Just fifty years ago the sport of fly fishing was a somewhat reclusive society reserved, it seemed, for a few elderly gentlemen dressed in tweeds and up-downer hats, smoking pipes, and speaking tongues—Latin. Ray Bergman, and later Joe Brooks, both fishing editors at Outdoor Life, and A.J. McClane at Field & Stream helped to bring the sport out of that closet to a broader demographic slice of American sportsmen. Then, in the past five decades, Brooks’s protégé Lefty Kreh slowly became the new father figure of American fly fishing.
Lefty could not have become that mentoring figure had it not been for his irrepressible sense of humor, his sunny personality, his exceptional athletic abilities, and his skills as a natural performer and communicator. But at the top of the list of qualities that explain his rise to international recognition must be mentioned that rare and elevating virtue—character.
One cannot understand Lefty’s strength of character and his enduring values without knowing a little about his formative roots.
When six-year-old Lefty and his three siblings lost their father and his mother had no choice but to accept welfare, there were few rungs lower on the social ladder for the Kreh family. Lefty never forgot the social and psychological ghetto of his youth, nor did he relinquish the values that he acquired while helping his family through bush-bob fishing for catfish on the nearby Monocacy River.
As an artillery spotter in the World War II Battle of the Bulge, Lefty was one of only a few in his unit to survive that extremely hazardous front-line duty. His hair fell out after he wore a tight-knit cap under a steel helmet in below zero weather and his scalp froze. He witnessed firsthand the greatest slaughter on the Western Front, except Anzio. By his mid-twenties, he had learned the survivor’s value of life and how to savor it, living each day as a precious opportunity. His character, forged in trial, became reflected in the mirrors of his soul—his eyes, his smile, and his infectious chuckles and laughter.
These were the fundamental values underlying Lefty Kreh’s love of life. And from them came his urge to teach, and from his urge to teach sprang the Kreh message for the common man: “Fly fishing is fun! Go forth! You can do it. Here’s how!”
Make no mistake about it: Fly fishing is not an easy sport to learn. As Hall of Fame basketball player Danny Ainge once observed: “Fly casting is the most difficult skill I ever tried to learn.” Most beginners are overwhelmed by the simple yet complex and frustrating stroke, and they are embarrassed to be observed in their failures. On the other hand, spin casting can be mastered in fifteen minutes. The cast is the great stumbling block in our sport, the only skill one must master to be a successful amateur. All the other elements of fulfillment can be purchased or learned fairly quickly, though professional skills to the Kreh level require years of learning and practice.
Historically there had been class differences in the sport of fly fishing, which was perceived by the American public as an arcane pursuit of the gentry, not for the hoi polloi. Then comes a garrulous man of the people, a man who opened his fishing slide shows with jokes that stretched the bounds of political correctness but that in effect told the crowd: “This won’t be a lecture on the Latin names of bugs. Let’s be young and catch some fish!”
True story. Lefty and famed salmonfly tier Poul Jorgenson are giving a slide show in Scranton, PA. Suddenly the slide projector bulb goes out with no replacement available. “That’s okay,” Lefty says. “I’ll tell some pollock jokes while we wait for the replacement.”
Three large men jump to their feet screaming: “We’re Polish!”
Poul whispers in terror: “No, Lefty! No!”
“Don’t worry!” proclaims Lefty loudly, “I’ll tell um slow. By the way, I’m polish, too.”
The crowd melts into mellow laughter and all is well. The amiable Kreh style.
A redfish guide told me years ago that his father had worked in a steel mill back in the early 1950s and was outside the mill for a lunch break one day when an athletic man began to give a fly-casting exhibition to the assembled workers. Then he gave trick-shooting lessons, all the while telling jokes to keep the steelworkers laughing. The man was Lefty Kreh, the entertainer everyone could identify with and love.
“Knowledge is to be shared, not displayed,” was Lefty’s credo. That conviction led to his writing some thirty instructional books on fly fishing, the most comprehensive and thorough presentation of how-to instruction on the subject by one author since Frederick Halford.
He had a lifelong compulsion to teach, especially children, teaching them casting for days annually at the Federation of Fly Fishers’ Conclaves in West Yellowstone, Montana.
