September 08, 2021
By Henry Cowen
This article was originally titled "Our Mount Rushmore" in the June-July 2021 issue of Fly Fisherman magazine.
Anyone who listens to sports and sports talk radio at some time or another has listened to commentators debating who deserves to be on that sport’s Mount Rushmore. What four players should be elevated and enshrined above all others? In the National Basketball Association (NBA) this is a topic that has been debated regularly over the past few years. Michael Jordan and Lebron James are clearly two legendary players, and if you add Kareem Abdul Jabbar and maybe Julius Erving, you’d have four players who helped shape and change the sport. Their faces could be chiseled in stone, because it’s unlikely that future players could ever supersede them.
Of course, not everyone agrees. A Los Angeles Lakers fan might argue for the inclusion of Kobe Bryant, for instance. It’s a very subjective topic to see who deserves to sit atop the mountain.
This debate in football, basketball, and baseball got me thinking about the Mount Rushmore of fly fishing. There are so many legendary fly fishers who helped shape the sport into what is has become today. Fly Fisherman magazine recently celebrated its 50th anniversary and published the story “50 Most Influential Fly Fishers: The people who changed the face of fly fishing over the past five decades” [Oct-Nov-Dec 2018]. People disagreed with and debated that list of 50. I wondered if it would it be more difficult to whittle it down to just four? Or easier?
If you decide to create fly fishing’s Mount Rushmore you would only consider the crème de la crème, but there are no right or wrong choices. I believe we should include anglers who helped introduce now widely adopted methods, folks who gave us new casting approaches, or even designed flies that allow us to pursue fish we never previously thought could or should be caught on a fly rod.
Maybe we should consider anglers who pioneered new tactics, like fishing deep, versus what most of us are accustomed to, which is fishing near the surface. How about fly fishers who championed the importance of conservation and protecting the resource for future generations to enjoy?
Which fly fishers have made the biggest difference when we look at how our sport has developed and continues to develop today? Who deserves the kind of recognition that would make them figuratively akin to Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt? Which faces should be carved onto fly fishing’s Mount Rushmore? My four choices, in no order, would be Joe Brooks, Lee Wulff, Bernard “Lefty” Kreh, and Dave Whitlock.
Joe Brooks (1901-1972)
Joe Brooks is considered the father of modern fly fishing. First and foremost, he was a writer. He wrote an outdoor column for The Baltimore Sun, was a freelance writer for many national publications, and late in his career, he was the fishing editor of Outdoor Life—in its heyday it was easily the most prestigious magazine an outdoor writer could aspire to. He brought fly fishing to the masses before there were specialty magazines like Fly Fisherman.
Brooks also wrote ten books on fly fishing, and his writings are still considered relevant today. He is probably best known for fly fishing in remote places around the world, and helping popularize travel to places far from the United States. We are all aware of sea-run brown trout in Patagonia, but that’s because Joe Brooks and Curt Gowdy brought it to our attention. In 1964 they hosted an episode of ABC’s Wide World of Sports where the two men fly fished for trout on Argentina’s Rio Grande.
Millions of households saw it, and it eventually spun off to become the even more popular show The American Sportsman. The TV show lasted more than 20 years, and brought both hunting and fishing right into our living rooms. Brooks paved the way for people like Flip Pallot, who later had his own widely acclaimed TV show, The Walker’s Cay Chronicles.
Brooks showed people how to fish and cast in tough conditions, like windy Patagonia. He was also one of the first proponents of catch-and-release fishing in remote regions of the world, where nearly all fish that were caught were harvested.
Brooks fished with some of the most popular celebrities of his time, another way he brought the message of fly fishing to the masses. People like Bing Crosby, Jack Nicklaus, and Ted Williams were just a few to call Brooks their fly-fishing teacher and friend.
He was also a mentor to future fly-fishing luminaries like Stu Apte and Lefty Kreh. In fact, in the documentary Finding Joe Brooks (2018), Kreh stated that Joe Brooks “did more to popularize fly fishing than anyone else.”
Lee Wulff (1905-1991)
Lee Wulff grew up in Alaska with a fly rod in his hand. As a young adult, while living and working in New York City, he fished Catskills streams like the Esopus, Beaverkill, and Willowemoc. By the 1930s he had established himself as a fly-fishing authority through writing magazine articles, teaching fly tying, and speaking to various fishing clubs including the prestigious The Angler’s Club of New York.
