Lefty Kreh passed away March 14, 2018. The tribute below was written by longtime friend and fishing partner Flip Pallot while Lefty was still alive. It was published in the April/May 2018 issue of Fly Fisherman magazine, and Lefty read the story before he passed away.
We all need a “Lefty” . . . even if he spends his adult life doing things right-handed. We need a Lefty for myriad, personal reasons. He’s needed to set the bar, to show us the way, to point out what’s possible, to mentor us, and to make us laugh. He’s there to teach us how to make the tough decisions, to be humble, gracious, get rid of our coats and ties, to eat right (just kidding), and to form tight loops!
In the fall of 1965, Bernard “Lefty” Kreh was the newly appointed director of the Metropolitan Miami Fishing Tournament, and he was scheduled to speak at a regular meeting of my fishing club. He was new to the job, unknown to the local fishing community, and anxious to get us all more interested in the tournament.
He began speaking to an obviously uninterested audience. He immediately sensed the need to win over and impress club members, all of whom presumed that their knowledge far exceeded that of the stout, little fella from the Mid-Atlantic. Lefty stopped mid-sentence. The room grew quiet. He stepped from the podium toward a member in the front row who had a fly rod and reel at his side. Lefty asked if he could borrow the rod for a moment. The audience remained silent and curious.
Lefty stripped line from the reel without assembling the two-piece, fiberglass rod. He took the back taper of the fly line in his left hand, the level section of belly in his right hand, and without the rod began to false cast! He fed line through the fingers of his right hand until he held 30 feet or so in the air, and then shot another 30 feet of line which landed in a pile when stopped by the far auditorium wall. It was the perfect combination of man and moment and made us all understand that this right-handed, “Lefty” person had much to teach us.
I was a devoted fly fisher who, at that moment, realized that I was scarcely a fly caster. That evening, I decided that Lefty Kreh was going to help me change all that . . . maybe. I learned that Lefty had purchased a home only blocks away from my own. Two mornings after his appearance at our club, his wife, Evelyn, answered my knock at their door. In that instant, the clock began ticking on a relationship with Lefty and me that has lasted some 53 years.
Lefty quickly fixed my sloppy, athletic casting and helped me develop a style of my own. As I spent more time in his company, I came to realize that casting instruction was but a molecule of what I would share with Lefty during a lifetime of friendship.
My first outing with Lefty was a chance to share my love of the Everglades. We drove to a small village at the bottom of the national park. We launched my skiff and ran to the back of Snake Bight. I shut down the engine and began to pole toward a large flock of flamingos.
As we neared them, we could see that as they moved a large school of redfish followed at their feet, catching shrimp and crabs flushed by the birds. Instead of grabbing a fly rod, Lefty grabbed his camera and 400mm lens. He laid it on a boat cushion across the front deck and commanded me to pole after the receding line of flamingos. It was a simple life lesson in priorities. If he had grabbed the rod, he may or may not have caught a redfish. He certainly did make a one-of-a-kind photo by grabbing the camera.
As I write this, Lefty is 92 years old. I try to speak with him on the phone for a bit almost every day. Yesterday we talked and he reminded me of a trip we made to Belize in 1970—it was called British Honduras in those days. Lefty, at 92, remembered a stupid fly that I tied for that trip 47 years ago! It was not a very good fly, by the way, and he warned me in advance of that fact—Lefty has always been the consummate straight shooter.
Within the fragile arc of relationships I can’t recall exchanging a cross word with Lefty, although disagreements have not been uncommon. When they occur, he is quick to remind that he is disagreeing, not with me, but with my idea.
Lefty knows I dislike flying: “If you have a few days, drive up here. There’s something I want to show you,” he uttered into the phone one day. Road warrior that I am, I started for Maryland (not really a marathon).
It was all about a smallmouth stream he fished and trapped for muskrats as a boy. He had rediscovered it, and he wanted to share it. After a peanut butter sandwich for lunch, we stuffed our gear and photo equipment into his minivan. After an hour and a half on the road, it was a mile walk through the woods to the stream.
Three steps from the road Lefty stopped to point out a stinging nettle plant. Fifteen minutes later, I knew all about nettles and our march resumed. Shortly he pulled up again. This time it was jewelweed—the antidote for stinging nettle. Another quarter hour and I was up to speed on the entire nettle deal.
The spring woods were fragrant, and Lefty didn’t miss a chance to stop and identify each and every odor as well as a turd tumbler beetle that was dedicated to one odor in particular. There was another stop to admonish not to step over logs without checking the other side of the log for snakes. “Oh, and that’s bear grass . . . you can use it as a drill for making a fire. And that shagbark hickory over there will provide great tinder!”