One early August morning during Conclave Lefty and I drove to Hayden Valley in Yellowstone Park for sunrise photos of a steamy Firehole River. Three giant bull moose stood eating in a shallow lake beside the road and two women stood nearby with point-and-shoot cameras, trying to photograph but obviously having trouble with the cameras’ mechanics.
“Stop!” Lefty shouted. I stopped the car; he leapt out; ran to their side and began a full instructional program on cameras and how to hold and operate them. Finally, after an hour, I pleaded: “Lefty we gotta go for our own photos!” Later that afternoon, he spent three hours at Le Hardy rapids on the Yellowstone River teaching my son how to catch cutthroats feeding on nymphs at their feet. They caught nothing, but they had more fun trying and laughing than Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn at a pie-eating contest. No matter who Lefty fished with or helped to fish, the full enjoyment of every moment was his life-giving tonic.
In the 1950s Lefty got his start in outdoor writing at the bottom, turning out pieces for small weeklies and shoppers in central Maryland, with critical help from neighborhood hero and mentor Joe Brooks. Slowly he worked his way up to the larger national magazines while simultaneously doing slide shows and casting demonstrations, beginning in the Maryland region, then gradually extending across the United States. He was learning his trade as an outdoor writer—how to write, how to photograph and develop film and prints in his darkroom (with the help of Irv Swope), and how to make professional editorial packages that the outdoor magazine editors demanded.
Lefty’s move to Florida in 1964 to take the job as director of the Metropolitan Miami Fishing Tournament, then the most prestigious big-game fishing contest in the world, was formative in his career. It provided him with instant recognition, influential contacts in the saltwater fishing world and a showcase for his formidable casting and fishing talents. It also gave him broad and intensive experience in saltwater fishing of all types. As a result, his writing, his instructional seminars, and later his exposure on television brought his personality and expertise to a much broader segment of the American fishing public. In effect, the Kreh imprint on American fishing became possible through the expansive media, and Lefty’s personality and character were right for television, onstage and for the new generations of leisure-loving Americans.
The outdoor-writing life that Lefty had chosen then chose him. It demanded that he be on the road and on the water—everywhere. As his reputation grew from expert to celebrity, the demands on his time left less and less for his family. That his wife, Evelyn (Ev), was left to raise the two children was the sole regret he ever mentioned.
When I first met Lefty in 1978 at my Fly Fisherman magazine office in Dorset, Vermont, I had been, and would be, thoroughly instructed in the sport of fly fishing by many of its greatest modern practitioners. But I learned over time the strongest elements of my casting from him, the master of the smooth tight-looped, long-line cast. His talents in the micro-second wrist and slinging line and his performer’s presence onstage magnetized audiences. His cast loops seemed alive, animated by controlled energy. They seemed to be an extension of his arm and hand, reaching toward an imaginary fish. During slow fishing, I watched him practice casting for hours, obviously enjoying the feel of the rod as he loaded it further and further down into the butt and watched with personal satisfaction its tight loops snake through the air. It was magical to see him cast alone on bright rivers and sunlit flats, dreamlike as if from the imagination.
But spend time with him onstream and other extraordinary talents would shine forth.
Famed British fly-fishing writer John Goddard, whom Lefty called the best trout fisherman he ever saw, told me once of a Lefty encounter on the River Kennett. There was a large brown trout there that no one could catch. It lay in a particularly difficult spot to which it was virtually impossible to present the fly without drag. Goddard pointed out the trout to Lefty, who was his guest on the club water. Goddard explained: “Bloody hell, he caught that trout on his first cast! No one else could have made that fly presentation, only Lefty.”
Of course, Lefty could have the first shot on any water to which he was invited. That is not what happened. His students fished the waters first. I repeatedly saw him give the first shots to others on trout, tarpon, striped bass, king salmon, smallmouth bass and other gamefish. He practiced hallowed rules: Let your guest or your student go first; share the water; share your flies; share your knowledge; laugh at adversity onstream and off.
