92-Year-Old Lefty Kreh Saved Fly-Fishing
The 92-year-old gear innovator, guide, and teacher has fished with everyone from Ernest Hemingway to Tom Brokaw to Yvon Chouinard to Fidel Castro
The sport of American fly-fishing has two hours of screen time to thank for its resurgence at the turn of the 21st century: the film A River Runs Through It. The 1992 movie adaptation of Norman Maclean’s novel of the same name, directed by Robert Redford and starring a young Brad Pitt, made fly-fishing not just cool, but wildly sexy to the general public. “It was the most enticing fly-fishing movie ever made,” Maclean’s son John told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle in 2012. “In the first year after it came out, the fly-fishing industry grew by 60 percent, and the following year by another 60 percent.” In the years following the film’s release, streams and rivers famous for their fly-fishing became noticeably more crowded. It was so influential that fly-fishermen around the country took to calling it simply “the movie.”
But while a soaking-wet Brad Pitt could get twentysomethings to buy a starter fly rod, he couldn’t teach them how to cast it. And so, in only a slightly roundabout way, the real savior of modern fly-fishing is “Lefty” Bernard Kreh, whose books, videos, and articles on casting, tying knots, and catching fish were the first real introductions to the sport for many of those who stuck around long enough to actually give it a shot. Kreh, a Baltimore native who grew up during the Great Depression, is a compact 5’7”, with a wide smile that reveals a gap between his two front teeth. When he casts a fly rod, he has all the grace in the world—enough to overshadow even a young Pitt.
Kreh is the savior of the modern American fishing form in more than just a pop-culture-funneling way. It was Kreh who, along with one or two others, nurtured the sport when it arrived from the UK to American waters in the 1940s and ’50s. But while other fishing pioneers stuck to British traditions, Kreh rejected them. He rebuilt the American cast from the ground up. Then he started sharing his knowledge on everything from knots to casting to fly presentation, on fish in both fresh and saltwater, with students of all ages, women and men. Kreh came to be seen as not just a founder of the American version of the sport, but also its singular teacher, taking as pupils presidents and movie stars as well as blue bloods and normal folks.
Thirty-three books and thousands of students later, Kreh is finally slowing down. At 92, his world-touring fishing days are nearly through. Congestive heart failure is taking its toll. There’s a certain lighthearted morbidity to him these days. “I’d rather be looked at than viewed,” Kreh told me with a chuckle. But he still has a twinkle in his eye. Kreh still has a lot to teach us about fishing and about life.
OUTSIDE: When you first started fly-fishing, in 1947, the sport was practically nonexistent in America. What sparked your interest?
Kreh: Joe Brooks [a major fly-fishing writer from World War II to 1972] called and said he was doing a little newspaper column for a paper down near Baltimore, and he wanted to go fishing with me in the Potomac. So we went. And Joe took this fly rod out. I had never seen one before. And I said, “Well, Mr. Brooks, if you don’t have a plug rod, I have an extra one.” And he said, “Well, do you mind if I use this?” And I said of course not. Well, he caught quite a few fish using it.
At lunchtime—and this is what flipped me over on it—we were sitting on the side of a big flat rock out in the middle of the Potomac. We were sitting there, and Joe walked up out over the top of that rock. I didn’t know it then, but I would soon learn, that in October, the flying ants fly across the Potomac to migrate, and billions of them fall into the river. And we walked up there, and he had this little black-and-white fly, which I now know is a black ghost. There were these rings all over the place in the water. He dropped the fly in a ring; he had a bass. He did this about six times in a row, and I said, “Mr. Brooks, I got to have me some of that.”
I’m trying hard to put the Lefty Kreh School of Fly-Fishing into words. How would you describe that?
When I went back home, in all of central Maryland I could not find a single fly-fisherman. Not one. I later found two in Baltimore. But there were no fly-fishermen. And there was no information about it—except, mostly, English literature, which was all out of date anyway. So I began to start thinking about how you do this stuff.
Joe’s casting method was basically the one they still teach today. And that method is you bring your rod up to about two o’clock, and you load it up and come forward and stop about eleven.