Our journey continued in this fashion for more than two hours, and we had still not even approached the stream. The history of a mimosa tree prompted yet another stop, and so on. We got to the stream at sunset, just in time to see it, but too late to actually do any fishing.
I followed Lefty through the darkening woods, over no particular path, trying not to break my fly rod against grape vines and saplings, and he led us out to the road precisely at the van. He had shared an important piece of his turf with me. That we had not fished was never mentioned and was lost in the process; as it should have been. I enjoyed another life lesson and a drive back to Florida to digest it all!
It’s a perfect, cool evening and I’m writing this from a hammock beside a live oak fire in the pit behind the house. Lefty and I have spent countless hours aroundw this iron fire pit. I’m keeping a thick highball glass of 12-year-old Frigate Reserve warm with my hands. Memories of days and early nights with Lefty come unbidden as I scribble words.
It was around this very same fire that Lefty—on his rare, second glass of wine—was able to tell me stories about his time in Europe during World War II. There were skirmishes where his experience as a hunter and trapper made him a leader. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge and helped liberate concentration camps. He wept as he described the condition of the prisoners and their environs. I remember his tears falling upon the simple, khaki trousers that have become his present-day uniform.
Through spiraling white smoke from quartered oak boughs I recall the face of a 13-year-old kid named Jose Wejebe who, not unlike myself at that age, was consumed by fishing. In those days, Jose rang Lefty at least once a day (sometimes more) asking endless questions about tackle, flies, tying, and casting technique. The calls were incessant, but Lefty never avoided a single one.
When Jose decided to become a fishing guide along the Florida Keys, Lefty gave me a call at my office in a local bank, asking if I would lend Jose the money for a truck and skiff. I did, and never made a better loan!
Lefty remained enthusiastically available to Jose throughout his brilliant career as a guide and producer of outdoor television. There was nothing that Jose would not have done for Lefty in return for his support and friendship . . . and neither was there anything that Lefty required of Jose. That is universally true of all whom Lefty has helped, including me.
My phone rang one morning in 1989. “Flip, you need to have a computer! You need it so you can diversify and begin writing and quit guiding! I’m having a friend of mine put one together for you and send it along.”
I had no words—not that they would have mattered. The computer arrived, and so began the most frustrating weeks of my life. (You may remember the operating system: DOS). Perhaps the most wonderful photo I’ve ever composed was of that computer, sitting in the grass behind my house with a hunting arrow sticking through the hard drive tower!
Sadly, that photo was lost, along with my house, during Hurricane Andrew. That storm was a life changer in many ways. My house in Homestead, Florida, was totally destroyed. There was not a tree left standing, and most homes were reduced to rubble.
Miraculously, after a day or two, with Diane and me living in the bed of a pickup truck, Lefty materialized through mountains of debris. We hugged . . . and cried . . . . and Lefty handed me a paper sack. In it was $25,000 that Lefty and his wife Ev had stashed away for an emergency. “You and Diane may need this,” he said. “Ev and I will not. Don’t worry about paying it back, we really don’t need it.”
I had thought to have the measure of Lefty. I was short. As it turned out, we had no need for the money either, but Lefty was there for me all the same.
Throughout the decade or so that I guided, Lefty referred hundreds of anglers who became regular clients and friends, and all the while advised me: “You have to move along from guiding into other things. Diversify.”
He recommended me for personal appearances of all kinds, and for consulting gigs as well. When I got into the TV business he was a frequent and very popular guest, still whispering, “diversify.” It became his watchword and has allowed him to be teacher, author, columnist, inventor, photographer, orator, world traveler, role model, and mentor to a couple of generations . . . ours among them.
Lefty led a movement for manufacturers to offer high-quality, affordable fly rods and reels, and he developed a method of fly casting that is digestible to almost anyone willing to invest in a short learning curve. More important, he developed a method of teaching it, which was not only effective, but entertaining. He found ways to showcase his method at shows, drawings in books, and outstanding videos; making it achievable and available to countless folks who would have never considered fly rodding.
We have watched Lefty cast and tie flies at consumer shows. We’ve watched his casting videos. We’ve read his countless “how-to” articles, and enjoyed his 47 books and innumerable writings on outdoor photography, knots, and travel.
We’ve listened to his jokes, we hugged his neck, we shook his hand, and we are better off for it. You and I shall never see his likes again.
Flip Pallot has been Lefty Kreh’s friend and fishing partner for the past 53 years. He has been a guide, author, and host of the TV show Walker’s Cay Chronicles.