The Lee Wulff I knew

Posted 11/30/22

Sometime in 1978, I received a call from Ed VanPut, letting me know that the Wulffs, Joan and Lee, had purchased the old Doubleday property on the upper Beaver Kill, where they planned to open a fly-fishing school.

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The Lee Wulff I knew


Sometime in 1978, I received a call from Ed VanPut, letting me know that the Wulffs, Joan and Lee, had purchased the old Doubleday property on the upper Beaver Kill, where they planned to open a fly-fishing school. At the time, both Ed and I worked for the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), out of the New Paltz office. Ed was a fisheries technician; I was a biologist. 

During the call, Ed informed me that the Wulffs were looking for someone to teach a course in aquatic entomology at the school. Since Ed knew that I had a background in that discipline, he suggested I contact the Wulffs. Frankly, I was surprised by what Ed had told me. While I knew about Lee from his shows on the “American Sportsmen,” I had no idea that he and Joan would be relocating to the Catskills.

Anyway, based on Ed’s advice, I wrote to Lee, indicating my interest. Shortly thereafter, I received a response from him, recommending that we meet. I still have that letter. During the meeting and after I explained my background, I was hired by the Wulffs, to teach the course and write a chapter on aquatic entomology for the school’s handbook.  

The first classes began in the spring of 1979, with weekend and mid-week sessions. Students arrived the day before to attend orientation. Joan outlined the program and Lee tied flies—with his fingers, not a vise.

Once instruction began, Joan lectured on the basics of fly casting, Lee spoke about a variety of fly-fishing techniques, including reading water, and taught fly casting with Joan and the other instructors, Ed VanPut and George Renner. 

Joan’s casting instruction was alternated with other parts of the school curriculum. I taught entomology on the Beaver Kill on weekdays and Saturdays. While Joan lectured, Lee, Ed, George and I loitered on the schoolhouse porch, swapping tales and listening to George’s jokes. Sometimes we were loud, likely disrupting the class. 

After I had taught the aquatic insect course at the Wulff school for a few years, Joan and Lee asked if I would like to become a fly-casting instructor. Although a bit hesitant, I agreed, and Joan spent the better part of that summer fine-tuning my casting and explaining how to teach. At the end of each session, Joan and Lee invited me to their house, where we retired to the porch, snacking on smoked salmon with a little lemon juice and capers. 

In 1982, Lee asked if I would be interested in filming hatching mayflies with his 16-mm movie equipment. That was before analog/digital video-recording cameras. By that time, Lee was an accomplished cinematographer, with several high-end Swiss and German cameras, splicing machines and sound and editing equipment 

One late morning, during March brown [mayfly] time in the Catskills, Lee called and asked if I was available to film those mayflies while they hatched. We met the next day around 11 a.m., and proceeded to the upper reaches of the Beaver Kill, where the first March browns were hatching. I tried filming these insects and found that they were just too quick to keep in focus. So we abandoned that project. 

Since Lee was still interested in filming hatching mayflies, I said that I had access to a large aquarium with a chiller unit, so water temperature could be controlled at desired levels. When Lee heard that, he asked how soon it could be delivered and set up. 

It took about two weeks for me to remove part of one side and install a plexiglass window for viewing. Once that was complete, a friend and I delivered the unit to the Wulffs. I added some river gravel and a few stones, and filled the aquarium with spring water. Then I set the water temperature at 45 degrees Fahrenheit. After that, I went to the Beaver Kill, collected a variety of aquatic insects, and released them to the aquarium 1. 

Our plan was to retard insect development by keeping the water temperature low, then increase it, wait for the insects to begin the hatching process, and then film them. Over the next weeks, we were able to keep the insects from hatching, but never were able to eventually get them to hatch. So that was a failed experiment.

While at the Wulff School, I spent a fair amount of time with Lee, and  listened carefully to his stories and lectures about the techniques that he developed to catch trout and salmon. He was a prolific innovator, who developed the Wulff series of dry flies and the fishing vest. 

In February of 1990, I was invited to attend Lee’s 85th birthday celebration at the Waldorf Astoria. It was hosted by Kurt Gowdy and Dan Rather. It was a highlight of my career with the Wulffs.

Lee Wulff was a man of many talents: pilot, artist, engineer, movie maker, conservationist and a superb fly fisherman. I was privileged and fortunate to spend several years working directly with and learning from him. Sadly, Lee perished in a small plane crash, near Hancock, NY, in April 1991, while the Wulff School was in session. 

For those readers of this column not familiar with the Wulff name, I highly recommend checking out some of Lee’s books and videos. 

1Aquatic insects cannot be taken from trout waters in New York State without a scientific collectors’ license from the DEC.

lee wulffs, dec, fly fishing


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