Ramblings of a Catskill Fly Fisher

Teaching at the Wulff School of Fly Fishing

By TONY BONAVIST
Posted 12/15/21

Sometime in early 1978, I received a call from my friend and fisheries associate, Ed Van Put, letting me know that Joan and Lee Wulff had purchased the old Doubleday property on the upper Beaver …

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Ramblings of a Catskill Fly Fisher

Teaching at the Wulff School of Fly Fishing

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Sometime in early 1978, I received a call from my friend and fisheries associate, Ed Van Put, letting me know that Joan and Lee Wulff had purchased the old Doubleday property on the upper Beaver Kill, near Lew Beach. The Wulffs’ plan was to open a new fly-fishing school there. Ed went on to explain that the Wullfs were looking for someone to teach the aquatic entomology class at the school. He knew that I had a background in trout stream biology, with an emphasis on aquatic insect classification and life cycles, and suggested that I contact the Wulffs.

I always enjoyed sharing my knowledge about all the little creatures of the river bottom with others, so immediately sent my résumé with a cover letter to Lee. I received a response on April 21, indicting that Joan and Lee would like to meet and go over my teaching experience while outlining the school’s format and schedule.

After that meeting I received a call from Lee offering me the position, which I gladly accepted. During that phone conversation, he asked if I would be willing to write the aquatic entomology chapter for the school’s textbook. I agreed. What I finally submitted to the Wulffs, turned out to be a 12-page overview of trout-stream insect anatomy, classification and hatching dates. I titled that chapter “Insects trout feed on.”

Once the school’s textbook was completed, the brochures printed and advertising forwarded to the appropriate outlets, the school began in April of 1979. The first year, the Wulffs conducted two sessions each week, one from Sunday to Thursday and the second from Friday to Sunday noon. There were a total of 18 sessions in 1979, beginning in May and ending in July. Students stayed at the Bonnie View Inn, about half a mile down the road. Fairly early on in the school’s first years, Larry Rockefeller purchased the Bonnie View, made a lot of  improvements and renamed the facility the Beaver Kill Valley Inn

My responsibility as the entomology instructor was to present a short lecture in the schoolhouse, designed to provide the students with an overview of the aquatic insect communities indigenous to those Catskill rivers which are important to fly fishers. After the lecture, I led the students across Beaver Kill Road, to the Beaver Kill River, where I stored the equipment necessary to collect and demonstrate the different species of aquatic insects highlighted during my lecture. My goal was to find examples of immature mayflies, caddisflies and stoneflies, then explain their physiological differences so students would be able to identify the different species in the field. I just turned over a few river stones,  collected insects with a small net and then placed them in a shallow pan for identification. I passed the pan around so every student could observe the insects and note the physical differences between the various orders.

I conducted the course at the Wulff School for at least two years before Joan asked me to help with fly casting instruction. I said, “I never taught fly casting.” Joan said, “I’ll teach you.”

So for the remainder of that school year, Joan worked with me. She not only demonstrated the techniques that the Wulffs used to teach fly casting, but she also taught me how to fly-cast. Up to that point in my fly-fishing career, I thought I was a pretty good caster; was I wrong. Over the time we worked together, Joan helped me correct a number of bad habits that I had developed and in the end showed me how to double-haul and teach the double haul. As a result of Joan’s guidance, I’m a much better caster and an even better instructor.

I worked at the Wulff School from 1979 until 1987 and again from 1993 to 1996. During those years, I met a lot of people—men, women and children—and a number of celebrities. Joan and Lee were a world-famous fly-fishing couple: Joan a world-champion fly caster, Lee a renowned salmon fly fisherman and a pilot who was often featured on episodes of ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.” As a result, fly fishers and would-be fly fishers flocked to the Wulff School, which was almost always sold out.

Working at the Wulff School came with a certain amount of prestige as well as responsibility. While teaching the entomology course was fun and easy, teaching fly casting was intense and hard work. There were five instructors for 22 students. As instructors we rotated, so each student received the attention of every instructor. Each fly-casting session was followed by a lecture on important aspects of fly fishing, like wading, reading water, and using fishing tackle. During the last casting session, each student was videotaped; this was later reviewed and analyzed. That way students would actually be able to see their errors and know what needed to be corrected.

I enjoyed the years I worked at the Wulff School, learning from Joan and Lee, and the camaraderie I developed with the other instructors and some of the students. And then of course there were the scrumptious lunches served up by Chris and her staff at the Beaver Kill Valley Inn. Those were very good years and very good times, teaching fly fishing at the Wulff School.

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