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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Q. What’s one thing every man should know?
A. How to treat his wife. Mama ain’t happy, nobody’s happy.
Q. What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done?
A. Hmm… I don’t know. Best thing I ever done was get out of the army! Hardest thing I never did was learn how to type with more than two fingers. Thirty-second book, still doing it the incorrect way.
Q. What are you working on right now?
A. A major DVD on fly casting which’ll debunk a lot of things that people think are true. Also working on a thirty-second book, and I bought a brand new camera that I’m trying to figure out. Oh, and I also bought a camcorder so I can learn to put video clips on keynote. Half a dozen other things, too. But I’ll tell you what, I learn something new every time I go fishing.
I learn something new every time I go fishing.
Q. Name one thing you can’t live without.
A. I don’t know. I know what I can do without. I don’t eat any food that has more than four colors — no seasoning on my food. A little salt and pepper. I take peanut butter and corned beef on trips. I could live on those for four weeks in the jungle.
Q: Who or what influences you?
A: The main one is Joe Brooks, who was a major fly fishing writer from WWII to 1972. My father died near the end of the Great Depression in 1932, so I largely grew up without a father. Joe gave me my first fly fishing lesson. He was my mentor. Got me into writing. I got a high school education, so that was important. Taught me writing, and I was one of the first outdoor writers to use a 35mm camera. Writers didn’t send in illustrations back when I first started writing, and I was sending stories in with photographs so they didn’t have to pay an illustrator. Joe also got me my first job in the Metropolitan South Florida Fishing Tournament in 1964.
Q. What are you reading right now?
A. I read westerns: Zane Gray, Louis L’amour. I flunked retirement. I’m doing so many things, writing for magazines, doing consulting work, writing a book, private clinics, all these things — so when I read I don’t want to have to think. I want to know that the good guy is gonna shoot the bad guy and get the girl and ride off into the sunset. The only fishing reading I do is technical stuff, ’cause I find that to be really interesting. Everything I know is subject to change.
Q. Name one thing no one knows about you.
A. My first name. [laughs]. There are very few people that know it. Then again, a lot of people don’t even know my last name. First name’s Bernard. The only thing I ever held against my mother.
Q. It’s your last drink and meal on earth. What’ll it be?
A. I don’t drink at all, though I have nothing against it. But I guess I do drink a glass of wine sometimes. I even drank two glasses of wine this weekend because I was working with [Tom] Brokaw. I eat plain food. I don’t eat to enjoy, I eat to eat. It’s a necessary thing to keep the body functioning. I don’t enjoy much food. Of course, what I’m eating, most wouldn’t enjoy anyway.
Q. If you could go back and tell your 16 year old self something, what would you say?
A. I’ve made a lot of mistakes, but the truth is that my mistakes were some of the best things that happened to me. I was happily married to the best woman in the world for 66 years, I had two wonderful kids, more friends than I could ever wish for, and people want to fly me around the world to go fishing. Why would I change anything? I wouldn’t change a damn thing.
Q. How do you want to be remembered?
A. As a friend. That’s the most important thing, to be a good friend. I don’t even think about that sort of thing though — I’m thinking about what I’m gonna do tomorrow. “Remembered” don’t mean anything anyway. Reading the obituaries, it doesn’t seem like I even knew some of these people, hearing how great they were.
Q. How did you get your start in fly fishing?
A. That all started when I lived in Maryland after I came back from WWII in 1945. Even before that, though, I was a commercial fisherman. My father died when I was six, and I had a sister and two brothers. We lived on what they called relief, as almost nobody had a job then. My mother had four children and was destitute. For this relief, they gave you no money, which I think is the way it should still be done. Instead, they gave us a house to live in, put it in a black ghetto in Frederick, MD, a small town at the time. I grew up in the black community, made great friends growing up in that community — in fact, they gave me the name “Lefty” because I was left handed and excelled in sports.
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.
Q. Which fish is your favorite to fish for?
A. Bonefish. You can do everything right except one thing and the game’s over. It’s light tackle, and whether you’re wading or in a boat, you’re moving over a very interesting environment constantly — there are rays, beautiful corals, baitfish, different currents and seams, tides, birds feeding. Nature is alive and it’s like having a movie in front of you. It’s all about small flies and exceptionally good presentations. Then there’s the camaraderie of having somebody with you, because really, fishing is 80 percent the people that you fish with and the environment that you fish in. Catching the fish is the last 20 percent.
Q. What’s the most common mistake you see beginning fisherman make?
A. Fly casting as taught by most is the only sport in the world where you only use your wrist and arm. You even use your body in ping pong. So the body is involved in every sport except fly casting — that’s as most teach it. Most people don’t pivot their body, they cast in that “salute” method, the single most inefficient way to cast.
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.
Q. What’s the best cast you’ve ever made?
A. I started fishing with my son Larry when he was 4, and when he was 12 we moved to Florida. He learned to pole a boat — he didn’t volunteer at first, but he got so he really enjoyed doing it. We have the best relationship today of anybody I know.
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!