Lee Wulff

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Lee Wulff
Henry Leon Wulff

(1905-02-10)February 10, 1905
DiedApril 28, 1991(1991-04-28) (aged 86)
Cause of deathPlane crash
OccupationArtist, angler, writer, filmmaker
Known forAtlantic Salmon conservation, promoting Catch and release ethics
Spouse(s)Helen Riha (1929-1945 (divorce)), Ella Manuel (1947-1949 (divorce)), Kay Gillette (1955-1962 (divorced)), Joan Wulff (1967- )
ChildrenAllan and Barry Wulff (Helen Riha)
Parent(s)Charles and Lilly Wulff

Lee Wulff (February 10, 1905 – April 28, 1991), born Henry Leon Wulff, was an artist, pilot, fly fisherman, author, filmmaker, outfitter and conservationist who made significant contributions to recreational fishing, especially fly fishing and the conservation of Atlantic Salmon.

Early life[edit]

Lee Wulff was born on February 10, 1905 in Valdez, District of Alaska to parents Charles and Lilly Wulff of Brooklyn and Staten Island, New York respectively. Charles Wulff left Brooklyn around 1900 to seek gold in Alaska but soon became dependent on other work and settled in Valdez. In Valdez, Lee's father was a deputy sheriff and newspaper publisher in the small frontier town. Lee's mother was a Norwegian immigrant from Staten Island who eventually traveled to Valdez to marry Charles. They had three children, Henry (Lee), Audrey and Lillian. Lee learned to fish at an early age in the rivers and saltwater surrounding Valdez. By age 10 he was learning how to fly fish with lancewood/greenheart rods and silk fly lines and leaders. During the Winter of 1915-16, Charles Wulff moved the family back to Brooklyn to assume management of his deceased grandfather's coal business. Lee Wulff disliked the big city of Brooklyn and longed for the outdoors of Valdez. However he did well in Brooklyn public schools achieving honor student status.[1]

In 1920, Charles Wulff sold his interest in the Brooklyn coal company and moved the family to San Diego, California. Lee quickly adapted to the local saltwater fishing in the San Diego region and routinely fished for sea bass, corvina and yellowtail in the kelp beds along the Pacific Ocean beaches with his high school friends.[2] He graduated from San Diego High School on January 27, 1922 at the age of 18. He attended two years at San Diego State College before transferring to Stanford University to study engineering. At San Diego State he played varsity and lettered in football, basketball and track. He graduated from Stanford on June 21, 1926 with a degree in engineering.[2] Despite having a degree in engineering, Lee Wulff did not want to be an engineer and with the reluctant support of his father, he decided to pursue a career as an artist.[2]


In the summer of 1926, at the age of 21, Lee Wulff traveled to Paris, France to study art. He eventually enrolled in the Académie Delecluse in Montparnasse. Wulff enjoyed art school and got promising reviews on his work from two exhibitions in July and September 1927. While in Paris, he met another American art student, Helen Riha. Helen was a graduate of the New York School of Fine and Applied Arts and from Schenectady, New York. Helen would become Lee's first wife. Despite pressure from his father to pursue engineering work, on September 13, 1927, Lee Wulff left Paris to return to New York and start a career as an artist.[2]

New York[edit]

Lee Wulff arrived in New York on September 25, 1927 and found lodgings in Greenwich Village where most young artists lived at the time. With only $100 in his pocket, he began seeking employment as an artist. Sustained with a few part-time jobs through the winter of 1927, he finally obtained regular employment with an advertising agency in January 1928 at a salary of $50 per week.[3] Lee found time from his work to fish the Esopus and Beaverkill rivers in the Catskills. He began to tie flies, meet and discuss fly fishing with other New York anglers, one of which was Dan Bailey who became a celebrated fly angler in Montana.[4] In the Spring of 1928 he was reunited with Helen Riha who had been working in New York for over a year. They both liked fly fishing and spent a lot of time together in the Catskills. In the Fall of 1928 they became engaged and were married in Greenwich, Connecticut on June 1, 1929.

