Swedish version

  Excerpt from the book "Fishing Passion"
A Lifelong Love Affair with Angling

By Jim C. Chapralis

Fishing With The Greats
Lee Wulff
by Jim C. Chapralis

  IT WAS A HOT, sweltering August day and we were all busy at PanAngling's office on Chicago's Michigan Avenue. The office door swung open and in entered a tall, lean figure with shocking white hair. It was Lee Wulff! He was probably 78 or 80 at the time, at the height of his popularity, among the most famous fishing icons of all time, and although he wasn't feeling well and the heat was oppressive, he wanted to say "hello." He was in Chicago for a speaking engagement at a private club.

This was one of the most flattering things that ever happened to me. The great Lee Wulff visited me: the guy who tamed all those huge salmon and trophy trout on bantam-sized fly rods; the man who subdued giant bluefin tuna on light conventional tackle; the angler who explored and popularized fishing in Labrador and Newfoundland and invented the fishing vest, and once dove off a bridge in waders to demonstrate that belted waders would not cause an angler to drown. The conservationist who preached catch-and-release, when many of us were loading Coleman coolers with fish fillets. Many things. It was indeed a flattering experience.

The first time I met Lee Wulff was at the Executive Club in Chicago more than 35 years ago. He spoke at this prestigious club every year, and while the cavernous room at the old Sherman House could accommodate more than 1,000 persons, Lee's annual visits were very popular-the toughest ticket to obtain-and easily he outdrew every dignitary, including past U. S. presidents.

Lee's stunning fishing movies, which he produced, and his riveting live narrations were part of the big draw. His rich, wonderful voice and his relaxed but mindful script and style were presented with such precise timing and spacing that surely Lee's delivery was the envy of many TV or radio announcers. Amazingly, he told me that at one time he was a very poor speaker and lacked confidence but overcame this deficiency by long hours of practice. Lee would speak into a tape recorder while driving between engagements. He was sort of a modern-day Demosthenes. Lee always drew a standing ovation at his annual visits to the Executive Club and everyone left the huge room feeling much better about the world.

The rest of the angling world would come to know Lee through his wonderful appearances on such TV programs as ABC's Wide World of Sports and The American Sportsman. His charismatic personality, his tall, statuesque physique, his voice and delivery, his great skills as an angler and his penchant for adventure provided a complete package that TV media gurus loved.

I saw Lee several times briefly through the years and we once had lunch arranged by our mutual good friend and fishing companion Bus Duhamel. We stayed in touch and sometimes he sent me new innovations in fly patterns and constructions to try. I've learned that famous personalities are pestered constantly by well-meaning fans, so I never bugged Lee or other famous personalities. We exchanged letters from time to time, but that was it for the most part.

I was invited to New York to celebrate Lee's 85th birthday at the posh Waldorf Astoria. Lee and I greeted and hugged each other warmly. Then he said: "We have to fish together soon."

Sure, I thought. So many people say, "Let's have lunch sometime," but it never happens. Lee's fame, despite his age, was increasing every year and he was busier than ever, but he called and he wrote several times.

"Let's fish together," he insisted on the phone. How flattering! I jumped at the chance.

"What would you like to do?" I asked.

He wanted to try for a sailfish on a fly rod, so Lee, Joan, his wife, and I flew to Quepos, Costa Rica to fish with Tom Bradwell's Marlin Azul fleet. Prior to our trip, angling great Winston Moore said, "Find out what Lee uses to keep so active and so energetic. Let's bottle it, save some of it for ourselves and for our friends, and sell the rest and retire."

On the first fishing day, Joan picked the right straw, which earned her the first shot at a sailfish via fly fishing. Joan Wulff is known for her fantastic casting skills, and her columns in Fly Rod and Reel are classics. Years ago she competed in the men's division and won a national distance fly casting championship with precise timing rather than brawn.

We teased up a sail, the captain shifted the engine into neutral and Joan delivered a perfect cast. She stripped the popper a couple of times, and a big sailfish inhaled the surface lure but the hook didn't set. Darn!

We teased another sail, up-close-and-personal, and this time everything worked to perfection and Joan was hooked solidly to a sailfish. Cool and calm, she parried the fish's best efforts, and in about ten minutes the sail was billed, photographed and carefully released. This was her first sail landed on a fly rod. Very few sails are landed in ten minutes on a fly rod by any angler, including the most experienced, so Joan's accomplishment was incredible.

Now it was Lee's turn. Whereas Quepos' sailfishing had been spectacular during the preceding weeks, Murphy's Law kicked in with a vengeance during our fishing time (March 5 to 7, 1991). Sails were very scarce, reluctant to follow teasers, and not at all aggressive.

