Interview with Orvis’s Steve Hemkens

Steve Hemkens is a pretty fishy guy.  He’s been at Orvis for about 5 years now as Product Design Specialist where he had a hand in crafting the Helios, one of the top rods in the industry today, and the Mirage reel, another top line product.  Steve talks about what makes the Helios worth it, about going to church on Crooked Island and about a 14 foot hammerhead. Read on.

Steve put up with a rather rambunctious interview with my daughter doing her best to interrupt things.  Steve, the oldest of 7 children, was a good sport about things.

I heard you were involved in the development of the Helios.  What was your role in that?

The short version of that which has become the company narrative is before I knew better, I had just relocated from St. Louis where I grew up and where I lived after college for 5 years and started in Jim Lapage‘s office, who runs the rod and tackle division here at Orvis and I said “Jim, we need to make the lightest fly rod in the world.”  He looked at me and kind of acknowledged it and picked up the phone and called Jim Logan who was the head the head of our manufacturing and runs our rod shop up in Manchester and he says “Jim, it’s Jim.  Start working on the lightest fly rod in the world.” and he hung up the phone.  Essentially, it started like that.  It was a collaborative process with me and Jim Lapage, Tim Rosenbauer and the guys in the rod shop and created this perfect storm of a great technology, looking at the way we design rods in terms of the mandrills and the lay-ups differently and looking really critically at the more nuanced parts in terms of the guides and the paint color and the reel seat and the tube and the name and everything just coalesced into a great success story and its been very humbling for me to be a part of a product introduction at a weird time in the world economy when discretionary incomes are down and you wouldn’t think an $800 fly rod would be a great time to be selling something like that, but it has captured people’s imaginations and really done a lot for validating Orvis as a fly fishing company in a lot of places where people didn’t take us seriously before.  It’s been pretty fun.

What is it that makes the Helios worth that $800 price tag?  I’m a lover of cheap things and when I look at an $800 fly rod I think “It may be a really awesome fly rod, but that’s two not totally awesome but serviceable fly rods.”  What justifies that $800 price tag?

The short answer is the rod technology.  We’ve got a proprietary, Defense level technology, it can’t be exported, we can’t share the manufacturer with peers in the industry or anything else and it’s the same thermo-plastic resin and fiber technology that the military uses on the rotor blades on the Apache helicopter. They were having problems in some of the campaigns with the rotor blades not lasting long enough and they were able to significantly improve performance and durability and save a whole lot of money by using this technology and fortunately we were able to establish a relationship there and start making rods and it enables us to use a lot less material and get the same or greater strength than what you’d get in Brand X out there in the market.  I’d like to think you’d be able to tell and that the difference between that and another rod out there is discernible enough that you’d be willing to step up to the plate and take the plunge.

Don't do this with your Helios.

So, on the technology front, you are saying that you could tell me, but you’d have to kill me?

Yeah, the guys with the black suburbans and the curly cue earphones would come and take me away.  Really, I’m not blowing smoke… it is real, proprietary technology that as far as we know, no one else is using.  We feel we’ve got something special and the market place has voted.

Your last trip was to Grand Bahama?

Yeah I was down there about two, two and a half weeks ago.  What a surprise. It was pretty awesome.  I was fortunate to fish with two kind of ledgends… Stalney Glinton, who is at North Riding Point Club and I fished one day, unguided, with David Pinder, who was at Deep Water Cay and he and his brothers Jeffery and Joseph do their own thing now, but he’s been doing it for, what, 30 years now… just to fish with one of those legends, like the partriarch of a bonefishing family, kind of like the Leydens on Andros, was just awesome.  It was a spectacular day of fishing.  I may never have a day of bonefishing that rivals that again in my life. Didn’t catch any big fish, but we were cruising back at the end and he looked at me and he said “How many fish do you think you hooked today” and I said “Ya know, I couldn’t even begin to think, but… dozens.”  It was pretty cool.

Bonefish, Orvisitized.

When you are out on the water a lot you see things that other people just don’t.  Is there something you’ve seen along those lines out there on the flats?

I go tarpon fishing in the pan handle every year with a good friend of mine who is a great guide.  We had a really great year this year with a lot of great fish.  We had a great stream of tarpon, all mature fish, 80-120 pound fish, all 4-5 feet long, big fish, in four feet of water, crystal clear, and they were swimming twice as fast as all the other strings of fish.  I threw at them and didn’t get a look and we just kind of shrugged it off and we were waiting for the next string when 10 seconds later a 12 or 14 foot hammer head came cruising up the beach.  He was just dogging that whole school of tarpon.  It was one of those experiences where you realize that a fish that is six feet long, even free swimming when he’s not vulnerable on the end of someone’s line, has something out there that wants to eat him.