The Wulffs quit their New York jobs to embark on a three-month honeymoon by car through the Southwest to San Diego to see Lee's parents returning to New York via the northern Rockies and Midwest. They returned to New York in late September 1929 both unemployed. Although they both found jobs, the stock market crash on October 29, 1929 led to cuts in pay. Early in 1930, the couple moved to Louisville, Kentucky to work for an advertising agency there. By August 1930 they had returned to New York, Lee being very disappointed with both the job and the fishing in Kentucky.[3]

The early 1930s found Lee and Helen fishing more and working less, but sustaining themselves with free-lance work. Lee was making acquaintances with future notables in the fly angling and outdoor business world–John McDonald, Fortune Magazine writer and author of Quill Gordon, illustrators Mead Schaeffer and John Atherton[5] and artist Norman Rockwell. He was writing a few articles, teaching fly tying and giving talks on fly fishing to various clubs gradually becoming respected as an authority on the subject.

Learning about salmon[edit]

In 1933 Lee and Helen made a trip to the Margaree River in Nova Scotia where he landed his first fly caught Atlantic salmon on a bi-visible dry fly.[3]

Taking fly fishing to the general public, he created a sustainable business. Two key ideas helped him make fly fishing into a profitable business. In 1939, Lee Wulff released the book, Handbook of Freshwater Fishing, where he maps out the principles of catch and release fishing. The way he puts catch and release is that there will be more fish in the rivers, so you can come back again and again and catch fish; he says also that the fish get smarter making them harder to catch and making the fisherman have to be more accurate with his casts. Lee Wulff is considered the premier proponent of catch and release fishing. The second part of the business model is setting up organizations such as Trout Unlimited and other like it to protect the habitats[6] that the trout live in and making the beautiful places where fishermen fish stay beautiful.


Lee Wulff's first visit to Newfoundland came in 1935 when he fished for salmon on the Grand Codroy River northeast of Channel-Port aux Basques. In 1946 he established fishing camps at River of Ponds and Portland Creek with the idea of sharing clients with Ella Manuel at Killdevil Lodge near Lomond (where her sons, Antony Berger and Jonathan Berger, spent their summers). Lee Wulff and Ella Manuel were married in Corner Brook in 1947, shortly after he obtained his pilot's license. He sold his camps in 1954. Lee Wulff is credited with being one of the first people to suggest the establishment of what eventually became Gros Morne National Park.[7]

Joan Wulff[edit]

Although previously acquainted through some sportsman shows, in 1966, Lee worked with Joan Salvato Cummings on an ABC's The American Sportsman television film on Blue Fin Tuna fishing in Newfoundland. Joan was a world class fly casting champion and avid fly angler. Later that year they worked together on another American Sportsman episode on bass fishing in Florida.[8] Despite Lee's three divorces and Joan's previous marriage, Lee and Joan were married in 1967. They settled with Joan's two boys, Douglas and Stuart, in Keene, New Hampshire.[9]

Wulff School of Fishing[edit]

Lee and Joan Wulff moved their home from New Hampshire to Lew Beach, New York on the Beaverkill river in 1978. The couple set up the Wulff School of Fly Fishing in 1979 on the Beaverkill River in New York.[10] According to the school's website, Joan explained the couple's reason for open the school. "Lee's and my dream to share, with willing enthusiasts, the skills and lore of our wonderful sport. Lee will be with you through his words, films, and philosophy."[10]

Wulff series of flies[edit]

