The Mayor Of Saltwater City
Lefty Kreh brought modern big-game fly fishing to millions.
Mr. Kreh?” I asked on the phone, at the beginning of what was to be a long interview.
“Lefty,” he replied.
“Lefty,” I tried again, “my name’s Bill Pike, and I’m the senior editor of Power & Motoryacht magazine and…”
The wild-and-crazy humor Kreh’s famous for kicked in. “Is that a confession, Billy,” he chuckled, “or a statement?”
There’s a popular story about Lefty Kreh that further illustrates his quick wit as well as his ability to defuse difficulties with comedy. He was giving a lecture at a big Trout Unlimited event some years ago when his slide projector broke down. After announcing that he’d tell a few Polish jokes to kill time while repairs were effected, three guys in the audience stood up and said they were Polish and proud of it.
“That’s all right, fellas,” replied Kreh with a grin that mischievously turned the whole thing into a laughing matter, “I’ll tell ‘em nice and slow so you can understand.”
Of course, Kreh’s got way more going for him than a sharp wit and a comedic gift of gab. For five decades now, his name’s been virtually synonymous with the development of modern light-tackle, big-game fly fishing. A consummate angler, he’s written 30 books and literally thousands of stories in newspapers and outdoor magazines, taught hundreds of seminars, shot tons of photography (including some of the photos that appear here), hosted TV shows, circled the globe many times over, and fished with all sorts of famous people (including Ted Williams, Ernest Hemingway, and Fidel Castro), all with the intent to enjoy and help others enjoy a sport he’s come to dearly love.
Kreh grew up in Frederick, Maryland, during the Great Depression. At the tender age of six, right after his father died, he began delivering papers, trapping muskrats, and catching catfish in the Monocacy River to help support his mother and siblings. From the first, he evinced a level of hand-to-eye coordination, in high-school sports as well as in the great outdoors, that made him both popular and conspicuous. Upon returning from service as a field artilleryman in World War II, for example, he was snatched up by Remington Arms Company to do shooting exhibitions around Maryland, blasting aspirin tablets from the air with a .22 rifle and rarely missing a shot.
Kreh’s growing reputation ultimately captured the attention of a rising outdoor writer who’d later become Outdoor Life’s fishing editor. Joe Brooks and Kreh first got together in 1947 to catch a few bass at Harpers Ferry, Maryland, Kreh with a plug-casting outfit (spin-casting was little known in America at the time) and Brooks with a nine-weight Orvis bamboo fly rod, thick Cortland GAF fly line, and streamers. “The wind was really blowin’ that day,” recalls Kreh, “and I asked Joe if he didn’t want a plug-caster too, since I had an extra in my Model A. I’d only seen one guy use a fly rod before—Old Sam Gardner—and the process didn’t look overly practical.”
What subsequently happened gave rise to the first of four developments that over ensuing years would change the sport of fly fishing forever. Brooks caught almost as many fish as Kreh, a circumstance that built a bonfire of enthusiasm under Kreh. In fact, the very next day Kreh drove his new friend to a hardware store for help picking out an $18 fly-casting outfit consisting of a South Bend fly rod, a Pflueger Medalist reel, and a weight-forward Cortland GAF fly line. “Then Joe gave me a 15-minute casting lesson in the park,” adds Kreh, “and shoot boy, I was off to the races!”
The next wrinkle came a decade later. In 1957, Kreh, who was still using feather-light, freshwater-type flies on freshwater fish, began experimenting with striped bass, primarily a saltwater species, in Crisfield, Maryland. “There was a crab plant there,” says Kreh, “and ‘course such a thing wouldn’t happen now, but every day at five o’clock the plant’d dump all the scrap in the water and, lemme tell ya, it’d create the biggest chum line the world’s ever known on Chesapeake Bay.”
There was one hitch, however. Virtually every fly available at the time had feather wings that would often get tangled in the hook and foul the catch. So with characteristic inventiveness, Kreh went home one evening and created what is today the most famous saltwater fly pattern in the world: Lefty’s Deceiver. It caused a serious stir! Kreh was already upsetting the staid apple cart of dry-fly trout fishing with an entirely new venue—salt water. Now he’d tossed in a big, comparatively heavy, hot-shot lure that would one day be awarded its own postage stamp.
The appearance of Kreh’s first book Fly Fishing in Salt Water in 1974 launched the third phase of his career. With unmistakable authority, it codified what Kreh had learned since 1965 when Brooks, his old buddy from Harpers Ferry, had convinced him to move to the Sunshine State and serve as the manager of the Metropolitan South Florida Fishing Tournament (MET), arguably the biggest fishing tournament in the world at the time and the social event of the year in fish-crazy South Florida. “What a job,” Kreh fondly remembers. “It was like being the mayor of all South Florida fishing.”
The book was controversial. Heretofore, fly fishing had been pretty much the purview of well-heeled northern traditionalists unwilling to share their knowledge with each other. Kreh had blown the lid off this paradigm by democratically sharing a raft of new, unconventional techniques, along with everything else he’d learned while managing the MET and fishing flies in salt water with South Florida anglers and burgeoning numbers of light-tackle guides in the Florida Keys.
But the fourth and final stage of his development was the real humdinger, according to Kreh. With saltwater fly-tying continuing to evolve, along with technologies that boosted the strength and versatility of fly rods and reels, he hit upon a renegade casting technique he continues to refine and teach today. Without Lefty’s Composite Cast, there’s a good chance that modern anglers around the world would find it pretty tough to make the long-range, super-accurate presentations that saltwater fly fishing demands.
“The old, vertically oriented, ten-to-two, clock face-type deal the trout guys were using and teaching simply didn’t work in salt water,” Kreh explains, “You gotta have a lower, more horizontal approach that cuts wind exposure and lets you fish all day without getting tired, even with a heavy rod.”
Today, Kreh sees himself as an exceptionally lucky man. He’s spent most of his life doing exactly what he loves. And his enthusiasm for the sport he’s done so much to foster seems totally undiminished, even at the ripe old age of 86.
“You know, Billy,” Kreh synopsizes, just before launching into a last hilarious, oft-repeated metaphor, “I think saltwater fly fishing is one of the most excitin’ things a guy or a gal can do these days. Hey, man! In my opinion, it’s even more excitin’ than rollin’ a wine bottle through a Texas jail cell!”
This article originally appeared in the March 2011 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.