Well, I’m not very smart, but I have common sense. And I know that the longer I can swim that fly through that Potomac, the better the chances I got. I realized that fly-fishing was the only sport where you don’t use the whole body casting. I began pivoting and putting the rod back farther. Had no idea why it worked—all I knew was that it did work. And I developed that style. Well, not a style, actually just the proper way to use a rod. I started there.
I developed my four basic principles of casting, and of course they’re against all the regulations. [The four principles are: God will not let you cast a fly line until the end of that fly line is moving. The casting hand and rod must continue to accelerate and then be brought to an abrupt stop. The line follows the direction of the rod tip as it speeds up and stops. The longer the rod travels back and forward during the casting stroke, the less effort is required.] There’s one thing wrong with tradition: It gets in the way of progress. We’re still teaching casting the way we did a hundred years ago. And the technology’s changed, the fishing’s changed, everything’s changed, and we’re still teaching a big lumberjack and a 12-year-old kid to cast the same way.
The industry made several big mistakes early on, which is the main reason why we don’t have as many fly-fishermen today as we should. First of all, we made it too expensive. When a guy was working for $15 or $20 a month to support his family, we overpriced the market and made it impossible for him to afford it. That was a big mistake.
The other mistake was to tell people that it’s an art and all that kind of stuff. Now, I should know more about entomology. But I know that if there is a little brown bug on the water, and it’s about a size 16, I know that if I can put a drag-free cast out there, I got a damn good chance of catching a fish. It helps to know when the bugs are coming out. It helps to know. Now, a lot of trout fishermen speak Latin. But trout, they don’t care. They just eat what they can.
I heard you coached Jack Nicklaus on his cast.
Jack Nicklaus wanted me to fish with him. What you need to know is that Jack had been fishing in the Caribbean for years and had caught over a thousand bonefish. He said, “I heard you can help me with my casting.” He got out there with a five-weight rod, and we did the typical student-instructor thing—just cast it. And it was beautiful.
He said to me, “What do you think, Lefty?” I had been around some big people in the world, and a lot of those guys don’t want you to tell them anything. Jack was the opposite. I said, “Jack, what you’re doing is OK, but it’s extremely inefficient.” His answer was, “Great, how can I be more efficient?” I started talking about the stroke. And Jack said, “Hell I’ve been doing this wrong all my life.” He knew what a stroke was.
The stroke is the thing that’s causing 90 percent of the problem in fly-casting. People think if they have to make a long cast, they have to throw it. They’re not throwing it. It’s the bend in the rod that’s throwing it.
Can you explain the way a really great cast feels to someone who’s never fished before?
You do not cast a fly rod. You unroll it. It’s like a rug rolled up. You kick on a rolled-up rug, it’s gonna unroll.
You started fishing during the Great Depression. How was that different from fishing today?
We were so poor we couldn’t have kept mosquitos in underwear. We didn’t have any money. My mother told me, “If you can get enough money to pay for your lunch and your clothes, you can go to high school.” In those days, kids could work.
I was bushbobbing, where you hang these little lines down into the water on limbs at night. I’d bait the hooks with mussels, which were everywhere then. And I was poling a boat when I was ten years old. You could pole along at night and catch these catfish. I was taking the catfish and selling them at market to get the money to go to school. But I always did enjoy it, even then.
A big part of your job for the past few decades has been fly-fishing around the world with important and interesting people, teaching them and entertaining them. One of the reasons people like to fish with you so much is your sense of humor. What’s your key to telling a good joke? Do you ever tell a dirty joke?
I haven’t told a dirty joke for at least 35 years. The thing is, they don’t have to be dirty. The key to a real good joke is that the last one or two words is a trigger. A joke has to be a surprise. If you’ve heard a joke, it’s not a joke anymore. There is an art to doing it. But it’s mainly that I want to have fun with this person, and I want them to enjoy what I had. And they don’t have to be dirty.
