An Underground Field Test: The Orvis Helios Fly Rod

Category:
fly fishing stuff, Review
Added Date:
Wednesday, 5 Sep, 2007
Summary
Because I'm devilishly handsome, Orvis shipped me a 4-pc, 8.5' 5wt "mid-flex" prototype of their yet-to-be-released "Helios" fly rod -- a rod said to be even lighter than their Zero Gravity series.
 
Content
Because I'm devilishly handsome, Orvis shipped me a 4-pc, 8.5' 5wt "mid-flex" prototype of their yet-to-be-released "Helios" fly rod -- a rod said to be even lighter than their Zero Gravity series.

heliosrodonrock
The fishing was slow, so the Helios photo session took place.

"How can it be lighter than Zero?" you ask? Well, despite consulting Albert Einstein on this one, we're not sure, but I will testify that the rod is light. In fact, the box arrived, I hefted the tube, thought it was empty, and figured I was the victim of a practical joke played by Hathaway at Orvis.

Turns out the joke was on me. There was a rod in the tube -- a prototype so new it lacked the Orvis name, the "Helios" label, and even the final cosmetics.


A call to Tom Rosenbauer at Orvis was oddly unproductive; manufacturers are usually keen to babble endlessly (to the point of nausea) about the technology behind their shiny new stuff, but Rosenbauer cagily told me to forget about the technology and just report my impressions.

Hmmm. The Mystery Pitch. Interesting. First Impressions
Let's just get this out of the way; I'm not easily bowled over by high-tech fly rod technology. One friend jokes that I'm a low modulus guy stuck in a high modulus fly fishing world, and there's a ring of truth to that.

I fish a lot of bamboo and fiberglass, and own damned few graphite rods, which I often find stiff and lacking in the kind of feedback I want in a fly rod.

With this as a backdrop, my first lawn casts with the 8.5' "mid-flex" Helios were a surprise; the rod cast smoothly at what you might call "normal trout ranges" and shockingly -- I even felt a little flex under the cork grip at longer distances.

At short ranges, the rod lacked the kind of feel I get from my higher-mass bamboo and glass rods, but it was accurate and not overly stiff or clumsy.

Aerial mends were easy due to the light weight of the rod, though the higher line speeds generated by high-modulus rods give you less time to make the mends (compared to low modulus rods), so I'm calling this one a wash.

Overall -- for a rod I would have told you was not interesting to me -- I was pleasantly surprised.

Field Testing (or, It's a Hard Life)
One reason why I've turned down some testing gigs is because I don't want to spend my precious fly fishing time field-testing equipment I don't like.

I liked the Helios enough that I went ahead and float-tubed an alpine lake, fished a technical section of the Upper Sacramento River, and even hit some pocket water with Local Kung Fu Guide Wayne Eng, who fished the rod most of the evening.

From the float tube -- hardly the ideal environment for a medium-flexing 8.5' rod -- I was able to cast for distance, and more importantly, do so accurately.

Popping a sinking line out of the water was no big deal (a task that's not much fun with softer rods), and threading a damsel nymph between lily pads was a straightforward, no-hassle job.

The same held true on the technical water, where you sometimes have to make long casts, and you always have to make long roll casts.

My overall impression was of a very smooth fly rod -- one that cast for distance without folding, yet fished well at shorter distances.

The Helios bore little resemblance to the "parking lot rods" that largely soured me on graphite, though it's no match for my softer, low-modulus rods at short ranges.

Frankly, that's to be expected; life is a series of tradeoffs, and the majority of fly rods nowadays seem tuned to cast just a bit further than is useful for most trout fishing.

Then again, they're largely being sold to people who fish less then five times a year, so that distance bias helps sell rods.

helioswayne
Wayne Eng fished the Helios... and gave it a thumbs up.

Wayne Eng spent several hours with the rod fishing pocket water, and his face positively lit up. "Smooth" was the word he used over and over to describe the rod, and -- sadly -- he got to experience it with a couple of decent fish (I never caught anything bigger than 12" on the Helios).

