Sporting

Southern Master: The Legend of Lefty

Even at ninety years old he can still outcast you––and then charm you with his trademark smile

photo: Andy Anderson

It is a cool spring day in Cockeysville, Maryland, and Kreh is driving his Toyota 4Runner through the town’s gridded streets, carefully maintaining the speed limit. His left arm is comfortably placed on a homemade foam armrest that he’s fit into the driver’s side door. On the top of his car, an orange fishing float that he’s attached to the antenna bobs in the wind. “It sure as hell makes it easier to find this car in a crowded parking lot,” he says by way of explanation.

We pass by modest ranch houses, like the one Kreh lives in, and strips of stores. When Kreh moved here four decades ago, most of the area was still farmland. It is now a suburb, subsumed by the city of Baltimore. Kreh is wearing his hallmark hat, the “upper-downer,” so named because of its side flaps, which he can pull down over his ears. The hat covers his bald spot, which Kreh calls “a solar panel for a love machine,” one of his many go-to one-liners. The cloudy sky spits out sporadic raindrops.

We pull into a little town park, which contains a small pond. Kreh hands me a rod. He has recently celebrated his ninetieth birthday. For the most part, he appears and acts like a man much younger. He’s never had to wear a hearing aid, nor does he need eyeglasses. His nine decades on earth have exacted some tolls, though. He’s had a mild stroke, a heart attack, parts of his intestine removed, cataracts, and various serious knee problems. As he walks now ahead of me, he teeters a bit, like an ocean buoy.

We come to a spot on the pond, maybe ten yards long, that’s devoid of the knee-high grasses rimming the rest of the shoreline. “I keep this clear with a hand scythe,” Kreh says. There’s a faltering little waterspout in the middle of the pond. This is decidedly not the pastoral River Test in England, or some endless empty bonefish flat in Andros. But it is, appropriately, the place where Kreh has taken everyone, from the English gentry to elementary school janitors, to teach them to cast a fly rod better. To break down that barrier.

We rig up. “Let me see what you’ve got,” he says. I am both nervous and excited to cast in front of the legend. I first picked up a fly rod when I was eight. Over the subsequent decades, I have cast them rather obsessively, and have long held the belief that I am reasonably proficient at it. That is, until now.

I take a few false casts and throw out some line.

“Did you look at your back cast?” Kreh asks me.

“No,” I meekly reply. It’s another one of his go-to lines, so I know the forthcoming punch line. That doesn’t make it sting any less, though.

“Well, it’s a good thing because it’s ugly as hell,” he says, then snorts, a tic of his that acts almost as a means of punctuation.

Kreh has me do a double haul and then a few roll casts. “Okay, that’s enough,” he says. He trundles over and looks at me with his expressive eyes, which are the color of Bahamian blue holes. They convey his kindness and acuity and, occasionally, as I would learn later, a deep sadness. “We’re going to make you better at this,” he says, breaking into a wide grin that puffs up his cheeks and reveals a gap in his front teeth.

And then Kreh, who is almost a half century older than I am and, at five seven, nearly a foot shorter, effortlessly throws out the entire fly line, something that many hard-core fly fishermen only dream of doing.

Lefty Kreh during a bonefishing trip to the Abaco Lodge in the Bahamas last May.

photo: Andy Anderson

Fly Guy

Lefty Kreh during a bonefishing trip to the Abaco Lodge in the Bahamas last May.

My problem—which I apparently share with many fly fishermen—is that I am stuck in the old “10 o’clock to 2 o’clock” casting method that’s been taught for centuries. “Clocks are great for telling time, but they have nothing to do with fly casting,” Kreh says. I also move my wrist, lift my elbow, and keep my torso static. Kreh patiently works with me, at times holding me around the waist and casting with me. It takes an hour, but I eventually start to throw line farther than I ever have in my life.

We are at lunch, in a little café on a busy street in Cockeysville. Kreh orders the fried flounder and french fries, both “well done.” He is notorious for a few abiding habits. One, of course, is the one-liners and the snorts that accompany them. Another is his nap, which he takes every day, no matter where he is. “Middle of the day, we’ll be fishing and he’ll say, ‘Time for a nap’ and lie on the bottom of the boat and just go out,” says Oliver White, the owner of Abaco Lodge in the Bahamas, who has fished with Kreh many times. “Twenty minutes later, he’ll wake up and get right back at it.”

His diet, too, is an object of fascination among those who know him. “He eats like a barbarian,” says his friend Paul Bruun, the writer. Kreh likes his steak burned until it resembles a piece of charcoal. He brings Great Grains cereal and peanut butter and crackers with him on fishing trips so he can avoid unreliable lodge meals. He does not like vegetables, and will not tolerate “more than three different colors on my plate,” he says.

