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Peter Budryk is the author of Trout & Salmon Lakes of CT
Instantly recognizable to millions of idolizing anglers by his trademark fishing cap, this relatively diminutive man is a colossal symbol of America's love for the great outdoors. Fatherless at a tender age, a child of the Great Depression, he served in World War II and started as a writer in the Chesapeake Bay area.
He developed into a prolific outdoor journalist, sport-fishing innovator, pioneering technician, conservationist, and, ultimately, into a national and international icon. His name appears on the mastheads of several national fly fishing magazines. He fishes with American presidents and statesmen, the world's royalty, and even revolutionaries. He has written hundreds of articles and numerous popular books on fly fishing and outdoor photography. His unpretentious prose flows across the page like the clear, cool waters of a stream course across the American landscape.
He welcomed me into the home he shares with his loving wife Ev. I discovered for myself on that day that, his monumental achievements to sport fishing notwithstanding, Lefty Kreh is above all else, an extremely intelligent, wise, joyful, and inclusive man. His sparkling blue eyes reflect both the distinctly American and irrepressible humor of a Will Rogers and the acuity of an eagle. While my somewhat cynical nature disposed me to some expectation of disappointment in moving aside the curtain, I did indeed meet, not an impostor, but a genuine wizard who is also a very nice guy.
Lefty will be 79 on February 26; his wife, Ev, turned 77 on October 12. They have been married for 58 years.
In October, 2002, Lefty suffered a stroke followed by a heart attack in December. When I spoke with him recently he said he feels healthy and full of the devil.
"Maybe I am getting old," he said. "I named my pet zebra 'spot.'"
You can drop him a note at 210 Wickersham Way Hunt Valley, MD 21030 to let him know how much you appreciate his lifetime of contributions to our pastime.
Lefty Kreh and his wife Ev (above) have been married 58 years.
Lefty on Women and Fishing
Q: You've been married to the same woman for 58 years. How do you negotiate the tension between your desire to go fishing and your wife' s desire for you to stay around and do things together with her?
LK: There isn't any problem at all and never has been. While I do some recreational fishing, most of the fishing I do is to gather some material or for some other purpose. I think that any wife will put up with 10 times what any husband would do if the wife knows the husband is doing it for both of them. When you get into trouble is when you make her feel like she's not part of the program. People say how can you travel so often? Well, how can a wife love a traveling salesman? Or a tackle rep or someone like that? I've been full time doing this since 1964. I know she looks better when I come back from a trip than when I left. And I hope she feels the same way. Marriages where they spend all of their time together must be pretty boring marriages. But then, other than weekends, I'm home all the rest of the time. People don't realize that an outdoor writer like I am spends more quality time with my wife than the average person who gets up, has a quick breakfast, is out 'til 5 o'clock, has a quick supper, does the dishes, and maybe has one good hour together. Because I work at home and for myself, if Ev and I want to go 50 miles away for lunch we can do that. If I'm home too much, Ev asks if I ain't got a short trip I need to take.
Q: That works for you because of who you are and the nature of your work, but what about the everyday recreational angler who runs afoul of his wife's ideas of how a married couple should spend their time. I know of many divorces that have resulted from this conflict.
LK: I believe one of the secrets of a successful marriage is this--women are among the most insecure creatures on earth. You have to tell them every day that you love them. And mean it! If you miss three days they think you have a mistress. So for people who are not in the business like me, if they want to fish a lot they've also got to spend time doing things their wife likes. Another way is to get your wife involved in fishing. That's something happening a lot with fly fishing. Across the country I've observed that most of the growing segment of the industry is women, which is a good thing. Women are going to bring the children into the sport because it's a good family sport. The average husband--and I don't think they'd say it out loud--but he'd probably rather dig a ditch than go on a cruise. Most men find cruises to be horribly boring. But we do these things because it makes our wives happy. The nice thing about getting your wife involved in fly fishing is that you're both doing something you both enjoy and you do it in nice places. If you make your wife feel like she's the most important thing in your life, she'll let you go fishing a lot. But you 've got to be sincere about it.
