I've played the Eliza Doolittle of fly-fishing to a number of Henry Higginses, beginning with my father and brother. As a little girl I was entranced by their stories of catching something called a rainbow, on a fly called a Rat-Faced McDougall, while fishing a river called the Walla Walla. The poetry of the sport hooked me long before I learned the prose. That came much later. And even then I found I still had to ask which fly to use, which knot to tie, which pool to fish. It was just a few years ago, in fact, that I decided to break free of my Higginses, stop with the "how now brown trout" and learn to do it myself.
Easier said than done. My father and brother had always made this business of fooling the fish look easy, but I knew from my limited experience that the delicacy and timing required to properly present an artificial fly takes practice and patience. Then there was the rest of it: learning to read the river for the best trout lies; learning to match the hatch. Last year I decided that a crash course was in order. I enrolled in the Joan and Lee Wulff Fishing School in Lew Beach, N.Y. And while I did learn to fly-fish myself, I found that I had added two more Higginses to the list.
Lee, 82, has been a professional fisherman, lecturer and filmmaker for more than 50 years. He's sometimes called the dean of American fly-fishermen, and with good reason. He designed the original fly-fishing vest and created the extensive Wulff series of dry flies. Long before I knew him, I knew that the fly called the Royal Wulff was one of the best bets for catching trout.
Joan, 60 and Lee's wife for 20 years, has helped women break into the sport. She's an internationally known instructor and writer on the subject of casting, fly casting in particular, and the only woman ever to have won a national distance casting championship against all-male competition.
October 4, 1987
That's just one of a number of records the Wulffs hold—clearly they're very good at what they do. So when they asked me if I'd like to go along on a trip to New Brunswick, Canada, to fish for Atlantic salmon, I could hardly believe my luck. To put it in another context, the invitation was like a cockney flower girl being asked to the ball.
So Ms. Doolittle found herself fishing for a creature she'd never seen outside a fish market, on a river named the Upsalquitch, a tributary of the more famous Restigouche. But one doesn't go to the ball unprepared. I'd placed 150 yards of backing on my reel, just in case a salmon of any consequence actually came along and took my fly. I also read up on our prey; of course my bibliography included Lee's authoritative The Atlantic Salmon. Not everything I read in his book was reassuring. "Men [and women, too, Lee probably meant to say] have fished for days to catch a single large salmon, or a conspicuous one, sometimes successfully, more often not." If that's not disconcerting enough, elsewhere he adds, "Barring a serious change of river conditions, a settled-in summer fish will remain in his lie for days, and the fisherman may cast to him until his arm aches and his head swims. There is no other fishing quite like it."
What fun, I thought. But then, in that same book, there were those pictures. Salmon leaping. Salmon fighting. And, best of all, salmon caught. Very big fish. Worth the wait.
Our party of six, which included Lee's son Allan, Allan's wife, Ginger, a guest named Dwight Lee and me, learned just how long that wait can be. Upon arriving in New Brunswick, we heard that the water in the local rivers was at its lowest level in 66 years. Salmon don't like low water, I was informed. Most of the fish will wait out in the Gulf of St. Lawrence until the rivers rise and they can more easily make the journey to their spawning grounds. Those salmon that do go upriver in low water will hold in a single pool for days, barely moving, unimpressed and uninterested in their new surroundings. Add to this problem the fact that salmon eat little, if anything, on their journey upstream, and you get some idea of the challenge that was awaiting us.
Under conditions like these, just seeing a fish move can get you pretty worked up. Seeing one actually rise to your fly can keep you going for days. The evening of our first day on the Upsalquitch, a magical river that winds through lush forest, a salmon rose to one of my flies. Forgetting everything I had read about the differences between salmon and trout, I tried to strike very quickly, as I would with a trout. "Striking," in this case, means raising the rod a bit to set the hook before the fish has a chance to spit out the imitation. I lost that one, having whisked the fly away before he got a real chance to take it. "Stop thinking trout," said Lee.
