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'A Long and Pleasant Stay on Earth'

What was a daydream for others became satisfying reality for outdoorsman extraordinaire Lee Wulff

The obituary for Lee Wulff in "THE NEW YORK TIMES" last week was placed below the obituary of a civil rights leader and above that of a bandleader. Wulff was 86 years old, the story said. He died when his 1953 Piper Cub crashed into a wooded hillside near Hancock, N.Y. Wulff, who was engaged in a routine renewal of his pilot's license, was accompanied by a flight instructor, who was critically injured. Eighty-six years old. There would be an investigation.

"An autopsy showed that he died of heart failure," his son Allan said over the phone from the family house on the Beaverkill River in Lew Beach, N.Y. "There was no evidence of any malfunction on the plane. He died of a heart attack. My father knew how to fly a plane."

The obituary called him "one of the world's best known and most respected sports fishermen, as well as an author, lecturer, artist and filmmaker." Seventeen paragraphs of gray type recounted his accomplishments from the time he put his Stanford engineering degree to one side and left his job as a commercial artist in Manhattan and headed to the streams and oceans to live out most men's coffee-break daydreams. The obituary called him "an innovator."

"I guess he just didn't like bosses," his son said. "So many of us spend most of our time doing what we don't want to do just to have a few minutes doing what we want to do. He decided to do what he wanted to do all of the time."

The son talked about grand fishing trips to the west coast of Newfoundland when he was a boy in the 1940s and '50s. His father had the only plane in the area, a little number with floats. Everyone else was afraid to fly in the region because of the fog and the winds. Wulff cut through all of this and took his sons to places never fished, maybe never touched. He would build camps on the sides of the rivers and lakes. The plane would be used to bring in the lumber, load by load. That was how all provisions arrived. The son remembered flying a sack of potatoes in by himself when he was 16 years old.

The son also remembered a classic afternoon. There was a worry among fishermen in the 1940s about wearing waders. The worry was that a fisherman would fall in the water and the waders would fill and he would drown. Wulff said this was nonsense. He wore a pair of waders to the top of an iron bridge across a river. He positioned his son on the shore with a camera and dived into the water 15 feet below. He swam to shore. He repeated this four times, just to make sure his son got photos for evidence.

"I remember him at night in the cabin, tying his own flies for fishing, inventing flies that no one had ever used," another son, Barry, said. "He had big fingers, but he would tie number-28 hooks without a vise. He always was wondering where to put the hackles, how to bait this thing to attract the fish."

Wulff's widow, Joan, a renowned angler in her own right, said that despite all the books he wrote and the films he made and the fishing school he ran on the Beaverkill, her husband always seemed to be on the side of the fish. He was always trying to make the contest fairer, using lighter and lighter line, smaller and smaller hooks. He was an advocate for the fish, the first one to say, "A game fish is too valuable to catch only once." Throw the fish back in the water. Catch the fish again.

His favorite was the Atlantic salmon. For a long time sports fishermen caught Atlantic salmon with a big, 12-foot British rod held with two hands. Joan said that her husband started using a nine-foot rod and then a six-foot rod, and then finally he cast the line into the water by hand and caught a 10-pound salmon. He was always redefining the rules of the fight.

"I was with him in Conception Bay in Newfoundland in 1967 when he caught his world-record bluefin tuna, 597 pounds, on a 50-pound-test line," she said. "He'd been going for the record for two years. He'd hooked and lost 13 different tuna before he captured this one. So main things can happen when you're using such light line. The fight is so long. He hooked the tuna at 10 minutes of 10 in the morning and got him into the boat at 11:15 at night. How long is that? Thirteen hours and 25 minutes. That was how long he fought that fish. No one else could touch the reel. He just kept fighting. That was one of his greatest strengths. He would not give up. When we got back to St. John's, the whole town turned out in the middle of the night. We drank champagne."

He talked with anyone and everyone about fishing. There was a pile of manuscripts when he died. He illustrated his latest book on fishing, drawing ornate designs around the first letter of each chapter. Last year he caught a Pacific sailfish off Costa Rica with a fly of his own design, which made up for one he lost a year before after a six-hour fight.

The obituary in the Times mentioned the eight books he had written, as well as his work on the television show The American Sportsman. He was able to help the show's photographers capture extraordinary footage of fish in the midst of a fight by knowing, almost to the second, when a fish was preparing to jump, and where. The important paragraph in the obituary was the final one, which said that there would be no wake or funeral, but that Wulff had made a bequest to the Anglers Club of New York to "throw a happy party celebrating my long and pleasant stay on earth." On a page so often filled with the deeds of departed politicians and money managers and frauds of the tallest order, the words stood out as if they were written in neon.

A fulfilled life is a rare bit of news.