As you all know by now, Lefty Kreh left this earth on March 14, 2018. He took his last breath around 1:30 p.m. surrounded by his family, without pain or suffering. The loss to the fishing community is incalculable. He left a tsunami sized wake wherever he went.
All the stories are true. He was a forward observer at the Battle of the Bulge. He did grow up in abject poverty in Frederick, MD. He did feed his family by hunting and fishing after his father’s death. He did get exposed to weaponized anthrax at Fort Detreich after returning from WW II. The government named the strain of anthrax after him because he somehow survived. Don’t believe me, look it up. He was also the best fly-casting instructor that ever lived. These are all stories that have been told and told well many times.
The story I’d like to tell is a little different. Beyond his amazing life, beyond his fishing abilities, there was a man. If you were lucky enough to really know him, you quickly realized that his character was far more amazing than his abilities as a fisherman, writer, shooter, or photographer. His friendship was a double-edged sword. The most important lessons weren’t about fly fishing. The most memorable conversations were sometimes difficult. He wasn’t afraid to hold you accountable for a bad decision. But, he found a way to make you appreciate being told you were acting like an idiot. His lessons left me silent more than once. That’s the equivalent to unlocking the mysteries of low cost nuclear fission.
So, as hard as it may be to do this, I’m going to tell you about Lefty’s character as a human being. It is hard because Lefty was my friend. This article will inevitably be part of my healing process. That’s what I am getting out of it. The truth is, I really miss the old coot. Knowing him well was one of the greatest honors in my life. These words are the best way I can honor him.
He loved his wife and family above and beyond everything else. He honored his wife every day, even long after her death. Her picture was next to him on his deathbed. Lefty was the most honorable husband and father you will ever find. That’s the truth. He would want you to know that.
Lefty supported women in angling more than anyone I’ve ever known and long before it was popular to do so. He protection was more feared than John Gotti’s payment plans in Little Italy. When Candy Thomson took over as the Baltimore Sun’s outdoor editor, Lefty not only blessed the hire but also told her to let him know if anyone gave her a hard time. He meant it. If you messed with Candy because she was a woman, you messed with Lefty. No one messed with Candy….
When Sarah Gardner started her fly guiding business, Lefty was very supportive and offered her the same. If a grizzled salt guide took a cheap shot at Sarah for entering a man’s sport, Lefty handled it swiftly. He was the protector that never asked anything in return. He was far ahead of his time because he helped the most vulnerable. He saw value in a diverse group of leaders and voices. He always put the sport first and played the long game better than anyone.
Lefty made everyone feel special. He had steel gray eyes that could peer into your soul. When he interacted with the public at shows, people instantly felt a kinship. He made you feel like you were the only person in the room. He listened to you. He truly cared about your thoughts. It was an incredible thing to watch as he aged. Some days he didn’t feel great, but he always lit up around crowds. It wasn’t showmanship. It was a genuine love for people, all people.
Lefty was the least-prejudiced person I’ve ever known. He never saw color or culture. He only saw the character of the person. He could size anyone up in a nanosecond. Money, fame, and power meant nothing to him. There’s an old quote about trout fishing from famed author Robert Travers. He spoke of the nobility of trout. It goes something like this: “Because trout do not lie or cheat and cannot be bought or bribed, or impressed by power, but respond only to quietude and humility, and endless patience.” If Lefty had been a trout, he’d be king of the pool. The giant trout that laughs at your drift that drags, expensive flies, and $800 waders. He could care less who you were or how important you think you are. He cared about what was in your heart. Frame that with the fact that Lefty was not a rich man. In fact, he led a very humble life. His level of popularity attracted the wealthy, famous types but didn’t change him one little bit.
I hesitate to share personal stories in this article because none of this is about me, yet this one is too good of an example to leave out. Many years ago, Lefty was attending a dedication at the Maryland State House. The room was filled with elected officials, important political types, and big muckity-mucks. Lefty didn’t want to be there. He was very appreciative of the honor but hated the atmosphere. We were sitting together, totally out of place and uncomfortable. Out of nowhere, one of the muckity-mucks – a very well-known one – strutted up to Lefty and said, “I bet you didn’t know this, but I’m left handed too.” Lefty looked at me, snorted, and said “I ain’t left handed.” I nearly crapped my pants. Lefty turned and asked me how long this would take because he was starting to get hungry. That’s how he was. Not rude but also not prone to gushing over a person because they were famous.
Lefty was the greatest mentor the world has ever seen. He created a sport almost by himself. His tenacity, character, and grace were imparted to countless leaders in the sport. Most of the big names in fly fishing are proteges of Lefty. Bob Clouser, Bob Popovics, Flip Pallot, Chico Fernandez, Jose Wejebe, Blane Chocklett, and countless others were entrusted with the lessons he taught. Two of his favorite sayings echo in the ears of the elites. First, “You don’t have to blow out someone’s candle to make yours shine brighter.” Second, “Knowledge that isn’t shared is wasted.”
As the sport finds a way to move forward from this loss, let’s hope those lessons guide us and are not forgotten. He created a legion of loyal followers that are tasked with keeping his legacy alive. We have a bright future if we don't lose our way.
The fly fishing community is shaken. We are left with a void that no one person will ever fill. One of the last things he said was to not let his legacy die. That’s a very private thing that I’m sharing but there’s a darn good reason for doing it: Because it was a last wish for a man that never asked anything in return for his good deeds. If you didn’t know Lefty and wish you did, if you met him briefly at a show and felt you knew him forever, if you just want to be a better person, then live like Lefty. That’s the greatest honor you could bestow on a man that gave so much. Don’t be impressed with money and power. Treat each person with kindness. You never know how far a little encouragement can take someone. Vigorously defend those who are most vulnerable. Teach what you know so it isn’t lost. Conserve the resource so the next generation has the same opportunities as you experienced. Love your family above all else. These are the lessons I learned directly from the man. As difficult as this was to write, it was the only way to keep a promise. Please do your best to leave the world better than you found it. My buddy would be so proud if you did.
- By Tony Friedrich