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Joan Salvato Wulff, also known as the "First Lady of Fly Fishing", is widely regarded as the architect of modern-day fly-casting mechanics and is revered within the sport for her pioneering and many accomplishments. Since learning to cast as a schoolgirl in 1937, she has left a legacy for new generations of fly anglers and taught countless people the art of fly-casting through the school she founded and books she has written. Her demystification of the fly cast, numerous career accolades, and many contributions to the sport have earned her induction into the International Game Fish Association Hall of Fame (2007) and American Casting Association Hall of Fame. She has garnered 20 awards, including the Lapis Lazuli and Lifetime Achievement Awards from the International Federation of Fly Fishers. She was a National Casting Champion from 1943–1960. In distance casting against an all-male competition, she made a record cast of 161 feet.
Early life and angling career
Joan Wulff was born in Paterson, New Jersey. Throughout her childhood, she recalls that family life revolved to a large extent around her brothers' and father's interests in fishing and hunting, as well as the family's local outfitting shop, Paterson Rod & Gun. This exposure to fishing at a young age proved instrumental to the development of her longstanding passion for angling.
"I became hooked on fishing at the age of five or six, accompanying my parents one bass-fishing evening. Dad fished with a fly rod; mother rowed the boat. Things came together and a bass exploded from under the lily pads to take Dad's bass bug. The bass and I got hooked at the same time."
When she was 10, Wulff asked her mother if she could borrow her father’s fly rod, whom she admired and adored. After a few attempts at casting, the rod came apart, and the top section slid into the water. Fearing her father's reaction, she and her mother summoned a neighbor to retrieve it with a rake. When Wulff’s father found out what had happened, he was not angry — he was supportive, teaching his daughter how to cast with her very own rod. There was no turning back.
After her first fly-casting lessons from her father, she further developed her technique under the guidance of mentor William Taylor and instructors at the Paterson New Jersey Casting Club. Within two years, Wulff was the New Jersey Sub-Junior All Around Casting Champion. Even with her 5-foot stature, she could cast a 5-weight fly rod single-handedly, hitting targets 50 feet away. “Shifting my weight, I used my body to lengthen the stroke,” says Wulff, who enjoyed testing her mettle against male contestants. “She could outcast just about any man,” says New Jersey outdoor writer Al Ristori, who as a kid frequented Paterson Rod & Gun. In the 1930s, distance and accuracy casting was a popular sport, and Jimmy Salvato — a New Jersey game and fish commissioner and outdoors writer — was one of the best. At 16, she was crowned New Jersey State Champion and competed in her first national championship, in Chicago. With her Scottish-born mother, Alexina Sampson Salvato, cheering her on, Wulff won the first of what would become 17 national titles from 1943 to 1960.
Between 1943 and 1960 Wulff crisscrossed the country, driving to casting competitions and outdoors shows, and achieving milestones and celebrity. In 1945, American Magazine published a story about her, “No Flies on Joanie,” and she was featured on the cover of Pennsylvania Angler. In 1947, she scored 99 out of 100 points at a national accuracy championship. That year, she achieved a personal best with a 120-foot cast in one of her first distance-casting contests. Four years later she rattled the sporting world when she took the National Fisherman’s Distance Fly title with a 9-weight rod against an all-male field with a record (for a woman) cast of 131 feet. “Any time a female can achieve the record distance of a man takes tremendous skill,” said world champion fly caster Steve Rajeff. “Joan was fantastic. Her records inspired this generation of women casters.”
Life became a succession of road trips for Wulff, wowing crowds around the country, sometimes in heels and a cocktail dress. In addition to competitive distance casting (spinning and plug, as well as fly), she was known for trick casting. With a fly rod, she sliced bananas, broke balloons, even snapped a cigarette from the mouth of emcee Johnny Carson on the television game show Who Do You Trust? In the 1960 New Jersey State Casting Championship, Wulff unleashed a 161-foot cast that would have been a record for women, had there been such a category.
