Joan Wulff - the first lady of fly fishing
- and a great fly casting instructor

Fishing instructor, fly fishing tuition and fishing trips based in Scotland. Salmon and trout fishing advice, flies and articles.

An audience with Joan Wulff by Ally Gowans

joan wulff
Joan Wulff

Joan Wulff is without doubt the most famous lady fly fisher on the planet. She has had a long and distinguished career in sport fishing and a commitment to conservation. From 1937 to 1960, she won numerous International and National tournament casting titles. In 1951, she captured the Fisherman's Distance event while vying against an all-male line-up. Joan cast a fly a distance of 161 feet in one competition. Joan is the cofounder and chief instructor of the Wulff School of Fly Fishing in Lew Beach, New York. She has appeared in many fishing films and authored Joan Wulff's Fly Casting Techniques; Fly Fishing: Expert Advice from a Woman's Perspective and Fly Casting Accuracy. Joan’s enthusiasm for fly fishing is infectious, she is an inspiration.
Through promotion of measures such as catch and release, she has helped the sport fishing to be accepted as environmentally-sustainable. Both Joan and her legendary husband the late Lee Wulff have had an amazing and positive impact on fly fishing. It was with some trepidation that I asked her some searching questions, and some of her answers surprised me.

How did you start fly-fishing?

I started in 1937 as a ten year old tournament caster, I was in a casting club in Patterson New Jersey, father was part of that after I convinced him that girls could fish he allowed me to be part of that but originally he skipped over me and started to teach a brother of mine because women didn't’t fish, he thought.

How would you convince someone else to start fly-fishing?

Well I would say that if you like the out of doors and are comfortable in heat, cold, wind, can deal with biting insects without some problems you will love fly fishing! It gets you to the most beautiful places in the world and fly fishing has so many levels of focus for you. You can tailor it, you know, if you want to know the Latin names of all the insects you can do that and if you don’t want to do it you just say it’s yellow and it’s this shape and this size and do it that way so it’s a life time sport and its got all kinds of depth if you want it.

What in your opinion is the most important aspect of fly-fishing?

That you are in beautiful places and you are because these fish only live in clean water and you can touch another living creature and feel its heart beat, feel its life source and still release it and let it be free again.

So you feel it’s a communion with nature?

You bet yes the idea of the life force of another creature without hurting it you know, it’s just wonderful.

Tackle has changed a lot in recent times what changes do you think have had the greatest impact or improvement on your sport?

I started as I said in 1937 and bamboo rods were heavy and this is the reason why so few women of my generation got involved, the rods were too heavy, the grips were too big. Then we went to glass which the said would be lighter but it wasn’t then we come to graphite which was initially lighter now you still have heavy graphite rods that are being developed as I speak but we now have women coming into the sport in large, large numbers so they need to know and we need to convince men to tell them that we need lighter rods because we don’t have the same strength and in my early days I could only fish a day and a half with a four ounce fly rod until Lee Wulff introduced me to a two ounce fly rod and then I could fish forever. So the biggest change has been in the weight of the fly rod, I would say as long as you still pay careful attention to it. I work with the Winston Rod Company and I have put a special sized handle in diameter and a little grove for a thumb to help bring women into the sport, I know that you are not talking about women in the sport but you should be because they are the next growing group, you know without women we’re going to be in trouble.

Do you ever wish that for instance that you had the first ever rod that you cast, just for a memento?

Yes, you’re right yes the first rod that I owned was a three piece Shakespeare rod probably for a five weight you know we had different weights when talking about it then and yes that would be wonderful and I often wondered what happened to it.

What fishing place holds the fondest memories for you and why?

The fondest memories make that easy otherwise I would have said that wherever I am is my favourite place but I get to fish on the Upsalquitch river in New Brunswick for Atlantic salmon in a beautiful setting, a private stretch of water and its like a big trout stream, its an intimate salmon river and I’ve come to know those pools and I fish with the same friends every year and it’s remote and its in a lovely old, old lodge so that’s my favourite place because of the memories I have, starting with Lee and continuing on.

What are the most important matters that fly-fishermen should address for the future?

Keeping the streams unpolluted, the resource, I mean I see fly fishermen we go through stages, first we want to catch the most fish, then the biggest then the most difficult then we get to the conservation of the resource, now you have got to give something back. I have a fishing school and I can only keep bringing new people in (because we need to get new people constantly), to work passionately to work for conservation, for the health of the streams and the fish.

Isaac Walton wrote of the “brotherhood of the angle” do you think that anglers enjoy a special “bond”?

Absolutely! The brotherhood is sharing the experiences that’s how it all comes about and that’s why if you have a doctor who is a fly fisherman he spends twenty minutes talking about fishing and ten talking about your health so there is something there I don’t think you can take away, that will always be strong, one fly fisherman to another because you live for the same reason. To enhance it you’ve got to keep working on the resource, you have got to keep thinking about the streams and the fish and what’s happening to them that’s the only way this can go on.

In conclusion have you anything that you would like to say?

I’m a very ordinary woman who has had a very extra ordinary life through the magic of fly-fishing and I wish that for everyone.

One of the absolute rewards of good fly fishing is good fly casting you can’t present a fly without casting so becoming good at casting is another challenge that even if you don’t catch fish if you have made good casts you the satisfaction that carries you through the day the idea of being a poor caster and not catching fish is the pits! You know casting is beautiful, it’s graceful, and its feminine, you know I love it.

It was a pleasure and great honour to talk with Joan Wulff. I hope that we can learn from her vast experience, work together as a brotherhood of anglers and protect wild fish.

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Copyright 2007 Alastair Gowans AAPGAI and FFF Master and THCI, APGAI. All rights reserved.