December 06, 2021
By Jim McLennan
This article was originally titled "Remembering a Mentor" in the Oct-Dec 2021 issue of Fly Fisherman magazine.
Leigh Perkins was CEO of the Orvis Company from his acquisition of it in 1965 until his retirement in 1992. To write about him, a man whose full life was guided by his passions for fly fishing and bird hunting until his death in May, 2021, where could I possibly start? I could begin with a summary of his place on the honor roll of North American fly-fishing giants, highlighting his accomplishments, which were many and important: Articulating the outdoor community’s obligation to protect the places where hunting and fishing take place and setting an example with his personal work and dedication of corporate earnings to conservation; originating the concept of fly-fishing and wingshooting schools, thereby creating customers while also building the ranks of defenders of fish and wildlife.
There are the distinctions bestowed on him by way of conservation awards and honorary degrees, and the fact that he’s every outdoor person’s hero for continuing to fish or hunt 250 days a year well into his 90s. I could also remind you of his stature in the business world, where he is regarded as a “mail order genius,” who transformed Orvis—in 1965 a small New England company with annual sales of $500,000—into a $90 million company.
But those are just facts.
Instead, I’ll start in my parents’ front yard in Edmonton, Alberta, in the fall of 1965. I was 12. Leigh acquired Orvis earlier that year, and shortly after sent my dad a gift of an 8-foot, 8-weight Battenkill bamboo rod. That autumn day Leigh took me out on the lawn and taught me to double-haul with that rod. It was about the only thing he ever intentionally taught me, but it was just the first on a long list of things I learned from him.
He was in Edmonton that fall to continue a custom he’d begun several years earlier. My father owned a company that sold products made by Harris Calorific, the company for whom Leigh was sales manager in his days before Orvis. Leigh and dad had found a common interest in bird hunting, and every year Leigh made sure his sales trip to Alberta occurred in October, which was prime time for the waterfowl and upland bird hunting they both loved. I was too young then to accompany them on their hunting escapades, but I loved to hear about them afterward, and also loved to talk to Leigh about fly fishing, with which I had recently become inexplicably fascinated. His trips to Alberta became less frequent after the acquisition of Orvis, but he kept in touch with my dad, and by association, me, mostly by mail.
Leigh noticed my growing obsession with fly fishing, and even back that far encouraged it. When I was a teenager I broke the bamboo Battenkill rod on a fishing trip in Jasper National Park. I wrote Leigh a letter, apologetically telling him what had happened and asking how we could get it fixed. A few weeks later a new rod arrived in the mail.
Lynda and I were married in July, 1977 and naturally—to us at least—we planned to spend our honeymoon fishing in and around Yellowstone Park.
And just as naturally, I wrote to Leigh, asking for suggestions on where we might fish. Along with that advice, he told us to call Doug Gibson at Three Rivers Ranch, a fly-fishing lodge nearby in Idaho. We thought Doug might also suggest some good places to fish, but instead he insisted we come over to the ranch. Upon arrival we found that they were expecting us, and we were treated like guests. After dinner at the lodge, Doug took us out on Warm River (which might have been the watershed event that securely and permanently hooked Lynda on fly fishing), and insisted we stay the night at the ranch. After packing to leave the next morning, we tried to settle up but found that there was no settling up to be done. I was puzzled about this, but only for awhile. I soon realized that it was all orchestrated by Leigh.
I never asked him if he’d paid for it or called in a favor to our benefit, and he never said anything about it. But it was his doing. It was his way.
Much later, when my dad passed away, our family received a report from the charity we directed donations to. There, on the list of donations made in the name of Doug McLennan, was Leigh Perkins, Manchester, Vermont. It was his way.
When I was attending the University of Alberta in 1976, I began guiding fly fishers on the Bow River in the summers. The Bow at that time was unknown beyond Alberta. I invited Leigh to come to fish the river several times, and though he seemed sincerely interested, it didn’t work out for some time. In about 1979 though, I offered again, advising that we were finding a lot of good-sized rising fish on the Bow. That did it, and in September he and son Dave arranged a single day with me.
We did a short float on the river, starting at the edge of Calgary and finishing about five miles downstream. The fishing began slowly, but I had planned to be on a particularly good dry-fly island about midday in hopes that the fish would do their thing. After lunch the daily hatch of Blue-winged Olives began, and the fish began to rise. We spent the rest of the day there, casting to a seemingly endless supply of big rising rainbows.
