The die was cast when Lee Wulff was born in Alaska in 1905, at that time only a district of the United States and not a full-fledged state. A childhood spent in a frontier town populated by such colorful characters as Slop Jack, Rosy Roseen, and Outdoor Franklin could hardly form the basis of a traditional life. It would be Lee Wulff’s consuming passion to investigate unexplored territories, in his case remote parts of Newfoundland and Labrador. He would pioneer new approaches, techniques, and gear for fishing in general, and specifically for fly fishing for Atlantic salmon. Along the way he would become an expert and fearless bush pilot, flying a small floatplane into remote areas of Canada before any established navigational aids or procedures for air/sea rescue. His childhood yearnings for the natural beauty and plentiful resources of his first home reemerged in adulthood, giving his restless spirit little patience for established wisdom in his chosen field—sport fishing. As Leigh Montville wrote in his obituary for Lee in Sports Illustrated, May 13, 1991, “What was a daydream for others became satisfying reality for outdoorsman extraordinaire Lee Wulff.”
Through the latter half of the 19th century and into the early part of the 20th, gold had been discovered in numerous spots in Alaska and the adjacent Yukon Territory of Canada. Into the burgeoning population of Valdez, Alaska, Henry Leon Wulff was born on February 10, 1905, to Charles and Lillie Wulff. By his mother’s testimony, he was catching trout in the brook behind his house on bacon and a bent pin at two years of age. But the young Lee Wulff was soon to face the loss of his Alaskan Eden when his father moved him to Brooklyn, New York, in 1915 and then back out to the West coast to San Diego in 1920. Through high school and San Diego State College, Wulff excelled at sports, winning letters in basketball, football, and track.
Lee then graduated from Stanford University with an engineering degree in June of 1926 and promptly traveled to Paris to study art at the Delacluse Art School, sharing the City of Light with the so-called “Lost Generation,” the American expatriates Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry Miller, and Sherwood Anderson. After his talent resulted in an exhibition of his work, Lee returned to New York City to begin a career in commercial art and advertising. Fishing in any spare time he could carve out, Lee met many anglers who would become lifelong friends, among them, John McDonald, Dan Bailey, and the artist Norman Rockwell. He soon made the choice to spend his life engaged in sport fishing, opening up new areas for people to fish, and in the process became a successful lecturer, author, and illustrator of over eleven books and numerous magazine and journal articles.
In 1933 Lee traveled to Nova Scotia for salmon fishing, catching his first salmon on a dry fly on the Margaree River. Settling on Newfoundland as a location to explore, his unique approach was to write reports on sport fishing opportunities in the province on behalf of the Newfoundland Tourist Board.
Lee Wulff’s first forays into the wilds of Newfoundland were intended to locate new waters to fish for Atlantic salmon, and to that end he began operating fishing camps. He would guide clients or “sports” to prime locations, and during the Second World War he even led a party of high-ranking United States generals on a much-needed fishing trip before the Normandy Invasion.
To solve the problem of gaining access to remote areas, Lee learned to fly a small floatplane. His novel argument was that these remote regions would benefit from the jobs the sporting camps provided for local residents, and that tourist dollars would exceed what any of them could make catching salmon with nets stretched across the rivers. Lee sometimes brought along his two sons, Allan and Barry, to fish and enjoy the outdoors. He also taught Allan to fly the Piper J3 floatplane. The shrinking numbers of Atlantic salmon returning to spawn in the rivers sent Lee in search of new territory, this time to Labrador.
When he was not angling for salmon, Lee fished for bluefin tuna and managed to set records and win contests, though with conventional game fish rods and reels. His first tuna weighed 660 pounds. He would pursue saltwater species his entire life, often landing record fish with a fly rod in all parts of the world.
An early advocate and practitioner of photography and film-making, Lee appeared on the CBS show “Sports Spectacular” and the ABC program, “The American Sportsman,” in both fishing and hunting segments, for he was skilled at both. From book illustrations and photographs, Lee turned to film to record the all-important action shots. Often someone else operated the camera, since Lee frequently starred in the action.
