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.
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.