and fixated on the advances of mass-produced fiberglass rods, the Toms stayed the course of American craftsmanship in their small cabin workshop which sat on the banks of a limestone stream. They rejected the cookie-cutter techniques becoming all the rage and adhered to American traditions of high craftsmanship and heirloom quality. That quality garnered the attention of angling legends Vince Marinaro, Ernest Schwiebert and others who proclaimed T&T rods unrivaled in performance and craftsmanship.
Not long after founding T&T, the Toms were presented with the opportunity to purchase rod making equipment and the largest cache of Tonkin bamboo in North America in Turner Falls, MA. The company relocated there in 1974 and continued operations.
Around this time, graphite entered the market. While the Toms rejected fiberglass through the 60s, they felt their values could transfer to graphite (Though, T&T would make fiberglass rods as a retro nod some decades later.) In 1977 they created their first T&T graphite rods, stamped with distinct touches, such as stunning rosewood inserts. As always, they maintained a mantra of “form follows function,” using the same rules applied to bamboo rod making.
Whether crafting graphite, fiberglass or bamboo rods, Dorsey emphasized that the T&T process does not adhere to strict formulas produced by engineering software, but rather, good old fashioned casting and hand-craftsmanship, “a tedious, but rewarding task, which I view as an empirical process, more akin to the culinary arts than science. Try and then tweak, change, try again and change some more. This not only requires good casting skills and technique, but diagnostic insight and an ability to evaluate results—what to change, where to change, to what degree and what those changes should accomplish.”
John Carpenter, a custom woodworker who joined T&T in the late 90s, noted, “The two Toms tried to preserve the idea of a finely crafted handmade bamboo rods no matter what material they were using. They continued to reject the standards of modern mass-produced, machine-made items in favor of thoughtfully handmade items that would last through generations. That spoke to me because it fit into my idea as a woodworker of how we should make finely designed and crafted things that are designed to last and be appreciated.”
Each and every rod was tested and the smallest adjustments made by hand to correct any imperfections, standards still in practice by T&T rod makers today. Because Dorsey was an early adopter of two-handed casting, T&T built some of the first graphite spey rods on the American market. It wasn’t until the 90s that the company’s graphite rods were painted T&T blue to make the product stand out in stores. The color has remained a staple since.
Tom Dorsey sold T&T in the 80s (Maxwell left in the 70s), whereby the company underwent a cycle of ups and downs. Rod sales were boosted by increases in the average American’s leisure time in the 90s, as well as the release of the industry-altering A River Runs Through It (1992). In 2001, the company moved across the Connecticut River to Greenfield, MA and floundered during the financial crash of 2007, where it remained in a delicate state for some years.
In 2013, South African businessman and angler Neville Orsmond visited the T&T plant out of sheer curiosity to see where his favorite rods were made. There, he realized the need and opportunity to rescue the storied brand. In 2014, the chance to take the helm at T&T set the stage for the realization of a lifelong dream – to work alongside Tom Dorsey, creating the world’s finest fly rods. Orsmond’s aim was to infuse the company with new enthusiasm and ambition around the company’s goals and marketing. Those combined factors have come together to grow the brand and the sales volume reflects those efforts. Maintaining a strong commitment to an American-made product was also of utmost importance.
“It’s been a collaborative process to rebuild the brand,” said Orsmond. “We’ve kept true to who we are by employing people who have been with T&T for 20 to 30 years. That adds up to more than 100 years of experience building rods. People believe in identity and passion. It’s our job to continue to evolve and improve, to build up and care for our anglers and fishery resources through conservation. Fly fisherman believe not only in products but in preserving the outdoors, which makes us lucky to work in this Industry.”
Over the years, T&T has developed a reputation as the Rolls-Royce of fly rods. In 1981 President Reagan commissioned salmon rods as a wedding gift for Lady Diana and Prince Charles. Celebrity anglers around the globe have been spotted with T&T rods in hand, among them, Eric Clapton, Dale Earnhardt, Joe Montana, James Seals (of Seals and Croft) and others. As the company evolves, it’s appealing to an entirely new kind of destination angler.
A new generation of fly anglers is pushing T&T rod design to the next frontier. Some of the premier professional anglers on the planet are T&T advisors and ambassadors, including Keith Rose-Innes, Christiaan Pretorius, Camille Egdorf, Richard Strolis and many others. These pros are testing techniques and equipment in entirely new settings and conditions on new species. Using decades of angling knowledge and experience in waters all over the world, these field experts consult T&T rod builders on every design.
“Thomas & Thomas is not just a brand, it’s a culture,” said T&T advisor Keith Rose-Innes. “Their passionate team takes the time to care for the sport in equal proportion to their drive to lead performance through innovation. I purchased my first T&T Horizon series in 1998 and have enjoyed 20 years of a culture that has made me proud to be part of the T&T team.”