He said it was "very trouty" and because he has scads more experience with current rod technology, I'd suggest his word carries a little weight.

He gave it a thumbs up.

Tough Stuff
One Orvis staffer told me their exclusive thermoplastic resin technology actually placed them ahead of the competitors they'd lagged behind for so many years; they were able to build extremely light fly rods that weren't brittle or fragile.

Time will be the judge of the truth of that statement, but I'll say this -- it certainly seems durable. Orvis is going to cringe when they read this, but twice I smacked the Helios very hard against solid, non-moving objects, and both times I was practicing the traditional "my Wonderdog broke your rod" excuses while examining the tip.

helioswrap
The Helios took a fair amount of abuse without barking.

No breaks, no cracks, no excuses -- not even after fishing the rod a couple times since.

That's not exactly conclusive laboratory evidence, but it's the kind of thing that allows a rod company to offer a long-term, no-questions warranty without breaking out in a rash.

The Beauty of High Modulus
Here I'll make an embarrassing admission; on long casts, my tip (fly rod tip) tends to wander a bit, and low modulus materials often amplify that.

It's one area where high modulus works well, and in this case, it was true. High modulus rods are also good nymph rods; they're light -- so highsticking all day doesn't warp your shoulder -- and they react very quickly for a more positive hookset.

Naturally, I can't comment directly on those characteristics because I'm an effete dry fly fisher who rarely nymphs, but if you're into lightweight rods for nymphing -- a wholly quantifiable characteristic -- then the break-resistant Helios is probably worth a try.

The Rod
The Helios I fished was a prototype -- and one of the few things I learned about the production models (which a little Woodward & Bernstein work tells me will be called "Zero Gravity Helios" rods) is the blanks will remain an attractive olive-colored blank but the wraps will be different -- probably a deeper burgundy. [Update: Wrong. The blanks are dark colored in the final production models, and the reel seats are different from the photograph]
 heliosreelseat
The new reel seat? Not as pretty as the skeletonized reel seat, but lighter.

In the pursuit of lower overall rod weight, Orvis abandoned their attractive skeletonized reel seat from the Zero Gravity rods in favor of a seat with a graphite insert.

I liked the old one, but don't have any significant problems with the new one, which hold reels tightly. It just doesn't look as nice.

I will admit to disliking the 7" Orvis cork grip, which most would call a "superfine" style.

It's too long for a rod this length and weight, and even worse, I'm a total crank about grips, and believe the superfine and Western style grips that come with most modern graphite rods aren't very comfortable over a long day of fishing.

In other words, the whole industry is wrong, and I'm right. (Just for context.)

Let's chalk that up to a personal gripe, and hope that the rest of the world starts conforming to my singular view of the universe.

The Last Cast
Orvis is going to make a lot of noise about the feather-esque heft of their Zero Gravity Helios rods, and in a marketing-oriented universe, it makes perfect sense.

Still, I happily fish rods several ounces heavier than the 8.5' Helios, so the durability and fishability of the of the Helios is a more useful concept to me than the weight.

Given my frequent rants against brittle fly rods -- which can ruin a day, if not a trip -- I've gotta believe Orvis is onto something here.
Read More The Underground Picks the Dozen Best Fly Rods of All Time Period

Still, the measure of any fly rod is how it fishes, and I was nicely surprised by the smoothness of the Helios, though it lacks the smooth, like buttah feedback of my heavier, low-modulus rods.

If I nymphed a lot I probably would own a rod like this, and if I was casting all day from a wind-besieged drift boat, I'd be damned happy I'd brought this thing along.

If I was a dealer, the whole package -- the blank, the really nice tube, the cosmetics... they'd make me happy. It's about time they started making graphite rods that didn't look like military radio antennas.

By any account Orvis fell behind the "cutting edge" rod companies during the boom years of the 1990s and early 2000s, and their attempts to catch up weren't always graceful.

