Virtuoso

The grande dame of fly-fishing, Joan Salvato Wulff combines grace, beauty and an uncanny understanding of the mechanics of the cast
By Jan Fogt ,

At 89, Joan Salvato Wulff is thinking legacy. Don’t worry. There’s still a spring in her step, and the gray matter functions as well as ever. It’s just that there’s still so much to accomplish, says the architect of modern-day fly-casting mechanics.

Framed by sweeping views of undulating grass flats from the Islamorada, Florida, winter home she shares with her husband, Theodore Rogowski, Wulff is explaining the four evolutionary stages of an angler and how she arrived at Stage Four.

“Stage One is about numbers,” she says. “In Stage Two, it’s catching the biggest. Stage Three is about challenging yourself, catching ever more difficult fish, like a permit instead of a bonefish. Lee Wulff taught me Stage Four, or giving back to the sport,” Wulff continues, referring to her late husband. “For Lee, it was promoting catch-and-release. My Stage Four was about defining the fly cast so that anyone can master it.”

Joan and Lee Wulff made quite a team.

Wulff has taught countless people the art of fly-casting through the school she founded and the books she has written: the revolutionary Joan Wulff’s Fly-Casting Techniques, published in 1987, and Joan Wulff’s New Fly-Casting Techniques, published in 2012. Her demystification of the fly cast landed her in the International Game Fish Association Hall of Fame and American Casting Association Hall of Fame, and she has garnered 20 awards, including the Lapis Lazuli and Lifetime Achievement awards from the International Federation of Fly Fishers. A modern day Annie Oakley, she can still slice a piece of fruit with a cast.

In the Beginning

“She could outcast just about any man,” says New Jersey outdoor writer Al Ristori, who as a kid frequented Paterson Rod & Gun, the shop owned by Wulff’s father, Jimmy Carmen Salvato. In the 1930s, distance and accuracy casting was a popular sport, and Salvato — a New Jersey game and fish commissioner and outdoors writer — was one of the best.

Wulff says her father was always working. “Family life revolved around my brothers and father and their interests of fishing, hunting, dogs and the store,” she recalls.

When she was 10, Wulff asked her mother if she could borrow her father’s fly rod, having watched him casting. After a few attempts, the rod came apart, and the top section slid into the water. Fearing Salvato’s reaction, mother and daughter summoned a neighbor to retrieve it with a rake. When Wulff’s father found out what had happened, he wasn’t angry — he was supportive, teaching his daughter to cast her own rod. There was no turning back.

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.

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. She was approached in Chicago by champion caster Frank Steel, who noticed that she raised her arm to cast, as he did. “I’d been cautioned not to raise my arm and keep it close to the body when casting,” Wulff says. “It meant a lot that Frank knew casting strength comes from the hand, forearm and upper arm, not the wrist alone. Good casts are executed from the toes to the fingertips using the entire body. Dancing helped me understand that.”

Dancing? Indeed, Wulff had a childhood passion for dance — first tap, then ballet. Recognizing her talent, Wulff’s mentor, Eleanor Egg, made her an instructor at age 12. When a high school guidance counselor asked what she’d enjoy doing in life, she replied, prophetically, “cast and dance.” And that’s what she does with a fly rod, as any of the scores of her casting students will attest. “I dance with a fly rod in my hand,” says Wulff, “for health and happiness.”

With her family’s limited financial resources, college was not an option for Wulff. The thinking was to educate the boys because women got married and had babies. “My two brothers went to college, and I went to secretarial school,” she says. In 1944, she landed a job with a Manhattan advertising agency, earning $25 a week, along with an extra $20 teaching dance on Saturdays — not bad for a young woman of 17. When Egg asked Wulff to partner with her in a full-time dance studio, Wulff took her up on the offer. “We had an overflow of students,” she says. “Eleanor’s solution was to turn them away or open a bigger studio.”

