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