It's possible they're now racing ahead of the pack, though the Sage, Winston and other partisans will no doubt have something to say about that.

 
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Destinations
Red Bluff is a city in and the county seat of Tehama County, California, United States. The population was 14,076 at the 2010 census, up from 13,147 at the 2000 census. Red Bluff is ... moreon the northern edge of the Sacramento Valley, and is the third largest city in the Shasta Cascade region. It is about 30 mi south of Redding, 40 mi northwest of Chico, and 125 mi north of Sacramento.
Fishing Waters
The Sacramento River is the principal river of Northern California in the United States, and is the largest river in California. Rising in the Klamath Mountains, near Mount Shasta ... more(in Siskiyou county), the river flows south for 445 miles, through the northern section (Sacramento Valley) of the Central Valley, before reaching the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta and San Francisco Bay. It forms a common delta with the San Joaquin River before entering Suisun Bay, the northern arm of San Francisco Bay. The river drains about 27,500 square miles, with an average annual runoff of 22 million acre-feet, in 19 California counties, mostly within a region bounded by the Coast Ranges and Sierra Nevada known as the Sacramento Valley, but also extending as far as the volcanic plateaus of Northeastern California.
Emerald green, wild and free. This is the Smith River, one of the longest rivers in the National Scenic Rivers System and the only major river in California to remain un-dammed. Over ... more300 miles of this river are federally protected, forming an important part of the Smith River National Recreation Area. The US Forest Service is responsible for overseeing the diverse region as the Smith River and its tributaries make their way through the Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park and Redwoods National Park to the Pacific Ocean.

The National Recreation Area is more than 450 square miles of land set aside to preserve great forests, rare fauna, wilderness landscapes, pristine mountain lakes and immense, deep canyons. The presence of old growth trees serves to keep the river banks of the river and its tributaries shaded and cool, a key element to protecting native, cold-water fisheries. The area is well known for its abundance of steelhead trout and salmon.
The McCloud River and its tributaries offer excellent fishing opportunities. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife regularly stocks the Upper McCloud River at Lower Falls ... morewith Rainbow trout. Anglers also occasionally catch German brown trout from earlier stockings or those that traveled up from the McCloud Reservoir, and Brook trout. Remember that the Bull Trout or Dolly Varden is an endangered species and should be released if caught.

The Lower McCloud River, from McCloud Reservoir to Shasta Lake, has been designated a Wild Trout Stream by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. This portion of the river is not artificially stocked and has special fishing regulations. Only artificial flies and lures with barbless hooks can be used. At the McCloud River Preserve, located one mile below Ah-Di- Na Campground, fishing is limited to catch and release only. Consult the map on the back, and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife Regulations for further details and restrictions.

Endangered species - The McCloud River is the only fishery in California which supports the now rare Bull Trout, also known as the Dolly Varden Trout. Actually a member of the Char family, it is found between Lower Falls and Shasta Lake. Because it is considered an endangered species by the State of California, it must be released if caught.
Game Fish Opportunities:
Trips
$
450
/ Boat
Capacity:
1 - 2 anglers
Days:
Daily
Duration:
1 day
We fish the Lower Sac year-round for trout. We fish the river from drift boats, typically floating from 6 to 15 miles in a day. Although the nymph grab is good all year, the best times ... morefor consistent mid-day dry fly fishing are March-May and September-November. We also do a lot of swinging flies with lightweight spey rods. This is a great way to fish the shallow riffles.
$
375
-
$
500
/ Boat
Capacity:
1 - 2 anglers
Days:
Daily
Duration:
4 hours - 8 hours
If you have ever driven over the Lower Sacramento River or even fished it, you know that due to its shear size and abundance of water, this makes it extremely intimidating. That's ... morewhy having a knowledgable Lower Sacramento River Fly Fishing Guide is so important. A great guide will not only put you on the fish, but will also show you the fishy spots accessable by land, the put ins and pull outs for boats, as well as the bug life, the flies to use and when you go on your own, how to put all that t ogether to be successful. The Lower Sacramento River is a big tailwater fishery and California's biggest trout river, and its rainbows are just as big and powerful as the river they live in. If you want big fish and year-round fishing, this is the river for you. With more food than your local all you can eat buffets (2,500 insects per square foot of river), the average fish grows to a healthy and hard-fighting 16-18", and pigs pushing two feet are not out of the question, so bring some big guns. The fishing season is year-round, and water temperatures remain fairly constant too, as the river comes out of the bottom of Shasta Lake.

