It would be difficult to fully convey in a few words the influence and impact that Lee Wulff had on flyfishing. Perhaps the most often used descriptor is "pioneer;" e.g., pioneer angler, pioneer fly tyer, pioneer angling author/documentarian, etc. While this may only hint at the legacy of his contributions, it does aptly serve as an 'introduction' to the Wulff-style dry flies. Famed fly tyer/author/lecturer Jack Dennis probably put it most succinctly in the 1974 edition of his book Western Trout Fly Tying Manual :
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"Lee Wulff, the famous fly tyer, fisherman, and film maker revolutionized fly fishing and fly tying with his Wulff series. These flies were one of the first ever invented using hair instead of natural feathers for wings and tails. These patterns catch trout, salmon, and steelhead, and are now used the world over. Probably no one series of flies has ever gained more popularity and become so widely accepted as the Wulff patterns. They are some of the most dependable fish-catchers ever tried." - p. 116
Nearly 34 years later, such description is still as valid and accurate as it was in 1974. It has been argued, with considerable authority and no little success, by a number of writers that the Royal Wulff is potentially "the most popular dry fly ever." Certainly if a teacher is known by the success of their students, then given the number of individual derivatives of this style of flies, few tyers can claim anywhere near the achievement of Lee Wulff with his dry flies.
--- Longevity ---
In his book Lee Wulff On Flies (1980), the author describes the thought process behind the Wulff dries as follows:
"I looked at the dry flies available at the time and found that they were always slim-bodied and sparsely hackled. They were made only of feathers, and they were hard to keep afloat... I wanted a buggier-looking, heavier-bodied fly, and I needed more flotation in order to keep it up... Looking for a material that would float such a body, I came up with bucktail. The tail of the fly was most important since it would support the bend of the hook, where most of the weight is concentrated. Bucktail would make a much better tailing material than the conventional feather fibers because of its floating qualities and its strength... Out of this thinking came the Gray Wulff, White Wulff, and Royal Wulff. My use of bucktail was the first use of animal hair on dry flies..." - p. 18
That was in the late 1920's (I seem to remember one source stipulating 1929, but can't find that source at the moment) and early 1930's. Within a couple of years, Wulff and his friend Dan Bailey had worked out the material combinations for the Grizzly Wulff, the Black Wulff, the Brown Wulff, and the Blonde Wulff. But, Lee Wulff gives noted angling author Ray Bergman the credit for bringing "the Wulff flies to the notice of fisherman" (Lee Wulff On Flies, p. 53) with the 1938 edition of Bergman's Trout.
While I do not have the 1938 edition of Trout, I do possess a copy of the 1951 edition. On page 175, Bergman makes the following observation:
"The Wulff flies were designed by Lee Wulff and fill a decided need in large sizes. As the wings and tails are made of bucktail, the flies are very durable and in many cases take the place of fan wings. I consider them necessary to the well-balanced fly box."
Exactly 40 years later, with the release of his 1991 book Tying Dry Flies, noted tyer Randall Kaufmann echoes Bergman by saying: "The Royal Wulff commands space in every fly box. In the September 2007 issue of Fly Fisherman magazine, author Craig Ballenger notes in his article entitled "Nymphing The Upper Sac: Expert Strategies For California's Pocket Water Nirvana" that while nymph-fishing "may be the best method for consistently hooking upper Sac trout through the day" (p. 56), the evening hours can still be a dry fly anglers time of day. Interestingly, when citing several recommendations as to what dry flies to consider, Ballenger stipulates: "Good attractor drys include yellow and orange Humpys (#14 - 18) [see Literally Splitting Hairs - The Famous Humpy. Also Known As...] and Gray Wulffs (#12 - 18)." (p. 57)
How's that for longevity? Ray Bergman brings them to the attention of fisherman in 1938, claiming (at least in 1951) that they were "necessary to the well-balanced fly box" and almost fifty years later, in a September 2007 flyfishing magazine, another angling author is still citing one of the original versions developed in the early 1930's as a "good attractor" on a heavily fished, well-known stretch of water. How many "60-year old" whatever's can still be described as good attractors?
--- A Category Of Flies ---
The Wulff flies are a "category" or style of fly rather than a single pattern. As Lee Wulff himself said: "The Wulff flies... should only be the beginning - opening up new categories, systems, or fields of flies for the trout fisherman. The clipped-deerhair fly head was the new and especially effective idea introduced by the Muddler [Minnow]... Similarly, the Gray Wulff was only the first fly in a new category for the fisherman." (Lee Wulff On Flies, pp. 53 - 54)
As already noted, the idea introduced by the Wulff flies was the use of animal hair, specifically deer hair (bucktail) on dry flies. While Lee Wulff relied on bucktail for both the divided hair wings (a basic identifier of a "Wulff-style" fly or derivative) and tail, today, most tyers substitute calf-tail or calf body hair (sometimes deer or elk body hair) for the wings and will use bucktail, deer/elk body hair, moose, or even calf-tail/body hair for the tail. The exact choice of materials depend on the predilictions and perceived "needs" of the tyer; but, remember, the idea of using animal hair on dry flies was brought to the fore with the Wulff series.
