The scion of a wealthy Cleveland family, Mr. Perkins inherited an abiding interest in the outdoors from his mother, who took him on alligator-hunting expeditions, taught him to fish on the Chagrin River and encouraged him to curtail his education and train pointing dogs for a living. Instead, he overcame dyslexia and went off to college, then worked in Minnesota iron mines and became a salesman in Cleveland.
With help from a Dale Carnegie course, he rose to become the vice president of a gas welding and cutting equipment company, then quit after he learned that the president’s son was taking over the business. Looking for a way to combine his interests in business and the outdoors, he took out a loan and bought Orvis in 1965 for $400,000, taking over a company that C.F. Orvis had founded in Manchester, Vt., in 1856.
Mr. Perkins had been a devoted Orvis customer since he was a college student in western Massachusetts and bought his first fly rod from the company. But he said he believed there was room to expand far beyond fishing and decided to sell “all the trappings that an upscale outdoorsman country-lover needed and desired,” as he later put it.
Alongside three-piece bamboo rods and flies with names like the Royal Coachman and Lefty’s Deceiver, the company began selling products including Fatwood fire kindling, polyester dog beds and canvas-and-leather Battenkill luggage, named for a Vermont river where Mr. Perkins often fished.
“What we were selling was, for lack of a better word, a lifestyle,” he recalled in “A Sportsman’s Life,” a 1999 memoir he wrote with Geoffrey Norman. “It is an appreciation of the outdoors and country living; a kind of Americanized version of elegant, English country living and things like tweeds and dogs were all a part of it. I’m sure I underestimated the appetite of Americans for high-end sport.”
By the time he retired as president and chief executive in 1992, Orvis had grown from 20 employees to more than 700, and from annual sales of $500,000 to more than $90 million. The company now operates more than 80 retail stores in the United States and Britain, with sales driven by online shopping and catalogues that Mr. Perkins sent to millions of homes each year.
He seemed to have purchased Orvis at the perfect time, with credit cards and overnight delivery services just beginning to shake up the catalogue business. Although he faced some early resistance, he persuaded competitors such as L.L. Bean to share their mailing lists in an effort to reach more customers. “Eddie Bauer himself threw me out of his store,” he told the New York Times in 2003. “But within a year, we were all trading lists.”
Mr. Perkins angered some customers who complained that Orvis’s catalogues were suddenly filled with copper wastebaskets, silk underwear and items such as the Phona-Duck, a telephone that looked like a duck decoy. Unbowed, he said that women’s clothing accounted for more of the company’s sales than hunting or fishing products and noted that part of the proceeds went into developing new fishing gear.
Shortly after buying Orvis, Mr. Perkins started a fly-fishing school, followed by a wing-shooting program. Paul Schullery, an author and former executive director of the American Museum of Fly Fishing, said the classes were among the first of their kind in the United States, offering formal training in activities that were often considered upper crust — at least compared to deer hunting or bass fishing — and were traditionally “taught by your dad or brother or uncle.”
“His vision for teaching and bringing people into the sport became a pillar we’ve built the company around,” said Mr. Perkins’s grandson Simon, the current president of Orvis. In an interview, he added that Mr. Perkins was also one of the first executives to start dedicating corporate earnings to conservation, donating 5 percent of pretax profits to conservation organizations beginning in the 1980s. “He wanted to protect these places to be able to connect and share with others, but he also saw it as good business — investing in the landscape and the habitat.”
Long after he became an executive, Mr. Perkins hunted or fished more than 250 days a year, frequently testing the company’s gear himself. At his 3,500-acre plantation in northern Florida, he hunted grouse and woodcock and had what his second wife, Romi, once called “a pond for every day of the week.”
“I thought it would be an idyllic existence,” Mr. Perkins told the Times in 1992, recalling his decision to buy Orvis. Later that year, his son Leigh H. “Perk” Perkins Jr. became CEO, with his younger son David helping run the company. “Nobody feels sorry for me,” Mr. Perkins continued. “I’m living a good life.”
Leigh Haskell Perkins was born in Cleveland on Nov. 27, 1927. Despite growing up with hay fever, he spent much of his childhood outdoors with his mother, a rare fisherwoman in an age when most anglers were men. Together, they caught cutthroat trout in Montana and Atlantic salmon in Canada’s Gaspé Peninsula. Mr. Perkins said he was eventually kicked out of grade school for skipping class to go fishing.
His father, a manufacturing company chairman and philanthropist, couldn’t care less about angling and told a young Mr. Perkins that he wasn’t smart enough to get away with a life of leisure. “He sent me off to boarding school at age 11, primarily to get me out from under my mother’s waders and hunting boots,” Mr. Perkins told the Times.
After arriving at his Connecticut boarding school, Mr. Perkins skinned a skunk in the locker room. He later transferred to the Asheville School in North Carolina, where he spent his free time catching muskrats, and studied at Williams College in Massachusetts, grouse hunting on the weekends. When he was hospitalized for three weeks with polio, his mother declined to visit, citing her previously scheduled grouse-hunting trip. “I understood that entirely,” he said.
In 1950, the weekend after Mr. Perkins graduated from college, he married Mary Hammerly. The marriage ended in divorce, as did his marriage to Romi Myers, who wrote the 1986 Orvis cookbook “Game in Season.”
Survivors include his third wife, the former Anne Ireland; three children from his first marriage, Perk, David and Molly Perkins; a daughter from his second marriage, Melissa McAvoy; three stepchildren, Penny Mesic, Annie Ireland and Jamie Ireland; 11 grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren. A son from his first marriage, Ralph Perkins, died in 1969.
Mr. Perkins passed on his love of fly-fishing to his sons and said he saw aspects of his family in the 1992 movie “A River Runs Through It,” based on a Norman Maclean novella in which a Presbyterian minister teaches his children that fly-fishing “is an art that is performed on a four-count rhythm between 10 and 2 o’clock.”
Unlike the film’s patriarch, Mr. Perkins championed a far looser approach to fishing. “I am anything but rigid,” he said. “There is only one reason in the world to go fishing: to enjoy yourself. Anything that detracts from enjoying yourself is to be avoided.”