LIFER: LEFTY KREH

LIFER: LEFTY KREH

Arguably the greatest modern fly angler, when he passed away in 2018 Lefty Kreh left an indelible mark on our sport. In 2017 our editor-at-large, Conrad Botes, and Brent Flack-Davison went to visit him in Maryland to interview him for The Mission Issue 5. Lefty graciously welcomed them into his home, showed them his fly tying room and discussed his life.

“Sorry, what’s that?”

Lefty Kreh grins at me while waiting for me to repeat the question again. I grin back, thinking I just enunciated like bloody Mary Poppins and not quite sure how to rephrase my question. I’m here in Maryland trying to conduct the biggest interview of my life (admittedly I am not journalist by trade so I have only done a few interviews), but this is Lefty Kreh, a hero and a role model for me. I cut my teeth on his book Fly Fishing in Salt Water. He is THE man.

But, despite us both speaking fly fishing, the man doesn’t understand 80% of what I am asking him. It’s my accent. I am an Afrikaans-speaking South African who speaks fluent English, but with a heavy accent. And to top it off, I mumble at the best of times.

Fortunately, my buddy Brent Flack-Davison has come along for the ride and despite also being a South African, he has been living in New York for years and now speaks ’Merican. Between the three of us, over the course of an afternoon we dive deep into Lefty’s life.

Catchphrases

We were prepared. Lefty has some favourite lines, honed over countless interactions with the media. He did not disappoint. They include:

1. “We were so poor we couldn’t buy a mosquito underwear.”

2. “Putting a fly in there is like rolling a bottle of wine into a jail cell. Once you roll it in you’re never going to get it out again.”

3. “Did you look at your back cast? Because it’s ugly as hell.”

Childhood crush

“Smallmouth were the first fish I ever caught fresh or salt. River smallmouth. I don’t care much for lake smallmouth. I think the two freshwater fish I like the best are peacock bass and smallmouth bass.”

The nickname

“My father died when I was six and I grew up in a black ghetto. Black people in this country give everybody nicknames. Since I excelled at sports and I was left-handed they gave me my nickname when I was about eight years old.”

GET THE LEFTY KREH COVER PRINT

While there, Conrad took a photo of Lefty’s hand, which he then turned into the artwork which became our Issue 5 cover.

That cover is now available as a limited edition fine art print (only 14 have been printed). Each A3 print is printed on Hahnemuhle acid free cotton paper using archival inks and signed by Conrad.

Each A3 print is printed on Hahnemuhle acid free cotton paper using archival inks and signed by Conrad.

Breaking bad

“In the ’40s I had never seen a fly rod. I’d just got back from the war and I was just having fun. Spinning tackle was just coming into our country. We were using little plug casting reels. Our rivers were all full of fish. Joe Brooks had just begun to write a tiny newspaper column. It’s hard to realise, but back then there were only four hunting and fishing magazines in the United States and probably only a half a dozen newspaper columns on the outdoors. Joe came to fish with me with an Orvis bamboo rod. The wind was blowing and I said, ‘Mr Brooks, if you don’t have a plug casting rod, I can lend you one.’ Almost nobody catches as many fish as the local guy on his water. He didn’t do that but he caught an admirable number of fish. He had this line that looked as thick as a rope and a black and white fly. There were rings everywhere so he drops this thing right into the ring about 20 feet away and catches a smallmouth.

“He did this about 20 times before I said, ‘Mr Brooks, I gots to have some of this.’ So the next day I drove to Baltimore. It was a Model A Ford so it took a couple of hours to get there and I bought his setup at Tochterman’s Sporting Goods, which, after 100 years, is still there. Mr Brooks picked the line it out for me, a GFA line. We went over to small stream, he gave me a lesson and left town the next day.”

Big names

In a life well fished, Lefty has met a lot of famous people, both fly-fishing famous and big-world famous outside of our nerdy niche. He’s not a name dropper by any means. They were just part of his journey and they pop up in the stories. He met Castro and Hemingway. He taught Michael Keaton how to cast. Huey Lewis called him two days ago. The old guard of fly fishing from Bob Clouser to Ted Jurascik, Flip Pallot, Larry Dahlberg and everyone else in between – they are his friends. Like, his real friends, not social media friends.

Casting with Castro

“When Castro took over, Joe Brooks sent me and a bunch of writers down there. It was the week after the revolution and the country was broke because the other dictator took all the money, and we were there 18 days. We were observers on Castro’s boat for one day and two days on Hemingway’s boat. I didn’t know who Hemingway was. I knew he was an author… We were with him the next two days. It was ’59. I had never caught billfish.

They said Hemingway’s mate was the best in the world so I spent the whole first day with him learning to debone mullet and all that sort of stuff. The next day I said to Hemingway, ‘I don’t know much about writing, I’ve got a high school education. How do you know what good writing is?’ He thought about it and said, ‘Good writing can’t be edited.’”

Old Man Patagonia

“Yvon Chouinard – five foot two and the toughest guy I ever met. He hardly ever wears shoes. His feet are tougher than a badger’s mother-in-law [another Lefty classic]. He’s climbed over 200 of them vertical mountains alone. Never talks about any of this stuff. I’ve known him for over 30 years maybe. He’s a neat guy.”

Cathy Beck

“I taught her to cast, she teaches my method and she’s the best all-round woman fly fisher in the world. She’s caught several of the billfish, blue marlin, she’s caught many trout over 10 pounds… Almost every species you could think of.” 

It does not only count on fly

He may love fly fishing, but fly fishing’s biggest name is no purist. “My attitude is if it won’t take a fly, use lures. If it won’t take lures, use bait. I’m not one of those guys who only fly fishes or only uses dry flies. Those guys are missing out. I’m going to catch the damn fish one way or another.”

Barriers

“For a long time fly fishing was too expensive. If you wanted to buy a bamboo, glass or fibreglass rod up until 20 years ago, a working man could not afford to get his kids into fishing. It was just too expensive.”

See Lefty’s man cave and read about his frenemies and his perfect day in the rest of our Lifer feature from The Mission Issue 05 below. Free – always has been, always will be.

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