Fish hook with feathers and hair
Royal Wulff dry fly

In 1930, Lee Wulff designed three innovative dry flies to fish with on the Esopus and other Catskill rivers. He called the flies the Ausable Gray, Coffin May and Bucktail Coachman. They were high floating, full bodied flies with hair wings and tails. They proved exceptionally effective for trout and salmon in fast rivers. At the time, he was fishing regularly with Dan Bailey, a science teacher at Brooklyn Polytechnic. Both men were tying and selling flies in their spare time to supplement their incomes. Wulff considered the traditional English and Catskill style dry flies that were the staple of the fly trade were far too skinny and "anemic" to be effective for American trout thus he created this stocky, robust style of fly.[4] Angling author Joseph D. Bates Jr. in his seminal work on Atlantic Salmon Flies and Fishing (1970) credits Wulff with "establishing a distinct American style of dry fly."[11]

He collaborated with Dan Bailey during the development of the patterns and Bailey encouraged him to rename the flies. The original Ausable Gray, Coffin May and Bucktail Coachman became the Grey Wulff, White Wulff and Royal Wulff. Three additional patterns were created by the end of 1930, the Blonde Wulff, Brown Wulff and Black Wulff. The series would gain prominence after Wulff introduced them to Ray Bergman, another fly angler and outdoor writer who became the Fishing editor for Outdoor Life magazine. Bergman embraced the flies and included them his two editions of Trout (1938, 1952).[4]

The Wulff flies were designed by Lee Wulff and fill a decided need in large sizes. I consider them necessary to the well-balanced fly box. New Wulff patterns, Black Wulff and Grizzly Wulff [designed by Dan Bailey] have been added to my color plates because they are considered very important by fishermen in the Rockies as well as other sections.

— Ray Bergman, Trout (1952)[12]

Wulff considered the pattern somewhat generic and encouraged variation and evolution of the pattern instead of rigid adherence to a precise recipe. Dan Bailey, who fished regularly in Montana and eventually established a fly shop and mail order business in Livingston, Montana in 1938 promoted the series extensively to western fly anglers. The Wulff flies, especially the Royal Wulff, are still a staple in angler's fly boxes around the world.[13] Angler and writer John Gierach believes the Royal Wulff is one of the most popular dry patterns over the last half century.[14]


Lee Wulff died on April 28, 1991 near Hancock, New York when the Piper Super Cub he was piloting crashed into trees at the end of the runway during a landing. He was on a check-ride with his flight instructor Max Francisco. Wulff was dead at the crash site. Francisco survived the crash but with very serious injuries. About 30 minutes after the crash, Francisco was located and helicoptered to a nearby hospital. He recovered to fly again. Francisco related that he believed Wulff, a pilot with 44 years experience, lost control of the plane because of an acute medical situation and was possibly dead at the controls when the plane crashed.

"I will always believe that Lee's death was the cause of the accident–rather than the result of it."

— Max Francisco[15]

Obituaries in The New York Times,[16] The Guardian and other major newspapers leveled nothing but praise on Lee Wulff and his life and career. Shortly after Wulff's death Charles Kuralt, then host of the CBS television show Sunday Morning publicly commented: "Lee Wulff was to fly fishing what Einstein was to physics".[17] Nelson Bryant, Longtime outdoor editor, often called the dean of outdoor writers, of the New York Times[18] wrote of Wulff:

Mr. Wulff's contributions to American fly fishing were fundamental and diverse. He probably did more than any other angler to popularize dry fly fishing for salmon, and his Wulff series of hair-wing dry flies were among those of that genre that, according to Paul Schullery in the book "American Fly Fishing," revolutionized salmon fishing on this side of the Atlantic.

— Nelson Bryant, New York Times, April 30, 1991[16]

Outdoor writer and humorist Ed Zern[19] wrote this in his tribute to Lee Wulff during a memorial at the New York Angler's Club on June 25, 1991.

... And so we salute this pioneer, this explorer, this adventurer, this innovator, this artist, this conservationist, this film maker, this author, this realist, this defender of sport's best traditions, this iconoclast of obsolete traditions, and above, this great American sportsman.

