‘To catch a trout,’ says Lee, ‘you’ve got to think like one’
In the ocean,” says Lee Wulff, “if you can find your fish, he’ll take almost any bait. In fresh water, everyone knows where the fish are, and only the smart people catch them.” Wulff, 74, and his wife, Joan, 52, between them have spent 107 years getting smart. This summer, using only the magnetic lure of their wisdom, they have attracted dozens of determined acolytes to their fly-fishing school in the Catskills.
Before turning the fishermen loose on their quarry, Joan elucidates briskly on the basics of casting. “Up, in and out, and don’t bend your wrist,” she instructs, arcing a hand-tied fly through the crystalline air. Soon the weekend students—four men and four women—are up to their hips in a swift-flowing stream. Lee reads the water like a liquid relief map, pointing out clues to a trout’s likely behavior. “This is the world of predator and prey,” he announces. “You’ve got to think like a trout to catch one. The fish is mainly concerned with safety, food and comfort. If you make a bad cast, let the fly drift out of his sight instead of picking it up right away and frightening him.”
Lee’s credentials as a fish psychoanalyst date back to his childhood in Valdez, Alaska. “In high school,” he says, “I decided that if there was such a thing, I’d be an all-American fisherman. Nobody was going to catch any fish I couldn’t. If I had to row a boat 10 miles out in the ocean, I’d do it. I went out two summers—and got seasick every day—just to develop a tolerance.”
Studies at Stanford (engineering) and in Paris (art), plus a job as a package designer, deflected him for years from his Waltonesque passion. Then during the Depression he returned to fishing full-time—as instructor, writer and later as filmmaker. An innovator in his sport, he designed the original fly fisherman’s vest (“At the time everyone thought it was ridiculous”), and pioneered the use of light tackle for Atlantic salmon and deep-sea fishing. “I caught a record marlin once on a $12 fly rod and the cheapest line I could get,” he says. “People think you need expensive tackle, but you shouldn’t be able to buy a record.”
Joan, the daughter of a fishing store owner, was brought up in New Jersey. “I had a couple of brothers,” she recalls, “and for a while I was left out of things because I was a girl. To get my father’s attention one day I took his rod down to the pond and tried to cast. The rod broke, and I went home crying.” She had made her point, though, and her father quickly taught her to cast. In the years since she has won dozens of championships, including one of special distinction. She is the only woman ever to win a national distance-casting title against all-male competition.
Though the Wulffs had met briefly years before, they were married in 1967—the second time for each—after filming a segment on tuna fishing for ABC’s American Sportsman. “You really get to know someone when you’re fishing,” says Joan. “At times like that, everything comes down to what you really are.” Afterward the couple ran a summer salmon-fishing camp in the Rockies before settling last year on 95 acres of woods and streams some 120 miles northwest of New York City.
Unlike Joan, who once ran a dancing school, Lee has no formal teaching experience, but he has painstakingly learned to express himself. “Having overcome being a very shy kid and a shy grown-up, I’ve become sensitive to audiences,” he says. “I never liked lecturing, but these students have so much interest it draws you out.” Joan agrees, and the Wulffs’ enthusiasm for their subject seems evergreen. “When you’re fishing, you compete with yourself,” Lee explains. “You can never be sure what’s going to work. It’s a part of nature that is never the same.”