He fished with U.S. presidents, CEOs and common folks, cast his line on every continent but Antarctica and cranked out 32 books revered by anglers all over the globe. To the end, Bernard Victor “Lefty” Kreh was recruiting new sportsmen, reeling them in as he did the 126 species of fish that he landed in his lifetime, from the Monocacy River to the Amazon watershed.
Kreh, who had been ill for some time, died peacefully in his sleep of congestive heart failure Wednesday afternoon at his home in Cockeysville, surrounded by family members. He was 93.
“Lefty was one of the greats who, no matter how far up the food chain he went, would answer your questions whether you were [President] Jimmy Carter or John Smith off the street,” said Tony Tochterman, co-owner of the Fells Point tackle shop where Kreh bought his first fly rod. “He lived to expand his knowledge of fishing to the next generation. No one in this industry can replace him, ever. He’s the last of a total package.”
World-renowned and a member of three fishing halls of fame, Kreh baited hooks with Presidents Carter and George H.W. Bush, writer Ernest Hemingway, golfer Jack Nicklaus and baseball player Ted Williams. He fished for marlin in Cuba with Fidel Castro and, at 90, fished in the Bahamas with an eclectic bunch, including newsman Tom Brokaw, actor Michael Keaton and rock star Huey Lewis. But Kreh, also a former outdoors writer at The Baltimore Sun, always returned to his roots.
“He was bigger than Maryland’s outdoors,” said Candy Thomson, public information officer for the Maryland Natural Resources Police and former outdoors writer for The Sun. “I feel sorry for any angler who never met him.”
In 2015, at a ceremony at which he received the American Museum of Fly Fishing Heritage Award in New York, Brokaw paid homage to Kreh, who was in the crowd.
“In all the years that I have been watching great athletes, everybody from Michael Jordan to … Sandy Koufax and others, who were at the top of their game, we are in the presence of a master of his craft,” Brokaw said.
Kreh leaves behind a storied legacy. Inventive to a fault, he often thought outside the tackle box. He designed a fly, “Lefty’s Deceiver,” so revolutionary that it was celebrated on a first-class stamp by the U.S. Postal Service in 1991. Each March, for 18 years, Maryland has hosted the Lefty Kreh Tie Fest, a popular fly-fishing show. And, in 2012, the state christened the Lefty Kreh Fishing Trail, a 7-mile stretch along a pristine trout stream in Gunpowder Falls State Park.
Kreh “didn’t want the trail named for him,” said Joe Evans, editor of Chesapeake Bay Magazine. “We said, ‘It’s not about you, it’s what you’ve meant to us.’ ”
At a meeting of state officials to sign off on the trail, attended by then-governor Martin O’Malley, Kreh was asked to speak.
“He stood up,” Evans said, “and said, ‘I’ll tell you the same thing Marc Antony told Cleopatra when he snuck into her tent: “I didn’t come here to give no speech.” So there.’ And he sat back down.”
Telling jokes was Kreh’s mantra. He was Will Rogers in waders, fellow anglers said.
“Watching him cast, with that fluid flowing motion, evoked a sense of relaxed power,” Evans said. “Lefty always said, ‘Most people cast so hard they look like monkeys hoeing cabbage.’ He’d tell you, ‘Cast any harder and you’ll tear your underwear.’ ”
Thomson was outdoors writer at The Sun in 2002 when she covered a fly-fishing show at Reckord Armory in College Park, where he was to speak.
“There was a casting area there, so I tried it out,” Thomson said. “All of a sudden, I heard this booming sound, like the voice of God, say, ‘Candy, are you looking at your back cast?’ It was Lefty, who was already mic’d up. Then he cackled, as he liked to do.”
Born Feb. 26, 1925, in Frederick, Kreh grew up poor. Six years old when his father died, he helped pay bills by selling catfish he’d caught at night, by lantern light, on the Monocacy. Upon graduating from Frederick High, he joined the Army during World War II and fought in the Battle of the Bulge.
He came home and, for 18 years, worked at Fort Detrick, where he was accidentally exposed to anthrax and, as a result, had a strain of the virus named for him. In 1947, Kreh purchased his first fly rod and reel — a Pflueger Medalist — at Tochterman’s, on Eastern Avenue. That reel is now on display at the American Museum of Fly Fishing in Manchester, Vt.
Eventually, Kreh moved to Florida, where he ran the Miami Metropolitan Fishing Tournament and covered the beat for the Miami Herald. In 1972, he returned to Maryland as outdoors columnist for The Sun, a job he held for 18 years.
“Lefty knew his business and never wrote over the heads of the general public,” said Seymour Smith, then assistant sports editor of The Sun. “He opened up the outdoors to the average man.”
How good a fisherman was Kreh?
“He could cast a fly line into a paper cup at 25 yards, but he’d never boast about it,” Thomson said.
Boog Powell remembers fishing with Kreh at a tournament in Miami 40 years ago.
“We were on a boat, pitching up and down in 30 mile-an-hour winds, when Lefty spotted a school of mackerel 20 yards away,” said Powell, the onetime Orioles slugger. “Within two minutes, he had his fly rod out and had hooked a 12-pounder. I couldn’t even stand up on the boat, but Lefty was like a rock; nothing could move him. It was the worst day for fishing that you ever saw, but that didn’t matter to him. He was a creature for his habitat.”
Kreh appeared on TV shows and in videos, and gave countless clinics and lectures to spellbound crowds, large and small. His goal was environmental at heart.
“The more people we can get out there to fish, the better this world will be,” he’d say. “If they’re not there, they won’t care.”
The public bought in.
“You could listen to him talk at a show, then look at your watch — and it would be three hours later,” Thomson said.
But, in the end, give him some cheese and Fig Newtons, and a quiet place to fish, and Kreh was in heaven.
“Into my 70s, I thought if I didn’t start fishing at dawn, and end at dark, then the day was ruined,” he once said. “I’m in God’s waiting room now, but if you keep busy, it ain’t so bad.”
If he slowed with age, few noticed. Several years ago, Kreh told Evans that he’d just attended his last high school reunion. The reason?
“Too awkward,” Kreh said. “Everyone talked about life in the rest home or playing shuffleboard. When they asked what I was doing, I said, ‘I just got back from fishing in the Amazon.’ ”
In a 2015 interview with The Sun, Kreh was asked whether he’d as soon die with his waders on.
“That would be ideal,” he said. “My mentor, Joe Brooks, was editor of Outdoor Life. He was fishing a trout stream in Montana when he had a stroke, passed out and never regained consciousness. A man can’t go out any better than that.”
Kreh is survived by a son, Larry Kreh of Glen Arm; a daughter, Victoria Huffman of Athens, Ga.; five grandchildren; five great-grandchildren, and one great-great grandchild. His wife of 65 years, Evelyn, died in 2011.
Details for a celebration of Kreh’s life are pending.