When the fish started working in the quiet water behind the island I placed myself at Leigh’s shoulder, as I always did with clients. But this was different. Everything I had learned about fly fishing so far had come from books, a few friends, and experience. There were no other options. But now, here was a real expert, casting dry flies to rising trout on my river. I watched closely as he covered rises more quickly and efficiently than I knew it could be done. Using an 8-foot, 3-inch All Rounder—one of the original Orvis graphite rods with the spiral ridges—he dropped cast after cast about two feet above the fish. I didn’t know you could do that. Back then, when I cast to such fish I always made a dozen or so false casts to get everything organized and then tried to drop the fly about 10 feet above the fish to avoid spooking it. But of course when I did that, the fly often dragged just as it got to the fish. Leigh produced five perfect drifts over a fish in the time I would have gotten one. Deposit the fly just upstream of the fish; let it drift six feet or so; make a careful pickup and one false cast off to the side of the fish; repeat. This sequence was interrupted only when a fish took his fly, which was often. Each time this happened, Leigh set the hook and giggled with delight, but then quickly lost interest in that fish, casually dropping his rod tip to a downstream position and directing his attention back upstream to check if the other fish were still rising. He wanted to make sure there was another candidate available when he was through with this one. He did this often while a 20-inch rainbow was leaping and running downstream into the backing. He’d long ago come to understand that the most important moment was the one at which the fish ate the fly. It’s the insatiable thirst, and a universal trait of truly experienced fly fishers.
The impacts of this day were two-fold. After Leigh wrote a story about it in The Orvis News, the company’s in-house newsletter and fly fishing’s largest circulation print publication at the time, describing it as “the best day’s dry-fly fishing we’ve ever had,” word was officially out on the Bow. His story got our guiding business off the ground, and fly fishers began to come. So did outdoor writers like A.J. McClane, Lefty Kreh, Charles Brooks, Ernest Schwiebert, Gary Borger, and more, some at the urging of Leigh. Second, a multi-day trip to the Bow became an annual event for Leigh, who often brought members of his family, friends, or business associates.
Leigh always arrived in a rental car with a big pile of tackle, and left with a much smaller pile. He was known for generously scattering gear throughout the fly-fishing world—sometimes to the dismay of his employees. One of our guides recalled Leigh asking him at the end of the trip which rod he’d like to keep. Rick said he really liked that new Henry’s Fork—an 8½-foot, 5-weight. Leigh said, “Oh-oh. That one’s a prototype. I’m supposed to bring it back to the factory. I always get in trouble with the rod shop when I give away prototypes.” He then added, “Ah, what the hell, they’ll get over it. Here, take it and have fun with it.”
One year his fishing trip to Alberta was in August. We fished the Bow, and also made a side trip to a smaller Alberta stream. There he reprised his initial Alberta fly-fishing performance, catching a number of Trico-eating brown trout one after another in quick succession. This happened in a much-loved piece of water that has been known since that day as the Perkins Pool. Many local fly fishers still refer to it this way—some know the story, some do not. I expect there are other Perkins Pools, Perkins Runs, and Perkins Flats throughout the fly-fishing world, informally named in the same way.
It was during an October visit to Vermont in about 1980 to learn about rod building that Leigh’s influence on my bird hunting took root. One afternoon we took a walk in the woods with one of his Brittanys for a brief grouse and woodcock hunt. I had hunted plenty previously, but mostly without dogs, and this day I was along as a gunless observer. The dog went on point and Leigh said, “She’s got a bird pinned there. Here, take my gun and flush the bird, and you’ll be able to say you shot a woodcock.”
I took the gun, flushed the bird, and thereafter could say I shot at a woodcock. The shot was a miss, but the seed that was sown that day scored a direct hit. It was pointing dogs for me from then on. Leigh was thereafter one of the people I looked to for advice on canine matters. My education on this subject included Leigh’s strong recommendation that a bird dog (or three or four) should live in the house with the family.
Over the years he invited me to join him on a number of outdoor adventures of one kind or another—bird hunting in Montana, fly fishing in Wyoming, quail and duck shooting in Florida. I quickly learned that the only sensible reply to these invitations was, “That sounds great. Tell me where and when and I’ll be there,” for I knew that whatever was on the menu should not be missed.
