Lefty Kreh is one hell of a fisherman. He’s lots of other things, too: retired outdoor editor of the Baltimore Sun, accomplished photographer, prolific author, father and grandfather, teller of stories, entertainer, absolute legend as a fly caster. It seems, though, that all of these things orbit around the first one — that is, being able to catch fish with skill that surpasses just about anybody else.
I’ve only met Lefty one time face to face, during a particularly harrowing interview as an intern for Fly Fisherman magazine. I was an absolute novice, but smart enough to know that I was testing rods next to the caster; my day became a lot more harrowing when he watched me for a moment, looked me in the eye and asked, “Boy, what the hell are you doing?” Luckily, a laugh and a smile were not long in coming. I got my first real casting lesson that day.
As will quickly become clear to readers, Kreh, who has brought the sport of fly fishing to Americans more so, arguably, than any other man, also happens to be a friendly guy full of knowledge, humor and humility. When we caught up with him a few weeks ago, the 88-year-old was returning from a trip to Belize with Tom Brokaw and several other well-known figures and was on his way out for more fishing; that’s what “slowing down” means to him. He caught us up on his 32nd book, common casting mistakes, how he was introduced to the sport, and much, much more.
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I learn something new every time I go fishing.
I’ve made a lot of mistakes, but the truth is that my mistakes were some of the best things that happened to me.
When I graduated from grammar school, my mother told me if I got enough money for clothes and lunch I could go to high school. So I started fishing for catfish, “bushbobbing” they called it, hanging these mason lines down with a hook from a limb of a tree hanging over a river. The river was filled with freshwater mussels, minnows, and incredible numbers of life. We would pick up mussels by the hundreds. I always got kids to come along with me, and we’d stay overnight. I learned to pole a boat when I was 12, and I poled the boat up and down the river, hanging mussel baits off overhanging trees. We’d run ‘em multiple times overnight, clean the fish and sell em at the market. I became a fat cat.
Then I went into the army, fought in the Battle of the Bulge, liberated a concentration camp, and the war in Europe ended. I came back with the intention of going to the Pacific, but instead I got out of the army and went to work at a biochemical warfare station, a job that allowed me to fish two days out of three.
In 1947 Joe Brooks, who was at this time writing for a tiny paper called The County Paper near Baltimore, called me up because I had a reputation as a hot dog fisherman. He came to fish with me and to write a column about it. At this point, I didn’t know anyone who was fly fishing. Joe Brooks came up, and when we got to the river he started putting this bamboo rod together — it was a fly rod, though I didn’t really know what that meant at the time — and he was sort of a regal type of person, not stuffy, but regal. I said, ‘Joe, if you don’t have a plug caster I’ll loan you one, the wind’s blowing 10 miles per hour’. So he borrowed a plug caster and caught a substantial amount of fish.
At lunchtime we were sitting on a ledge that slanted into the current. He walked up the ledge with his fly rod. Looking back, I now know there were flying ants trying to cross the river, and fish were rising, feeding on them. But at that point I had no idea what he was doing. He dropped a black and white fly into the middle of a rising fish’s ripples and hooked a fish. He did this 8 or 10 times in a row, every cast, and I thought, I have to have this. He picked a fiberglass rod for me the next day, and a Pflueger Medalist reel. He gave me my first fly casting lesson.
Sometimes it [the salute method] is fine. There is no one way to cast. You gonna cast a Clouser minnow entirely different than a dry fly, or a big Deceiver different than a popping bug. This is why I developed the four principles of fly casting. The single biggest mistake made in casting instruction is that the instructor teaches how he casts. You’re 23 and you’re teaching a 12-year-old girl to cast. She can’t cast like you — she simply doesn’t have the body structure that you do. A 30-year-old lumberjack instructor, he teaches his way. We have rote methods of doing things; we haven’t brought more children and women into the sport because we have an inefficient method of casting.
For trout, or for bluegills, you can use a 4-5 weight rod. The same person with a 9- or 10-weight rod — the method makes that same casting stroke nearly impossible for them to do. You need to learn how to cast in all different kinds of situations. Casting is the single most important thing in your arsenal. And yet most cast inefficiently. Cast the way you’re built. Cast to fit the situation.
When he was 14 or 15, we were in the backcountry of Key West at high tide. When the tide is up, 10- to 15-pound tarpon meander into flooded mangroves after crabs and minnows. We came around the corner of a small island shaped like a kidney, and we were right in the indentation in the middle. I saw a tarpon swimming in the open 45 feet away and cast to it. It saw the boat, even though we were poling slowly, and didn’t take my fly.
Then, just 25 feet way, another tarpon came out of the mangroves. But I had 40 feet of line out. I made a back cast, stripped line in, and as the cast came forward I stripped more line in, and then I dropped the fly right in front of him and he ate it. A lot of people can make a great quick cast at 25 feet, but most can’t when they start out with 40 feet of line!