— Ed Zern, June 25, 1991 at the New York Angler's Club[17]

Bibliography and other works[edit]

  • Lee Wulff's handbook of freshwater fishing. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company. 1939.
  • Let's Go Fishing. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company. 1939.
  • Leaping Silver: Words and Pictures on the Atlantic Salmon. New York: George W. Stewart. 1940.
  • Sports Photography. New York: A.S. Barnes. 1942.
  • Lee Wulff's New Handbook of Freshwater Fishing. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company. 1951.
  • The Atlantic Salmon. New York: A.S. Barnes. 1958.
  • Gingrich, Arnold, ed. (1966). "Throw It Out There". American Trout Fishing by Theodore Gordon and a Company of Anglers. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. pp. 93–101.
  • Gingrich, Arnold, ed. (1966). "The Art of Wading". American Trout Fishing by Theodore Gordon and a Company of Anglers. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. pp. 231–237.
  • The Sportsman's Companion, A Compendium of Advice on How to Identify, Stalk, Fish and Hunt for North American Fish and Game. New York: Harper & Row. 1968.
  • "Marlin on a Fly Rod". The American Sportsman. Vol. 1. New York: The Ridge Press. Spring 1968. pp. 4–11.
  • "Muskeg, Meadowland, Forest, Moose and Caribou". The American Sportsman. Vol. 1. New York: The Ridge Press. Fall 1968. pp. 44–47.
  • "The Best Way to Hunt Whitetail". The American Sportsman. Vol. 2. New York: The Ridge Press. Fall 1969. pp. 4–11.
  • "...as American as bait casting". The American Sportsman. Vol. 3. New York: The Ridge Press. Summer 1970. pp. 4–11.
  • Fishing with Lee Wulff. New York: Knopf. 1972. ISBN 0394469208.
  • Migel, Michael J., ed. (1977). "The Masters on the Dry Fly". The Dry Fly for Atlantic Salmon-Beginnings, Best Times and Presentations. New York: J.B. Lippincott. pp. 211–222. ISBN 0397011881.
  • Craig Woods; David Seybold, eds. (1982). "An Angler's Perspective". Waters Swift and Still - A prize catch of new fly-fishing stories by America's most renowned angling writers. Tulsa, OK: Winchester Press. ISBN 0876913575.
  • Wolverton, Mike; Wolverton, Barbara, eds. (1984). "The Wealth of Age". Fly Fishing Always. Federation of Fly Fishers. pp. 20–26.
  • Lee Wulff on Flies. Mechanicsburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books. 1980. ISBN 0811709531.
  • "In Quest of a Name for Outdoor Purists". The New York Times. April 21, 1985.
  • "Fishing in Europe with Ties to the Past". The New York Times. June 17, 1985. Retrieved 2014-11-12.
  • Trout on a Fly. New York: The Lyons Press. 1986. ISBN 1558210768.
  • Repine, Jim; Wulff, Lee (1988). How to Fly Fish Alaska. Portland, Ore.: Frank Amato. ISBN 0936608684.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link)
  • The Compleat Lee Wulff-A Treasury of Lee Wulff's Greatest Angling Adventures. Boston: Dutton Adult. 1989. ISBN 0525247963.
  • Merwin, John, ed. (1992). Salmon on a Fly: the Essential Wisdom and Lore from a Lifetime of Salmon Fishing. Riverside, New Jersey: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0671760653.
  • Lee Wulff-Bush Pilot Angler. Camden, Maine: Down East Books. 2000. ISBN 0892724803.
    • Posthumously published journal of his flying and fly-fishing off the coasts of Labrador and Newfoundland in the 1940s and 1950s.

Audio and video[edit]

  • Lee Wulff (1947). Wings for an Angler (Video Recording). Lee Wulff.[20]
  • Lee Wulff (1958). Salar, The Leaper (Film). RKO Pathe.[21]
  • Lee Wulff and Curt Gowdy (1986). Minipi trout [videorecording] featuring Curt Gowdy & Lee Wulff (Video recording). Joan & Lee Wulff, Inc.[22]
  • Lee Wulff (1988). Afield with Lee Wulff (Audio cassette). Audio Press.[23]

External links[edit]

  • Lee Wulff Papers. General Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.