Along with angler expertise, T&T’s in-house craftsmen rely on top training. Old master knowledge paired with a new, trained generation of master rod makers is the foundation of the T&T product line. Graphite rod designer Joe Godspeed learned the trade from Dorsey. And T&T bamboo rod maker Troy Jacques learned from Dorsey and Tom Moran.
“We design by feel and not by math and metrics. There’s always been a lot of stock placed in the physical feel of our designs. That’s what I took away from Tom Dorsey,” said Godspeed. “We’re increasingly shifting toward specialty products. Going toward the future, that’s setting us apart and contributing to our growth. That’s going to be a trend with the company—creating things that are on the cutting edge of what people are using for specialty tactics in the fly fishing world.”
T&T’s focus on construction, design, durability and refinement have won the company new product awards for its graphite rods at the International Fly Tackle Dealer show on two occasions. In 1996 the T&T Horizon series won Best Fly Rod – Saltwater and in 2018, the new T&T Zone 9′ 9wt, 4pc took the same category. The company’s outstanding rods rest on the knowledge bank of Tom Dorsey and all the master rod makers who have come through the company’s doors, combined with the latest materials and the innovative T&T design process.
Bamboo remains a strong component of the T&T product line. T&T master bamboo rod maker Troy Jacques has been with the company since 1991 and stuck through the good years as well as the challenging. He initially came on as a graphite rod builder, but when famed rod maker Bob Taylor left T&T, Troy became an apprentice. He was trained by Dorsey and by Tom Moran of Hardy’s fame, who in 1993, came from the UK and remained for some years to observe Dorsey’s techniques.
Troy keeps reminders of his mentors in the bamboo shop: “To this day, I still use a lot of Tom Moran’s techniques. I still have and use Tom Moran’s and Tom Dorsey’s tools. Gluing back then took three people. Tom Dorsey ran the binder, I dipped the parts in glue, Tom Moran rolled the parts to set all the strips and lock them in. To this day, I have Tom Moran’s glue shoes [Glue drips off the table and makes quite a mess.] I have Tom Dorsey’s too. Their shoes stand by the rod rack.”
In recent years, Troy’s taken his designs to the next evolutionary stage with the T&T Sextant saltwater bamboo rods, looking to the practices of Dorsey and Moran, but listening to the demands of anglers.
“Today we have this whole cadre of young guys who are into saltwater. Bamboo has been left out of the warm and saltwater species for the last few decades. But back in the day, these species were only caught with bamboo. I always wanted to make a saltwater rod but didn’t have time. Its’ hard to find time to experiment because everything moves at a snail’s pace with bamboo. When Neville bought T&T and I spoke to him about it, he, Keith Rose-Innes, the anglers from Alphonse Island (Seychelles) and Nick Bowles (of Dubai) gave me a lot of input. I said, ‘I’m not just going to do this for a few guys.’ But with their following, it made it viable,” said Jacques.
Jacques set out to build a rod on which he could fish a 200-grain sink tip for streamer fishing. He then progressed to a prototype 9-wt, 8’ 3”, two-piece rod. Jacques experimented fishing for stripers off Nantucket using a textured fly line. The rod performed so well that his party took turns fishing the rod the entire day. From there, he developed the tarpon rod, an 8’ 5” 12-wt., two-piece designed to push through wind, hold a long line in the air and fight tarpon and other species. Keith Rose-Innes used this model to fish for tarpon in Apalachicola, a rod which was unveiled at IFTD in 2016 to great acclaim. There is now a full series available from 6-12 weight and Jacques is now developing a blue-water 13-14-wt. bamboo rod.
“I’ve had rave reviews from anglers trying these rods. We have a new audience today, new anglers. We have to listen to them and help them get to the next frontier of where they want to go. All the jungle angling and all the focus on landing big saltwater species like GTs, the size of the flies, everything is so new for fly fishing. That’s the way it should be,” said Jacques. “You should listen and support anglers to help them go where they want to go. I’ve taken Dorsey’s tapers and done small things to it to support someone coming from graphite over bamboo so they can give this a try.”
To celebrate T&T’s 50th, a commemorative bamboo rod will be on show at the 2019 IFTD show in Denver and available for consumer purchase shortly thereafter. In the meantime, T&T brand users can celebrate with 50th anniversary t-shirts, hats and other merchandise.
“To me, the company’s history is a reminder that relentless innovation and uncompromising performance in pursuit of perfection is always a worthwhile goal,” said Orsmond. “We can’t wait to celebrate the next 50 years.”