I learned much about giving from this man, for he taught the gift of fly fishing to the world as an expression of selfless joy and with an energy that charmed the world through which he passed. That’s a great leap, for fly fishing is simply a sport, enjoyed by a small fraternity of fishers who share and practice a passion. Yet all fly fishers know that its sporting values coalesce into an ethical and almost religious code. Lefty Kreh exemplified and taught that code for our modern generation of fly fishers.
There have been noble men and women in the sport of fly fishing—Haig-Brown, Joe Brooks and the Wulffs among them. But if nobility has a face, it was Lefty Kreh. He gave the ancient values of fly fishing new and enduring meaning. He was the most influential sport fisherman in the last half of the 20th century. I say that having known, fished with, or edited copy for most of the great fishermen of that era.
In retrospect, we can see that the post-World War II generation was the last country-boy “generation in the woods”. And what a generation it was: a happy, free-living, free-roaming band of brothers who spent every free hour (and there were many) exploring the woods and waters of North America in pursuit of wildlife. Lefty led, and mentored, them.
Lefty fished in 26 countries and I asked him recently: “What was your favorite trip?
“Well, Johnny, it would have to be New Guinea. It was unspoiled wilderness, the way things used to be before Christ. The natives lived off the land, killing monkeys in the virgin forest with blowguns. And the New Guinea black bass were the strongest fish I have ever hooked in fresh water. And they were stupid. . .they’d never seen a fly. But they were the strongest fish for their size I ever hooked. On a 12-weight rod ya couldn’t keep um from chargin’ into the brush’ unless ya grabbed the reel hard and brought um to a screechin’ halt. You’d lose most of um.
“My next best trip was the Alta River in Norway. I was the guest of Lord James Peerman from England. He flew me over to London on the Concorde, where I gave a talk, then on to the Alta where the lord’s family had fished for many generations on private, booked water. We had 17 servants at the lodge and on the river. We caught just short of a ton of Atlantic salmon. It was a record for the Alta. When I first stepped into the river, I made two casts and landed two salmon, both 35 pounds exactly. The ghillies killed, measured, and weighed every fish because the salmon went to the landowners.
In the book, All the Best, Celebrating Lefty Kreh, by Flip Pallot there are many special remembrances told by some of Lefty’s lifelong friends, but I especially like his son Larry’s recollection:
“My father was never out for record fish. Once I was fishing with him in Florida Bay off Man-o-War Key, and we had poled to some big cruising tarpon. Dad made a cast, and the fight was on for close to an hour. We were in less than four feet of water, and it was so shallow the fish could hardly jump. Once the fish was boatside and beaten, I knew it was a world record on fly. I knew what a hundred pounder looked like, and this fish was huge in comparison. But Dad refused to let me gaff the fish. I got mad, but forty years later I understand. I remember how all the charter captains filled the trash cans in front of their boats at Garrison Bight in Key West with dead amberjack, tarpon and barracuda on Sunday night when they headed home. That still bothers me to this day.
“But the thing that stood out was my dad’s effect on people. They all loved him and wanted to be with him. From his canoeing buddies back on the Potomac River to all the people we met along the way in Florida, he is still good friends with them all. To my dad, it’s people and their personalities that make life worthwhile. Here is a heartfelt poem that wraps up how I feel about both my parents.
When I walk my favorite trail
My heart is never sad
When I think of boats bailed
And all the fun we had
When I think in great detail
About the good and bad
I cherish my mother’s love
And a very special dad.
Unfortunately there will be no new Lefty Krehs because the audience has changed: It demands instant gratifications, propelled by electronic media, improved fishing technologies, explosive knowledge and changing sport values. Our generation was fortunate to have him lead us along the paths of outdoor pleasure and learning that made us “the luckiest generation” in the history of the world.
I know of no man who made more true friends, and kept them for a lifetime, than Lefty Kreh. It was easy to love and respect him.
Thanks, Lefty. It has been our privilege and our pleasure to have your company and your gifts of knowledge, and to experience your infectious love of people and life.
Lefty : “You don’t need a lot of expensive stuff. There are four-hundred-dollar fly rods out there that cast better than the person holding them.”
John Randolph, Publisher Emeritus, Fly Fisherman