It is not often that I have the opportunity to meet and spend a few moments with someone I consider a true hero and legend. Bernard “Lefty” Kreh certainly meets those criteria. The good folks at Pawley’s Outdoors sponsored a visit this weekend past by Lefty to their picturesque store in Pawley’s Island, South Carolina. The store’s grounds are populated by a number of ancient live oak trees whose leaf covered limbs provided a natural shady auditorium for attendees. Most of us set up folding chairs beneath the mighty limbs and branches of these massive shade trees as we were regaled by Lefty and his unique presentation and teaching style.
Born to a less privileged Maryland family in the mid 1920’s, Lefty went on to lead a life filled with adventure, danger, innovation, adoration by his many fans, and travel to nearly every place on the planet where a fish might swim. Here is a man whose exploits range from helping support his struggling family by catching catfish on a string tied to a streamside bush, to fishing with the likes of Fidel Castro and Ernest Hemingway. He has fished with presidents, celebrities, and ordinary people who are afflicted with the fly fishing disease so many of us share. It is contagious and has no known antidote.
Speaking of antidotes, many people may not realize that after Lefty returned from his tour of duty fighting in the Battle of the Bulge in World War II, he was assigned to a germ warfare unit testing various lethal biological agents to be used against the enemy. Somehow, Lefty and another soldier were exposed to a new strain of anthrax being developed and tested. Lefty survived, unlike his less fortunate companion, who succumbed to the deadly disease. The strain was designated “BVK-1” in Lefty’s honor. Lefty was a hero in both the Battle of the Bulge, and the Battle of the Bacteria! Recently, Lefty has lent both his name and his credibility to a new line of less expensive, yet highly capable fly rods developed by a Texas company called Temple Fork Outfitters. Their premier line of rods is called the “BVK” line, in honor of Lefty. Thus, Lefty may be the only person in history to have both a fly rod and a deadly bacteria named for him.
After his military service, Lefty went on to become the outdoors editor for the Baltimore Sun. Writing came easily to him and he has authored a number of fly fishing oriented books sharing his accumulated wisdom gathered over some sixty odd years of fly fishing, as well as countless magazine articles. He has had starring roles in television productions too numerous to count. Most recently he has appeared in “Buccaneers and Bones” with other luminaries such as Tom Brokaw, Michael Keaton, Yvon Chiunard, Tom McGuane, and others. Lefty has become an icon of fly fishing, and may be single handedly responsible for its soaring popularity over recent years. He makes multiple personal appearances at fly fishing shows around the country and takes great delight in demonstrating in practical terms the efficiency of his casting style. He not only possesses the ability to impart his skills to anyone willing to learn, but is able to entertain the onlookers with his pithy comments. I recall vividly watching him instruct one of my close friends, a shoulder surgeon of some repute. Lefty observed Jay’s casting stroke and immediately warned him that unless his technique were to be altered, Jay would tear his rotator cuff! We all enjoyed a deep laugh from that comment.
Lefty, to me at least, is what Babe Ruth was to baseball, a true legend who towers above everyone else in the field. To be able to sit down with Lefty for a few minutes and explore the depth of his knowledge and experience is a special treat. Lefty never seems to grow tired of his adoring public, and is happy to stay until the last book or hat is signed, and the last question answered. Here is a link to a YouTube video of part of Lefty’s casting lesson:
At 87 years of age, I am astounded at the pace he is able to maintain. When I look into his eyes, I can still see the passion for fly fishing burning there. I can only hope that I survive to his age, and if I do, that I might be able to hold onto even one tenth of Lefty’s never ending love for the sport. I asked how he is able to continue to do it all. He said that he doesn’t drink more than an occasional glass of wine and that he refuses to eat any plate of food that has more than four colors on it. That is new advice to me, but perhaps he is onto something. The death of Evelyn, his beloved wife and his “best friend” of more than sixty years slowed his travels for a while, but he has returned to what he loves most now. I, as well as the rest of the fly fishing world, am grateful to have him back.
As I grow older myself, and my own physical infirmities increasingly limit my fly fishing adventures, I find myself pondering what experiences remain that I should make certain to check off my life list before I put away my fly rod for the final time. As I talked with Lefty, I posed that question to him, a man who has literally done it all. He suggested that I go somewhere where the environment is as fascinating as the fishing. He suggested either the Amazon for the colorful peacock bass, or the far northern reaches of the Canadian wilderness for the aggressive giant northern pike that inhabit the remote, wild rivers of that area. He spoke of the wildlife such as bears, wolves, and eagles, as well as the topography and sheer rugged beauty of the landscapes. Having been fortunate enough to fish the remote rain forests of Brazil twice, I told him that I would look into making a journey to the North Seal River my next great wilderness adventure.
My friend Paul and I next queried Lefty about a lodge in the Ascension Bay area of Mexico famed for its large population of permit. Permit, as is well known by all saltwater fly fishermen, are perhaps the most elusive and frustrating of all flats species. Nearly twenty years of serious tropical flats fishing has yielded me only two permit, and I consider myself more than lucky at that. As fate would have it, Lefty had visited the very same lodge only three weeks prior to our meeting with him. His praise for the lodge and its fishing was unusually effusive. He told us that an average day on these flats produced sightings of 12-15 permit. He also told us about the lodge’s unusual practice of fitting two guides per boat. One man does the poling, while the other stands at the angler’s side, helping him or her spot the fish and directing not only the casting, but aiding the angler in presenting the fly in a such a way as to maximize its effectiveness on these fickle, hard to please fish. We have already booked a trip.
Too soon the day was over. Sheila and I departed for home, while Lefty prepared to continue his rock star tour, fans in the next town already excited to see him spread the gospel of fly fishing and dispense his wisdom to yet another eager eared crowd.
Meanwhile, as I rode home, I felt that just a little bit of Lefty was coming home with me, tucked somewhere in the fly fishing files of my cerebral cortex, but another piece hidden deep in my fisherman’s heart.