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Royal Wulff



By Jon Wurtmann



To call Joan Wulff royalty is a well-worn accolade in the fishing world.  It’s a phrase that, while fitting, has been rubbed smooth like an old silver dollar.  Yet, somehow it’s just as comfortable as that same dollar resting snug in your pocket.

At shows and appearances, nervous and devoted fans crowd around her, seeking advice, a word, an autograph.  She dispenses all with the kind of grace that speaks to her age, and a good cheer that belies it.  If someone fawns too much, or evokes the familiar royalty title, she’ll try to deflate their notions gently by insisting her fame is only due to the fact that she’s been around longer.

Born Joan Salvato, in Paterson, NJ, she was introduced to fly fishing by her father, who was trying to interest her brother.  Not wanting to be left behind, she took to it with a vengeance that won her immediate notice, and started her on a lifetime trajectory of fly fishing accomplishments.  By ten years old, she was already participating in tournament casting, and soon after, winning handily in local, regional and national competitions. The most notable of these was the 1951 National Tournament, where she won against all-male competition.  A personal best occurred at the New Jersey State Fly Casting Championships, where she managed to punch out 161 feet of fly line, (her then boyfriend, won that tournament with a distance of 181 feet.)

Joan also shared a great love for dance, and she believes that helped her utilize her entire body while casting, overcoming the disadvantages of her petite 5’5” frame. By 1959, she was representing the Garcia Tackle Corporation, then the largest manufacturer of tackle in the world.  She was perhaps, the first female fishing tackle spokesman.  (Yes, spokesman is a deliberate use of the word; I share with Joan a deep dislike of the political correctness of gender-neutral language for its inherent insipidness.)

By 1966, her casting fame growing, Joan was asked to perform at sporting shows and exhibitions, where she would don a strapless silver and rhinestone evening gown and fly cast to the music of "Up A Lazy River.”  Surely a sight that must have sparked new interest in fly fishing.
 
In 1967, she met and married Lee Wulff, who was the reigning king of fly fishing.  Lee was a true fly fishing pioneer, who added so much to – and largely shaped - the equipment, the literature, and the ethical dimensions of fly fishing as we know it today.  His signature fly was the iconic and eponymous Royal Wulff, which doesn’t so much look like anything in particular, but catches plenty of fish.  He learned to pilot a Piper J3 floatplane on Round Lake, and took off on hundreds of adventures deep into uncharted Canadian waters, often recording his journeys with a hand-held 16mm movie camera for American Sportsman.  He also owned a home on the Battenkill, near the Eagleville Bridge.  Their marriage cemented a star-powered partnership akin to the Gershwin brothers, Rodgers & Hammerstein, or Martin & Lewis.

As the leading lights of their day, Joan and Lee worked diligently for conservation efforts to preserve the coldwater watersheds so critical for healthy trout and salmon populations.  They also tirelessly promoted catch-and-release fishing to the point where it’s the norm today, killing a fish the exception.  Their travels took them to the far reaches of the earth, in pursuit of different game fish.  Giant Bluefin Tuna in Newfoundland, Marlin in Equador, The Florida Keys for Tarpon, Bonefish and Permit, Norway for Salmon, and the pristine waters of the upper Beaverkill in Lew Beach, NY, where they settled and where Joan still resides.  

Sadly, Lee died in 1991 at the controls of his beloved airplane, but Joan has kept up her distinguished career as casting instructor, author, lecturer, and Grande Dame of the sport.  Her Wulff School of Fly Fishing is one of the finest institutions of its type, helping thousands of people learn to master the intricacies of casting.  And her books, articles and videos have inspired thousands more.  I asked her what single casting tip would she impart to a beginner.  Without hesitation, she replied, “Learn to throw backwards.  There is no other sport that requires this, yet the successful cast uses both a forward and a backward throw.”  She offered an easy exercise to practice this motion, which I am reluctant to put into print for fear of children – mine particularly – trying this at home.  She said “Take a whippy green stick and toast a marshmallow on the end of it.  Now try to throw the marshmallow at a target 20 to 30 feet behind you.  This start-and-stop motion exactly mimics the backcast.”
 
What about the one that got away?  Joan recalled an Atlantic Salmon that she hooked on the Alta in Norway.  She had caught a 38-pounder earlier in the evening, and now had been hit by a larger fish – much larger.  She was attached to the monster for only a few minutes, but she was able to see his tail – broader than a man’s hand.  She estimates that perhaps this was a 50-pound Salmon.

She’s rightfully proud of her biggest Tarpon – estimated at 125 pounds and six feet in length – she caught last year at age 77.  She’s also proud of her grandsons, who aren’t half as big as that fish, but have learned from Gram the fundamentals of casting.  She sees this generational transference of knowledge as replacement, that it’s our duty as sportsmen to mentor another into our sport.  At first, they learned simply to roll cast, then later to actually fish.  Grandsons Alex and Andrew caught their first trout at six.  On a Royal Wulff, of course.

What’s left for this accomplished lady?  “I’m a teacher, that’s my calling.  I want to share what I’ve learned, I can help others”  she mused, “I also want to catch a large Permit on a fly.”  We spoke about the best places to target this elusive, highly prized fish.  Joan believes Ascencion Bay between the Yucatan and Belize is that place.  I can see her standing in the bow of a panga, holding one of these magnificent Mayan treasures: a silver-bright fish fresh from the brine, gleaming in the tropic sun.  A fitting gift for royalty..


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