Good advice, considering the differences between the two fish. The trout is hungry, while the spawning Atlantic salmon is not, making fly selection for salmon something of a trial. No one is quite sure why the salmon bothers to take a fly; the territorial imperative is a popular and impressive-sounding theory that is often put forth, but I haven't heard anyone dismiss just plain foul temper on the salmon's part. Trout often hide along the banks of a river, while salmon may feel safer in open water. And, while three good casts to a trout pool may be sufficient, three casts to a salmon pool is just getting warmed up.
Dwight and I headed out the next morning with Lee Marshall, a guide who had fished these rivers for 30 years. We spent part of the morning at a pool called Two Rocks. The only thing there, aside from the two rocks, were parr. I was able, however, to learn something new about salmon: While an adult fish will often ignore the tastiest-looking morsel, a baby salmon, like Mikey in the cereal commercial, will try anything, including a fly almost as big as it is. Thus it came to pass that my first "salmon" was two inches long.
I began to wonder if parr-for-the-course cracks and a photo of a two-inch salmon would be all I had to show for my hard work. Not to worry. Better things, certainly better fish, were just around the bend. That evening Lee Wulff and I went upriver with Lee Marshall. At a pool called Long Lookum, we spotted two grilse (young but mature sea-fed salmon returning to spawn for the first time). Lee Wulff very graciously allowed me the advantage of fishing the pool first. After we'd both had no luck at the top of the pool, I moved downstream a bit and cast out a wet fly called a Black Bear/Green Butt (so it's not all poetry).
Bam! I felt the weight of the salmon as the hook was set and heard the delicious sound of line whirring off the reel as the fish took out line. All my plans to keep calm went right down the river with the salmon.
Enter Henry Higgins. "Unless you want that fish to take you in over your head," Lee Wulff said calmly from the bank behind me, "I'd suggest you work him over to the net." I looked down near the beached canoe and saw Lee Marshall, net in hand. With a little advice on playing and landing the fish, including a tip not to touch my reel until I could get my rod into a vertical position, I managed to keep the salmon on my hook and, finally, to bring it to the net. It weighed 3¼ pounds. Although I was brought up in a family of no-kill, catch-and-release fishermen, I decided to keep this one, in case it turned out to be the only one. It didn't look as though I would come up against the limit in New Brunswick, which is two grilse a day, neither more than 25 inches long.
While there have been much bigger fish caught on that river, I doubt any was ever more photographed. In the net and out of the net. Upside down and sideways. With both Lees. But no photograph, not even one by Lee Wulff, can ever recapture the thrill of that salmon taking out my line, leaping completely out of the water. Nor can it evoke a complete remembrance of Lee Wulff playing Higgins.
It turned out that Lee was just as relieved as I was that I'd caught a salmon. He had worried, Joan told me later, that he might have invited me along on a fishing trip with no fish.
As we headed back to our lodge that evening, we decided to fish one more pool from the boat. I took a look at the still, dark mirror in front of us and felt immediate performance anxiety. The nasty little bugs called no-see-ums had begun to bite, making for an additional distraction. (I have a feeling that a no-see-um placed under a microscope would show up as nothing more than a pair of tiny teeth.) Mercifully, Lee Wulff fished the pool first. He dropped a fly onto that glassy surface as though it were a feather. Nary a ripple. No sign of fish, but his casting was a beautiful thing to watch.
And then, my turn. After a few anxious attempts, with many a ripple, Lee Marshall said, "Well, I think they may be gone now. Might's well move on down." What diplomacy.
The next day's blustery weather was a wind-knot special, making casting difficult. Even so, Ginger was able to catch a 14-pound salmon on a fly called a Blue Squirrel. Allan caught a salmon and a grilse. Now we knew that, while fishing was poor, it wasn't impossible. And that knowledge, plus a second grilse in the refrigerator for dinner, was enough to boost all our spirits considerably.