This river consists of long, indescribable, spring creek like stretches that are broken up by islands, deep pools, long riffles, gravel bars and undulating shelf’s, many of which are more pronounced during lower flows.

If having one of the best trout fisheries in the state isn’t enough, the Lower Sac also hosts some great runs of Steelhead and Chinook salmon too. It also hosts a variety of other fish, such as, shad, squawfish, stripers, largemouth and smallmouth bass, these populations of fish become higher the farther you get away from Shasta Lake. The highest flows are during the summer months, when snow melt is at its greatest, so a drift boat is highly recommended.

You can walk and wade during the higher flows if you so desire, but staying near the bank will be your safest bet. The best time to walk and wade the Lower Sac is going to be during fall, winter and early spring, there is very little snow melt, and the rain that falls goes to filling up the lake, so the river is low and great for walk and wading. This is the time to get out there and really learn the river's bottom and fish those slots that only come out in lower flows, either way “PLEASE WADE WITH CAUTION”. But due to the river’s size and the amount of private property along its banks, those that prefer to wade have two options. One is to fish from public parks and access points along the 16 miles or river between Redding and Anderson, or, from your boat, getting out at the riffles and fishy slots to make some casts.

Public access is fairly easy though on the Lower Sac, there are 6 boat launches, and many public parks and access points along the river that flows almost parallel with interstate 5.

-Brian
Outfitters
Founded in 2007 by Gary MacFarland of Paradise, California, Tailwater Guide Service is a complete fly fishing service. We specialize in fishing the finest rivers and lakes that Northern ... moreCalifornia has to offer. The Lower Sacramento River, from Redding to above Red Bluff is best known for its native rainbow trout. The Feather River, which flows through downtown Oroville, is well known for its acrobatic steelhead trout, averaging from 2 to 12 pounds. Lake Almanor, near Chester, is a high altitude mountain lake which boasts some of the larger rainbow and brown trout in the area. And Bucks Lake, a seasonal fishery, features brook, brown, and rainbow trout that love to hit flies offered to them.

