Lefty Kreh’s long and celebrated life as one of the world’s great fly fishermen started in 1947, when he drove his Model A Ford from Frederick to Baltimore so Joe Brooks could show him how to use the fiberglass rod he had just purchased from Tochterman’s tackle shop in Fells Point.
Brooks took Kreh to a grassy spot along Herring Run on the northeast side of the city, and that’s where a larger-than-life man, on his way to legendary status, introduced his new friend and protege — a future legend himself — to the fine art of fly casting.
Brooks, a Baltimore native who was 24 years older than Kreh, had already set off on a career as an outdoors writer. He first wrote a column about regional fishing for a local paper in Baltimore County, and then for Outdoor Life. In the years after World War II, readers of that magazine were eager for information about fishing in North America, and Brooks quickly became an authority, writing articles and books, appearing regularly on national television, traveling all over the world and setting records with his light-tackle catches of dozens of species, from trout to tarpon.
He was a pioneer of fishing on the fly in saltwater, a champion of catch-and-release fishing, and, in his time, one of the most famous fly fishermen in the world.
Lefty Kreh followed right along.
Kreh, who grew up in Maryland and served for two decades as an outdoors editor of The Baltimore Sun, turns 93 on Monday.
He has fished in 22 countries, in freshwater and salt, written more than two dozen books, tied a million flies, and introduced presidents and movie stars to his casting methods.
In all the years he worked here at The Sun, throwing a corny joke my way as I walked past his desk in the old fifth-floor newsroom in the 1980s, I never realized how well-known the man was among those who fished with a fly rod. In fact, it wasn’t until after Kreh left the paper that I took up fly fishing and noticed him prominently featured in books, articles, videos and mail-order catalogues.
So I was not surprised when, during a recent conversation at his home in Cockeysville, he steered me to the story of Joe Brooks, his mentor in fishing and writing, and a figure who still looms large in the annals of American fly fishing.
Brooks died in 1972 at 71 while fishing for trout in Montana.
His grand-nephews, Mike and Joe Brooks, decided a few years ago, at the end of a fishing trip to New Zealand, that someone needed to tell the Joe Brooks story. So that’s what they’ve been working on — a 90-minute documentary film now in its final stages of production.
As Mike Brooks tells it, the story is much larger than fly fishing.
Joe Brooks grew up privileged, talented and troubled. After high school, he went to Princeton, but was asked to leave after one semester. He was a gifted athlete who might have become a Major League pitcher had he pursued baseball. Instead, he became good at three things — golfing, drinking and carousing. His family had an insurance business in Baltimore, but his time there did not end well, either. Two of his marriages failed. He was an alcoholic. The web site for the documentary refers to him as a “whoremonger.”
After he left Baltimore, Joe Brooks lived for a time in a cabin in the Maryland woods. Somewhere along the line he played some professional football in California, then drifted to the logging and trapping camps in northern Minnesota. He drank and he brawled, and he boxed with lumberjacks.
“There’s about a 10-year period we can’t account for,” says Mike Brooks, speaking with a mix of exasperation and wonder about the long, rough-ride of his great uncle.
But something happened to pull Joe Brooks out of the dark woods, and that’s where the documentary becomes a love story and, from what I gather from the trailer, the story of a man finding not only sobriety but meaning as he approached mid-life.
Lefty Kreh was a witness to that part of his mentor’s journey.
In his 2008 autobiography, “My Life Was THIS BIG,” Kreh wrote about the man Brooks became: “He was not only a superb outdoorsman and prolific writer but also an ethical and considerate man. He instilled in me, at a relatively young age, the tenets by which I’ve tried to live my life: love and respect for the outdoors, respect and empathy for your reader, honesty and integrity in whatever you do.”
Kreh figures prominently in the documentary, going back to that day — indeed, a legendary day — when Joe Brooks introduced him to fly fishing in Herring Run Park.
The film is due to roll out on Father’s Day.