  1. ^ Samson, Jack (1995). "Alaska-and Points South". Lee Wulff. Portland, Oregon: Frank Amato. pp. 10–16. ISBN 1571880194.
  2. ^ a b c d Samson, Jack (1995). "California and Paris". Lee Wulff. Portland, Oregon: Frank Amato. pp. 17–25. ISBN 1571880194.
  3. ^ a b c Samson, Jack (1995). "A New Life". Lee Wulff. Portland, Oregon: Frank Amato. pp. 26–41. ISBN 1571880194.
  4. ^ a b c Valla, Mike (2013). "Lee Wulff (1905-1991)". The Founding Flies-43 American Masters Their Patterns and Influences. Mechanicsburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books. pp. 85–91. ISBN 9780811708333.
  5. ^ Katie Kinnear. "John Atherton, (1900-1952) Magic Realist". Sullivan Goss Gallery. Retrieved 2014-11-13.
  6. ^ Wulff, Lee. "The Bright Future of Trout Fishing." A Gamefish Too Valuable. 1978. 261-70. Print.
  7. ^ Berger, Antony (2014). "Chapter 7: The Hard Years". The Good and Beautiful Bay. St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador: Flanker Press. pp. 177–180. ISBN 978-1-77117-338-4.
  8. ^ Samson, Jack (1995). "Television Years". Lee Wulff. Portland, Oregon: Frank Amato. pp. 113–120. ISBN 1571880194.
  9. ^ Samson, Jack (1995). "A New Life". Lee Wulff. Portland, Oregon: Frank Amato. pp. 126–135. ISBN 1571880194.
  10. ^ a b "About the Wulff School of Fly Fishing". Wulff School of Fly Fishing. Retrieved 2015-01-09.
  11. ^ Bates, Joseph D. Jr. (1970). Atlantic Salmon Flies and Fishing. Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books. p. 266. ISBN 0-8117-0180-8.
  12. ^ Bergman, Ray (1952). Trout. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. p. 189.
  13. ^ Kreh, Lefty (1993). Professionals' Favorite Flies-Volume 1-Dry Flies, Emergers, Nymphs & Terrestrials. Birmingham, Alabama: Odysseus Editions. pp. 33–35.
  14. ^ Gierach, John (2000). Good Flies-Favorite Trout Patterns and How They Got That Way. New York: The Lyons Press. p. 66. ISBN 1585741396.
  15. ^ Samson, Jack (1995). "The Long Journey". Lee Wulff. Portland, Oregon: Frank Amato. pp. 228–233. ISBN 1571880194.
  16. ^ a b Bryant, Nelson (April 30, 1991). "Lee Wulff, 86, an Outdoorsman Who Transformed Sport Fishing". The New York Times. Retrieved 2014-11-12.
  17. ^ a b Samson, Jack (1995). "Epilogue". Lee Wulff. Portland, Oregon: Frank Amato. pp. 234–236. ISBN 1571880194.
  18. ^ Bamberger, Michael (March 13, 1994). "A Scribe Named Nelson Bryant He's The Dean Of Outdoor Writers, A Chronicler Of The Natural World". Philly.com. Retrieved 2014-11-12.
  19. ^ "Ed Zern, 83, Writer For Field & Stream And Conservationist". The New York Times. March 27, 1994. Retrieved 2014-11-12.
  20. ^ "(Video) Wings for an Angler with Lee Wulff". Seaplanes.org. Retrieved 2014-11-12.
  21. ^ "Youtube-Salar, The Leaper". Retrieved 2014-11-12.
  22. ^ "Minipi trout [videorecording] featuring Curt Gowdy & Lee Wulff". Montana State University Library. Retrieved 2014-11-12.[permanent dead link]
  23. ^ "Afield with Lee Wulff [sound recording]". Bozeman, Montana: Montana State University Library. Retrieved 2014-11-12.[permanent dead link]