Wulff School of Fly Fishing
In 1978, she and husband Lee Wulff, moved to Lew Beach, New York, and the upper Beaverkill River, where Joan realized her dream of opening a fly-fishing school. Teaching was a shared passion, something they had done sporadically before opening the school. Joan created a curriculum and terms that broke the cast into parts. “She coined the term ‘power snap’ as a description for ending the stroke to form the loop and ‘drift’ to describe the follow-through of the back cast and repositioning of the rod between the back and forward strokes. Technically, she’s the most proficient caster I’ve ever seen. And a master teacher”, said master fly instructor Brandt. Miami-based master instructor Chico Fernandez agreed. “She can correct casting subtleties in people at the highest level, and with the same focus and contribution, help beginners,” Fernandez says.
After the death of husband Lee Wulff in April 1991, Joan was grief-stricken and concerned about the future of the school in the absence of Lee. She was 64. Joan Salvato Wulff and her school would not fail. Friends rallied around her, including one of Lee’s closest, lawyer Ted Rogowski of the Environmental Protection Agency. Robert Redford’s film A River Runs Through It was released the year after Lee’s death, and its impact on the school was profound. Unheralded numbers of women filled all 10 sessions, anxious to capture the magic of fly-fishing. With Joan as their guide, it was easy. “She’s grace, beauty and intelligence all in motion,” said a former student and professional guide, Lori Ann Murphy.
With so many female students, Joan hired protégé and nurse practitioner Sheila Hassan of Boston to instruct. She joined the school in 2003 and became chief instructor in 2008. When it comes to the mechanics of the cast, no one has risen to Joan’s level of detail, Hassan observes. “At a time when so many people are retiring, it’s inspiring to see Joan teaching at such a high level,” she says. “The way she can look at someone’s cast and identify how to improve, it is amazing. She’s a one-in-a-million teacher.”
Editorial and publishing career
In the 1980s, Joan’s talents landed her a casting column that ran successfully for 22 years in Fly Rod & Reel magazine. Lee and publisher Nick Lyons encouraged her to write a book on fly-casting, which she agreed to do. Joan attacked the project with her usual intensity. Her goal was to explain the cast in terms even a novice could grasp.
During one off-season in Florida, she began to dissect it, unraveling the science of fly-casting, with Lee constantly challenging her for better explanations. It was a painstaking process. It took two years to complete the book, coining terms that described the cast. “Loading move,” for example, describes the first part of the stroke and “power snap” the end of it. She addressed the physicality of casting, describing muscle movements. The end result, the revolutionary Joan Wulff’s Fly-Casting Techniques, was first published in 1987. With its pioneering casting mechanics, the book was heralded by magazine editors, students and professionals as a classic that made fly-casting accessible to everyone. It has been acclaimed as one of the best fly-casting instructional books ever written. Joan Wulff’s New Fly-Casting Techniques was published in 2012, subsequently followed by a second edition in 2016. Her instructional video, Dynamics of Fly Casting, is an ongoing success.
Royal Wulff Products
Joan co-founded Royal Wulff Products in the 1980s with husband Lee Wulff. As an avid fisherman and renown inventor, Lee had previously pioneered many firsts in the world of angling, including the invention of the pocketed fly-fishing vest in 1931, and the use of long-lasting animal hair (rather than chicken feathers) in heavier-bodied dry fly patterns such as the Royal Wulff. Lee Wulff also pioneered hook-embedded polystyrene fly bodies. With these Form-A-Lure flies, traditional feathers and hair were embedded in the plastic, simplifying conventional fly making.
Presently, Royal Wulff Products specializes in offering innovative products for angling including unique tackle, fly lines, backing, fluorocarbon leaders and tippet material, fly line dressing, instructional materials, casting aids, and limited-quantity custom-made bamboo fly rods.
Joan continues to operate the Wulff School of Fly Fishing as a dedicated mentor and teacher. When not traveling, she offers personal instruction to students at the school, located in the Catskills (the birthplace of dry-fly fishing in America on its best known river, the Beaverkill). The Wulff School resides on 100 acres in the upper Beaverkill Valley among beautiful settings of forest, meadow, and ponds. It has an adjoining private stretch of the Beaverkill used to teach wading, streamcraft, and obstacle casting.
The company, which she co-founded, Royal Wulff Products, is now run by Joan’s son, Douglas Cummings.
- As of May 2017 she is 89 years old: Virtuoso; Jan Fogt; May 16, 2017
- Wulff, Joan S. Joan Wulff’s New Fly Casting Techniques. Lyons Press, 2012.