When a stubby, bald, 55-year-old man named Bernard (Lefty) Kreh shows up at a fishing-club meeting or sporting goods show, fishermen gather like sunnies around a worm. Elderly Wall Street brokers, oil tycoons and blue-collar working stiffs alike shout, "Lefty! Remember me? Hey, Lefty!" The reason for all the excitement is, as Kreh immodestly puts it, "There ain't nobody in the country who knows more about fishing than I do."
At home in both fresh and salt water, Kreh is one of the best light-tackle fishermen ever and a master caster with fly, plug or spin. Ambidextrous, he can cast a spinning rod and a plug rod, one in each hand, simultaneously, or, dispensing with a rod, he can easily cast the whole length of a 90-foot fly line with just his bare hands. He can hold a crowd around a fly-tying bench in thrall as he ties everything from a huge salt-water streamer known as Lefty's Deceiver to a Caenis mayfly on a teensy-weensy No. 24 hook. He also makes his own jigs, plugs, spoons and "the best carp doughballs anyone ever made." He designs new rods, reels, fly lines, anchors and tackle boxes, and he knows as much about knots as anyone in the world. Professionally, he is the outdoor columnist for The Sun in Baltimore, and he is the author of three books, one of which, Fly Casting with Lefty Kreh, has been translated into Japanese, German and Swedish. Lefty once held 16 world records in salt water, but as he says, "I never deliberately tried to catch a record fish. I think that's the wrong approach. I simply caught 16 fish that were world records. I don't want to compete with anyone but myself."
A camera bug, Kreh has taught advanced nature photography for the National Wildlife Federation for the past 10 years. Perfectionist that he is, he develops his own color film when he has the time, and he keeps 10,000 slides filed so neatly that he can locate one in 50 seconds. "You got to be organized," he says. His luggage and tackle are color coded, and he can take off instantly from his Cockeysville, Md. home on a trip for smallmouth or tarpon or trout, or to give a lecture on the West Coast. Although Kreh defines an expert as "any s.o.b. more than 150 miles from home with a slide show," he travels extensively each year, showing slides and lecturing on such topics as Why We Fish, Fly Casting and Its Problems, and Light Tackle in Salt Water. On the road, Kreh always makes it a point to get in a day or two of fishing with the best fisherman in each area. "The main reason I lecture is that it allows me to travel on someone else's money to gain the latest information," he says. "That's how I keep on top of everything."
Filled to the gills with fishing expertise, gifted with gab and equipped with a seemingly limitless repertoire of jokes, put-downs and one-liners, Kreh comes across to his audiences like a cross between Jack Nicklaus and Don Rickles. When his slide projector broke down and had to be fixed during a talk at a Trout Unlimited meeting in Linden, N.J., Kreh announced he would fill in the time with a few Polish jokes. There was a stir when three men stood up and one said, "We want you to know we're Polish."
"That's all right, fellas," said Kreh. "I'll tell them nice and slow so you can understand."
Everyone, including the three men, laughed, but Poul Jorgensen, a flytier who was on the program with Kreh, says, "Anyone but Lefty would have had his head punched in." Kreh says, "Everybody ought to be able to laugh at himself. When you stop laughing at yourself, you're in trouble. People take things too damn serious."
Kreh himself had a hardscrabble life as a youngster in Frederick, Md. The oldest of four children, he was six when his father, a brick mason, died and his mother had to go on relief. "Their were no toys," Kreh says, "but I had a good time." The North Bench Street neighborhood was tough, and he responded to the chalenge. After Jo Louis won the heavyweight title, billed as the White Bomber, fought a kid from the black neighborhood, Jimmy Hill, who was the Brown Bomber. "A white kid stole a beautiful rug rom a store and rope from a trucking company, and the kids put up a ring in a neighbor's backyard," Kreh recalls. "They charged kids to see the fight. I hit Jimmy with a lucky punch on the chin and knocked him out. I had beat up a lot of kids before, but I had never knocked anyone out, I thought I had killed him, and we all ran off leaving Jimmy on the stolen rug. The lady who owned the house saw him unconscious, and she called the cops, who identified the rug, and a couple of us almost wound up in jail. The kid who stole the rug was never even questioned, but later he was killed pulling a holdup. Another friend was later shot pulling a holdup. I might have wound up in jail or getting killed myself, but when I was 11 I was told that I could go to a Boy Scout camp if I would wash dishes. I did, and I joined the Scouts. The Scouts gave me a moral base, and that really helped save my life."
