There are few anglers more revered than Bernard "Lefty" Kreh, of Cockeysville. Kreh, who turned 90 last month, has fished for nearly 70 years with everyone from Ted Williams to Fidel Castro. He has also caught some amazing things.
There are few anglers more revered than Frederick native Bernard "Lefty" Kreh. Kreh, who turned 90 last month, has fished for nearly 70 years with everyone from Ted Williams to Fidel Castro, and from President Jimmy Carter to Ernest Hemingway. Enshrined in numerous fishing Halls of Fame, he has been honored by the U.S. Postal Service, which issued a stamp commemorating a fly that Kreh made.
On Saturday, he took part in the annual Lefty Kreh TieFest in Grasonville. The Baltimore Sun sat down with the Cockeysville resident to discuss some of the highlights of his career.
You've fished in all 50 states and around the world, from Russia to the Amazon to Christmas Island. Is there any continent where you haven't fished?
Antarctica. Ain't nothin' to catch there but penguins.
New Guinea. I've been there five times. It's so remote, the tribes live like they did 2,000 years ago. The men still hunt with bows and arrows. They believe fishing is beneath them, so the women do it, with nets. The New Guinea bass is the strongest fish I ever caught. You can't hold on to it with regular tackle. Twice, it broke my 20-pound line, so I used 40, hooked the fish, wrapped the line twice around my reel and used the boat to tow it into the open. After two or three minutes, he gave up. Once I had a 16-pounder on the line when another New Guinea bass that must've weighed 100 pounds came out while I was fighting it, decided it would be his dinner, broke the line and ate it.
What's the highest elevation where you've fished?
At 10,000 feet, for golden trout in mountain streams in the Rockies.
You've caught 126 different species with a fly rod. Is there one you've tried to hook but haven't?
The golden dorado. The big ones live in the upper Amazon watershed. Both times I went, there were torrential rains so I decided God didn't want me to catch a dorado.
A 145-pound tarpon, in the Gulf of Mexico. It took 40 minutes to get him in and I sounded like a preacher at a revival meeting the whole time. I was more worn out than the fish. We put him back (in the water). What else can you do? Tarpon aren't edible.
What else have you hooked?
Rays, sharks and birds. Once I caught a pterodactyl. I was in a big room of the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History, talking to about 60 people when I made a back cast with a fly line. It hooked this skeleton hanging from the ceiling. I just laid my rod on the ground and walked away. (Workers) climbed a ladder and cut the line, but I think the fly is still up there. I guess I'm the only guy who ever caught a dinosaur.
Almost never. I like flounder, but I don't fish for them much. Besides, I (throw) my fish back. You don't burn your golf balls at the end of the day, do you?
What is the coldest place you've ever fished?
Probably Maryland. In the middle of winter, the big smallmouth bass concentrate in little pockets of eddys. It's been colder than a bad mother-in-law's heart when I was out there. I did learn to ice-fish so I could write about it — but as soon as I did, I was done with it.
You've taught thousands of people to fish. Who make better anglers, men or women?
Women learn three times faster than men. Men shoot off their mouths all the time. Women are much better listeners than we are and a whole lot smarter. Besides, fly casting really doesn't require strength.
Ever fished in water where you were standing up to your neck?
When you're 5 feet 6, it don't take long for the water to get up that high. Once, going for trout in the Madison River in Yellowstone, I made a big mistake of fishing with a guy who was 6 feet 5. Well, I was walking right along with him when, all of a sudden, the water was over my waders. He was fly fishing and I was swimming. Remember, if you're out in any kind of a current, you don't want to wade over your hips because you get buoyant and lose control.
You've fished with dozens of celebrities and CEOs. Name a few.
One of the craziest was Ted Williams. I worked at The Miami Herald when he called and, in a voice that sounded like God, said, "This is Ted Williams." I said, "So?" He said, "I hear you're the best fly fisherman around and I'd like to fish with you. Be here at 8 o'clock tomorrow." I said, "What do you look like?" I could tell he was aggravated with me.
Well, I get there and he walks out on this rickety little dock, makes a cast with all of these extra motions and says, "What do you think of that?" Now, I never try to embarrass anybody, but he aggravated the hell out of me with his attitude. So I picked up my line, made one back cast and one forward cast and threw it further than he did. From that day on, we were good friends.
