Joan Wulff – Fly Fishing Legend
In 1945, when Joan Wulff was 18-years- old. The American Magazine ran the first national story on her titled “No Flies On Joanie,” and she was shown walking a country road, preparing a fly to fish, fishing and playing a fish and teaching younger teenagers.
Joan Wulff was born in New Jersey in 1926, where her father owned a sporting goods store and was an outdoor columnist for the local newspaper. At ten years old, Joan wanted to learn to fly cast and after a humorous “first cast” beginning, she practiced with determination and won her first statewide casting tournament in 1937. She went on to win 17 different national casting titles and in 1987 wrote the first book that clearly and understandably broke down the elements of successfully casting a fly line. She also fished around the world and became one of the most admired, honored and loved casting teachers of all time.
Joan actually started teaching dancing when she was still a teenager; this is when she realized that her love of teaching could become her life’s passion. After a few years of partnering and running a busy dance studio, Joan decided that she wanted to leave a safe and predictable career in teaching dance to try a more exciting life in fishing and the outdoors. She traveled the country representing line and fishing gear companies, while also appearing and demonstrating casting at many of the large sportsmen’s shows that were held throughout the United States.In 1948, Joan was asked to travel to Paris to demonstrate at the Bois de Boulogne “Little River Event” in Paris. This was the first time the event had been held since the end of World War II, and she attracted a crowd whenever she performed.
Joan had met Lee Wulff a couple times in the fifties, but those meetings were fleeting. However, in 1966, Lee was set to film a television show, American Sportsmen, with the popular singer Kay Starr, but Starr had become ill and Joan was asked if she would step in to appear with Lee. Lee wanted a woman to fish for giant bluefin tuna in Newfoundland waters and catch one that weighed five times her weight. Even though Joan knew she could become seasick and having heard that Lee was somewhat of a hermit, she surprised herself when she agreed to the request. After ten days of fishing and filming, both Joan and Lee knew they wanted to be together. (And Joan did not get seasick – the waters they were on stayed calm the whole time and Joan did catch a bluefin tuna that weighed five times her weight.) Joan and Lee tied the knot a year later in 1967 and began a 23-year marriage that influenced the teaching and story-telling of outdoors sports and adventures that helped promote conservation, fly fishing and the importance of ecology.
In 1979, Joan and Lee opened the Wulff School of Fishing in the Catskill Mountains of New York, where it became famous for its high quality and for hosting students from around the world. To this day, the school continues to operate and attract many students each spring. Joan went on to write three more books that help people understand not only casting, but the sport of fly fishing as well. And this “first couple of fly fishing” appeared together lecturing as well as appearing in many films that Lee was making for their own lecture appearances, as well as for the ABC and CBS networks.
Joan and Lee traveled the world demonstrating, fishing and filming, always returning to their home base and school in Lew Beach. It was during a weekend school in late April of 1991 that Lee left the students on a Sunday morning in order to renew his pilot’s license when he suffered a heart attack and died at the age of 86.