At the café, he expounds a bit on the mechanics of the cast, using a very crisp french fry as a prop. “You don’t actually cast a fly line,” he says. “You unroll it like the treads on a tank.”

Soon, though, he begins to talk about his life, in and out of fishing. Two men take the table next to ours. “That’s Lefty Kreh,” one of them whispers. They sit in silence throughout their lunch, shooting occasional furtive glances at our table, and listen as Kreh tells stories about his service in World War II, his exposure to a deadly biological weapon, his beloved wife, and his near excommunication from the world of fly fishing.

Casting a fly rod, it becomes apparent, is just one part of the life of Lefty Kreh.

Bernard Victor Kreh was born in 1925, in Frederick, Maryland, some fifty miles west of Baltimore. In 1932, in the depth of the Depression, his father, a brick mason, was accidentally kicked in the chest during a basketball game and died.

Kreh, then six and the eldest of four children, became the man of the house. His family went on government relief (later known as welfare). Kreh was in charge of picking up sacks of flour and cornmeal from the government warehouse and pulling them home in a wagon. The sacks all had the word RELIEF printed prominently on their sides, which prompted merciless teasing from the other kids in town. “Everybody was poor back then, but we were really poor,” he says. “We didn’t have enough money to buy a mosquito underpants.”

Kreh spent his free time tramping through the nearby woods and waters, hunting and fishing. “That’s what we did back then,” he says. “There were no posted signs or anything like that.” He caught stringers of catfish and sold them for ten cents a pound, giving most of the money to his mother and then using whatever was left to buy his own clothes.

In school, he played baseball and basketball. He had good hand-eye coordination, was ambidextrous, and says he could see 180 degrees in his peripheral vision, traits that would come in handy later in his life. His friends nicknamed him “Lefty,” for his ability to dribble a basketball with his left hand. (Many years ago, Kreh tore the biceps in his left arm while flipping a mattress. He’s actually cast with his right hand ever since.)

After high school, Kreh enlisted in the U.S. Army and became a member of the 69th Infantry Division in World War II. He arrived in Europe in late 1944 as the Allies were advancing across France and Belgium, headed for what would become known as the Battle of the Bulge, the catastrophic clash (some 90,000 American casualties) that took place regrettably late in the war. Kreh was, at various times, a forward observer, the lanyard puller on a howitzer, and a foot soldier.

Only now, Kreh says, can he comfortably talk about what he saw in the war. There were the everyday miseries, like spending freezing nights in a slit trench and waking up with a pancake of ice on his backside. There was the constant barrage of “Screaming Mimis,” the German artillery rockets that contained horseshoes, chains, and other bits of flesh-tearing metal shrapnel. One day, an officer standing right in front of Kreh was hit by something and cleanly decapitated. Kreh was part of a group of soldiers who liberated a concentration camp that had only a hundred or so severely emaciated survivors. His one fond memory of the war: One morning, after his division had lived for weeks on cold rations, Allied planes swooped in low and dropped canisters containing hot syrup and pancakes. “We rolled them up and ate them like hot dogs,” Kreh says.

photo: Andy Anderson

Helping Hands

Kreh sits at the read, bonefish fly in hand, during a day on the flats.

In early 1945, Kreh’s 69th Infantry Division met the Russian army at the Elbe River, and the war in Europe was effectively over. Kreh was sent home for a thirty-day furlough before he was supposed to be shipped to fight in the Pacific theater. “Then Truman dropped his bombs,” he says.

Back home, Kreh found a job at Fort Detrick, the center for the United States’ biological warfare program. One of his tasks was to don a protective plastic suit and scrape mud-like anthrax off of cylinder walls so it could be processed for the site’s scientists. The job wasn’t glamorous, but the shift hours gave him plenty of time to hunt and fish.

One morning, Kreh remembers, he woke up feeling horrible. His right arm had turned black. Apparently, a small tear in his protective suit had exposed him to anthrax. For a month, he was kept alone in a small glass room for treatment. He would discover only later that scientists had extracted some of his blood to create a more virulent strain of anthrax, which they named BVK-1, using Kreh’s initials.

The comic-book geek in me can’t help but wonder if this is the moment—akin to Peter Parker’s getting bitten by the radioactive spider—when Kreh developed his superpowers as a fly fisherman, which would come into full bloom just a short while later.