Licensed and bonded, California Department of Fish and Game.
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23 comments
I found the one I had to be more brittle then my other graphite rods. But Orvis was excellent at replacing the rod. I really like the feel of it, not like a broomstick some new fast action rods feel like.
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In our economic system, The "worth" of something is defined by what you're willing to pay for it, which makes it difficult for me to say yes or no. I will say that the mega-lightweight form factor of the Helios is less important in a 5 wt than it is in a big saltwater rod. That said, if you like the Helios, then maybe you'll like another, though I'd think it wouldn't be too hard to notice that the ... more Hydros - several hundred less than a helios - is largely a Helios blank decorated with less-expensive goodies. No, I don't think it's exactly the same blank, but it's close enough for the price. Then again, I cast a very nice 8'9" 4wt the other day that cost about $180. Really, you can spend as much or as little as you have to these days. Good luck.
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Hi Tom, I was actually gifted an Orvis Helios 908 when I was living down near the coast. Now I'm living closer to a trout stream and I am looking for a five weight rod. The 908 rod is great, but I didn't pay for it. Is the 5 weight worth the money, or should I be looking at other manufacturers? NB: My only rod is the Orvis saltwater rod, and I'm learning freshwater right now.
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Aaron: The reel is a Ross San Miguel, which is no longer produced. It's a very pricey reel, and I wouldn't own one if I hadn't stumbled onto the thing basically at cost when I was feeling flush with cash. I'm not much of a reel snob, but found myself coveting a San Miguel because of the retro cutouts and solid backside. It's quite smooth, though this one's been back to Ross twice for service issues ... more (rare for a Ross reel).
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Hi, kinda late to the party I know, but could someone tell me what the real in the top picture is, it's a beautiful design. Cheers
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[...] regular Undergrounders might remember my field test of the Orvis Helios fly rod. I liked it, though not as much as the Detroit Free Press (found via MidCurrent), who loved the [...]
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What we fly fishers REALLY need is a tackle shop where we can test-cast a few rods of the same weight by different manufacturers. How else can you tell whether a rod is right for your style, or lack of it? Most shops I go to carry only one or two flavors--Orvis, Winston, and St. Croix, or Sage, Loomis and Redington, for example.
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So if the Helios is "the lightest," why doesn't Orvis publish its weights like Winston does?
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[...] also admit coveting a 7wt version of the Orvis Helios I field tested for streamer fishing (damnit, I am going to master that next year), but a fly rod choice is too [...]
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David: Don't know how much longer I'll have the rod, but we'll see. And yeah, if I fished graphite rods, I'd probably need to have them built by customer builders. Sami: I'm either devilishly handsome or I married way, way above myself, which -- come to think of it -- is probably the truth. Damn. SMJ: There's no story. I pulled the Orvis and Cabelas affiliate links because they basically generated ... more zero revenue for the site, and amounted to free advertising for those guys. Affiliate links really only work if you constantly push readers to the sites, and I'm just not up for that. It was just part of a general shakeup of the sidebar that coincided with the addition of an ad from RR. Some of the affiliate links might come back for Xmas... So, no controversy. No nothing.
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Orvis must not have been too happy with your review, because the link they used to have under "Our Affiliates" is no longer there. Cabela's link is gone too. What's the story behind that?
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TC writes.. Because I'm devilishly handsome, I ask, "what in the world have you been drinking"? The time has come for the fish to speak...it has nothing to do about September doldrums...heat,wind,crowds,etc....it is your mug that puts the likes of I and my brothers to sleep when you show up on the Sac. Billi Bob Brown
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TC, OK, I can't believe I am saying this. Bring it up next time we take the boat out, would like to cast it. It would be nice if someone would suggest to Orvis to start custom rod dept. Like you stock grips on most Tupperware rods leave me cold. David
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Always a pleasure, you guys. C3C: The photos are similar, but if you check the URLs, you'll find there two different pics, cropped slightly differently. Scheez. As for the rod price, Orvis is playing it pretty close to the vest; no release date, no confirmation of name, no pricing (though we can assume it will be their new high end rod).
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I suppose you could manage the latter with just two...give him the first bottle free, one glass at a time over two hours, and then ask if he'll forget for the second one...seems like it would work to me.
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I think the price depends on whether you're asking what Orvis will charge, or what it will cost me (i.e. how much Irish Whiskey) to get Tom to forget he loaned it to me.
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So, I just went back and read the "full" article and I apologize...on the homepage it was ONLY the reprinted stuff. Anyway, nice read/rod...price?
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hey hey hey, am I mistaken, or has the Underground RE-posted a previous article, same picture too?! Tom, you're slipping.
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Awwwww, you gotta give it back?!
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"though it lacks the smooth, like buttah feedback of my heavier, low-modulus rods." Moving on, sure, I'll let you try it, unless Orvis realizes I have no good reason for holding onto the thing and ask for it back...
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It's not like I'll ever throw that line back in your face when you're giving me a hard time for fishing graphite... Mwahahahaha. And now that you've tried to beat that rod half to death, maybe you'll even let me cast it...
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How about "High Modulus' Good Points"?
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"The Beauty of High Modulus" - Tom Chandler, September 5, 2007
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