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A Life Magazine photographer took this image as part of the 1948 promotion headed by non-other than noted fly fisher and hotelier Charles Ritz. It served to ramp the first post-war fly fishing event – a celebration of life returning to normal, and Europe was open for business. Joan impressively won the competition at only 21-years-old. In 1951, she became the first woman in history to win the Fisherman’s Distance Event, casting 131 feet against the all-male competition, a truly remarkable achievement in its time.

The lady who could cast a mile and taught thousands how

By Skip Clement with excerpts from Cathi Comar’s book, A Graceful Rise

In 1943, Joan Salvato [Wulff] was 16. She grew up knowing all about casting and shotguns. Her father, Jimmy Salvato, owned the Paterson Rod and Gun Store in New Jersey and introduced his daughter to fly fishing when she was ten years old. She loved casting and won the club and regional casting competitions in 1938, 1939, and 1940, and she caught her first trout on a fly in 1939.

At age 16, she competed in—and won—her first national casting competition: the women’s dry-fly accuracy championship at the National Association of Angling and Casting Clubs competition in Chicago. She won every women’s fly casting event held through the 40s.

National recognition came in 1945 via the then-popular American Magazine. The article about Salvato, “No Flies on Joanie,” featured her fishing gear images. That same year Pennsylvania Angler put her on the cover of their magazine. Her career was on the rise.

Except for 1947, Wulff spent the years between 1943 and 1951 competing and winning national casting championships. During these years, she won twenty-one championships. She concluded her amateur career by becoming the first woman to win the National Fisherman’s Distance Fly Championship with a long cast of 136 feet against an all-male field of competitors. Salvato then turned professional in 1952. She continued tournament casting until 1960 and won several more championships. She completed her casting tournament career with an unofficial women’s world casting record of 161 feet—there was no women’s division at the competition.

— Cathi Comar

The launch of the school was a big hit straight away, and the draw was Joan. Moms, single working women, and girls came from near and far – Joan had single-handedly busted the men-only psychological barrier.

Breaking glass

In 1959, the Garcia Corporation, the largest tackle company in the country, hired Wulff. She was the first woman to be a paid spokesperson for a fishing company. She traveled the eastern states promoting Garcia products, made appearances at trade shows, and competed at fishing events under the company name. Wulff stayed with Garcia for nearly twenty years and left the company in 1976. Photo Wulff Fishing School.

After a chance to film with famous angler and cinematographer Lee Wulff (1905–1991) and a relationship founded on travel, film making, and fly fishing blossomed – they married in 1967.

The couple spent time traveling and angling around the world when Wulff got introduced to salmon fishing between work commitments. Wulff spent much of the 1970s advocating for angling clothing and equipment that was better suited to a woman’s form. Garcia and Royal Red Ball turned down her ideas, but in 1995 Amerex Outdoors finally made a woman’s vest designed by Wulff.

In 1978, Wulff had put together a publicity brochure about herself, and in 1979 the couple founded the Joan and Lee Wulff Fishing School (today is known as the Wulff School of Fly Fishing) in Lew Beach, New York. Through the casting techniques taught at the school, the couple designed (and Garcia produced) the Fly-O, the first indoor casting practice tool ever made. 

By 1980, she had a monthly casting column in Outdoor Life magazine, and the following year she began a regular casting column in Rod & Reel [eventually called Fly Rod & Reel, which died of natural causes of having too good writing) titled “Joan Salvato Wulff’s Fly-Casting.” 

In 1985, Wulff wrote a book that would be the first to analyze casting mechanics; Joan Wulff’s Fly Casting Techniques published by The Lyons Press in 1987. Since then, she has published Joan Wulff’s Fly Fishing: Expert Advice from a Woman’s Perspective (1991) and Joan Wulff’s Fly-Casting Accuracy (1997) and released an instructional DVD, Joan Wulff’s Dynamics of Fly Casting (1997), and more

Photo taken of Joan captures everything special about her. She is relaxing at The Gathering of the Giants – Black Fly Lodge, Schooner Bay, Abaco, Bahamas. The lodge opened in 2008. Pat Ford photo.

A partial list of Joan Salvato Wulff’s accomplishments 

  • She helped to found the Catskill Fly Fishing Center and Museum
  • She holds International Women’s Fishing Association club records for Atlantic salmon (1975) and brook trout (1966) She is a trustee of the Atlantic Salmon Federation and the International Game Fish Association
  • She is a senior advisor with the Federation of Fly Fishers
  • She has made multiple television appearances on ABC, ESPN, and PBS
  • She has received more than twenty-two honors and awards, including induction into the International Game Fish Association Hall of Fame, the American Museum of Fly Fishing Heritage Award, and the Federation of Fly Fishers Lifetime Achievement Award  
  • Wulff was honored in 1998 when a group of avid anglers from New Jersey named their club the Joan Wulff Fishing Club 

Joan Salvato Wulff is “The First Lady of Fly Fishing” and recognizes that her story and career have inspired countless women to pursue the sport. Wulff revised her first book as Joan Wulff’s New Fly-Casting Techniques republished many times. 

Joan is still involved in the Wulff School of Fly Fishing, teaching casting instructors and advising with Royal Wulff products [fly lines]. She also serves as an advisor to the R. L. Winston Rod Company and remains active with several clubs and organizations. 

One of her most cherished activities is fly fishing with her grandsons Alex and Andrew Cummings 

Other links to Joan Salvato Wulff stories:

FlyLifeMagazine.com . . .

Anglers Journal . . .

Comar’s book A Graceful Rise / AMFF . . .

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