Standing in her Catskills living room, her feet spread wide, Joan Wulff whips a practice rod through the air, its bulky orange yarn unfurling in loops. She’s 90 but looks 20 years younger, moving with a grace and control honed in her teens as a tap dancer. “It requires force,” she says of the three-foot practice rod, a self-invention dubbed the Fly-O that she uses for training in the winter months. “Start slow and end fast.” She flicks her forearm and sends the yarn looping again. “Whoop! Whoop!”
We’re 10 miles north of the Beaverkill River, the birthplace of American fly fishing, where, in 1979, she founded the Wulff School of Fly Fishing with her late husband, Lee Wulff. A renowned outdoorsman, he invented the fishing vest and pioneered the catch-and-release method; his hunting trophies—a caribou head, a pair of elephant tusks—still dominate the living room. “For a time,” Wulff says, “he was the most famous outdoorsman in the world.”
Except, perhaps, for his wife. The women’s National Casting Champion from 1943 to 1960, Wulff is known as the First Lady of Fly Fishing—a title she embraces, even if it sells her short. In 1951, she beat an all-male field with a cast of 136 feet across the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool in Washington, D.C. Nine years later, in New Jersey, she cast a fly 161 feet, an unofficial women’s world record. “It gives me fame that still lasts,” she says.
Wulff’s fascination with fishing began at age 10, when her father taught her younger brothers to cast on a dock near their house. “And I was left out,” she says, “because I was a girl.” After World War II, she worked for tackle companies, demonstrating their gear at conferences and fishing shows. When a former vaudeville showman saw her trick casting in a pair of short shorts and a T-shirt, he convinced her to cast in an even more alluring outfit—a strapless cocktail dress and high heels—while he played a recording of “Up a Lazy River.”
Even after founding the school, Wulff often found herself a woman in a man’s world. “When Lee talked about fishing, everyone listened with every ounce of their being,” she recalls. “And when it was my turn, the instructors would go out on the porch and have a smoke.” Eventually, though, they listened, and Joan Wulff became a kind of fly-fishing oracle. She wrote the first-ever book on the mechanics of fly casting, drawing from a vocabulary of physiology she learned as a dance instructor. “It was very unclear how to cast,” she says. “It had all been passed down by word of mouth. I gave names to the parts of the cast: a loading move, a power snap, follow-through.”
Wulff may have written the definitive casting primer, but she credits Robert Redford’s 1992 film, A River Runs Through It, with luring women to the sport. Suddenly, there were more women than men enrolling at the school. “It showed the beautiful places we fish,” she says. “It showed the beautiful unrolling fly lines. It showed the handsome men I used to have all to myself.”
Inspired, I finally get up the nerve to give the practice rod a try. “I’ve never caught a fish before,” I tell her.
“Apparently,” she says, standing behind me and maneuvering my much younger, much less agile body into the correct position. “Move your elbow, not your wrist!” she shouts. “Bring your thumb between your eyes! Make it neater!” And then, finally, “That’s a girl!” The bright orange yarn unfurls in loops and, for an instant, the motion feels graceful.
After the lesson, I ask why she’s dedicated her life to this sport. She sits on the sofa and motions for me to join her. “When you hook a fish,” she says, “you are then connected to a live creature whose life force you feel in your hand. And when a fish strikes a fly, that’s the ultimate feeling. You never get tired of that. You are connected to the real world.”