Before long, Wulff was earning $150 a week — and making a splash nationally for her fly-casting. In 1945, American Magazine published a story about her, “No Flies on Joanie,” and she was featured on the cover of Pennsylvania Angler. Wulff and Egg grew the dance business from 20 to 265 students. Unable to imagine teaching gum-chewing youngsters to dance for the rest of her life, Wulff left the studio in 1952. “I don’t regret a thing,” she says. “Through the school, I found my true passion — teaching.” It’s also been the secret to her longevity.

Act II

Between 1943 and 1960 Wulff crisscrossed the country, driving to casting competitions and outdoors shows, and achieving milestones and celebrity. In 1947, she scored 99 out of 100 points at a national accuracy championship, where she met Marvin Hedge, who is credited with being the first person to use the double haul for competitive distance casting. “He was the first I ever saw to let his back cast sink low enough to miss the dock by two inches on the forward cast,” says Wulff. “That gave him the perfect trajectory for distance.”

In 1947 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,” says 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?

Wulff achieved celebrity but little financial success. In 1953, she wrote to Field & Stream magazine fishing editor Al McClane, seeking advice about teaching fly-casting. McClane arranged for her to teach at Trail and Stream, an outdoors store in Manhattan. The pay was meager — $5 an hour, barely enough to cover lunch and the bus ride from New Jersey.

She realized the best way to make money in the fishing business was as a marketing rep or salesperson. Wulff broke into the business representing line manufacturer Ashaway in South Florida, where she was surprised by the level of prejudice and stereotyping she encountered just for being a woman. “In those days, the South was a dangerous place for a woman traveling alone,” she adds.

Florida, however, did have its charms — namely a type of fishing she hadn’t experienced: gliding across clear, glassy waters and casting at shadowy targets with deadeye aim. Brothers Holly and Rollie Hollenbeck were her guides in the Florida Keys, which have been her winter paradise for more than 20 years.

“I’m 89, but like yesterday I remember staring across the flats, thinking if I could hunt and fish all year long, how long would it take for me to grow tired of it,” Wulff says. “I didn’t know the answer, but I’ve since learned it’s never. I truly love fishing, being connected to a wild creature, to a life force. It’s a little like sex.”

New Chapters

Wulff met her first husband, Walter Cummings — the father of sons Doug and Stuart — in Florida. Cummings was the captain of a 58-foot charter schooner. They married in 1954. The plan was to give up the vagabond lifestyle, settle down and raise a family. That was shelved when Cummings got a job running a private yacht, aboard which Wulff became first mate and cook.

When the job ended 14 months later, so did the couple’s finances. Wulff returned to sporting shows and casting. At the top of her game, she signed a promotional contract with tackle manufacturer Garcia Corp. in 1958, earning $4,000 a year for appearances.

Wulff became a working mom, with all the emotional trappings that come with it. “The best cast I ever made came as a result of a mother’s guilt,” she says.

Wulff had brought 3-year-old Doug with her to the 1960 New Jersey State Casting Championship. “I need to pee,” he announced as she was called to cast. A fellow competitor offered to take him, and as the toddler was led away wailing, Wulff unleashed a 161-foot cast that would have been a record for women, had there been such a category.

Change sometimes strikes like a bolt out of the blue. The first time Joan saw Lee Wulff was in 1954; he was standing on the other side of a polished wooden counter at Trail and Stream. What she remembers is his height of more than 6 feet. “He’d wanted to show the owner some flies he’d made from plastic. Being easy to tie, they were way ahead of their time,” Joan says.

They next met in 1966, when Garcia asked Joan to go to Newfoundland to film an American Sportsman segment featuring her fishing for giant bluefin tuna. Joan wasn’t keen about the idea. Newfoundland is notorious for fog, and she was prone to seasickness when fishing offshore. She’d also heard the show’s filmmaker, Lee Wulff, was a “hermit-type.”