In Lee Wulff On Flies, the author illustrates his thought process with drawings of nine different variations of the Wulff flies using different hook styles; all with divided hair wings and a hair tail. He even starts the chapter on the Wulff flies by noting that the creator of another well-known and established pattern, the Irresistable, had "come up with a version of the Gray Wulff that had a clipped-deerhair body instead of the angora-wool body" of the Wulff and was asking if Lee minded if he marketed it.
Just a quick glance through a few pattern books and catalogs shows the following flies that incorporate the Wulff name due to their direct derivation of the style:
Gray Wulff, White Wulff, Royal Wulff, Blonde Wulff, Grizzly Wulff, Black Wulff, Brown Wulff, Ausable Wulff (by Francis Betters), Green Drake Wulff (by Bob Jacklin; Jacklin claims his favorite dry fly is the Gray Wulff and extols the virtues of the Royal Wulff; for Jacklin's favorite nymph, see Jacklin's Favorite: For Spring, Summer, or Whenever), Brown Drake Wulff (by Mike Lawson), Irresistable Wulff, Adams Wulff (by Peter Burton), Montana Wulff (by Allen Knox), Were Wulff (by Gary LaFontaine - for two LaFontaine nymph patterns, see Two Designs That Are Worth A Try), Wolf Wulff (by LeRoy Cook), Baetis Wulff
Then, in the 1990's, Jack Dennis brought the "Para-Wulff" series to the market. Claiming that Lee Wulff wanted to see a lower-riding, parachute-style version of his flies, Dennis created this series. Though it does not have the hair tail, it does still incorporate the trademark divided hair wing. (For reviews on parachute-style flies, see If You're Gonna Jump Into Dry Flies, You Might Want A Parachute; Al Troth's Gulper Special - A Simple Solution To The Sweet Ecstasy Of Dilemma; Not Exactly A Panacea - But...; I'd Jump With This Parachute)
Size is not a determining factor in the Wulff series. Lee Wulff preferred, in his later years, going after Atlantic salmon with short rods and small dry flies; including size 16. Royal and White Wulff flies are popular among salmon anglers tied on size 4 salmon hooks and Lee Wulff himself, I have been told, even used to demonstrate tying Royal Wulff's down to size 20 and smaller well into his later years. (While this doesn't sound particularly "special," one must bear in mind that Wulff tied flies without a vise; holding the hook between the thumb and forefinger of one hand and attaching materials with the other.) However, the most common sizes range from around size 12 - 16.
One of the few "controversies" is the type of hook used. Many instruction manuals and recipes simply state "dry fly hook." As noted, Lee Wulff himself claims to have used a variety of hooks depending on his desired effect. Bob Jacklin, who knew Wulff personally, claims in his excellent dvd "Introduction to Fly-tying With Bob Jacklin" ($19.95 plus shipping, see http://www.jacklinsflyshop.com/), that it is not 'correct' to use a dry fly hook; citing a 2X long, heavy wire hook such as the Mustad 9671, TMC 5262, or Daiichi 1710 as the 'proper' type of hook. My preference agrees with Jacklin. I think the heavier wire hook takes the materials better and is more durable. Just remember, according to Wulff himself, there is no hard and fast rule as to the 'correct' fly. In a sense, you could say "Whatever floats your boat - or fly." (Alright. That was baaaadddddd. I admit it.)
--- What Does It Imitate? ---
Many flyfishers have asked the question: "What do these flies imitate?" Ya got me. In theory, the Wulff flies were originated primarily to imitate mayflies. Certainly the Gray Wulff is popular for the larger Gray Drake in the Yellowstone area (and the Upper Sac) while the White Wulff imitates the Coffin Mayfly. The list of "Wulff-flies" above also hints at the Green and Brown Drakes. You know, those "large size" mayflies that Bergman alludes to above.
But, the Wulff flies have also been used to imitate caddis, dragonflies, terrestrials (grasshoppers, bees, wasps, etc.), moths, and damselflies. They've been used for salmon, trout, bass, and panfish. What was that Jack Dennis said about "some of the most dependable fish-catchers ever tried?"
