Recently we revisited the Battenkill, which we had not fished in a number of years, and were reminiscing at the familiar landmarks. One place in particular was noteworthy – near Shusham, where …
Recently we revisited the Battenkill, which we had not fished in a number of years, and were reminiscing at the familiar landmarks. One place in particular was noteworthy – near Shusham, where the late Lee Wulff had lived, and Buffam’s Bridge, just about a mile upstream from his home – and a story that Lee had told us which we’ve never forgotten.
The story appears at the beginning of Lee’s book, The Complete Lee Wulff, and starts with a tale related by an old fishing guide many years ago, while sitting around the campfire. The pipe-smoking man mentioned that they were guiding an “old sport” from New York; the fisherman had all the latest fancy gear, including high waders, which the old guide was suspicious of, as in those days, people feared that if you fell in while wearing chest waders, they would fill with water, you wouldn’t be able to swim, and you would drown.
They were canoeing in high water near a waterfall, when a fish rose a bit beyond casting range, and they needed to move closer to the falls to get a good drift on the fly. Suddenly the fish took the fly, and the “sport” jumped up in his excitement, causing the canoe to tip over. Both the guide and fisherman jumped clear of the canoe; the guide made it to shore, as did the remnants of the canoe, but the “sport” suffered a dire fate: “And then we could see this feller’s feet sticking up in the big eddy just below the falls. The air in his waders was floating him upside down and he was struggling and strangling ‘cause he couldn’t get his feet down to get his head up. Pretty soon he quit struggling …I sure would never wear those high waders for anything in the world….I can still close my eyes and see those wading shoes of his going round and round in that eddy…”
Lee goes on to relate that he’d heard that tale a number of times, but with slight variations, from California’s Merced River to Newfoundland’s Grey River. He went on to explain that while he started his fishing career wading wet, he read the sporting magazines and eventually became a strong proponent of fishing in chest waders. Despite the concern one might have after listening to that guide’s colorful tale, Lee stated. “The story is pure hooey. You can wear waders and still weather the storm. You, too, can fall in and live to tell it.”
Lee Wulff was a fly-fishing inventor and innovator, with a youthful curiosity that remained a viable part of his character up until his death from a heart attack at the age of 86, while piloting his Piper Super Cub plane. He was tall, lean and strong but spoke in a gentle voice, and loved nothing more than a challenge, especially when it involved fish or fishing. And so, in the mid-1940s, while in his early 40s, he set out to prove the old tale wrong and decided to jump off Buffam’s bridge while suited up in his waders.
Always known to go the extra mile, so to speak, he reminisced “it also flashed through my mind that I could have tried swimming in my waders as an intermediate step instead of beginning with a dive into fifteen feet of broad and steadily flowing water. It came to me then that if something did go wrong, Allan, my nine-year-old-son, just able to swim, and my one-hundred-pound mother, who never was much of a swimmer anyway, wouldn’t be able to do much to rectify the situation. They were taking the picture and there was no one else to help within a half a mile.
And lastly, I wondered why I hadn’t conceived this sudden urge to prove a point in mid-summer when the water was warm, instead of in October when the water the Green Mountains of Vermont was sending down under the bride was pretty close to freezing.” An interesting perspective – a last-minute qualm? but that was Lee – who thought out everything in advance, but had the confidence to break barriers, challenge old guide tales, and set the record straight.
He described his fishing gear as he was suited up – wearing the same boot-foot chest waders and suspenders, with the drawstring tied to lock in the air. He chose to dive headfirst rather than jump in feet first, which might have caused some of the air to be released and “lessen the floating powers of the waders and, consequently, save me.”
He actually tried to make the dive “as hazardous” as it could possibly be, wearing his fishing vest over a heavy woollen shirt, figuring he’d mimic the outfit he’d be wearing while fishing. The 15-foot pool under the bridge was running swift enough to make swimming difficult and was certainly deep enough in which to drown! And going through his mind at the time was another experience he’d had when wading out too far in swift water, being carried into a deep pool and floating/ touching bottom at times in the long pool until he was able to make his way out – which gave him pause.
Even so, mustering up his courage and bolstered by his confidence, Lee dove into history. He hit the cold water head-first, and felt the power of the water close over him as it swept him downstream, but with the arc of his back and hands from the dive, he was able to pop his head up out of the water.
He drew in a breath of fresh air, and his feet were floating but with no inclination to cause his head to go under. He swam to shore, and that was that. He went on to advocate fishing in waders, whether or not in deep water, and not to worry about falling in or going over the top of the waders. He did caution about wading with care, in case of an accident; as, he stated, “wading is an art.”
Near the bridge there used to be a fly and tackle shop run by Ralph DeMille, and Ed remembers all newcomers to the shop would be told the tale – keeping the story perpetually alive - about the day that Lee Wulff jumped off Buffam’s bridge in high waders into the deep waters of the Battenkill.
Judy Van Put is a long-time member of the NYS Outdoor Writers Association, and is the recipient of the New York State Council of Trout Unlimited’s Professional Communications Award.