His first book, Lee Wulff’s Handbook of Freshwater Fishing (1939), advocated catch-and-release fishing. He was one of the earliest proponents of this conservation ethic, and famously wrote that “gamefish are too valuable to be caught only once.” These words enshrined Wulff as the father of catch-and-release fishing, a credo followed by thousands of fly fishers around the globe today. Wulff also fought to protect the rivers themselves, and played vital roles in organizations like Trout Unlimited, Federation of Fly Fishers, and the Atlantic Salmon Federation.
He was a pilot and flew his own plane to remote rivers in Newfoundland, and set up fishing camps for other anglers to experience the best salmon fishing on the continent. He explored the west coast of Newfoundland and encouraged the Canadian government to protect what is now Gros Morne National Park, since 1987 a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Like Joe Brooks, he was a frequent host of The American Sportsman, fishing for bluefin tuna and Atlantic salmon in Newfoundland. Through their participation in The American Sportsman, he met his wife Joan Wulff, who herself was an avid angler and fly-casting champion. Together they founded the Wulff School of Fly Fishing in Livingston Manor, New York, where they taught thousands of students.
As a fly tier, Wulff is credited with many patterns, but his most popular and innovative were his robust, full-bodied dry flies that could float high in fast rivers. Most dry flies before Wulff’s time were either English- or Catskill-style drys, which Wulff considered to be too sparse to be effective. His friend Dan Bailey of Livingston, Montana helped him name and popularize the Royal Wulff, White Wulff, Grey Wulff, and many others, and these flies became standard patterns for Atlantic salmon and trout around the world. Joseph D. Bates Jr. in his book Atlantic Salmon Flies and Fishing (1970) credited Wulff with “establishing a distinct American style of dry fly.”
Lefty Kreh (1925-2018)
Of all the faces we might consider for fly fishing’s Mount Rushmore, none is more deserving than Bernard “Lefty” Kreh. He was our Abraham Lincoln. He turned fly fishing from an elitist sport into a sport for everyone. Kreh was instrumental in bridging the gap between generations, helping to bring more practical, affordable, and accessible tackle to market, and teaching people how to cast better, tie flies to catch all kinds of fish including saltwater fish, how to tie a wide variety of knots, and the list goes on.
Kreh wrote 33 books, appeared in too many films and TV shows to count, and demonstrated fly casting and tying at literally thousands of sporting events where he inspired people from all walks of life.
Later in life, he was a host of the TV show Buccaneers & Bones, which paired Kreh with friends like Tom Brokaw, Yvon Chouinard, Michael Keaton, Liam Neeson, and Jimmy Kimmel to highlight the importance of shallow saltwater ecosystems and interpret the research carried out by Bonefish & Tarpon Trust and other organizations.
While best known for saltwater fly fishing, Lefty was comfortable anywhere there were fish, whether it was peacock bass in Brazil, brown trout in New Zealand, or black bass in Papua New Guinea. His love and knowledge of all fisheries was obvious to all.
To many of us, Kreh was bigger than life. He was engaging, approachable, and had a zest for life and fly fishing that were contagious. His sense of humor was an important part of his engaging personality, and the effect he had on our sport reached around the world.
Kreh credited Joe Brooks as his mentor and inspiration, and Kreh in turn cultivated friendships and boosted the careers of those around him. Nick Curcione, Bob Popovics, Flip Pallot, Blane Chocklett, Dan Blanton, Ed Jaworowski, and Bob Clouser are just a few who counted him as both a friend and teacher, and owe him a debt of gratitude.
Lefty’s Deceiver is still considered one of the most important flies ever designed. It catches fish around the world, and has inspired thousands of other flies that are essentially variations. In 1991, the United States Postal Service created a Lefty’s Deceiver postage stamp, and Topps sold a Lefty Kreh “rookie” trading card.
Kreh was inducted into both the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame as well as the International Game Fish Association Hall of Fame. He received the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Sportfishing Association, and was also honored with the Lifetime Contribution Award by the American Fly Fishing Trade Association (AFFTA). Since Kreh passed away in 2018, AFFTA has annually awarded its Lefty Kreh Industry Leadership Award in recognition of exemplary efforts in promoting the sustainable growth of the fly-fishing industry.
