Casting a happy 78th to Lefty Kreh



February 23, 2003|By CANDUS THOMSON

True story. Woman goes to a fly fishing show to buy a rod and maybe sign up for a lesson with a guide.

She's handed a St. Croix five-weight and nudged toward a casting field. After several minutes of flailing away at the air and almost wrapping the line around her neck, she's brought up short by a voice behind her.

"Are you looking at your backcast?" the helpful voice inquires.

"Um, no," she replies.

"Well, it's a good thing because it looks like hell," says the voice, laughing to beat the band.

The story still cracks me up, but you know what? When I'm struggling - which is to say I have a fly rod in my hands - I remember to look over my shoulder at my backcast to straighten things out.

A key lesson, but nearly as important, was that I became the proud owner of a Lefty Kreh story.

Thousands of people have a Lefty story: about a cast improved, a knot learned, a money-saving tip passed along, an awful joke told with vigor.

There's nothing we can do about his jokes, which come in two flavors, corny and salty. But we can, with an eye toward his 78th birthday on Wednesday, thank him for all the good advice he has dispensed.

"He's this little old chubby grandfatherly guy who knows everything about fishing you'd ever want to know," says commercial fly tier Dennis Goddard. "And he shares that with you regardless of whether he knows you or not."

Says Gary Tanner, executive director of the American Museum of Fly Fishing, "He's a national treasure, as far as I'm concerned. He's been there, done that. He's got the T-shirt, the hat and the video."

Although he doesn't much care for flying, he does a lot of it, attending shows and seminars around the country, usually 40 out of 52 weeks. As he likes to crack, "If I got paid by the mile, my wife would be a rich woman."

A tiny stroke and a mild heart attack last year have barely slowed him down. He was at a Colorado show in mid-January, Bass Pro Shop at Arundel Mills in early February followed by a fly fishing festival in Atlanta. On Wednesday, he fought his way back through the blizzard aftermath from a show in Canada.

"In a way, every fly fisherman in the world feels a connection to him. So everywhere he goes, people feel they know him," says artist Mark Susinno, who has illustrated some of Lefty's books.

Lefty has wet a line in every state and Canadian province, tons of famous places around the world and ones you've never heard of. But he has a soft spot in his heart for his local fishing holes - the Potomac, the Gunpowder and the Susquehanna.

He has fished with presidents, had a bacteria strain named for him and seen one of his lures become a U.S. postage stamp. He was a decorated dogface in the Battle of the Bulge, is the author of nearly two dozen books and is married to "Ev," one of the nicest women on the planet.

An Associated Press writer covering a recent fishing show put his career in perspective: "While Tiger Woods rules the greens, the world of fly fishing also has its king, 78-year-old Lefty Kreh of Maryland."

Not too shabby for a Depression-era kid from Frederick who honed his outdoors skills to put food on the table for his widowed mom and three siblings.

Truth be told, though, this man of the world has a pedestrian palate. When he's on the road someplace where an incinerated steak isn't possible, Lefty packs his own peanut butter and crackers and canned tuna.

"He has the eating habits of the 7-year-old. He eats meat well-done, and he doesn't like food mixed up," says author and good friend C. Boyd Pfeiffer. "I've had many a good seafood dinner because he'll eat the piece of fried flounder, and I'll get all his clams and oysters and crabs and scallops and lobster."

The man born Bernard Victor Kreh sold his first column to his hometown paper in 1951. Three years later, he was syndicated in almost a dozen newspapers.

A better nickname for the left-hander might be Lucky. He survived an accidental anthrax infection while working as a plant operator at Fort Detrick in the late 1950s and early '60s after his biohazard suit sprang a leak. The anthrax sub-strain that put him in a hospital isolation ward for a month was labeled with his initials "LVK-1."

He escaped the biological bugs for the tropical type when he moved to Miami in 1964 to run the Met Tournament, a job he kept for eight years before moving on to the St. Petersburg Times to be outdoors editor.

When Karl Wickstrom started Florida Sportsman Magazine in the late 1960s, he picked Vic Dunaway, the Miami Herald fishing writer, to be editor. Dunaway signed up Lefty as the associate editor.

"He's one of the best characters the sport has ever known, and we've had hundreds of them," says Dunaway from his Florida home.

With a little prompting (very little), Dunaway and New York Times outdoors writer emeritus Nelson Bryant offer up a story about fishing with Lefty. The three men went out in the Everglades on Dunaway's boat. Forty miles from the dock, the engine died, forcing the three anglers to spend a night on a Cape Sable beach.

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