Nice tarpon.

For bonefish, on this last trip I was on… just seeing a creature that is perfectly adapted to its environment when you have fish that are 6-7 pounds in water not even deep enough to cover their back and they are just wallowing around because they know none of their predators can get to them and yet as reckless as they can be when they are feeding they are still hyper aware and a shadow or a poorly cast fly can freak them out and they are just gone.  They anatomy and their colors and how they can change direction and disappear and how they can feed without being predated upon is really awesome.

Is there something beyond the fish that you associate with bonefishing?

For me, I’ve only bonefished in the Bahamas and in Florida, so I have a really strong association with the islands and the people.  I think about going to Crooked Island and staying there on Colonel Hill with one of my saltwater fishing buddies who is a youth minister back in Missouri who had just gotten back from a ministry in Africa, they are 7th Day Adventist so they always travel on Saturdays so they can go to church.  We had had a great week there. Great food. Great fishing.  A really special experience and they invited us to go to church.  It was fun to see the guys that pushed us around on the boats all dressed up in the band playing a toothpaste colored Stratocaster and the other guy is the minister.  Seeing them put their tithe in the plate, the money we had just tipped them and seeing my buddy get up there and preach and having this overweight white boy from St. Louis getting “Amens” from the Bahamian church goes was really awesome.  Those are memories I associate with bonefishing.  Also, on Andros, when you have someone that wants a pack of smokes so somebody knocks on somebody’s door and comes back a few minutes later walks out with a couple boxes of Marlboros.  It’s just a different place. It is a different life and a really inviting and cool culture they have down there and how they are all inextricably linked to the Ocean, be it as fisherman or lobsterman or tourism.  They get it.

There are so many places to head for bonefish.  Is there somewhere you are intrigued to check out?

I’m intrigued about Hawaii.  I’ve heard a lot of great stuff about fishing there, how technical it is, how big the fish are. So that is really interesting.  I’d love to go to Cuba to fish.  It just seems, having never been there, to be a complete cultural experience and relatively underexploited.  The Seychelles are captivating as a potential destination.  I really want to get back to Florida again because I’ve been so humbled fishing for bonefish there, just the amount of traffic and size of the fish, it continues to be a strong draw for me.

I often asked what rod and reel people are throwing… I bet I know what rod and reel you are throwing.

I am usually throwing a Helios.  On this last trip I was throwing a Hydros, which is the scaled down version of the Helios, it is the same blank without the recoil guides, it doesn’t have as nice a reel seat or tube so we can offer it for substantially less.  You don’t have to spend $800 to get Helios quality.  I was fishing that and the new Access rods, which we have worked on really hard over the past couple years which we are introducing right now. Those are $350 I think, for the saltwater version.  My favorite set up right now is the Helios 9 weight.  It is lighter than a lot of 7 weights out there on the market, so you feel like you are throwing a lighter rod, but when the wind picks up or you are throwing bigger flies it is a lot more effective.  If I had one rod to use it would be the Helios 9 weight and the Mirage reel, which was another one of my babies over the past couple of years.  I’m biased because I get to use the fruits of my labor when I go fishing, so I tend to stick pretty close to home.

Lip hooking is good, but you aren't doing it right.

(At this point in the interview, a plumber showed up and my 3 year old opened the door to this total stranger… seemed a good point to stop).

Thanks Steve for your time and for putting up with the hectic nature of the interview.  Steve is sending a Helios 8 weight for use on my Belize trip and a line for the 10 weight.  I look forward to getting them out on the flats of Belize.

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4 comments

  1. Great interview. This guy Hemkens must be good. He wears his hat backwards when hoisting tarpon. When does he have time to turn it that way. And, he drives over rods and tells it. Haven’t we all learned the auto, esp the SUV with a power rear window, is the true rod killer. Other than the hat, I like real people who know their poop. I also like the Helios, as you know.

  2. Cheers. Can’t wait to get the Helios out there.

  3. I’m an industrial designer(product design) ….would love his job

  4. Helios is a fine rod in all respects but one: the reel seat is too small for a Bogdan reel. Please forward this to Hemkens to see there is a way to correct this.

    DML756

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