The Big Catch: Fly-fishing guru 'Lefty' Kreh of Maryland is still making a splash

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Bernard "Lefty" Kreh is a world renowned fly fisherman, author and photographer. He's still going strong at 85 and teaches wounded veterans how to fly fish.
By Dave Jamieson
Sunday, September 19, 2010

On a bright and blustery morning, Bernard "Lefty" Kreh, 85, sits quietly in a director's chair inside a fair tent in Waynesboro, Va. It's the start of the 10th annual Virginia Fly-Fishing Festival, and this weekend more than 1,500 anglers from the mid-Atlantic and beyond will come to this bluff overlooking the South River.

Huddling in tents named after rivers in the commonwealth, they will listen to presentations on trout and smallmouth bass, sample Virginia wines, and buy new rods and reels and fish-themed artwork. Many attendees share the same perennial obsession as Kreh -- one that spouses and co-workers don't always understand -- and so the show serves as their big chance each year to gather with a few hundred like-minded souls and talk about nothing but fly-fishing.

Short and chubby, with a round, rosy face, Kreh pushes himself out of his chair and, fly rod in hand, shuffles across a field toward the river, where organizers have built a demonstration pond. With winds gusting at 25 miles an hour, it seems almost too windy for casting with a fly rod. But Kreh takes a few warm-up casts, and soon more than 100 people have trickled out of the tents and lined both sides of the pond, eager to watch a show that Kreh has been putting on for crowds since the 1950s.

Introduced simply as "Lefty" over the loudspeakers, Kreh is the festival's headliner and main draw. Today's program describes him as "doubtless the best-known fly angler of our time."

"My concept on fly-casting is entirely different from everyone else's," Kreh starts, his old Maryland drawl carrying from the speakers.

***

Casting a fly requires a certain level of physical dexterity, but it does not, as Kreh insists, require much in the way of brute strength. While many instructors teach people to cast with their arms, Kreh instead teaches them to cast using their entire bodies. That's why he's able to get people of all ages and strengths to cast a fly rod, often in a matter of minutes, as he will this weekend.

"I'm 85 years old. I ain't got no power left," he says. "This is not a muscle sport. Once you understand that, you can fish for anything."

For the next 45 minutes, Kreh, who lives in Baltimore County and is being paid by a Texas fishing rod manufacturer to be here this weekend, expounds on the physics of fly-casting, leavening his talk with some trick casts and a few instances of unintentional physical comedy.

At one point, he calls out an audience member -- "You, in the gray shirt" -- and asks everyone to imagine the man is a tree along a trout stream. Kreh casts more than 40 feet of line, throwing a bend into the last few feet so it wraps perfectly around the human stump and drops softly to the ground. The next minute, Kreh is casting nearly 100 feet of line effortlessly into the wind -- a feat that men half his age and twice his strength struggle with. Experienced anglers shake their heads in amazement.

"He's still the master," a woman in the crowd says to her friend.

Kreh asks for volunteers who need help with their casting form to step forward to the pond. Under his instruction, their ugly casts morph into smooth strokes within minutes. After he wraps up his talk and the applause dies down, the lingerers circle around him, waiting to introduce themselves and have their hats signed.


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