Despite the apprehension, she went. There was no fog, no mal de mer, and she caught a 572-pound giant bluefin on cue. Then the earth shook. At 21 years her senior, Lee Wulff was by far the most introspective and fascinating man Joan had ever met. Joan was ill-prepared for the aftershock that their union would have on their spouses and families. In 1967 they married, and life changed forever.

The Alaska-born, Stanford-educated engineer was a larger-than-life character who carved his own path through life, recalls Dave Brandt, a longtime instructor at the Wulff School of Fly Fishing in New York’s Catskills. Artist, pilot and inventor, he was the first to film fish underwater. He invented the pocketed fly-fishing vest in 1931 and was the first to use long-lasting animal hair in dry flies, rather than chicken feathers, for heavier-bodied flies, such as the Royal Wulff, which along with other outdoor gear is still sold by Royal Wulff Products, now run by Joan’s son Doug. 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.

In his first book, Handbook of Fly Fishing, published in 1939, he declared that a “gamefish is too valuable to catch only once.” That philosophy laid the groundwork for the catch-and-release ethic that governs the sport today. In 1965, he helped found the International Federation of Fly Fishers.

Final Stage

Theirs was a partnership. “Lee would put his arms around me and say, ‘Oh, most fortunate of women,’ ” Wulff recalls. “I would remind him, ‘You got lucky when you got me, buster.’ ”

Fly-fishing’s first couple settled in New Hampshire with Joan’s boys, traveling what she calls the “rubber chicken circuit” for Garcia. At appearances, Lee would espouse conservation while Joan would cast. Using a 3-foot rod and Hallmark package yarn that Lee devised for casting indoors in tight spaces, she’d float the colorful line over awed crowds. These exercises forced her to think critically about elements of the cast. “Lee was a good caster, but he was not one to analyze,” says Joan. When teaching, Lee would tell students to “do it like this,” whereas Joan would break down the cast.

In 1978, they 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’d done sporadically before opening the school.

Master fly instructor Brandt’s first encounter with the Wulffs was at a Trout Unlimited dinner in 1978, a year before the school opened. Eight years later he was asked to teach. Brandt was elated but afraid. “I had to impress Joan,” he says. “Lee was the master angler who told stories and talked fishing. Joan was the casting technician. And she was the boss.”

Dead serious about her responsibilities, 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,” says Brandt. “Technically, she’s the most proficient caster I’ve ever seen. And a master teacher.”

Miami-based master instructor Chico Fernandez agrees. “She can correct casting subtleties in people at the highest level, and with the same focus and contribution, help beginners,” Fernandez says.

These talents landed Joan a casting column that ran 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. No one was more thrilled by her success than Lee, who called himself “the author’s secretary.”

Joan attacked the project with her usual intensity. Her goal was to explain the cast in terms even a novice could grasp. During the 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, during which time Lee’s 3-foot Fly-O practice rod proved invaluable, allowing Joan to work inside and take notes, creating 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.

Some purists minimize the benefits of competitive casting, but Joan embraces the training. “It taught me what to expect from my tackle and what to expect from myself,” she says.

She credits Paterson, New Jersey, rod maker and mentor William Taylor for teaching her dry-fly accuracy casting. “He taught me how to hover a fly over competition targets.” Purists be damned! 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.

Life was good until April 28, 1991. At the school that morning, Joan, students and Brandt watched Lee take off in his Piper Super Cub with an instructor for touch-and-go landings to renew his license. He never returned. He was 86 when he slumped over the controls and died. The flight instructor was seriously injured when the plane crashed into a wooded hillside.

Grief-stricken, Joan worried about the future of the school without Lee as its chief draw. 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, whom she wed in 2002.

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,” says 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.”

How will Joan Salvato Wulff be remembered? As the inventor of “the method”? As the inspiration for female fly anglers? As the concerned teacher? Contemplating the sport that has defined her since age 10, Joan more than anything would like her lasting contribution to be universal acceptance of the language and 41 terms she has devised. And if we aren’t being too bold, it would be great for the International Federation of Fly Fishers to do that before her 90th birthday.

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