A Hero of Mine: Remembering Lee Wulff

By Gary Giudice

Anyone who’s fished the Cemetery Pool on the Beaverkill River in New York knows the riffle. It’s classic pocket water. It’s also a great place to poke around waiting for the inevitable evening spinner fall. Looking upstream, there’s a cabin with a high porch on the left, a few medicine ball sized boulders in the stream and a wild haven for songbirds on the right.

As I fished, catching the odd small brown trout, an older man sitting on the porch interrupted my casting. I couldn’t hear him. I’ve endured too many M-16 and shotshell rounds, considering the roar of the stream, to hear much of anything. I waded over.

“I used to sit right here and watch the man that invented the fly you’re using fish this very piece of water in much then same fashion you are,” he repeated, this time a little louder. “I see how yours has brown bucktail tied in for the tail. That’s the way he did it. Most of ’em today don’t have that. You’re fishing the right one.”

The fisherman he was referring to remains one of my heroes. In fact, he was comparing me to my hero. What a reality check! If Lee Wulff hadn’t had a better back cast than mine, most likely he would have never became an icon of fly-fishing, conservation and outdoor journalism. A lump in my throat welled up a bit. The pilgrimage from Oklahoma to this fabled Catskill fishery was now worth the trip, even if I didn’t make another cast. The very spot where Wulff researched and developed the Royal Wulff pattern stretched out before me. I was catching trout that were but a few generations removed from the first fish to fall victim to this fantastic fly. I had to sit down for a moment. There was too much sensory overload for this Okie flatlander to comprehend.

Years ago I met up with Wulff a time or two. If I recall correctly, the first time was at the Harrisburg Sports Show, then other shows and OWAA meetings. I didn’t talk to him as much I would have liked, but I felt I knew him well. I appreciated the contributions he’d made to the sport of fly-fishing, the budding conservation movement and to OWAA. How could one man influence so many?

Wulff was born in Valdez, AK, a fact that surely put him in the proper frame of mind for the fishing life of his adult years. When he was 12, his family moved to Brooklyn, NY. Shortly thereafter, as a class assignment, Wulff wrote this poem:

City life is not mine

Housed in sturdy walls.

Away from fresh air

And where the clear Siwash falls.

Away from the trout in that clear stream

And those salmon whose scales do gleam.

Away from dear old Meade Crick

Which never yet has seen a brick.

I love Alaska — yes my old home

far away

And I’m coming back I say.

– Henry (Lee) Wulff

Later, in 1936, he wrote the now famous line, “Game fish are too valuable to be caught only once.” It marked the beginning of releasing fish for future anglers. Today we should be thankful that Wulff had a large following.

Everything he did seemed just a little bit better than those who came before him. Tired of cramming all that fly-fishing gear in his pockets, he invented the fly vest. If a good fly tier needed a good vice to tie a good fly, Wulff would tie a better, smaller fly with no vice at all.

When the Atlantic salmon runs were getting smaller and most anglers accepted the fact and caught what they could, Wulff started a conservation movement that lives on today.

In the ’60s, Lee met his wife Joan Salvato Wulff, a soul mate who became his constant traveling companion and business partner.

The fly-fishing and casting school they started together on the banks of his beloved Beaverkill is still operated by Joan and remains one of the premiere schools of its kind. Joan still shares Lee’s penchant for doing things well, whether it’s casting a long line or inviting a newcomer to the sport.

More than anything else, Lee Wulff cared, especially about the future of fishing.

Ernest Schwiebert, another fly-fishing icon, once said, “Lee was never seduced by the illusion of hatcheries. He knew wilderness couldn’t be preserved in a poultry farm or a zoo.”

Wulff cared about sharing his immense knowledge and wrote prolifically, adding plenty of fishing details and also his philosophy concerning the conservation ethic most of us adhere to today.

After several books, television shows, outdoor films, countless articles, lectures and serving as an OWAA board member, Wulff is still known as the best friend fly-fishermen ever had.

“Lee was a giant of an outdoorsman — solitary, brave and always curious about what was in the next lake or river,” wrote Jack Samson in his wonderful biography of Wulff. “The father of catch-and-release angling and a pioneer in the conservation of Atlantic salmon, Lee Wulff may have been America’s greatest fly-fisherman.”

And, I might add, a hero of mine.

Gary Giudice, owner of Blue Heron Communications, has been either an active member or supporting member of OWAA since the early ’70s. He spends most of his discretionary time and money chasing wild trout.

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