While working at Fort Detrick, Kreh began to make a name for himself as a local fisherman, especially when it came to smallmouth bass, which remain his favorite freshwater fish. (Bonefish are his favorite in the salt.) In 1947 an outdoor writer of some renown named Joe Brooks asked to fish with Kreh on the Potomac River. Brooks arrived with an Orvis Battenkill bamboo fly rod. “I’d never laid eyes on a fly rod before that,” says Kreh, who was then strictly a plug caster and spin fisherman. He was mesmerized while watching Brooks fish. The next day, Kreh drove to Baltimore and bought a South Bend fiberglass fly rod and a Pflueger Medalist reel and, within months, became an expert caster.

Kreh leveraged that into invitations to exhibitions. He dazzled crowds by throwing an entire fly line with just his hand and by knocking cigarettes out of the mouths of comely young women from eighty feet away. Sometime later he took an old carp-fishing friend who was skeptical about fly fishing out to a river to show him how it was done. Kreh put on a display, casting two, then four, then eight rods (held between his fingers) at the same time. He turned to his friend and said, “Well, whaddya think?”

His friend just looked at him. “It ain’t worth a shit. You ain’t caught anything yet.”

The showmanship began to leave Kreh feeling unfulfilled. In the mid-1950s, he says, “I quit all the hotdogging and decided it was better to actually teach people.”

The exhibitions then became places where Kreh shared his knowledge instead of flaunting it. He tirelessly worked with anyone—especially young children—who wanted to learn about rigging knots, tying flies, and casting. “I’ve seen his casting demonstration a hundred times, but I still watch,” says Tom Rosenbauer, the marketing head at Orvis. “I learn something new every time.” Kreh, a classic extrovert, was made for entertaining. “I’ve been with him when he isn’t feeling well, then he gets around a group of people and starts talking fishing and he gets energy,” says Ted Juracsik, a friend and founder of the Tibor reel company. The exhibitions benefited Kreh, as well. “I learn from everybody,” he says. “People ask me something and I look for the answer. A lot of times you would never look for the answer unless you have a question. And everything I do is always subject to change.”

Exhibitions are also where Kreh has unleashed some of his best quips. Once, when telling a story about a particularly productive lagoon in Cuba, he said: “I cast my fly in there and it wasn’t coming out. It was like rolling a wine bottle into a jail cell.” He told the crowds he once dated a girl so ugly “that the tide wouldn’t take her out.” He talked about a man he knew who was “so lazy that he married a pregnant woman.” Kreh is among the last of the great politically incorrect storytellers, something he gets away with because his general demeanor suggests that he means no harm. Once, while doing a presentation in Pennsylvania, his projector broke. To kill time, Kreh told the audience he’d start telling some Polish jokes. Some of the men present stood up and told Kreh that they, in fact, were Polish. “That’s all right, fellas,” Kreh replied. “I’ll tell them nice and slow so you can understand.” The men all laughed.

Kreh also wrote articles—all how-to (“I don’t do that fancy stuff,” he says)—for regional and national publications, sometimes churning out four or five pieces a week. Over the years, he’s had outdoor columns in the Baltimore Sun and Fly Fisherman and Outdoor Life magazines, among others. He began writing books, as well. Practical Fishing and Boating Knots has reportedly sold more than 300,000 copies. If one takes into account the additional thirty books Kreh has written, and the countless magazine and newspaper articles he’s penned over the last sixty years, it’s very likely that he is the most widely read angling writer in history.

To gather material, Kreh traveled the world. He fished in New Guinea for a species of bass nicknamed the River Rambo. He went to Cuba in 1960 to write about Ernest Hemingway’s white marlin tournament, fishing with Fidel Castro one day (“He talked about the future of the country, but never mentioned the word communism,” Kreh says) and aboard Pilar with Hemingway for two days. (Castro won the tournament, legitimately as far as Kreh could tell.) Kreh traveled to Australia, New Zealand, France, England, South America, and Central America. He cast a line in all fifty states in America. Along the way, he helped open up new fly-fishing frontiers. He extolled the virtues of barramundi fishing in Australia. He spread the word about fishing for striped bass on the flats in the Northeast. “It was here, but no one paid much attention until Lefty started to talk about it,” says Paul Dixon, a guide in Long Island, New York. Kreh did the same thing for false albacore in North Carolina. He also helped kick-start the targeting of new fly-rod species, such as muskellunge and carp.

