By Amber Johnson
Well it’s officially spring now, and nature is teasing us with hints of sunshine, as if to say, “Come outside! It’s glorious! Dust off your fishing rod and tackle box! Find your waders!”
Inside my home Netflix has also been teasing me by saying, “I remember the crush you had on Brad Pitt. Come watch ‘A River Runs Through It’ and fantasize about living amongst the land of mountains and rivers!”
So, I caved to Netflix. After preparing a bowl of popcorn, my son and I settled in for some Montana and Brad Pitt. As some of you may recall, the movie’s plot revolves around two brothers — Paul, who is played by Pitt, and his older brother Norman, who narrates the story. Their father is Baptist minister who teaches them the sacred art of fly fishing. Initially, they are taught to cast using a ticking metronome, but Paul later developed his own “shadow casting” technique and, as predicted, lands a record trout after a harrowing struggle that carries him downstream through the river’s rapids.
Long before Brad Pitt sensationalized fly fishing in the early 90s, though, Joan Salvato Wulff, also known as the “First Lady of Fly Fishing,” was well on her way to becoming a fishing sensation in the 1930s. Born to parents who owned an outfitting store, Paterson Rod and Gun, she was accustomed to sitting in the boat while her mother rowed her father near the bass cover. Being the only daughter, she was initially bypassed by her father when it came to his casting teachings. Only after she was caught retrieving her father’s fly rod out of a pond did her father realize her interest and asked her to join him and the boys at the next casting-club practice session. Little did her father know that he was about to groom a casting sensation.
As a teenager, Wulff went on to win numerous fly-fishing awards, including several regional titles and, eventually, six national titles in 1951 against all-male competition. Then, in 1960, she recorded the longest cast in a registered tournament — 161 feet.
A few years later, together with her husband, Lee, she moved to Lew Beach, N.Y., and the upper Beaverkill River is where she realized her dream of opening a fly-fishing school. Teaching was a shared passion of the couple, something they’d done sporadically before opening the school, which is still open today.
Wulff created a curriculum and terms that broke the cast into parts. She coined the term “power snap” as a description for ending the stroke to form the loop, as well as the term “drift” to describe the follow-through of the back cast and repositioning of the rod between the back and forward strokes.
Laurie Root, Fly Fishing Expert
In western South Dakota, Laurie Root was also exposed to fly fishing as a child. When she was old enough to sit quietly, she would watch her father fly fish.
“He took us along to sit on the shore, but we never got the chance to cast,” Root chuckled. “He liked his alone time.”
Years later, Root’s husband gave her the gift of a fly rod for Christmas while she was still in college. Then, a year and a half later he tried to show her how to use it.
“He didn’t actually show me how to use it as a fly rod,” she said. “I actually dunked garden tackle worms the first summer and finally caught some fish.”
It might have a taken a year or two, but Root eventually learned the nuances of handling a fly rod. She credits a program offered through the state Game, Fish and Parks Department for helping her development.
“Fly fishing actually clicked for me at my first Becoming an Outdoors Woman workshop in 1994 at Lake Poinsett when I assisted Jan Weeks in her class,” Root said. “Jan had her own fly shop in Lead. Just by helping her, watching and listening in her three-and-a-half-hour class is when I learned fly fishing was a timing thing, and I had been trying too hard. I was in love with it after that.”
Presently, Root is a naturalist at the Outdoor Campus West in Rapid City, S.D., and said she has enjoyed her job with GFP for over 30 years. She graduated with an outdoor education degree and has taught kids at schools all over western South Dakota. She also stays involved in BOW, Youth Conservation Camp and other educational programs offered through GFP. This year she was asked to teach fly fishing to national and European government attendees of the Buffalo Roundup.
When she isn’t busy teaching, Root said she enjoys wetting a line any opportunity she gets.
“Sometimes, just sneaking to Rapid Creek in my neighborhood is a nice way to relax and fish,” she admitted. “I love to fish the small streams in the Black Hills, smaller than Rapid Creek. I really enjoy fishing for brook trout, and they hide in those smaller streams.”
Root said there are a number of factors that make fly fishing so enjoyable.
“I love the focus required for fly fishing and the relaxation you get from it,” she said. “When I am fly fishing, I am totally in the moment. Plus, fly fishing takes you to some beautiful places you wouldn’t normally go to; you wouldn’t normally go walk up on that stream if you weren’t fly fishing.”
Root is quick to give credit to folks to have helped her along the way.
“Jim Phoenix has been a wonderful local mentor and role model to me. He is a retired gentleman with the patience of Job. Well, he used to be. I think I changed that,” she laughed. “He has volunteered his time with kids at the YMCA, Youth Conservation Camp, Vets on the Fly, Wounded Warriors and community programs at the Outdoor Campus West. He is amazing. He has taught many of us to build our own fly rods and tie our own flies. What I love is he doesn’t get hung up on the names of the flies or knowing the names of the bugs they imitate. He focuses on encouragement.”
Root also said her family has played a big role in her fly-fishing life, as well.
“My husband and parents enjoy fly fishing, too,” she said. “I have so many fond memories of fly fishing. One of my favorites, though, is Labor Day weekend in 2016. My mom caught her first cutthroat trout on a fly in the Bighorns. We just had a wonderful time, and that memory ranks up there with all of the other first fish I have ever been a part of, even more than me catching one myself.”
Of course, fishing doesn’t come without mishaps, and Root shared a couple of her favorite stories:
“There was this one trip in Alaska when we were salmon fishing and I was waist high in the river. I cast out, set the hook really hard and the fight was on,” she recalled. “I fought and fought only to discover I had hooked an 8-inch rock with a hole in it that my hook had embedded in. We took that rock home as a keepsake.
“Another funny story was one summer I was fishing for brook trout in the same area of Box Elder Creek for quite a while, and every evening I would nettle with a brook trout,” she said. “He would take a fly, I would cast to him, and every time I would miss. My husband told me that I wasn’t taking up the slack quick enough. That made me mad. He told me, ‘You need to rip their lips off!’ When he said that it made me mad again, and all he was trying to get me to do was take up the slack faster. So, I cast out to that thing and I saw him take the fly — a male with real hook jaw — and I yanked for all it was worth. I had broken my rod fishing previously, but this day I yanked to set the hook and the rod broke near the grip. So, I had to grab the line and bring him in hand over hand. It was just the prettiest fish, and I had been trying for him for a long time. So, I mounted that 14-inch male brook trout right next to my broken rod.”
Root had simple advice for people — women, men, children — who might be interested in learning more about fly fishing.
“Find a mentor or sign up for a class. Call me anytime. I get paid to teach every day, so come on down to the Outdoor Campus where we have all the equipment to get started,” she said. “During the summer, you don’t have to wait for a class. If you are interested, even if just a couple people are, we would be happy to take you to the pond and teach you. If someone just happens to be in town and has the time, give us a call. Local fly shops also offer guide services. Community education classes offer fishing, too. You also can connect with fly-fishing groups on Facebook and Instagram, both local and national.”
Stay tuned for the June issue of Outdoor Forum, where I will introduce you to the variety of ways women, myself included, are connecting with the outdoors and the many activities the Midwest has to offer.
About the Author: Amber Johnson is a freelance writer and avid outdoors woman.