Voices from the River: Lefty's legacy

by Randy Scholfield

Fly-fishing is still sometimes caricatured as a sport for tweed-clad, bamboo-bound elitists.

Lefty Kreh, the fly-fishing legend who died last month at age 93, was a powerful antidote to that misperception, and perhaps the most popular and populist ambassador for the sport in my lifetime.

More than anyone I can think of, he helped make fly-fishing a sport of the people. He taught that anyone--men, women, kids--can fly-fish with a little instruction and advice and some basic equipment.

He wore his vast fly-fishing experience and skills lightly, and tried to meet people where they were in his constant travels to promote the sport and hold fly-fishing workshops. Although he was a master teacher, he travelled widely to discover new fishing experiences and techniques and never stopped trying to learn more. In that respect, he was the consummate student, too.

Lefty left behind an amazing legacy of innovation, education and good will. With his gap-toothed grin, corny jokes and ever-present flapped hat, he embodied the Everyman as fly-fishing hero. He seemed like an ordinary Joe—but when he picked up a fly rod and began effortlessly casting out line, you realized that you were in the presence of someone special.

I was lucky enough to interview him a few years back for a Trout magazine piece, and, despite my nervousness at interviewing a legend, he quickly put me at ease with his good humor and down-to-earth manner in giving advice and explaining casting skills. He didn’t put on any airs whatsoever.

In his writings, he didn’t do “the fancy stuff,” he once said. He was all about how-to. He couched his instruction in practical tips and advice, with a focus on what worked, not what “the experts” said or thought. That’s what made him so influential and accessible – he was a tinkerer and innovator, a “show me” kind of guy who helped solve practical fly-fishing problems for the ordinary angler like me looking for help and inspiration.

Here are some must-read remembrances of Lefty from outdoor writers who knew him or were lucky enough to fish with him:

Marshall Cutchin of Midcurrent posted a fine tribute to Lefty, in which he noted Lefty was “indefatigable” as a teacher. “His generosity and advice touched everyone from the sport’s experts to an uncountable number of people who would never have discovered the sport without such a dedicated ambassador. . . . Somehow Lefty could speak a few words, at the right moment, to someone who needed or deserved encouragement, and that person magically became a better, more enthusiastic fly fisher.”

In the Weekly Standard, Matt Labash penned this appreciation, calling Lefty the “Michael Jordan” of the sport: “He changed the game, as they say. Lefty caused us to think differently about how we fly fishers cast, abandoning the rigid 10-and-2 clockface instruction that tweedy trout priests drilled into novices since Izaak Walton was in short pants. Lefty favored instead an extended stroke with the body pivoting that allowed him to throw effortlessly tight loops previously unheard-of distances. He also expanded where we fish. Lefty was catching big bad saltwater fish with a fly rod when the rest of the fly-fishing universe still had on its trout training wheels. His Lefty's Deceiver fly, invented to entice Chesapeake Bay stripers, became such a staple that the Postal Service put it on a stamp.”

Here’s another excellent profile piece on Lefty from Monte Burke that captures his outgoing personality and Greatest Generation upbringing and character.

What I took away from my brief time with Lefty was his passion and energy: This was a guy who just felt lucky being able to do what he loved—and he wanted to pass that love on to others. His message seemed to be: Get out there and practice and have fun fishing. And keep learning, no matter your age.

Good thoughts to have in mind heading into the heart of the fishing season.

Randy Scholfield is TU’s director of communications for the Southwest.

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