Innovative fly tier, author, photographer, writer, and wildlife artist, Dave Whitlock is easily one of the most versatile fly fishers to ever wade the rivers and streams of this great nation. While Lincoln, Jefferson, Washington, and Roosevelt all passed away before sculptor Gutzon Borglum began working on Mount Rushmore in 1927, Whitlock is very much alive—but he still has to be on my Mount Rushmore. Born on Nov. 11, 1934, Whitlock is a living legend whose love and appreciation for all nature makes him one of the most endearing fly fishers to ever help push our sport forward.
Most fly fishers think of Whitlock as a trout guru, but I’d argue that he’s also done more than anyone else to advance the cause of fly fishing for warmwater species.
Whitlock was instrumental in creating the Whitlock-Vibert Box System, an instream salmonid egg incubator and nursery. In 1975 Arkansas Fly Fishers members used Whitlock-Vibert boxes to plant 20,000 fertilized Bitterroot, Montana brown trout eggs in the Little Red and White rivers in Arkansas. Those efforts eventually produced self-sustaining brown trout fisheries and even a 40-pound world record wild brown trout.
Whitlock is the author of the L.L. Bean Fly-Fishing Handbook, was the face of L.L. Bean’s prolific fly-fishing schools for more than a decade, and his curriculum taught thousands of people to fly fish for trout.
Whitlock also wrote and illustrated more than 45 articles for Fly Fisherman, many of them about fishing for warmwater species like smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, panfish, and temperate bass like freshwater stripers, hybrids, and white bass. In 1998 he wrote “Stalking the Golden Ghost” in Fly Fisherman—and almost singlehandedly created the niche sport of fly fishing for carp. Unlike many of his peers, he spent much of his time fishing for and writing about so-called “trash” fish and designing flies for them.
He is a prolific fly designer, and Whitlock’s innovative fly patterns like Dave’s Hopper, Sheep Minnow series, NearNuff Crayfish, NearNuff Sculpin, Diving Frog, Red Fox Squirrel Hair Nymph, and many others have been used by generations and around the world in salt water, warm water, and for trout and salmon everywhere. There likely isn’t an experienced fly fisher in the world today who doesn’t carry at least one Whitlock-inspired fly pattern.
He has been published in Field & Stream, Trout, and many other magazines, and he’s published six books. He has been inducted into the IGFA Hall of Fame, was given the Lifetime Contribution Award from the former North American Fly Tackle Trade Association, was named the Fly Fishers International Conservation Man of the Year, and collected too many other awards to be mentioned here.
I could go on and on about the many awards he’s received, but I don’t want that to overshadow what’s truly important—his love for wild places, and his artistic creativity in his fly tying and his painting, and his love for teaching other fly fishers over the course of many decades.
Today, 46 years after publishing his first article in Fly Fisherman, Whitlock and his wife Emily are still teaching folks how to fly fish at their schools in Welling, Oklahoma (davewhitlock.com).
At 86 years of age, he’s still designing flies for his next outing, writing, creating commissioned artwork, and giving private lessons. If you’ve spent time with Dave and Emily, count yourself lucky to have learned from one of the all-time greats.
The “Mount Rushmore” of anything, of course, is an extremely subjective topic, as there are so many who deserve recognition. If you think I’m wrong, I applaud you and thank you for joining the conversation.
There are so many other fly fishers out there who made their mark in fly casting, adventure, techniques, writing, film-making, fly tying, conservation, or education. People like Joan Wulff, Theodore Gordon, Flip Pallot, George Harvey, Ernie Schwiebert, Dan Bailey, Gary LaFontaine, Dan Blanton, Mel Krieger, Tom Rosenbauer, Yvon Chouinard, and Bob Popovics are just few who also should be in the conversation.
There is also a younger generation of fly fishers who are making their mark on fly fishing today, people like Blane Chocklett, George Daniel, Hilary Hutcheson, Landon Mayer, and others who are teaching through books and magazine articles and also through films, video conference fly-tying lessons, and podcasts—things that Joe Brooks and Lee Wulff likely never envisioned.
Change comes slowly in the fly fishing universe, and only by looking back at the past 75 years can we see for certain where the sport was and how it continues to develop and grow, and who blazed the trails to get to where we are today. Okay folks, so tell me, who’s on your Mount Rushmore?
Henry Cowen grew up in Brooklyn, New York, where he learned to fish for striped bass at an early age. He is an Umpqua Feather Merchants fly designer and the author of the new book Fly Fishing for Freshwater Striped Bass: A Complete Guide to Tackle, Tactics, and Finding Fish (Skyhorse Publishing, 2020).