Death, the Great Depression, and Fishing
LK: I first got into fishing because in 1932 my father died. He was kicked in the chest in a basketball game.It ruptured a valve in his heart. Today, they can repair that. This was at the height of the depression. We lived in Frederick, MD--central MD.In those days there were very few rich people and everybody else was very poor. My mother had four children. I was the oldest. I had one sister younger than me and two brothers younger than her. We lived on welfare in a black ghetto until I went into the army at the age of 18. But before World War II, most of the United States was rural, very different from what it is now. In Frederick there were a number of streams and rivers which you could walk to in an hour which we didn't think anything of in those days. You didn't need much to go fishing. As I got older, I gathered enough to go hunting as well. I used to do some exhibition shooting for Remington Arms. You could walk 10 minutes out of town and begin to find places you could hunt and fish. The first year I was in high school I worked on a farm to get enough money for clothes and lunch. In those days you could get away at 14 or 15 with working. Nobody pushed the law.
My mother told me,"If you earn enough money for your clothes and lunches, you can stay in high school." So a man who later turned out to be my stepfather but who was a good friend of the family at that time, had a river boat that you poled and he let me use it. I was about 12. I began to do what we called "bush bobbing" where we hung lines with baited hooks on branches that hung out over the water. You couldn't do this in the daytime because the turtles would eat all the bait. At night the catfish would roam the riverbanks and when they grabbed the bait and took off the bush acted like a fishing rod, which is why we called it "bush bobbing."
I could always find some young kids who would come out with me and stay overnight. In those days parents would let their kids do this, nobody would bother us. Sometimes we'd be gone two days. So I got a lot of help and I was getting 10 cents a pound when for 11 cents you could go to a movie and buy a bag of popcorn. So I was a high roller in high school; I had more money than most any of them. Then I went into the army. How I got started in fly fishing was when I got out I went to work at the Biological Warfare Center in Frederick. I was maybe the 14th person hired there. It was shift work and because I had seniority, I opted to get most of the night shifts so I could hunt and fish in the daytime.I got a reputation in two years of really being a hot dog fisherman.
So a guy named Joe Brooks who was writing a small column for the Baltimore newspaper asked me to take him fishing so he could write a column about it. We went right below Harper's Ferry and I carried the canoe down. Joe Brooks was a very dignified, tall, almost regal person, not put on; it was just his natural demeanor. After I brought the last of the load down, I noticed he was putting a bamboo rod together. In those days, spinning tackle was just starting to be sold in the U.S. But I had little ultra light plug reels that you could use light line with. I had brought two of them.
So I said, "Mr. Brooks, if you don't have a plug reel you're certainly welcome to use one of mine." He said, "What's the problem?" I told him it seemed to be pretty windy, blowing at 12-15 miles an hour. I had actually never seen a flycaster up to that time. He said, "Do you mind if I use this?" and I said, "No, not at all." So we got into the canoe right below Harper's Ferry on the Potomac. Nobody ever catches as many fish as the local guy on his water, but Joe caught almost as many on his fly rod as I did. I was really impressed. We ate lunch on some rocks that set out at a right angle from the river. After lunch he walked out on the rock and looked upriver where there were a lot of dimples on the surface. Fish were going after flying ants that didn't make it across the river. It was September, and there is always this occurrence in that area. So he started flicking his line out with what I later learned was a Black Ghost streamer. After about every two strips he had a fish on. Now here I am casting about a 6-pound braided nylon and seeing a flyline for the first time, it looked to me like a rope. He did this about 12 times and I said to myself, man I got to have some of this. The next day I drove my Model A Ford 50 miles to Baltimore where he was living at the time. He selected and I bought a South Bend fiberglass rod which was about a 9 weight, and a Pflueger Medalist reel, which I still have. He taught that 10 o'clock to 2 o'clock casting. Now here I was, 20 years old, casting almost all day long, using mostly popping bugs and streamers. Slowly, I developed a method I use today by bringing your rod way back because I realized the 10 to 2 o'clock method may have worked on small streams but that was it. That would be about 1947. In the middle 50s I wrote a big feature article on it for Outdoor Life and Nat Smith, a famous illustrator, did the drawings on it showing the rod way back. Well the magazine caught all kinds of heat from readers saying you should never take rods beyond 2 o'clock, which is standard today.
Q: I guess some people back then also didn't have a life?