“Catch and Release” fishing can be directly traced to Lee’s pronouncement in his 1939 book, Handbook of Freshwater Fishing, in which he lays out the principle and terminology: “There is a growing tendency among anglers to release their fish.... Game fish are too valuable to be caught only once.” Lee’s advocacy for catch and release became globally accepted during the second half of the twentieth century as the standard approach for conservation and to guarantee plentiful fish populations for sport fishing.
Lee observed the declining Pacific salmon stocks in Valdez on a return visit during his senior year of college. By the 1930’s he observed the same declining population of Atlantic salmon and worked hard to get Canadian government officials to recognize the severity of the problem, which loomed as a catastrophe for the species. He was instrumental in forming organizations to promote salmon conservation and protection, working tirelessly to have the Atlantic salmon declared a game fish and to stop or strictly limit commercial fishing.
Prior to Lee Wulff, trout flies in America, dry flies in particular, were most often tied in a spare Catskill style with less material in the body and fewer hackles; the standard materials used in tying dry flies were various kinds of bird feathers, some quite exotic. Lee promoted using animal hair in dry flies, and more of it, to enable flies to float longer and higher on the water, especially in river currents. He also established fishing for salmon with dry flies when the received wisdom had it that salmon would not take a dry fly.
Fly fishers spent much of their time wading in the water in pursuit of trout or salmon. Anglers often wore cumbersome coats with many pockets. In 1930 Lee had the idea of creating a vest with pockets— short so the angler could wade deeply and light for all-day trips—and by 1931 he sewed the first one himself. Today the fishing vest remains a standard fixture of any fly fisher’s apparel.
Waders were an essential part of Lee’s, and any fly fisher’s wardrobe. Conventional wisdom held that if an angler fell in the river with waders on, he would surely drown. To disprove this theory, Lee dove off a bridge into the Battenkill River, wearing waders, and swam around while pictures were taken to document the event. Needless to say, Lee did not drown but instead exploded one more angling myth.
When contemporary fly reels proved insufficient for his purposes, Lee the engineer had Lee the artist make some drawings and developed what became known as the Lee Wulff Ultimate Fly Reel. Lee’s cageless design with a spool rim for “palming” to enhance the drag established a template for modern fly reels from almost all manufacturers. Lee invented the long belly fly line and a triangle taper fly line, both designs widely copied by contemporary line manufacturers. To capture salmon for release unharmed, Lee invented the tailer, basically a short pole with a hoop at the end to slip over the salmon’s tail, providing easy hook removal and safe release with no damage to the fish.
In 1979 Lee and Joan Salvato Wulff opened their fly fishing school in the Catskills at Lew Beach, New York, adjacent to the famous Beaverkill River. Joan had been a champion fly caster since the late 1930’s and, in addition to being the most recognized woman in the sport, was also the most well-known teacher. Together they ran the school, gave casting instruction, lectured on fly fishing, demonstrated fly tying, all the while keeping up a schedule of public appearances, fishing trips, and writing. In connection with the school they also began to market fly fishing gear under the logo, Royal Wulff Products, including Triangle Taper fly lines, limited edition bamboo fly rods hand-made in England, a fly reel, and books and instructional DVDs by both Lee and Joan.
Conservation measures such as dam removal, creation of fish ladders, stocking of pure strain Atlantic salmon (raised from wild fish stocks), and limiting fish farms to prevent the escape of farmed fish, are all part of current programs to preserve the Atlantic salmon. Some of the same organizations founded by Lee Wulff are carrying on his work. While it has been 71 years since Lee wrote the famous words leading to the broad establishment of catch and release fishing, progress still needs to be made. Atlantic salmon are returning to their historic home rivers and streams to spawn, as fish and game census takers have documented, but not in the numbers needed to guarantee their survival. Atlantic salmon acted as the canary in the cage, to borrow a metaphor from Lee, for the health of the environment, noting by their precipitous decline in numbers that something was seriously wrong. Lee Wulff alerted the world to the plight of Salmo Salar, the king of game fish. His legacy is carried forward today by innumerable sportsmen and sportswomen, as well as scientists, naturalists, political figures, and academics, all striving to protect Lee Wulff’s beloved Atlantic salmon.
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