On his way to becoming an Eagle Scout, Kreh won the first angling merit badge in his part of Maryland. In his spare time he earned money trapping muskrats and mink and catching catfish in the Monocacy River, which he sold to local stores. "The river was only a two-or three-mile walk away," he says, "and I'd go there to bush bob. I'd take strands of mason twine, put hooks on them, bait them with fresh-water mussels and tie the twine on branches overhanging the river. In those days there were a lot of fresh-water mussels to be found. You could take half a bushel on any sandbar. The catfish would roam the banks at night and grab the bait, and the limb would set the hook and fight the fish. The average catfish was 10 to 15 inches long, and I got 10¬¨¬®¬¨¢ a pound, cleaned. Ten cents was a lot of money, and frequently we'd get catfish up to six pounds."
In high school Kreh was a basketball guard despite his lack of height. He got the nickname Lefty because he would dribble downcourt with his right hand—thereby giving the impression of being righthanded—and then suddenly change hands, shooting or passing with his left. When he graduated in 1942, he joined the Army and served as a forward observer with the 69th Division in France, Belgium and Germany. While in the Army, he became a Roman Catholic. "In Frederick I'd gone to the Baptist church, and as a poor kid I saw that poor people were kind of looked down upon," he says. "I looked at all religions, including Judaism, but Catholicism seemed to answer what I wanted more than any other."
Discharged as a corporal with five battle stars, Kreh returned to Frederick and got a job with the old Army Biological Warfare Laboratories at nearby Fort De-trick. He soon became the night foreman in the main production building, raising bubonic plague, anthrax, tularemia and a host of other deadly infectious cultures.
In 1947 Kreh married Evelyn Mask, whom he met in a bowling alley. They went fishing on their honeymoon, but they no longer fish together because Kreh regards fishing as his work, and "I don't want to bring my wife to the office." The Krehs get along famously—"If he was any sweeter, I couldn't stand it," says Ev. As a cook, Ev finds "no challenge" in Kreh since his tastes run to peanut butter and overcooked meat. Once at a friend's house,'" Kreh set off the smoke alarm after he went back into the kitchen to rebroil a steak he thought too rare.
At Fort Detrick, Kreh worked nights so he could hunt and fish all day. An expert shot, he doubled on grouse, tripled on quail and nailed pheasants with a bow and arrow. He kept his eye sharp by shooting crows at an immense roost near his home. During one 2½-year period he calculated that he had fired 7,000 shells at them. His favorite call for crows in the early summer sounded like that made by a baby crow falling from a nest. "A deadly way to attract crows," he says. He also called ducks, geese, hawks, foxes and bobcats. His call for foxes and bobcats, Kreh says, "sounds like a screaming rabbit."
Kreh's proficiency in calling crows and his ability in taking smallmouth bass on small plugs he had carved brought him to the attention of two outdoor writers, Tom McNally and Joe Brooks, who became his friends. They got him started fly casting with a 15-minute lesson. "After that, I was on my own," Kreh says. "I developed my own style. I think I was fortunate that there were so few good fly-casters in Maryland because I would have wound up copying them. I fished 14 hours a day, mostly for smallmouth bass in the Potomac, and even though I could cast with either hand, I got pretty tired if I didn't do things right. So I began breaking down the parts of a fly cast. There was no one to talk to, lucky for me, and I found that if I lowered my rod at the beginning of a cast and raised it quickly, I lifted all the line from the water. Then I could make an effortless back cast and not put shock waves into the line. The average guy spends more energy getting line off the water than he does getting the line behind him for the cast.