For example, one that everybody seems to like is:
This man came home from work. And his wife hit him on the head with a frying pan, knocked him flat on the floor. He got up and said, “What’s that about”? She showed him a little piece of paper that had “Darlene” written on it. She said, “I found this in your shirt this morning.” He said, “Honey that’s a horse I been betting on. Here’s half of what I won.”
He came home the next day, his wife hit him again, harder. He got up and he said, “What the hell’s that all about?”
She said, “Your horse called.”
Have you ever been starstruck by anyone you’ve fished with—presidents, movie stars, journalists? How do you keep from being intimidated when you’re doing something as intimate as fishing with people like that?
First thing I do is call everybody by their first name. Everybody has a first name. You do it in a nice way. Famous people want to be treated that way. You should see them guys. Say it’s me and Michael Keaton and Tom Brokaw and Yvon Chouinard or something like that. All day long they’re real well-known people, and they unconsciously act the way people want them to. At 5:00, the camera people who are filming them go away. We all take a shower. And they have what I call a “crocktail hour,” where they get about half-crocked. Then, all the sudden, it’s like a mantle coming off, and there’s their real selves. They love to tease each other. You see that they’re real humans.
You’ve fished with some interesting people, including, I think, Ernest Hemingway and Fidel Castro.
I didn’t fish with ’em—but I did watch ’em fish. Me and a guy named Howard Gillelan from Outdoor Life were the first two sportswriters sent down to Cuba after the revolution. It was about a week and a half after it’d ended. We went down for the 14th annual Hemingway white marlin tournament.
On the first day, we were on Castro’s boat. We weren’t fishing. We were just observers. Well, it was a three-day tourney. For the second two days, they put us on Hemingway’s boat. I had never caught a billfish. Lots of saltwater species, but not that. When we got on the boat, Ernest told us that his little mate [Gregorio Fuentes, whom some have attributed as the inspiration for the character Santiago in The Old Man and the Sea] was the best billfisherman in the world. Well, I glommed onto that guy. I spent the entire day with that guy learning to debone mullet and all that kind of stuff. I was in my joy.
That night, me and Howard stayed at a thing called the Hotel Nacional, which was a giant hotel. But except for the crew that worked there, there was not a single person there, because the revolution was just over. Howard had quite a bit of education. And he just chewed me out like you wouldn’t believe. I said, “What are you talking about?”
He said, “You haven’t spent any time with Ernest Hemingway. Do you know who Ernest Hemingway is?”
I said “Yeah, he writes books.”
He said, “He does more than write books.”
He gave me a lecture. So I spent most of the next day with Hemingway. Which I really liked. During the day, we got real friendly. I was an exhibition shooter for Remington Arms, and he was big at that, too, and we did a lot of talking about that stuff. Anyway, I finally said to Ernest, “Ernest, I just got into this writing business. How do you tell what’s good writing?”
And he thought about it and finally said, “It can’t be edited.” Which is I think the best answer you could have.
One thing that’s noted about you by others is the sheer number of friends you’ve made across all the years. How do you relate to so many vastly different people?
I think I have such a number of friends, and really good friends, for one reason: I realized early in my life how much pleasure you get out of doing something for somebody and there’s no way they can reward you. You’re doing this because you want to do something that makes them feel good.
What makes you a good teacher? I think most would agree that’s what you’ve been above all else to the fly-fishing community.
There’s two ways to teach anything, whether it’s fly-casting or teaching at a grade school. You can display your knowledge, or you can share your knowledge. And there’s a world of difference.
When I would figure something out fly-fishing and saw somebody having the same problem I had been having, I would say, “Let me show you something somebody showed me.” And then it’s different than “Let me show you how to do that.” The first one makes the person you’re teaching think, “Well, he was as dumb as I was.” And the second one is “He’s trying to be a smartass and tell me he’s smarter than I am.” You’re sharing your knowledge and not displaying it.
What do you think your legacy will be for fly-fishing?
I don’t think anything about that. It was just something I enjoyed doing. And it was a great life. I don’t think anything about legacies and all that stuff. Hell, I’m just another fly-fisherman.