In the most basic sense, the Wulff flies are attractor patterns; imitating nothing exactly, but giving an impression of a number of things that say "Food" to fish. Maybe the best explanation is provided by Wulff himself in Lee Wulff On Flies:
"...The trout that turns down a #16 because it is not a #18 will not look at a #12 Royal Wulff, for example, with the same critical eye. The fish knows it is not a fake version of what it has been taking, but something else completely and maybe something it likes. In order to intrigue a selectively feeding trout with something else you have to go to other, larger or very different flies. This is what I call my strawberries-and-cream theory... I love fresh strawberries, especially when the cream on them is whipped, thick and real. When the local strawberries get ripe and show up in the local stores, or the 'pick your own' signs go up, it is a memorable time for me... Sometimes though, a restaurant will have fresh strawberries on the menu in January, and when one does, and I come along, it has a customer. Trout, like people, ahve minds and special preferences of their own... I feel that trout have certain preferences that they never lose, and when a particular type of food comes along they will go out of their way to get it even though they are feeding at the time on other food that is plentiful... Some special flies affect trout like strawberries and cream affect me, even when they are unexpected and out of season." - (pp. 43 - 44)
With the hair wing and tail, not to mention the heavy hackle (usually two hackles, wrapped three or four times behind and three or four times in front of the divided hair wing), these flies have excellent flotation. This makes them good flies, easy to see and longer floating, on heavier waters. In fact, pocket water is a particular type of stream flow where these flies excel. Given their flotation, they also make good 'indicator' flies, with a nymph tied from the hook bend.
--- Availability? ---
Wulff flies are not particularly difficult to tie; given a modicum of practice. But, Randall Kaufmann, in his book Tying Dry Flies, Revised Edition (1995) notes the following:
"...The most common problem is overdressing, or trying to crowd too much into too little space... [This is one of the advantages of the 2X long hook.] remembering that too much bulk will cause the fly to fall forward." - (p. 107)
This is one of the few complaints about the Wulff flies; i.e., they "tip over." As Kaufmann suggests, it is almost always tracable back to overdressing with too much wing material (either in total [tipping forward] or unevenly divided wings [tipping to one side]). It is also one of the primary reasons for and advantages of Jack Dennis' "Para-Wulff" variations; it's almost impossible for a parachute fly to "tip."
I can't think of a single fly shop I've ever been in that didn't have at least one version of a Wulff fly for sale. As alluded to at the beginning of this review, the Royal Wulff is potentially the most popular dry fly and, therefore, the most ubiquitously available. As an example, the wholesale distributor Umpqua Feather Merchants, listed the Royal Wulff as available in sizes 8 - 20 in their 2006 catalog. (They also listed the Ausable, White, and Were Wulffs along with the Para-Wulff series and a Royal Wulff tied on a size 6 salmon/steelhead hook.)
As far as retailers, three examples would be -
Cabela's 2007 Fly-Fishing catalog lists the Green Drake Wulff, Adams Wulff, White Wulff, and Irresistible Wulff "individually" at $3.50 per 3. In addition, they show an "18-Piece Wulff Assortment" for $18.99 ($22.99 with a medium fly box) that includes the Royal, Green Drake, Adams, Grizzly, White, and Irresistible Wulff. (The Royal Wulff is also found in their "66-Piece Western Dry Assortment" and the Green Drake Wulff is contained in their "16-Piece Western Dry Assortment.)
The Fly Shop (see Good staff; good product variety; easy to navigate website) currently lists the Royal Wulff in sizes 8 - 18 and the Purple Para-Wulff in sizes 12 - 18 at $1.75 each.
Dan Bailey's 2007 catalog shows a variety of sizes, all at $1.95 each, for the Green Drake, Baetis, Royal, Adams, and Gray Wulff patterns.
--- Final Thoughts ---
I've fished Wulff flies for as long as I can remember. I'm sure they were among some of the first dry flies I ever tied on. Do I have a favorite? I suppose you could say I do. However, it's not commercially available and all I will openly admit to is that it is a slight color variation on one the early versions.
If I had to pick two for, say, the Yellowstone region, it would be the Royal and the Gray. The Green Drake version is probably my most often used imitation for that particular hatch; especially since my home waters tend to be running a bit high when they're "on." I've been experimenting with the PMD and Adams Para-Wulff patterns; but am not a "fan" yet.
Are there more exact patterns that can/could be used? Of course. But, that's an entirely different kind of "fun." Do I have fish stories built around some of these flies? Actually, yes. But, this review is already long enough. Would I consider the Wulff-flies to be the "most dependable fish-catcher" I've ever tried? Not necessarily. But, then again, I do seem to always have a few in a fly box.