Fishing upriver with Joan early the following day, we saw no sign of fish, but I got a lot of help with my casting. With her 50 years of experience, Joan makes casting look simple, but getting that line to roll out so that it will delicately drop the fly exactly where you want it takes practice. And practice was what I got when we moved upstream. We spotted three grilse at the Long Lookum pool. We worked over those fish for more than an hour, trying to entice them with every kind of fly: Green Highlander, Silver Rat, Rusty Rat, Blue Squirrel, Blue Charm and Skater. I confess that by then I had unsportsmanlike visions of the effectiveness of a well-placed grenade. The only satisfaction of the morning came when I cast the Skater right over the nose of one grilse. "Beautiful," said Joan. The fish, which obviously didn't know a perfect presentation when it saw one, ignored the fly.
On the way back downriver I asked Joan how she'd met Lee. It was in the 1960s, she said, when she was working for Garcia, the tackle company. Lee had asked if they had someone who could appear with him in a film about tuna fishing in Newfoundland. The first choice had been a well-known female singer, but when she could not go, Joan was the one. "You can imagine how I felt," she said, "being asked to go fishing with Lee Wulff."
"Yes," I replied, "I certainly can."
That evening Lee and Joan fished together at a pool called Push-And-Be-Damned. As Ginger and I approached in our boat, we saw Joan land a nice-sized grilse. "What did you catch it on?" I yelled. "A Lady Joan," came the reply. The Lady Joan is a fly created by Lee and named in Joan's honor shortly after their marriage in 1967. In a recent article on his flies, Lee describes the Lady Joan as "the most beautiful" of a series of flies he had designed. It has "a burnt orange body with gold tinsel winding and bright yellow hackle at the throat...topped with a golden pheasant crest feather." I suppose that's about as close to a love sonnet as a salmon fly is likely to get. "It's attractive," he adds prosaically, "and effective."
Lee also caught a grilse that evening. But what he'd hoped to catch that week was a salmon on a #28 hook. A hook that size is smaller than the tip of your little finger, and to get a large salmon on a hook that tiny requires rare skill. In 1985, Lee became the first angler to catch a salmon on a fly tied on a #28. He wanted very much to do it again. That sort of goal may seem esoteric to most fishermen, but this octogenarian is not most fishermen. "I'd rather be dead than average," he told me. (As it turned out, the week after this trip, Lee fished the Restigouche and set an unofficial world record by landing a 12-pound salmon on a #28.)
By the end of my stay on the Upsalquitch everyone had caught at least one fish, and some of us as many as four. On my last evening with the group, Lee and I teamed up to fish the middle three pools on the seven-mile stretch we had been working. With angry clouds moving in across the hills, we began at the Home Pool, right in front of our lodge.
When the thunder and lightning got really serious, and the rain was finding its way into my poncho, I asked Lee if it ever bothers him to be in the middle of a river waving a graphite (lightning) rod in such a storm. "No," said Lee. "I figure when your time is up, your time is up." Then he added, "But the fish don't like this thunder, so we might as well stop fishing until the worst is over." I had already decided I didn't want to be both dead and average, but it was nice to have the fish to blame for my hasty retreat.
After the storm we headed upriver to Push-And-Be-Damned. I was told that this one pool yields as many as four or five salmon an hour in a good year. But this wasn't a good year, and this evening the pool lived up to its name rather than its reputation.
As we headed back without any salmon, my disappointment was tempered by the sights and sounds of the river at dusk. And by memories of my other "catches": the sight of an osprey soaring overhead, kingfishers diving for parr, a doe, as startled as I was at seeing her, stepping out from the trees. And the final memory: sitting behind Lee in a canoe at nightfall as a sliver of moon crept over the pines. I thought of all of this, but said only, "A beautiful evening." And he said only, "The pleasures of fishing can't be measured in pounds."
Judy Muller, a CBS news correspondent, anchors CBS Radio's "First Line Report."