The Legend of Lefty

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The Legend of Lefty Kreh

by Monte Burke - Maryland - August/September 2015

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

When it comes to Lefty Kreh, one must start with the cast. The slinging of a fly line is the essential act of fly fishing, its biomechanical heart, and its most significant barrier to entry. Kreh is one of the art’s true grand masters, its greatest innovator and most prolific teacher. And though there are vastly more important gifts that Kreh has bestowed upon the sport over seven decades, it is primarily because of the cast that he is the best-known fly fisherman in history, “the sport’s Babe Ruth, but even bigger,” as his friend and fellow fly-fishing icon Flip Pallot describes him. Unfortunately for Kreh and me, the cast we will begin with here is mine.

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.

Lefty KrehWe 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.

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.
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