Jack Nicklaus took me to a trout stream and asked me to fine-tune his casting. He was the most coachable person I've ever worked with, and I've worked with thousands. He got better and better and, after a while, he was grinning like a Halloween pumpkin.
In 1959, I fished with Fidel Castro in a white marlin tournament in Cuba. He won, but he didn't cheat. I also fished there and in Idaho with Ernest Hemingway. He was a good trout fisherman. In the 1970s, Jimmy Carter's people called and said, "The President would like to fish with you tomorrow at Camp David." I turned them down three times because I had to give clinics. When I told my wife, she looked at me like I had worms. She said, "Why would the President want to fish with you?" Wives keep you humble. But I did fish with [Carter] in Yellowstone.
What did you talk about?
Do you ever talk to fish while you're fighting them?
No, but a lot of guys do, like they're going to talk the fish into getting caught. I don't think their paint's dry.
Would you rather fish alone or with others?
Other people really make fishing. I do like the fact that, when you're trout fishing, you can go together but for short periods of time you can be alone. To me, fishing is who you do it with and the environment that you do it in. Less than 10 percent is about catching the fish. Next week, I'm going to the Bahamas with [broadcaster] Tom Brokaw, [actor] Michael Keaton, [musician] Huey Lewis and [author] Tom McGuane. We'll have a good time fishing and needling each other and, in the evening, we'll just sit around and talk. "The crock tale hour," I call it.
Can you get hurt fishing?
I've been bitten by barracuda and stung by stingrays, but nothing real serious. You've got to watch bluefish, they've got teeth like your mother-in-law. I've been cut trying to get flies and lures out of their mouths.
What do you eat while fishing? A tuna sandwich?
Crackers, cheese and fig newtons.
Ever share your food with the fish?
No, but a fishing guide I know, Bob Clouser, used to pull his boat under large maple trees in shallow creeks off the Susquehanna and eat sumptuous lunches of fried chicken. He'd take a breast of chicken, put it on a fork and place it on the water. Catfish would suck the chicken off the fork while Bob, who was about 70, would giggle like a kid.
Do you ever sign autographs while fishing?
Hell, yes. Mostly I sign hats. Signed a boat locker once. Can't sign a fish, they've got slime on them. One time I signed the rear end of a lady's jeans, but I told her husband, 'You have to give me permission to do this."
Are fish smart?
They're not smart, but they learn from experience. Trout can see you walking across a meadow 30 feet before you get to the water and if he thinks, "That guy is going to do something to my mouth," well, that trout, you're not going to catch.
What is the most money you've been offered by someone to fish with?
Five figures, but I never took it. I wasn't worth it.
What do you think about while fishing?
Those who are really good at it observe every tiny thing that's going on, like, what just flew off the water? It's a mental chess game. I've been fishing since 1947 and I'm still learning.
Don't you get tired of teaching the sport?
My greatest pleasure is taking somebody who's never caught a particular fish, coaching them how to do it and then watching them catch it. It's almost like the first time I caught it.
Has wildlife ever bothered you while fishing?
Damn bulls chased me twice. I tore my shirt climbing over a barbed-wire fence to get away. I've learned not to fish near bull pastures.
Ever lost a fish to a bear?
Half a dozen times, in Alaska. You hook the fish, it's jumping all around and the bear runs out in the water and grabs it. I drop the rod, take off and come back later. The bear don't want the rod.
Is there any bait that you'd eat?
I have eaten the gooey dough balls with jello on them that you use to catch carp. Didn't want to, but I got hungry.
How long does it take you to tie a fly?
If it's more than five minutes, I ain't tying it. The flies I design are very simple to tie.
Are you proud that your most famous fly, Lefty's Deceiver, was portrayed on a 29-cent stamp issued by the U.S. Postal Service in 1991?
When they did that, they made me buy my own stamps. I still have half a dozen of them. I'm now writing my 32nd book on fishing and if I send a copy to someone special, I may put a stamp inside of it.
If, in another life, you came back as a fish, what would it be?
A brown trout. They probably have less stress than any trout because they're not pursued. They sleep all day under cut banks and logjams, and feed at night when few predators can get them. That's a pretty good life.
Would you like to die with your waders on?
That would be ideal. My mentor, Joe Brooks, was the 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.