In the late 1950s, Kreh created one of the most popular flies in the sport’s history, the Lefty’s Deceiver. The inveterate tinkerer devised it, of course, while looking for an answer to a question. Traditional streamer flies at the time often fouled, the feathers wrapping around the hook. Kreh solved that problem by adding a hair collar that surrounded the wing of the fly and kept it off the hook. “I really thought it was just a passing thing when I made it, but it caught on,” he says. In 1991, the U.S. Postal Service put the Lefty’s Deceiver on a stamp.

From 1964 to 1972 (when he moved back to Maryland), Kreh lived in South Florida and ran the Miami Metropolitan Fishing Tournament, a sixteen-week event that attracted people from all over the world. Kreh was the hub of all activity, connecting guides and clients and writers and manufacturers. South Florida was then in the vanguard of saltwater fly fishing and was home to angling pioneers such as Pallot, Stu Apte, Chico Fernandez, Jimmie Albright, George Hommell, and Ted Williams. There, Kreh bore witness to, and took an active role in, many of the lasting innovations in the sport—in knots, casting, flies, and boats.

But it was never just about the fish and the fishing for Kreh. “There are literally thousands of people who will tell you that they are friends of Lefty’s, which is a phenomenal occurrence,” Pallot says. Says Kreh: “I like to see people succeed.” In the late 1980s, he helped a young flytier named Bob Popovics gain acceptance for his new breed of flies—like the invaluable Surf Candy—which many fly fishermen had deemed too radical because they utilized epoxies and monofilament. Around the same time, a man named Bob Clouser showed Kreh a new fly he’d designed, which had weighted eyes. The fly-fishing cognoscenti dismissed his fly as merely a spin caster’s jig. But Kreh went to bat for Clouser, and his fly, the Clouser Minnow, is now one of the most popular  flies in the world. “Lefty never blew out another person’s candle to make his own burn brighter,” Clouser says. “He taught me a lot. How to cast. How to act.”

Kreh has also long been an ardent supporter of women in fly fishing. “They’re smarter and more perceptive than men,” he says. When Candus Thomson became the outdoor columnist at the Baltimore Sun— Kreh’s former gig—she faced some serious chauvinism. “There were a lot of dudes out there who didn’t want me to have the job and didn’t think I could do it,” she says. “Lefty told me that if anyone messed with me, they were messing with him.” Sarah Gardner, a well-respected guide in North Carolina, says Kreh encouraged her early on. “He gave me the confidence to do this. I owe him everything.”

Kreh swaps stories with his friend and fellow angling great Flip Pallot during a break in the action.

Fishing Buddies

Kreh swaps stories with his friend and fellow angling great Flip Pallot during a break in the action.

The writings, exhibitions, and instruction, and his overall ambassadorship, effectively turned Kreh into modern fly fishing’s gospel spreader. He was in the right place at the right time, teaching and preaching just as an entire generation of men like him were returning from a horrific war. “Fly fishing was like a type of therapy for all of us,” he says. He was a common man, intensely practical, helping other common men and women enter a sport that, at that time, was particularly elitist and somewhat stunted by orthodoxy. “He’s always brought an earthiness and simplicity to something that a lot of people make a very complex activity,” says Nick Lyons, a friend and the publisher of many of Kreh’s books.

At one point, however, that practicality briefly turned the sport’s Apostle Paul into one of fly fishing’s greatest apostates.

With the exception of one quick casting lesson from Joe Brooks (“the old 10-to-2 method, of course,” Kreh says), he had never been “taught” to cast, and thus he developed his own style. Kreh’s cast was predicated on getting out as much line as possible and casting effectively—and effortlessly—in windy conditions. “I learned early on that the longer your fly was in the water, the better the chance you had at catching fish,” he says. His method—the longer, flatter backstroke, the moving of the caster’s torso—flew directly in the face of centuries of fly-casting instruction. As such, many of the old guard did not like it very much.

In March 1965, Kreh went public with his new way of casting in an article published in Outdoor Life. It turned out to be the fly-fishing equivalent of Martin Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses. Irate letters poured into the magazine’s offices. Subscriptions were canceled. Kreh heard the criticism to his face, as well. The English, it seemed, were the most perturbed by his attack on fly fishing’s established customs. When Kreh visited England one year, some lords confronted him and asked him if his cast could indeed get the fly out farther. “I said, ‘Is a bullfrog waterproof?’” Kreh says. “They had no idea what a bullfrog was.”

The skeptical men asked him to prove it. They took Kreh to a swimming pool. Kreh attached a set of heavy hotel keys to his fly line and proceeded to cast the rig effortlessly. The lords turned red in the face. “I’ve always questioned everything, especially the absolutes,” Kreh says.

