The Man Who Read the Fish’s Mind
By: Ed Kirby
Lee Wulff used to say that to catch a salmon you have to read its mind, not its stomach. He also said the finest thing one angler could do for another was to release a fish he’d caught so someone else could catch it again later.
Mention Wulff’s name to a salmon angler even today and something akin to reverence is liable to break out. The American outdoorsman, film maker, writer and conservationist practically invented the outfitting industry in Newfoundland and Labrador when he began bringing American sports fishermen to western Newfoundland after World War II. He also promoted hunting and tuna fishing, and explored the rivers of Labrador looking for the best sites for salmon lodges.
Wulff caught thousands of fish in his time, but kept only those he ate. This was at a time when big-wigs caught fish by the hundreds, and when salmon and tuna were considered food for dogs or farmed foxes.
The Commission of Government brought Wulff here in 1938 to help promote tourism. The Newfoundland Tourist Development Board, which had had an office in New York since the 1920s, decided his filmic and writing skills plus his American connections would help the struggling colony develop its wild natural resources. Plus, he’d fished the salmon rivers in the Codroy area, was already a champion tuna fisherman, and was captivated by Newfoundland and its possibilities.
His route to angling fame came via civil engineering, a stint with an ad agency, and art school in Paris, all of which he chucked to go fishing.
As early as 1938, Wulff recognized unregulated commercial salmon fishing, widespread poaching, and increased salmon angling were putting pressure on the stock along the northwest coast of Newfoundland where waters such as Portland Creek Pond, River of Ponds and Castor’s River offered the best prospects for developing the recreational fishery. The spread of roads and rail had devastated many other rivers already, and he feared the new roads on the Northern Peninsula would do the same. His calls for bag limits, increased surveillance and enforcement and – especially – catch and release fishing fell mainly on deaf ears among anglers and politicians alike. It wasn’t until the 1980s that catch-and-release rules were adopted for salmon angling.
First with boats in 1946, and then with small aircraft, Wulff began to bring American anglers to rivers teeming with salmon in the 10-30 pound range. He met most of his clients while giving lectures and showing films to outdoor and fishing clubs in the United States. His wife, Ella, purchased Killdevil Lodge in Lomond in 1947 and Wulff would meet his “sports” there and ferry them north, first to tents and then cabins as his business expanded. He later built a runway at Castor’s River for bigger planes.
He hired locals as guides and cooks, providing much-needed salaried employment. He got on with most and respected their knowledge of the land and water, and was especially impressed with the riffling hitch flies they used. He had trouble with some, though. One man he fired for stealing from a guest got back at him by fishing out almost the entire sea-run brook trout population of Castor’s River. Another time poachers killed all the trees near his cabins. As a final insult, a man who’d been convicted of poaching, mainly on Wulff’s initiative, was later made a warden.
Inn 1954 Wulff sold his operation, but stayed on a manager for a couple of years. A couple of years later he was in Labrador looking for good salmon rivers for American military brass who were stationed in Goose Bay, and ran into the same sort of illegal netting he’d seen on the island. He continued to make films and write articles about Newfoundland and Labrador. In 1967 set a world record when he landed a 597-pound bluefin in Conception Bay on a 50-pound test line.
His films about Newfoundland and Labrador angling helped him land a job with American network TV, traveling the globe doing outdoor shows with celebrities. In the 1980s he was still involved with conservation as chairman of the Atlantic Salmon Federation. He died in 1991, suffering a heart attach at age 86 while on a routine flight to renew his pilot’s licence.