In about 1995, he invited me to join him to hunt grey partridge and sharp-tailed grouse for a few days with Ben Williams in Montana. After a day of great dog work and great company, we were having a drink in Ben’s living room, going over the events of the day. I babbled on about what a thrill it was to hunt with two of my outdoor heroes. Then the discussion turned to the usual topics, which for Leigh and Ben meant mainly the work of the dogs. Leigh knew as much as anyone about the technical side of bird hunting—guns, loads, shooting methods—but at the end of a day he wanted to talk about birds and dogs rather than hits and misses.
It was after one of these days that my Brittany got a little rambunctious and broke a nice vase in Ben’s house. Ben and his wife Bobbie were very gracious about it, but after we left, Leigh sent a bouquet of flowers to Bobbie, thanking her for her hospitality and signing the card from both of us. When I found out and thanked him for smoothing things over on my behalf, he said, “No problem. I figured you needed all the help you could get.”
His time outdoors was shaped by three things. First, his immense curiosity. After a day on another Montana hunting trip he said what he always said after a day outdoors: “What a great day!” and then added, “But the best part was watching that falcon stoop on the birds we flushed. You almost never get to see that!”
Second, his relentless enthusiasm. In Florida I was among several guests joining him to hunt at his May’s Pond Plantation. After everyone arrived, he gave us a rundown of the next day’s events. “We’ll hunt ducks at daybreak, then come back here for breakfast. Then we’ll take the quail wagon out. After lunch in the field we’ll hunt quail some more, and then I’ve got a dove shoot lined up for late afternoon.” He was 76 at the time.
Third, his sense of humor, especially when the brunt of the laughter came at his expense, as when relating to others his somewhat questionable attempt at cleaning ducks in my mother’s kitchen sink. When that option ceased to be . . . “available,” he adapted nicely, and tried plucking ducks in a rental car as it raced down the highway toward the airport—about which he later reported, “It didn’t work that well. I tried to push the feathers out the window but they just got sucked back into the air vents and swirled around inside the car.”
For Leigh the story after the event was as important as the event itself, especially if it involved some chaos. When remembering and describing oddball things like the antics of the pet goat that lived in his house, Leigh would laugh till he almost couldn’t talk. And neither could the rest of us.
Along the way he passed on his thoughts on how to engage our children in hunting and fishing. He believed that if we introduce them when they’re young, they’ll learn to enjoy them early. They may leave them for awhile when careers, spouses, and perhaps their own children enter the picture, but they’ll often come back to them later. Lynda and I have followed this advice with our daughter, and as we babysit her family’s Brittany puppy tonight, I can vouch for its soundness.
Leigh Perkins is by far the largest influence on just about every part of my outdoor life, from the type of fly fishing I like best (casting dry flies to rising fish), to the type of hunting I like best (hunting prairie birds with pointing dogs) to the breeds of dogs I’ve owned (pointers, setters, Brittanys) to the way I cook ducks (medium rare, saving the carcasses for soup). He showed me that the essence of the outdoor experience can be found in both the expected and
unexpected places. Perhaps most importantly, he showed me how to enjoy hunting and fishing fully, whether the results are stellar or not. He once said, and I
paraphrase, “If you’re not happy with the hunting or fishing unless it turns out perfectly, you won’t be happy very often. The key is to expect and appreciate partial success, because that’s what we most often get.”
His legacy in fly fishing, bird hunting, business, and conservation is massive, widespread, enduring. But when asked once what he’d most like to be remembered for, he said, “My duck soup recipe.” He once also mused that if he hadn’t ended up with Orvis, he might have made a pretty good dog trainer.
I recently read the story in the June-July issue of Fly Fisherman titled “Our Mount Rushmore.” The article made me realize that everyone has a Mount Rushmore—a small group of people who stand above the rest in their influence and in our admiration. First and tallest on my Mount Rushmore is Leigh Perkins.
Dry-fly season is just starting on the Bow as I write this. I know a good spot. I’ll go there, and if I find some fish rising nicely I’ll do my best to catch one for Leigh. I’ll try to drop my fly about two feet above the rise, and if I hook up but lose the fish on the first jump, I’ll laugh a little and think, “What a great day.”
Jim McLennan is a Fly Fisherman contributing editor. He was one of the first guides on the Bow River, wrote the authoritative book Blue Ribbon Bow (1987), and opened Calgary’s first fly shop, Country Pleasures. He teaches fly-fishing schools and seminars in southern Alberta, and he’s a musician. You can hear and learn more about his music at www.mclennanflyfishing.com.