Angling legend Lefty Kreh
Jeff Prest takes a look at the main man
WE might berate the young’s obsession with celebrity but maybe those of us nearer the opposite end of life’s rainbow are guilty of going to the other extreme. Be honest (because I’m hoping it’s not just me) how many times in the last 12 months have you learnt of a famous person’s death and felt a pang of guilt because you were under the impression that he or she had been dead for years?
Equally discomfiting, how many times did you wonder what other household names are up to these days, only to find that they have been dead for years? Put it down to accumulated worldly wisdom, I suppose; our increasing detachment from the great and good, no matter how deserved their fame. With a clarity thankfully denied us in our youth, we see that all the Oscars and standing ovations in the world won’t save these illustrious souls from exactly the same destiny as little old you and me; an appointment with trench or furnace, clad in their Sunday best.
Thus do famous names tend to float in our mental ether. We know of them but tend to make less and less of an effort to know anything more about them. In the case of Lefty Kreh, that would have been a lamentable oversight. Even if I only realise that now. Keyboard warriors among you will have heard of Lefty Kreh. You can’t have the world of flyfishing come to your door via the miracle of Wi-Fi without being aware of an American luminary who’s fished everywhere, forgotten more about casting than most of us may ever know and has the most blue-chip contacts list outside of The Hollywood Reporter. If you bought or were given the book, you’ll know that he and his publishers devised a clever trick when Casting with Lefty Kreh came out nine years ago. Nowhere does it refer to itself as a ‘bible’; instead, it gently conveys the message by being designed like a Bible: with 456 pages between 9x11 inch hardback covers, it’s like lifting a slab of marble. Get yourself a copy for each hand and you’re ninety per cent of the way to a full upper-body workout. Lefty, went the implicit message, knows how to heave a line. But then, as you’d expect, a 91-year-old who’s never had to worry about a proper job since he began guiding at age 22, knows a whole lot more of interest to the likes of us. Vividly profiled in the South African magazine The Mission this month (themissionflymag.com) he talks about his trek from a childhood so poor ,“we couldn’ t buy a mosquito underwear ”, to a pre-eminence that lists Hollywood star Michael Keaton as one of his casting pupils, earns him documentary work alongside some of the biggest names in American television, and has musician Huey Lewis phoning him up to talk flies. The no-frills question and answer format of The Mission’s interview can often amount to lazy journalism but when someone has as much to say as Lefty, frills are redundant. There will come a time soon when 20th century figures like Hemingway and Castro are aloof icons, as the numbers of those who can talk about them first-hand diminish like a retreating tide, so there is a poignancy to Lefty’s recollections of being afloat with both of them, a week after the Cuban revolution. “Good writing,” Hemingway told him, “can’t be edited.” I braced myself slightly when Kreh began to expound his fishing philosophy. Great people in any field can go two ways here, and either make their subject sound so complex as to leave the rest of us demoralised, or else be so casually dismissive of its challenges that we feel insulted.
Thankfully, Lefty casts a straight line somewhere between these extremes, rejecting purism and competition, but politely so. “...ifitwon’ttakeafly,uselures.Ifitwon’ttakelures,use bait...I’mgoingtocatchthedamnfishonewayoranother.” “Ididn’tgetintoflyfishingtobeatpeople.Iflyfishtohave fun with people.” Ironically, the one time I felt he was becoming glib (“Never learntocastthewaymostpeopleteach...thisisthemost inefficient way you can do it”) he followed up with what may be the most dazzling insight I have yet heard or seen regarding my personal nemesis; the double-haul. I often wonder if destiny spared me writer’s block because it had a different kind of block in store for me. Put me in the company of a capable instructor and I can just about double-haul, but the minute I’m on my own, it’s like the clock has struck midnight in Cinderella. In a world of doublehaulers, I simply look for closer fish. “Whatyoureallyshoulddowithadoublehaulis,withyour linehand,replicatetheexactstrokeyoudidwithyour[rod] hand.” Time will tell if that’s the penny dropping that it sounded like, but I know this: Lefty Kreh got me out in my back garden with a fly rod for the first time in a long time, oblivious to what the neighbours thought. It needs a lot of work and I’m aware that throwing both hands in the air simultaneously has an unwelcome look of Max Bygraves about it, but there is suddenly a pin-prick of light at the end of a previously bricked up-tunnel. I don’t know what mark you made on Fidel Castro, Lefty, but I certainly won’t forget you. Dead or alive.
“If it won’t take a fly, use lures. If it won’t take lures, use bait... I’m going to catch the damn fish one way or another.”
Lefty on casting to a promising swim: “Like rollingawinebottle intoajailcell...”