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Joan Wulff: Doyenne of the Dry Fly

Updated: Nov 7, 2018

Deep in the middle of winter, I long for April 1st. In the Northeast, March is not the harbinger of spring that it is in the South, where I grew up. But April never fails to deliver the certainty of spring that I crave. April 1st is also my uncle's birthday, and he is such a fine man that the day takes on a special patina. And the April Fool's Day pranks, no less. They appeal to the inner 8-year-old that I seek to preserve. More recently, April 1st has come to signify another important annual milestone: open season for trout and fly fishing.

I grew up with a dyed-in-the-wool fly fisherman who wore the same red felt misshapen fishing hat and perpetually leaky waders for decades. He was self taught and basically did what worked. I followed along haplessly applying a diluted discipline thinking that fly casting was just something that came to you eventually. Which can happen. What remained most lastingly from my early exposure to fishing was a deep love of the rivers and ponds we frequented. The quiet, the dripping of water from a canoe paddle, the dancing bugs on the water's surface.

​At about the same age I was when I started fishing, a young Joan Salvato went fishing with her mom and dad on Greenwood Lake near their home in Paterson, NJ. Her mom was tasked with rowing the boat as her father fished. He would direct her as he envisioned the just-right spot beneath the lily pads where the fish would be waiting. "Closer..." he would instruct, then "Not that close!" as they encroached upon the thickening lily pads. And as her mother adjusted the boat faithfully, BAM!!, a giant bass exploded from beneath the dark water in a dramatic lurch and hooked himself on her father's fly. The surprise did not end there. Joan's father, very focused on the fish, handed the rod to Joan and as she held it the fly popped out of the fish's mouth freeing him unexpectedly back to his home in the cool lake. Joan was crestfallen. She had failed and began to cry. Her father reassured her that everything was as it should be. He caught the fish and now it got to go back for someone else to catch. Bewildered, between her mother's zig-zagged rowing and her unexpected release of a prize fish, Joan decided right there "that it was better to be the fisherman than the rower."

With two brothers, it was difficult for Joan to get a turn casting. The boys would often go off fishing with their dad and leave Joan at home with her mom. One day when her father and brothers were out, Joan asked her mom, "Can I try it?" With a sideways glance, her mother agreed and Joan whisked her father's rod down to the casting club"s dock. A few casts into her experiment and the tip of the rod came off and slid down the line into the lake. Joan jetted back to the house in a panic. After enlisting a neighbor to help them retrieve the rod section just before her father returned from work, Joan was saved. Later, she confessed her guilty conscience to her father and he pronounced that he would allow her to go to Sunday morning casting practice with her brothers. Even with two dramatic fishing calamities under her belt, Joan was undeterred.

Two years later at age 12, Joan entered -- and won -- her first casting competition. You know, winning isn't everything, except when sometimes it is. Joan's first taste of victory set her on a life-long course that connected her with more illustrious victories, some of the most beautiful places in the world, the loves of her life and a life-long passion for fishing.

Joan competed in fly casting competitions from 1943 to 1960 winning 17 national titles along the way. She competed against men in distance casting when not enough women entered the competition to field a women's event. In 1951, Joan entered a national competition and beat the men for distance using 9-weight tackle. In her last year competing in 1960, Joan cast an impressive 161-foot distance, which would have been a woman's world record had there been a woman's category. The man who won the competition cast 20 feet further. Back then the tackle was heavy, putting women at a disadvantage in the field against men. As Joan explains this to me, she wistfully considers how nice it would be to go back and compete against them with the lighter more modern rods available now. You can tell she knows she'd beat them.

Before committing her life to her love of fishing full time, Joan earned a living as a dance instructor at her own dancing school. She started with 20 students and grew the school to 265 students learning tap and ballet, making $150 a week. She was good at it. Not just the dancing, but the teaching part too. Despite her success, the idea of making a life in fishing lured her. She left the dance studio in 1952 to pursue fishing as a career, but her experience in dance -- both the physical training and her expertise in teaching would accompany her in her new life.