"Lee, do you think these sails would take a dry fly? Just floating on the surface?" I don't know what possessed me to ask that question. Just to fill in a lull in our brisk conversation?

That night, Lee apparently thought about my question and fashioned a huge dry fly from the little material he was able to find. The fly was about six inches long but very light.

The sea was rougher the next day so I thought the chances of taking a sail on a dry fly were nil. Surely, Lee would switch to a more conventional fly-a streamer or a popper-and move it on the surface, but, no, Lee was going to use a dry fly.

"How else are we going to find out?" he questioned.

"Well, yes, Lee, but these are tough conditions, and there aren't many sails around."

"Then this is the time to try something new, whether it's a method, a lure or fly. Try it under adverse conditions and if you succeed, it means something. If you try something under great conditions, when fish will hit everything, what does that prove?"

I nodded politely, but I was mad at myself for asking about dry flies for sails the day before. There was virtually no chance of succeeding, and I wanted Lee to get a sail on this trip. Who knows? It might be his last chance at getting a sail. I wanted to be part of this historic catch. So there were also selfish motives involved from my perspective.

The second sail we teased plucked the motionless dry fly from the surface. Just like that! And Lee Wulff was attached to one of the most tenacious sailfish I've ever witnessed. He hooked the sailfish shortly after noon. Whatever breeze that had existed before subsided. The perspiration poured down Lee's thin face. Joan tried to wipe it off, but he shooed her away. I found some shade under the bridge, sipped several cold drinks, placed ice cubes under my hat, and I still found it unbearably hot. There's Lee, now 86, in blazing sunlight, fighting the sail.

The fish was unyielding. It didn't jump itself silly at first and therefore use its energy; it sounded, taking yards of line from Lee's fly reel. Somehow, some way, Lee worked the fish back to the surface, where it would promptly unleash a series of dramatic jumps before sounding again, and resting.

One hour passed.

Lee worked the fish in closer. He was sitting on the bait box next to the transom. In his younger days he'd have been standing up, fighting the fish hard and tough, giving up line only when it was absolutely necessary. Now aged, Lee had to conserve his energy, for this battle was developing into a very long fight. The sail dove for the deeper waters again.

"Of all the sailfish in this big ocean, we have to meet this one," I thought to myself, greatly paraphrasing Humphrey Bogart's line in Casablanca.

"Do you think Lee is okay?" I asked Joan.

"He's okay. His intensity and dedication are his strengths."

"I'm amazed." I told her. "Here's a guy in his mid-80s, fighting that fish as best and as hard as his strength allows, on this hot, humid day from a rolling boat. I often see a baseball pitcher in the prime of life needing to rest because he just ran 90 feet to first base. Or a football player bursts for a 35-yard run and he points to the coach that he needs to come out for the oxygen mask."

Joan laughed and agreed.

She brought Lee a cup of Coke. He took a couple of swallows and then said he wouldn't need any more. Almost two hours passed. Lee was stubborn; it was important to him to land this fish. The fish was stubborn; it was fighting for its life. Just when the sailfish seemed to be tiring, it dove for deeper water where it recovered its strength.

Round Four.

"Why don't you go to Lee and talk to him? I think he'd like that."

"Are you kidding?" I asked. "While he is fighting that fish? What if he loses it?"

She insisted. And so I went to Lee, sat next to him, and we talked. We talked about how that sail hit a dry fly and what a strong fighter it was.

Lee wondered what the sailfish took the dry fly for? "Perhaps a baby albatross?" Perhaps.

"Lee, I bet you can't wait until this is over. I bet you're thinking about how nice it will be when we go back to the air-conditioned hotel, and have a couple of chocolate sundaes? Right?"

"Absolutely not! That's the worst thing you can think about. It would be self-defeating because then you would want to get this battle over with so that you could enjoy the air-conditioning and ice cream. It would be a terrible mistake."

"Then what do you think when you are fighting this fish for a long time?" I had to know.

"I think what a splendid, strong fighter this buck is . . . but then I think I have years of experience and that I have patience. As I get older, I lose more strength, but on the other hand I gain experience and I have confidence in what I'm doing. It's youth against experience."

He was absolutely right. The encounter between Lee and the fish was almost a Hemingway confrontation. I noticed his unique fly reel.

"What kind of reel are you using?"

"It's custom-made. Stan Bogdan made it for me. Actually he made only two and gave them to me," he replied.

Whoa, only two reels of this model made by a famous reel maker, and Lee was fishing with one of them?

"Aren't you afraid of losing this rare reel, overboard?"

"So?" he replied. "Many people have good tackle and other equipment and never use it. Stan made these for me for fishing, not to sit in a drawer and collect dust. If I lose a reel overboard, I lose it."

