Fly fishing gear

Catskills legend Joan Salvato Wulff opened fly fishing to women

For the woman known as “the first lady of fly fishing,” the lure of the sport that made her famous is plain and simple.

“You are one with the outdoor world,” said Joan Salvato Wulff. “My church is the outside world.”

Wulff, 95, attends services at her chosen place of worship since growing up in Paterson, New Jersey, learning fly fishing and the art of casting from her father, who owned a rod and gun shop.

From her teenage years in the 1940s to 1960s, she won several local, regional and national casting tournaments, often beating all-male champs. At the National Fisherman’s Distance Fly Championship in 1951, she became the first woman to win with a 136-foot long throw.

She then spent nearly two decades as a spokesperson for The Garcia Corporation, a major fishing tackle company – becoming the first woman to be such a paid spokesperson – before launching a fly fishing school. in 1979 in the heart of the Catskills with her second husband, television cinematographer Lee Wulff, himself an iconic angler whose contributions to sport fishing include catch and release.

Today, Joan Wulff is a living legend in the fly fishing world and a beloved figure around Livingston Manor in Sullivan County, where the Wulff School of Fly Fishing has held classes for several weeks in spring and early summer along the Beaverkill River, one of the most popular and historic trout streams in the Catskills, considered the birthplace of American dry fly fishing. (Dry refers to casting an artificial insect at the surface of the water, as opposed to using a weighted lure that will sink.)

Wulff at 13, winner of a dry fly contest in New Jersey.

American Fly Fishing Museum

“Every once in a while a woman comes along who changes perceptions and expectations, who inspires and influences generations to come, who sets new standards and protocols,” said Jennifer Grossman, an avid fly fisherman and friend of long time. “One of those women is Joan Wulff.”

“Casting allowed me to be in a sport for men”

Although Wulff’s pioneering contributions to fly fishing are akin to the accomplishments of legendary female athletes such as Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Billie Jean King and Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Grossman prefers to take the comparison out of the sporting realm.

“She’s like Amelia Earhart or Marie Curie: women who refused to be relegated, said they weren’t worthy to do certain things,” said Grossman, environmental lawyer and co-owner of The Smoke Joint, a barbecue restaurant in Livingston. Manor.

Theodore Gordon, author of a sports magazine in the late 1800s and early 20th century, is considered “the father of American dry fly fishing”. Tuberculosis forced Gordon to move from New York to the Catskills, where the fly imitations he created were designed to mimic the native insect species of the Catskills, not their cousins ​​across the country. pond in the British Isles, the home of fly fishing. Gordon’s innovations and writings have inspired generations of anglers to seek out trout-rich Catskills streams and rivers like Neversink, Willowemoc and Beaverkill.

Catch and release pioneers Joan and Lee Wulff founded the Wulff School of <a class=Fly Fishing in 1979 near Livingston Manor. In August, the American Museum of Fly Fishing will launch an exhibit of the two titled “Tied Together”.”/>

Catch and release pioneers Joan and Lee Wulff founded the Wulff School of Fly Fishing in 1979 near Livingston Manor. In August, the American Museum of Fly Fishing will launch an exhibit of the two called “Tied Together.”

American Fly Fishing Museum

While fly fishing began as a male-dominated sport, it didn’t take long for women to catch the virus, either alongside their husbands or with other women whose love of outdoors did not allow them to stay home on a day when there was trout to catch.


In addition to Wulff, these trailblazing women include:

  • Julia Freeman Fairchild: Co-founder and first president of the Woman Flyfishers Club, the world’s first organization of female fly fishers, created in 1932 in New York.
  • Jeanne Stoliar: An accomplished angler and fly tyer, she was known for her conservation projects in the Catskills and for designing fly fishing products.
  • winnie debt: Alongside her husband Walt, she tied flies at their home along the Willowemoc from the 1930s to their deaths in the 90s, perfecting a technique known as the Catskill style of fly tying.
  • Mary Dette: Daughter of Winnie and Walt Dette, she is known as the last of the Catskill fly tyers, a skill she learned from her parents. Now retired at 90, the 94-year-old family business, Dette Flies, still operates in Livingston Manner, owned by his grandson, Joe Fox.
  • Elsie Darbee: Working with her husband Harry in their fly-fishing business at Livingston Manor, she became a pioneer of the Catskill style of fly tying, producing flies that achieved worldwide fame. And she was the first president of the Catskills Fly Fishing Center and Museum (CFFCM), located along the Willowemoc in Livingston Manor.

All of these women are members of the museum’s Hall of Fame, established in 1985 to honor individuals “who have significantly improved the culture of fly fishing,” according to the CFFCM website. (HOF male members include Baseball Hall of Famer Ted William; writer Norman Maclean, author of the fly-fishing novel “A River Runs Through It”; and actor Robert Redford, director of the 1992 film based on Maclean’s novel.)

Wulff, now 95, still lives on her school property and teaches there.

Wulff, now 95, still lives on her school property and teaches there.

American Fly Fishing Museum

Joan Wulff was inducted in 2000, a year after her husband Lee, who died in 1991 at age 86 during his pilot recertification flight. (Joan married a third time in 2002 to Ted Rogowski, one of Lee’s closest friends. Rogowski died in 2021.)

A person’s skill, not their gender, is what matters most as they navigate a fast-moving, rock-strewn stream while plunging hip-deep into cold water, trying to entice a rainbow trout -elusive rainbow to rise to the surface and swallow that skillfully tied fly. Wulff’s casting skills put her on par with any male angler.

“I was in a river with a group of men, and I could cast as well as them, and they accepted me,” said Wulff, who has been an author, magazine columnist and inductee into several temples in fishing fame. “Casting really allowed me to be in a men’s sport.”

She gave up negotiating the banks and running water years ago. Instead, she can still be found sharing her eight decades of fly-casting expertise with students along one of the ponds on her school’s 100-acre property overseen by Doug Cummings, a son from his first marriage. She lives on school property in the town of Hardenburgh in the northwest corner of Ulster County, 20 km north of Livingston Manor.

The toughest teaching duties are handled by a dedicated team of instructors who drive hours from their homes in Pennsylvania and New England to teach lessons on weekends.

“These people are dedicated, like me, to teaching people how to throw the path so they understand it in every move,” Wulff said. “I’m thrilled and so lucky that they’ve stuck with me all these years.”

Pioneer Women of the Hudson Valley