Q&A with Bernard “Lefty” Kreh

Bernard V. “Lefty” Kreh is a legend in the world of fly-fishing – an expert angler and fly caster who developed one of the sport’s most famous flies (Lefty’s Deceiver) and has published more than 30 books on fly fishing. At age 86, he still travels widely to give casting demonstrations and seminars. Journalist Tom Brokaw has said that spending a day fly fishing with Lefty Kreh was like “going into the batting cage with Ted Williams.” Lefty recently spoke with Trout magazine and reflected on a life in fishing:

At age 86, you’re still going strong. What’s your secret to health and happiness?
Yeah, I’m so old I remember when men wore tattoos and women wore earrings. I never smoked and I never got into drinking alcohol. And I was lucky when I got out of the Army in World War II and met my wife Evelyn – she’s my best friend. We’ll be married 64 years in July. I’ve got a great wife. I have two fantastic kids. For many, many years I’ve had a job doing exactly what I want to do. Why should I quit?

You’re a problem-solver, aren’t you — always thinking about how to do things better.
Most people accept problems – and I don’t. I had a funny sequence in a slide show once about it. We were in Alaska. There was a tree behind us, and the guy I was fishing with got hung up in a tree behind him three times. I was photographing it. Finally, I suggested the solution to him. I told him, “You can make a roll cast to get rid of the hooking up. You can throw it high above the tree. Or best thing – you can cut the damn tree down!” And I showed a slide of him cutting a tree down with an axe. (laughs).

How many shows do you do a year?
Between mid-January and June, it’s usually three or five shows a month. I’ve stopped going long distances – I go west about as far as Chicago. Flying has got to be such a hassle—and it takes a lot of time. I just ain’t gonna do that anymore.

How did you get started in fly-fishing?
When I came back from WWII, I got a reputation for being quite a hunter and fisherman. A fellow named Joe Brooks called, saying he wanted to write a column about fishing with me for smallmouth bass on the Potomac. Joe met me up in Frederick and we went up to Harper’s Ferry. When I got there, he was stringing up a fly rod – -I’d never seen one before. I doubt whether there were 20 fly-fishermen in the whole state of Maryland at that time. The Potomac there below Harpers Ferry is a big river. In late September, we get a flying ant migration here, and they tend to fly across the Potomac and millions of them fall into the water. There were little rings happening out there. Well, a ring appeared, and Joe dropped a fly in that ring and hooked a bass. Another ring – another bass. He did this about six times, and I told Joe, “I’ve got to have some of this.” So I drove to Balmer next day –50 miles away in a Model A Ford – and he gave me a fly-casting lesson. He taught me that old 9 o’clock to 1 o’clock method.

A lot of people learn fly-casting by the 9 o’clock to 1 o’clock rule—where does that come from?
The English. They used to have 14- to 16-foot wooden rods. And they braided a fly line out of white stallion hair—probably only 8- or 10-feet long –and then tied a piece of catgut to it. And they were fishing little streams. Most were less than 25 feet wide—some only three feet wide. If you’ve got 16 foot rod , and eight feet of fly line, going up and down is all you need to do. That’s where it got started.

You recommend a different approach.
I quickly realized that the 9 o’clock to 1 o’clock was not a very efficient method. In fact, I think I was the first guy to teach taking the rod way back. For years now, I’ve been teaching using the body. It’s controversial with lots of people. But I believe, once you learn to keep your elbow low and use your body, you virtually eliminate the problems associated with vertical casting – like tailing loops. I don’t know of any sport other than fly-fishing where you use just the wrist and arm. Even in ping-pong, you use the body.

What are some tips for casting the double-haul?
What you really should do with your line hand is replicate what you’re doing with your rod hand – you want to mirror that action exactly – and they should be done simultaneously. Most people, when they haul, when they stop the rod hand they keep pulling with their line hand. So what are they doing? They’re pulling their rod tip down and throwing a big sag into their cast. If you want to make longer casts double-hauling, never try forcing it with your rod hand. All you should do is change the speed of the haul. It’s not a power cast, it’s a speed cast.

How has fly-fishing changed in your lifetime?
In the 1960s, three organizations were formed that changed the face of fly-fishing forever. Trout Unlimited was formed in Michigan, the Federation of Fly Fishermen in Oregon, and Saltwater Flyrodders of America in New Jersey. What they did was bring together people who were avid fly-fishermen and formed chapters—the chapters brought people into the sport and shared knowledge for the first time. OMIT?Then in early 1970s there came onto the scene all kinds of new books on fly-fishing. For example, I did a saltwater fly-fishing book that promoted the idea that you could fly-fish in saltwater. Then came videos, and DVDs, and all these television shows. We had education like you wouldn’t believe—it was like a dam bursting. On top of that , we got better equipment – fiberglass, then graphite, then boron and so on. Then we got fabulous flylines – Scientific Anglers and others came along with the first floating lines—that was a miracle in itself. And good reels.

. . . Then Trout Unlimited in particular began to be concerned about our resources. Years ago, I remember some of our streams here in Maryland ran different colors because people poured all kinds of stuff in them. Well, the fly-fishing organizations really put the pressure on politicians. TU has done a fantastic job of restoring our watersheds.

Why should the angler care about conservation?
Well, one of the main reasons is his health and that of future generations. In the Potomac River, 20 percent of our male bass now have female eggs in them. Our sewage treatment plants were never designed to handle medicines. So all the estrogens and all the other medicines that we secrete are going into streams. . . . It’s not just the fish – it’s our health at stake. A problem is, a lot of the general public doesn’t realize the importance of clean water.

You’ve fished all over the world. Can you name a favorite destination?
Oh sure – New Guinea. One thing I like about it is dumb fish! They ain’t seen many flies. The other is it’s pristine—the rivers are like they were 1,000 years ago. It’s incredible. The first time I was there I caught 20 species that I’d never caught on a fly rod. They have everything.

You created one of the most famous fly patterns of all time – Lefty’s Deceiver – what was the impetus for that and what made it so effective?
The problem was [when fishing for bluefish in the Chesapeake], the fish wouldn’t hit a fly that was fouled. I told my fishing partner that I was going to invent a fly that won’t foul (I did that by tying the feathers way at the back), that had a bait shape (using a collar of bucktail), and that when it came out of the water would shed water and be easy to cast, and swim like a bait fish. From day one, it worked just great. It’s probably one of the two or three best used saltwater flies in the world – but it’s also good on freshwater, too.

Do you like bamboo rods or fish with them often?
No – they’re impractical. I’m not knocking bamboo. If you like to use bamboo, then you should use it. The problem with bamboo is the weight of the tip – when you stop a bamboo rod, it wants to go up and down when you stop if you use normal casting strokes. There are many casts you can make with graphite rods that you can’t make with bamboo—fishing casts. You simply can’t make them. For instance, a side roll cast. You can’t distance cast very well with bamboo, either.

You’ve done some work teaching fly-fishing to wounded veterans. What was that experience like?
Fantastic. It’s the most rewarding thing I’ve done in a long time. Being a veteran myself, I can appreciate what these guys go through. And a lot of them are women, too. Last year at a Healing Waters event, I had a young man who had one arm. He was trying to roll cast. After 15 minutes of instruction, he was throwing 45 feet of roll casting line on a pond . He put his arm around me—he had a tear in his eye—and said, “You changed my whole life.” That made the trip worth it for me right there.

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