I felt a little sheepish. I have some unusual, valuable fishing rods and reels, but I hesitate to use them for fear that they will break or be damaged. I learned this from my grandmother, who used to save China dinnerware and linens for special occasions that never materialized.

"Are you okay, Lee? You've been in the hot sun out here? Would you like some water? Some ice? Anything? "

"No. I'm fine. I'm okay."

I left him to fight his fish. Two and a half hours. Just when you'd think this fight was hopeless, Lee worked the sail to the surface where it uncorked a volley of spectacular, somersaulting flips. There was hope. The jumps tired out the fish, but then it sounded in deep water again, where it rested and recuperated.

Three hours.

The crew was getting antsy. All the other boats had gone in for the day. We were a helluva long way from the shore. I drank a couple of ice-cold Cokes. In the shade.

I remember that the previous trip to Costa Rica, Lee fought a blue marlin for six hours at Golfito Sailfish Rancho before the eight-pound tippet broke. Years ago, Wulff was among the first to land sailfish on a fly rod, and he even subdued a 148-pound striped marlin on a fly for The American Sportsman television cameras. It became obvious to everyone on board that it was very important to Lee that he lands this fish. There was no doubt that he was ignoring tired, aching muscles and battling almost total exhaustion.

The break came. The fish flushed to the top and slashed all over the surface, right next to the boat. On one jump it looked like the fish was coming into the cockpit. Raphael deftly maneuvered the boat and Carlos sprung like a cat into action, so fast that I don't know what really happened. I think he fended off the fish with a small gaff as it was about to come in. The fish was stunned. Carlos grabbed the bill. The fish was landed after three hours and ten minutes.

Lee, the sailfish he landed and one of the guides

Hurrah! It was a great trip back to the docks. Bradwell's crew (Raphael and Carlos) deserved tremendous credit. It was one of the greatest fishing moments I've ever experienced. Moments? It was an epic! Lee at age 86 had used a dry fly on a fly rod to conquer a tough sail.

After dinner we discussed many things. Lee had a very noticeable limp. I asked him about it. He had injured his foot while playing football at Stanford University. He played fullback. It didn't bother him before, but now in his 80s it did.

"Fullback? Why'd you play that position?" Lee had the physique of an end or wide receiver. He was much too thin to play fullback, especially in those days of power football.

"When you're young, you do dumb things. You think you're invincible."

"Like that wild sailfish that came up to take a dry fly? Perhaps mistaking it for something else?"

"Like that." He smiled. "Of course, we'd like to stay young and vigorous but that's impossible. But there are some advantages to old age."

"Like what?" I needed to know, as my birthdays were flying by.

"Well, you can say just about anything to anyone, and they'll dismiss your comments because of your age. Say the same things when you're young, and you could get a bloody nose or a broken face!

"The one disease I fear is cancer. Slow death. Painful for you and others . . . you degenerate like a Pacific salmon that has returned to a river to spawn and then the dying process accelerates. "

At this point, I brought up the first day of our fishing trip. Our captain had to let us out at the end of the pier because of the unusually low tide. There was a circular, rusty metal staircase without handrails that wound its way up for about 20 feet. The dark water swirled ominously underneath the pier. Joan and I weren't particularly fond of going up this staircase, but we said nothing. Lee grabbed his rods and even with his bad foot he didn't hesitate. He went up first. Whoa!

Naturally, I had to do it, and so did Joan. I asked him about this.

"You know, Lee, I didn't like climbing that circular staircase. It just didn't look safe, not having any rails, but you didn't hesitate! I climbed the stairs, because you did it."

"It's all mental," Lee said. I'm sure he had sensed my reluctance to go up the staircase. "Many people defeat themselves mentally, when physically they are capable of doing a task without hesitation. Let me give you an example: Let's say you had a wooden board that was four feet wide and say a dozen feet long. Anyone who can walk would have no problem walking across the board. Right?

"But now place this board high, say ten stories up, between two buildings 10 feet apart. Most people would have a terrible time going across the board. Most wouldn't even attempt it."

"You're absolutely right!" I said. "One time I was fishing in Argentina for trout. George Wenckheim, my guide, and I were returning to our tent camp in the dark. He suggested a short cut and I remember we walked across a big wide log. George told me to be careful and had only a small flashlight. No problem.

"The next day he wanted to use that shortcut again. When we came to it, I was shocked to notice that the log bridged a boulder-infested river. I think the log was 40 to 50 feet above the river. No way was I going to go across that log again, although I did that at night. You're right. So much is mental."

We talked about Charles Ritz, the tackle industry, a book that he was writing (Bush Pilot Angler), Yellow Bird (a plane he owned), catch-and-release, advances in tackle and so many other things.

