from the book "Fishing Passion"
A Lifelong Love Affair with Angling
By Jim C. Chapralis
With The Greats
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
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.
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.
together," he insisted on the phone. How flattering! I jumped at
"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
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
"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
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."
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
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.
"Why don't you
go to Lee and talk to him? I think he'd like that."
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?"
"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?"
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
"Then what do
you think when you are fighting this fish for a long time?" I had
"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?"
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?
afraid of losing this rare reel, overboard?"
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 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.
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
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.
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.
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
that." He smiled. "Of course, we'd like to stay young and
vigorous but that's impossible. But there are some advantages to old
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."
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."
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
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.
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.
was flattered. But I'm not a fan of little planes under the best of
"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
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.
from the book
A Lifelong Love Affair with Angling
By Jim C. Chapralis
Angling Matters Press
Hardcover with full-color dust jacket featuring a Charles B. Mitchell
painting; 384 pages, 130 illustrations by John Tianis and Charles B.
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
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
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.
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
"I feel very
fortunate in having fished with these icons and spending a lifetime
pursuing my fishing addiction," Chapralis concludes.