“Fly fishing is a deep sport,” said Joan Wulff, known as the First Lady of fly fishing for her mastery of casting, the art of lofting a lure out over a stream to land on the water’s surface and attract a trout. She will speak at the Phoenicia Library in the Sporting Legends of the Catskills series on Saturday, October 27, from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.
“My life has been centered around teaching fly casting,” said Wulff, now 92, winner of 17 national casting titles. She is famous for winning a distance casting event in 1951 against an all-male field of competitors. In 1960, she cast a fly 161 feet, a women’s record that remains unofficial only because it occurred in mixed competition.
Casting entered her life early, since Wulff ‘s father was a hunter and fisherman who had an outdoor recreation store in Paterson, New Jersey. Near their home was a pond where a club would meet every Sunday to practice casting. “My father and brothers always went, but they left me out because I was a girl,” Wulff recalled. “Eventually I saw what it looked like and wanted to do it.” She was ten years old when she talked her mother into letting her take a rod to the pond. “I didn’t put it together right, and the top part fell into the pond. The next-door neighbor came home before my father, brought a rake, and got it out. But my father was not upset, and after that, he invited me to go out to the casting club practice.” She was 13 when she won a trophy in a junior casting competition. “When you win something, it gives you incentive to practice,” she observed. “You sharpen up, or you’re out.”
As she became more and more proficient, Joan traveled the country, competing in casting contests for both distance and accuracy. She was also known for trick casting, using a fly rod to slice bananas, break balloons, and snap a cigarette from the mouth of emcee Johnny Carson on the television game show Who Do You Trust?
Joan married author and illustrator Lee Wulff, who was then, she says, “the most famous fly fisherman in world,” having appeared on the TV show American Sportsman, which helped popularize fly fishing. In 1987, they opened the Wulff School of Fly Fishing in Lew Beach, a town on the Upper Beaverkill in western Sullivan County, within the Catskill Park. Joan’s specialty remained casting.
“In teaching casting, there was no language,” she explained. “Instructors would say, ‘Watch me, and do it like this.’ There was never any analysis. Once I had the school, I realized you had to have the mechanics of the cast down.” She broke the casting stroke into three parts, defining the slow start, when to speed up, when to put power in, when to relax the effort, as well as describing muscle movements. Her book Fly Casting Techniques was published in 1987 by Lyons Press, followed by three other books and a video. Joan and Lee also founded Royal Wulff Products, which carries items such as the pocketed fly fishing vest Lee invented in 1931.
After her husband’s death in 1991, Joan continued to develop the school, which is now run by her son, Doug Cummings, teaching the complex elements of an exacting sport. “For fly fishing,” she said, “you have to be able to identify the hatching insects that the trout feed on, and you have to read the water. The fish are not just swimming around — you have to pick a place where they’ll be easy to catch. You have to learn how to wade, how to play a fish when you hook it, and how to put it back in water, since we all do catch-and-release.”
Joan continues to fish, although she’s only been out a few times this year. Climbing up and down rocky shores has become a challenge, and she can’t stand in the water for more than two hours. But the thrill of fishing keeps her going. “You’re connected to the life force of another creature, through the fly rod in your hand. Then you release the fish to go have babies and maybe get caught by someone else. And the fish you caught might have been a gift from someone, too.”
She is gratified that women are increasingly involved in the sport. A recent New York Times article featured a young woman who won a competition in Europe, and there has been a growth in women’s fishing clubs. “I have waited all my life for women to embrace fly fishing, and for men to welcome them,” she said. “I can die happy now.”
All along, she was accepted by the men because of her ability to cast. “I wasn’t pestering someone to show me how to do things or to tie on my fly. I was independent. I wasn’t a great fisherman at understanding bug life or knowing the Latin names, but by casting my way into it, I gradually discovered how to read the water. With fly fishing, you can go as deep as you want.”
Joan Wulff will appear on Saturday, October 27, from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m., at the Phoenicia Library, 48 Main Street. Admission is free.