I found his spirit, enthusiasm and discussions a very necessary example. As I age and find myself not as agile as 30 years ago, and aches and some pains begin to take over, I often recall Lee's words of wisdom.

"This summer," Lee continued, "if all goes well, I'll fly my plane to Labrador for brook trout." He talked about putting floats on his plane and using a "dolly-like" contraption to take off from his landing strip. He explained that he would land on floats on wet grass. "It's been done before but you have to be careful . . . want to come along?" he asked me.

"Huh?" I was flattered. But I'm not a fan of little planes under the best of circumstances.

"Think about it. Great brook trout fishing."

Soon after, Lee Wulff crashed in his plane near his home in New York while renewing his flying license; apparently he suffered a heart attack while landing. The instructor, Max Francisco, suffered compound fractures, broken bones in his feet, facial lacerations and was lucky to survive the crash.

Before he died, Lee Wulff tied two flies for me without using a vise: A No. 12 and a No. 28 Royal Wulff. Thoughtfully he even included letters of authenticity. (He also tied a revolutionary sailfish fly for friend Peter Aravosis who was going sailfishing.)

The sail was the last big fish he caught, and these may be the last flies Lee tied.

I am honored.

Excerpt from the book
"Fishing Passion"
A Lifelong Love Affair with Angling
By Jim C. Chapralis
Copyright 2002.
Angling Matters Press

Book description: Hardcover with full-color dust jacket featuring a Charles B. Mitchell painting; 384 pages, 130 illustrations by John Tianis and Charles B. Mitchell. 6X9-inches.
ISBN 0-9708653-3-3



Book presentation

FISHING PASSION: a lifelong love affair with angling is not about how to catch fish, or where to fish; there are many books that cover these subjects nicely. It's Jim Chapralis' 60-year journey pursuing his addictive love for fishing. His odyssey includes gigs in guiding, writing, and tackle manufacturing before finally pioneering the international fishing travel field.

Jim started fishing at age eight, when WWII forced his family to return to America from Greece. He trolled across the Atlantic Ocean (interrupted by a Nazi submarine!). Later, Jim found a way to fish in 40 countries, some for as many as a dozen times, and earned a living by doing so.

In FISHING PASSION, you'll meet many one-of-a-kind characters from the "Pimp" (his boyhood fishing chum) to Charles Ritz, the world famous French hotelier and superb angler. You'll meet Don Dobbins-Jim's mentor-who must decide whether to fish for salmon and probably die because of a heart ailment, or give up serious fishing and live for many years.

Jim takes you to Angola in search of giant tarpon (and the most unusual "outdoor beer garden" found anywhere); to Panama where he and friends are held at bay by a dozen guns; to Colombia where witch doctors practice their medicine on injured clients; and, to many other fascinating fishing destinations.

While humor threads through many stories in FISHING PASSION, there are numerous serious, thought provoking chapters that underscore some of the dangers. In The Parismina Mystery, Chapralis describes the disappearance of two men and their boat. In The Shocking Adventure, a camp owner returns to Nicaragua to reclaim his lodge after the Sandinista war, but instead is captured by young boys armed with guns who are about to kill him.

In his Aging Stinks chapter, the author realizes that he simply can't do the things he used to, but finds solace in accepting the aging process and using an older friend as his role model.

FISHING PASSION also captures the development of international sportfishing. In The Fish Scale Incident, Jim tells about how he proceeded to promote Costa Rican fishing from a laundromat episode.

Jim is concerned about the future of sportfishing, citing pollution, anti-fishing campaigns and commercial fishing among the worrisome threats. Jim provides a blueprint (Needed: A Worldwide Fishing Federation) that he is convinced would work.

Ironically, after fishing in 40 countries, the author discovers the magnetism of close-to-home fishing. Today, he is addicted to fishing certain Wisconsin streams, only a few hours' drive from his house. His lengthy chapter, Le Shack, describes his fascination with the area, the chosen streams and the tremendous challenges that they present.

Ever wonder what it must be like to fish with Lee Wulff? Or Winston Moore? Or Stu Apte, or Al McClane? In the "Fishing with the Greats" section, Jim takes you along on fishing trips with four of the all-time greatest anglers.

"I feel very fortunate in having fished with these icons and spending a lifetime pursuing my fishing addiction," Chapralis concludes.



To get the best experience of the Magazine it is important that you have the right settings
Here are my recommended settings

Please respect the copyright regulations and do not copy any materials from this or any other of the pages in the Rackelhanen Flyfishing Magazine.

© Mats Sjöstrand 2006

If you have any comments or questions about the Magazine, feel free to contact me.

Mats Sjöstrand, Sweden

Please excuse me if you find misspelled words or any other grammatical errors.
I will be grateful if you contact
me about the errors you find.