SI Vault
Judy Muller
October 05, 1987
An angling Eliza Doolittle learns the ways of salmon
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October 05, 1987

By George, She's Got It!

An angling Eliza Doolittle learns the ways of salmon

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On the way back downriver I asked Joan how she'd met Lee. It was in the 1960s, she said, when she was working for Garcia, the tackle company. Lee had asked if they had someone who could appear with him in a film about tuna fishing in Newfoundland. The first choice had been a well-known female singer, but when she could not go, Joan was the one. "You can imagine how I felt," she said, "being asked to go fishing with Lee Wulff."

"Yes," I replied, "I certainly can."

That evening Lee and Joan fished together at a pool called Push-And-Be-Damned. As Ginger and I approached in our boat, we saw Joan land a nice-sized grilse. "What did you catch it on?" I yelled. "A Lady Joan," came the reply. The Lady Joan is a fly created by Lee and named in Joan's honor shortly after their marriage in 1967. In a recent article on his flies, Lee describes the Lady Joan as "the most beautiful" of a series of flies he had designed. It has "a burnt orange body with gold tinsel winding and bright yellow hackle at the throat...topped with a golden pheasant crest feather." I suppose that's about as close to a love sonnet as a salmon fly is likely to get. "It's attractive," he adds prosaically, "and effective."

Lee also caught a grilse that evening. But what he'd hoped to catch that week was a salmon on a #28 hook. A hook that size is smaller than the tip of your little finger, and to get a large salmon on a hook that tiny requires rare skill. In 1985, Lee became the first angler to catch a salmon on a fly tied on a #28. He wanted very much to do it again. That sort of goal may seem esoteric to most fishermen, but this octogenarian is not most fishermen. "I'd rather be dead than average," he told me. (As it turned out, the week after this trip, Lee fished the Restigouche and set an unofficial world record by landing a 12-pound salmon on a #28.)

By the end of my stay on the Upsalquitch everyone had caught at least one fish, and some of us as many as four. On my last evening with the group, Lee and I teamed up to fish the middle three pools on the seven-mile stretch we had been working. With angry clouds moving in across the hills, we began at the Home Pool, right in front of our lodge.

When the thunder and lightning got really serious, and the rain was finding its way into my poncho, I asked Lee if it ever bothers him to be in the middle of a river waving a graphite (lightning) rod in such a storm. "No," said Lee. "I figure when your time is up, your time is up." Then he added, "But the fish don't like this thunder, so we might as well stop fishing until the worst is over." I had already decided I didn't want to be both dead and average, but it was nice to have the fish to blame for my hasty retreat.

After the storm we headed upriver to Push-And-Be-Damned. I was told that this one pool yields as many as four or five salmon an hour in a good year. But this wasn't a good year, and this evening the pool lived up to its name rather than its reputation.

As we headed back without any salmon, my disappointment was tempered by the sights and sounds of the river at dusk. And by memories of my other "catches": the sight of an osprey soaring overhead, kingfishers diving for parr, a doe, as startled as I was at seeing her, stepping out from the trees. And the final memory: sitting behind Lee in a canoe at nightfall as a sliver of moon crept over the pines. I thought of all of this, but said only, "A beautiful evening." And he said only, "The pleasures of fishing can't be measured in pounds."

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