"The most important thing in fly casting is that the fly is not going to move until the line is tight, so it becomes very important to remove all slack, shock waves or sag before you make your power stroke in either direction. A lot of the techniques I developed on my own were considered near heresy, but I cast effortlessly. Basically, a good flycaster is a guy who can do it without work, and you don't see many of them around.
"I think I know more about casting and about different kinds of casts than anyone else, and the reason is that I am always fishing under different conditions. Take salt-water fly-fishing. To be a good salt-water fly-fisherman you have to be a better fisherman than a freshwater flycaster. In fresh water, presentation is the main thing, but in salt water you have to contend with larger tackle, winds, know more casts and then spot and whip a bigger and tougher fish than you'd find in fresh water. The average salt-water fish can tow a freshwater fish of the same size around by the tail. In salt-water fly-fishing, when you see a fish, you've got five to seven seconds to make the cast. In that time you have to determine the direction in which the fish is traveling, the depth and its speed, and then make your cast. George Harvey of State College, Pa. is by far the best trout fisherman I've ever fished with, but George would have trouble with three-pound bonefish."
For all this, salt-water fish are not necessarily the hardest to catch. "There are too many variables to say that," Kreh says. "If I were to list the three most difficult fish to catch, they would be these: First of all, largemouth bass in sandpits or quarries with clear water. They are the toughest of all. Second, taking really big tarpon on a 12-pound-test fly tippet. Third, big brown trout in spring creeks."
In the early '50s Kreh began to branch out while continuing to work at Fort De-trick. He began writing an outdoors column for the local Frederick Post and The News, and then for other papers in the area. He also began going on the road to give fly, plug and spin-casting exhibitions at boat shows and state fairs. He would cast flies into a cup, knock a cigarette from a girl's mouth and cast four fly rods at the same time, two in each hand. "But that was just entertainment," he says. "Then I'd start to do things that a fisherman could use in the field, such as changing the direction of a cast in midair."
Except for an occasional casting clinic, Kreh no longer gives exhibitions, but he gives private lessons for $100 an hour. "I'm the best teacher of fly casting there is," he says. "I can spot what a fisherman's doing wrong and correct it right away, no matter whether he's lefthanded or righthanded, because I'm the only casting instructor I know who can make all the bad casts with either hand." The tuition fee of $100 is obviously worth it to some anglers. A few weeks ago a couple from Texas flew to Baltimore in their private plane for a two-hour lesson.
As Kreh sees it, his biggest break came in 1964, when Joe Brooks suggested he apply for the job of director of the Metropolitan South Florida Fishing Tournament. Now sponsored by The Miami Herald and Coca-Cola, the tournament, which runs from mid-December to late April, draws hundreds of thousands of contestants. There are divisions for fly, plug and spin fishing, and entrants are encouraged to release catches after they have been witnessed. The only awards are trophies.
Kreh got the job and quit Fort Detrick. "The Met tournament is one of the finest training grounds in the world," he says. "It has set the standards for light-tackle fishing. The whole south Florida social system is based on fishing and boats, and the guy who runs the tournament, as Joe said, Ms like being the mayor of south Florida fishing.' You are in contact with all the charter skippers and guides in the Everglades, the Keys and the western Bahamas. A large percentage of the guides know that the Met tournament director recommends people to them. When I got the job, guides and charter skippers immediately invited me to go fishing. I learned the favorite spots of the best guides.
"The finest cadre of light-tackle fishermen live in south Florida, and they're fishing 12 months a year. South Florida is the only place in the country where fishermen are judged by their tackle. Down there it's almost a stigma to catch a fish on bait. Twelve-pound-test is about the heaviest spinning line anyone will use, and anything over a 15-pound-test leader isn't regarded as fly-fishing. As a result, the area has the best light-tackle fishermen in the world. A good south Florida light-tackle fisherman can take fish anywhere. Why, he can even take a 300-pound grouper on 12-pound test line."
