Welcome to Just Old Flies

Welcome to 'just old flies,' a section of methods and flies that used-to-be. These flies were tied with the only materials available. Long before the advent of 'modern' tying materials, they were created and improved upon at a far slower pace than todays modern counterparts; limited by materials available and the tiers imagination.

Once long gone, there existed a 'fraternity' of anglers who felt an obligation to use only the 'standard' patterns of the day. We hope to bring a bit of nostalgia to these pages and to you. And sometimes what you find here will not always be about fishing. Perhaps you will enjoy them. Perhaps you will fish the flies. Perhaps?

Another Lee Wulff Innovation

By Paul Schullery

Long the most prominent name associated with Atlantic salmon fishing in North America, Lee Wulff promoted and pioneered many ideas, including the use of very short rods.

It was in the late 1920s that there appeared an angler who had an actual influence on American fly fishing that was greater than the imagined influence of Theodore Gordon. Lee Wulffs contributions to the sport have been so far ranging, and so diverse, that I considered devoting a separate chapter to him as well. I finally decided not to primarily because his contributions were so diverse; I could fit them in to the various parts of the story as I told it, in that way more fully suggesting just how much a part of the sport's evolution this man is. Fly fishing has had many singular characters whose work substantially altered the sport, but we have had nothing else quite like Lee Wulff.

His contributions to salmon fishing are typically impressive, but I introduce him here because he so perfectly epitomizes the direction that American salmon fishing took as opposed to Old World salmon fishing. Few Americans were able to carry the difference as far as Lee Wulff could, but that has mostly been because he is just that much better than the average fisherman.

Wulff learned dry-fly technique for salmon in the 1930s and probably did more than any other angler, both by example and through his writings, to popularize it on salmon rivers where it had never been seen before. The Wulff flies, named by Dan Bailey, have become standard patterns for both trout and salmon, surely among the most important dry-fly developments in this century. Wulff developed the first of the flies on New York's Ausable River for trout in 1929 (Dan Bailey and Red Monical developed several of the Wulff series in Montana); they were certainly not the first floating flies to use hair for wings, but they were the ones that mattered most in the subsequent popularization of hairwing dry flies. The Wulffs and many other dry fliesóJoe Messinger's Irresistible, Harry Darbee's Rat-Faced MacDougall, the Bomber, and so onórevolutionized salmon fishing on this side of the Atlantic, while dry flies never caught on to any extent in the Old World.

Wulff also was a leader in the development of nontraditional wet flies for salmon. His experiments with nymph-type flies convinced him that they could be as effective as other wet flies (but no more effective, he decided). His popularization of the riffling hitch, a way of attaching leader to fly that allowed the fly to be worked across the surface with a wake often appealing to salmon, added an important technique to the salmon fisher's bag of tricks. He did not work alone in these developmentsósalmon fishing has a list of "hallowed names" almost as long as does trout fishingóbut his work was usually in the vanguard.

It often was the vanguard in rod selection. He led the fight to reduce the size of salmon rods, in the process becoming a virtuoso at handling fish. Arnold Gingrich was fond of using musical analogies, calling someone the Stradivarius of this or that; I think a dancing analogy is appropriate in dry-fly fishing. LaBranche, with his delicate precision, was sort of the Fred Astaire of the dry fly, and Wulff, with his athletic power, was the Gene Kelly. Combining his own exceptional gifts for fishing with an almost religious devotion to experimentation, he has had a career whose highlights seem to have served as proof that the impossible is possible. His book The Atlantic Salmon (1958) described how he showed the extent to which rod size could be reduced, also describing one of the most impressive stunts in American fishing history, a stunt that was something more than just a stunt because it helped prove his point:

As a pioneer in the use of extra light tackle for salmon, by 1940 I had come down to a seven-foot, two-and-a-half ounce fly rod, and since then have rarely used anything heavier. In 1943, in order to demonstrate to the most confirmed doubter, I eliminated the rod entirely from my tackle. Casting some thirty-odd feet by hand, I hooked a ten-pound salmon and played it by holding the reel in my right hand, reeling with my left, until I could finally reach down and tail it with my own hand, ten minutes later. Witnesses were present and pictures were taken to prove that a salmon rod may be as light as one wishes, even to the point of none at all. This experiment was the basis of an article in Field and Stream.

Of course fishermen did not flock to fish without rods, any more than they have flocked to use rods of less than eight feet in length. But Wulff showed what could be done, and strengthened American convictions that rods of ten feet or less were all that were necessary. ~ PS

Credits: Excerpt from American Fly Fishing by Paul Schullery, published by The Lyons Press.

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