In the end, Kreh’s geniality, talent, and unceasing search for a better way to do things would quiet the maelstrom his new teachings caused, and they would become accepted as an integral part of the sport’s canon. As one of Kreh’s friends once said about his place within the elitist fly-fishing world: “He’s a smart country boy in a world of fast-talking snobs. They never stood a chance.”

After lunch, Kreh and I go back to his impeccably tidy house. In the basement, he has dozens of reels, all arranged by size in perfect rows on a wall. At least forty fly rods, in cases, are neatly hung on an adjacent wall. On nearby shelves sit stacks of Ziploc bags, trash bags, and Great Grains cereal. I point to what looks like a mini Costco on his shelves, and he merely shrugs. “I’m a child of the Depression,” he says.

In the living room, there’s a mount of a 100-pound tarpon, a species he says he has “no more desire to catch” because of the long and brutish fight they put up. On the second floor, in Kreh’s fly-tying room, there is not a single speck of fur or feather on the floor. Hundreds of hooks in all different sizes, feathers, and weighted barbell fly eyes are stacked in meticulously marked boxes on the shelves. Stuck on his fly-tying vise is a giant white streamer fly that looks nearly big enough to qualify as a family pet. Across the hallway is Kreh’s writing office, adorned with photos of fish on the walls and a large-screen computer on his desk, one of two he owns. (Kreh has long been an early adopter of technology.)

Amid all of the fly-fishing mementos, in prominent spots around his house, are photos of Kreh’s wife, Evelyn, whom he called “Ev.” Kreh and Ev were married for sixty-six years. “We had the greatest marriage of anyone I know,” he says. He met the pretty blonde one night at a theater after the war. They married a year later and had two children. Ev encouraged Kreh’s life in fly fishing. When he left for trips, he would sometimes leave behind Hershey’s Kisses for every day he was gone, each wrapped in a little homemade love note.

In 2009, Ev had a debilitating stroke and developed dementia. “I looked after her for two years,” Kreh says, his eyes beginning to mist. “I wanted to take care of my lady myself.” Ev died in 2011. Kreh, then eighty-six, spiraled downward rapidly. “He was in rough shape then, physically and mentally,” says Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia who has known him for thirty years. Kreh says he sat around the house for a few months feeling sorry for himself. “Then one day I realized how fortunate I had been,” he says. “I still think about her every day.”

Though Kreh has not dated anyone since Ev’s death, a particularly randy thirty-something fly-fishing groupie tried to change that a few years ago. One day, she accosted him at a fishing camp and demanded that he rendezvous with her in an Airstream trailer after fishing. Taken aback, Kreh cut his fishing day short and persuaded a friend of his at the camp to drive him to the airport before the appointed hour. As they hustled off, Kreh told his friend the reason behind his hasty departure. The friend then pretended to turn the car around and take him back to camp. “He thought he was pretty funny,” Kreh says.

Kreh rebounded from Ev’s death by throwing himself completely into fly fishing. He follows a travel schedule that would exhaust someone half his age. When I met with him, he was just back from the Bahamas. After three days at home, catching up on his e-mails and bills, he was off to Dallas to shoot a film. His itinerary for the next few months included a return to the Bahamas and fishing trips in Ontario, Wisconsin, Maine, Louisiana, Montana, and Idaho. In recent years, his troublesome knees have slowed him down on the water. He can no longer stand in a flats boat. Still, he’s had some memorable moments. Once, when fishing with Ted Juracsik in the Keys, he broke his rod on his first cast. He fished the rest of the day with just the tip of the rod and landed many redfish and juvenile tarpon in an area Juracsik has since named Broken Rod Bay. Aaron Adams, the head of the Bonefish & Tarpon Trust, remembers a day on the water in the Bahamas when Kreh was sitting on an ice chest in the bow of the boat, deep in a conversation with the writer Thomas McGuane. “The guide spotted a bonefish and told Lefty, ‘Twelve o’clock, a hundred feet.’ Lefty turned, took two false casts, and nailed the fish,” Adams says. “He had cataract surgery a few days later.”

Though frustrated by his physical limitations, Kreh has not let them weigh him down. “I still really like to catch fish, but my greatest pleasure is to help people with their casting, and when they catch that bass or trout or bonefish, it’s almost like I did.”

That spirit of generosity is at the heart of his remarkable life and the affection it has engendered. “I have to be careful here not to sound too excessive,” says avid fly fisherman Tom Brokaw, who has gotten to know Kreh over the last decade. “But I’ve really come to love him.” Perhaps Bob Clouser best sums up the general feeling that surrounds his longtime friend and mentor: “I wish he could live forever.”