Kreh worked as the Met tournament director for nine years. On his four-month vacation every summer, he would fish for trout in Montana and then for carp, with his doughballs, in Maryland. "Hardly anyone in this country fishes for carp, but I'll tell you this, carp are one of the premier gamefish around," Kreh says. "I go carp fishing eight or 10 times a year." On rare occasions he has taken carp on wet flies, but his standby bait is his own doughball concoction (see box).
"I make my doughballs about two-thirds the size of a golf ball," Kreh says, "and they sink right to the bottom. They are gummy enough to stay around the hook but soft enough so I can easily set the hook."
In 1972 Kreh became the outdoor columnist for the St. Petersburg Times and a year later moved to Baltimore when he got a better offer from the Sun. In his columns Kreh writes about a variety of subjects besides fishing and hunting: why leaves change color in the fall, wild flowers, bird feeders, conservation, the aerial transport of seeds. He is always giving his readers sound advice. "If you want to be a good fisherman, question everything, especially the absolutes," he says. Fresh-water fly-fishermen using wet flies, nymphs and streamers ordinarily employ, a five-to-10-foot leader, but Kreh, going against convention, often uses a leader no more than 18 inches long with a sinking line. "I don't use it in tiny brooks where the impact of the line might spook the fish, but otherwise I use it all the time," he says. "You have more control, and you get down faster. I've taken wild rainbows with a leader so short, maybe two inches at most, that I couldn't tie another knot in it."
According to Kreh, hunting is changing rapidly in this country, and fishing is about to follow. "I pretty much gave up hunting 15 years ago," he says. "Attitudes about hunting have changed. It used to be that you were proud to know a good hunter. Nowadays a good hunter keeps to himself. Also the land that's left is being closed off. The farmers aren't the old sons of the soil they used to be. They've been off to college, and they have a different view of life. They're sure as hell not going to let you on their land to shoot pretty little birds, rabbits or deer. They aren't even going to let their own children shoot them. They regard animals as part of the family.
"What you're going to see is a lot of hunters turning to fishing, and attitudes in fishing are going to change. Right now offshore fishing is dying. Going out from Ocean City, Md. for white marlin and making a 180-to-200-mile trip in a day is not only going to be expensive, it's going to be unpopular. The macho guy who likes to go offshore is going to be looked on like some guy who's driving around in a big gas guzzler, and he's going to feel ashamed. The trend in fishing will be back to the 1940s, when people fished close to home. With the pressures on trout streams and bass lakes, we will become like the English, who fish for roach or carp. I personally think carp have a big future.
"Our concepts are going to change, and I think that may be to the good. The one thing wrong with most fishermen in this country now is that they have restricted themselves to several species, or one type of fishing. You meet a guy who fishes only for trout or for bass, or you meet someone who says, 'I only use a fly rod.' That's wrong. I can tell you, they miss out on a lot of fun."
Kreh embraces a 128-pound tarpon that he caught in the Florida Keys.
A creation of Kreh's is this huge streamer, Lefty's Deceiver.
DOUGHBALL'S ‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√ë LA KREH
2 cups cornmeal
1 cup flor
½ 3-oz. Pkg. Strawberry jell-o
1 tbsp. Vanilla extract
1 tbsp. suger
1 qt. Water
Yield: 30 doughballs
In a two-quart saucepan the water to a boil and add jell-O, vanilla and suger. Stir for a minute and then reduce heat so that mixing well with a wooden spoon. Sprinkle the cornmeal and flour on the surface of the water. The bubbles will make litter volcano-like eruption though the cornmeal-flour. As the eruption occur, cover them with the mixture until it has all been used, then stir for 20 or 30 seconds. Removes from stove and let cool. Mold the dough into balls one inch in diameter. Use immediately or store in refrigerator for as many as three days. Serve on a No. 2 hook