Joan applied herself to competing and also to the sportsman show circuit. Sportsman shows featured new products and all kinds of events including casting competitions, log rolling, canoe tilting and retriever challenges. Joan was a novelty: a woman who could cast better and farther than most men. She was also beautiful with a lithe dancer's body.  In one show, Joan wowed the crowds in a white strapless cocktail dress adorned with silver leaves as she cast with precision. She performed other stunts wearing short shorts and rolled hip boots while demonstrating her impressive skills and even appeared on a television show called "Who Do You Trust?" with a young Johnny Carson. With Mr. Carson shaking in his shoes like William Tell awaiting the arrow, Joan deftly removed the cigarette from his mouth with a carefully cast line from a plug casting rod. 

Joan married Walter Cummings in 1954 and had two boys, Doug and Stuart. Eventually, they divorced and, soon thereafter, Joan married kindred spirit Lee Wulff in 1967. Together they made fly fishing history promoting the sport. In 1977, Joan and Lee were in Roscoe, NY, for a fly fishing convention where Lee was a featured speaker. She remembers Roscoe teeming with fishermen in waders and heard about a 4-mile no-kill stretch of river. Lee and Joan were preparing to open a fly fishing school in Vermont where they had some land on the Battenkill River. Inspired by their introduction to the Beaverkill in Roscoe, Joan and Lee looked at each other and said, "This is the place for our school!" 

The Beaverkill River is "a very unique environment with its clean water and prolific insects ... perfect for trout fishing."  As Lee pioneered fishing equipment -- like the first-ever pocketed fly fishing vest he crafted in 1931 and the Royal Wulff, his famous fly that catches trout worldwide -- and promoted the new concept of catch-and-release fishing, Joan pursued another angle with Lee's faithful encouragement. Here she applied her analytical mind to the art of casting, breaking down every step and every move so that any student could learn to cast effectively. Her inner teacher leading her, Joan recorded the mechanics of fly casting in four groundbreaking books and one DVD. Her influence in the fishing world was also shared in a column on casting for Fly Rod & Reel magazine for 22 years. Her influence in promoting and preserving the sport doesn't end there. She was also a founder of the Catskill Flyfishing Center and Museum in Livingston Manor, NY.

Despite all her accomplishments in the sport of fly fishing, Joan laughs when people credit her with bringing women to the sport. Never missing a detail, Joan watched as women flooded to the sport and to the Wulff Fly Fishing School in the Beaverkill Valley for more than 12 years following Robert Redford's 1992 release of A River Runs Through It. But she sells herself short. She single-handedly changed the face of fly fishing for women and men alike with her notoriety, her passion, her books, and her school. Her legacy and Lee's, which she carried forward after his death in 1991, is rooted in the Beaverkill, famous for fishing since Theodore Gordon, but made more so by her roots here and her commitment to seeing fly fishing continue in new hands.

Joan has a short list of heroes in her life. Her publisher Nick Lyons, who along with Lee, talked her into writing her first book, is in her personal Hall of Fame. Her school, along with its neighboring Beaverkill River, has attracted many famous people including Bobby Kennedy, Sandra Day O'Connor and Tim Geithner among others. But you get the sense that, to Joan, it's the fish and the beauty of the waters here that are most famous and most important to her. Joan is also proud that she was able to teach her two grandsons, now in their 20s, to cast and fish when they were 5 or 6 years old, passing on her love for the sport and the joy she derives from the outdoors. She's had an amazing physical life, even taking two salmon fishing trips this past year at 90, but admits that she can't stand in the rough currents like she used to. More than wading in the currents now, Joan and her husband Theodore Rogowski have a favorite spot along the Beaverkill River where they sometimes sit and observe the hatches and the fish rising for them.

When you talk to Joan about competition, her passion is palpable as if just talking about it takes her back to a winning cast and to the field of men who assumed they'd beat her. With Joan's competition years behind her, I ask her what the field looks like today. She says she doesn't follow it any more and then adds, as an aside, that there's this one girl, Maxine McCormick from California, who's 12 years old and has been competing in Europe and winning (against men). Make no mistake, Joan is watching. The 12-year-old girl from 1938 who won her first competition and found herself on a course that changed the sport forever is not laying down her rod or her competitive spirit yet, or ever.

Gone fishing, xoxo Farm Girl

PS If you're just getting started, pick up Joan's book, Joan Wulff's New Fly Casting Techniques and reserve a spot at the Wulff School this spring!

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