LK: You'd be amazed , Peter. I was one of the people. Ted Trueblood and a couple of other guys, we recommended to Scientific Anglers which was a new company making floating fly lines like other companies out of silk, which never really floated, but they tried. We recommended that they make a sinking line, which was the original high-density hi-d line. Well, when they made that thing and we wrote about it, there was a fire storm of criticism that a sinking fly line was not fly fishing. Not long after the lines came out I wrote an article in Outdoor Life saying you should use short leaders with sinking lines to minimize the fly's floating too high above the sinking line. Oh, there was much disgust by some readers about that too. I was the first to write about lead eyes and people were writing to Fly Fisherman saying they were jigs. These are the same people who are today using Clouser Minnows like crazy. Tradition is good. As long as it doesn't stand in the way of progress. Unfortunately there are many myths in fly fishing.
Psychology, Teaching, and Fishing
Q: You are considered in everything I've read about you and confirmed by this interview, as a very modest and unpretentious person. Yet, if fly fishing is a religion, you are the Pope. I know you've built your career over time, but was there anything that propelled you into the international limelight?
LK: Several things have helped me. The most important thing is that I have never accepted any kind of a problem. For example, if you wear hip boots and you cast with your right hand, you strip with your left hand. When you cast, the boot strap entangles in the line. Out of 30,000 hip boot wearers, all 30,000 will just put up with this. But as soon as I started having that problem , I said to myself, why am I having this problem? I thought about it and I took the strap out of the buckle, I reversed the buckle, I put the strap back in and it now went inside the boot. So now I eliminated the problem. Most people just accept the problem.
If you're going to be successful in the outdoor writing field and particularly if you're going to do a lot of teaching, there are two ways you can go about it. One way is destructive and other is very good. If you "share" knowledge, people accept it. If you "display" knowledge, people get ticked off. In fact one of the biggest problems with most of the fly-casting instructors I know is that they are really trying to impress their students with how good they are rather than being deeply concerned with how they can help this person become a better caster. If I saw somebody that needed help, I would never walk up to them and say, "Let me show you how to do that." Instead, even though I figured this out for myself, I would say, "Let me show you something somebody showed me."
Now, unconsciously, this person is saying, "Well, he's as dumb as I am. Maybe I'll learn something." Whereas if you just said, "Let me show you how to do that." What the reaction is, even if he wanted to learn, he's about half ticked off because in effect you're saying to him that you're smarter than he is and he should have figured this out a long time ago for himself. The most successful teachers and writers are those who share knowledge rather than display it.
Striped Bass and Commercial Fishing Q: What are your views on the recreational versus commercial fishing wars? How do we resolve the problems regarding striped bass for example?
LK: If you're going to talk economics there's no comparison. Recreational fishing puts into the economy over 50 times what the commercial does. I also believe that most commercial fishermen will fish until the last spawning fish is gone and then go get another job, and that's based on being the outdoor editor for the Baltimore Sun for 18 years, covering Chesapeake Bay and other waters. For example, they finally come up with a net ban in Florida so the fishermen get around it by using panels. They constantly come up with ways to harvest the fish. And it's a finite resource. As long as the environment is good, Mother Nature will replenish it if we take care of it. The commercial fishermen are not going to give up.
Q: So how do we solve the problem?
LK: We make gamefish out of them. In Chesapeake Bay, six or eight commercial companies were harvesting over 80 percent of all the striped bass before the moratorium. But the companies, when they went before the state legislature, would round up a handful of fishermen with patched boat boots, wives and kids in tow, and make it look like they were going to be putting these little mom and pop family operations out of business.
One of them anchored over the deep holes in the bay where the the adult rockfish would winter over and just suck them up--he could stay out there for a week. Well his scuppers got open, the boat went down and he drowned. When they recovered his boat and his body they discovered he had over 8 miles of netting on his boat!
The other problem people don't realize is that many in New England, and New Jersey, New York, and Maryland aren't really commercial fishermen. They're firemen or policemen with three days off. They apply for a commercial license. You'd be surprised the very high percentage of guys with commercial licenses who do not depend upon the fishing for their primary source of income but for extra spending money. So he's raping a resource just for his own luxuries.
Q: What's your favorite freshwater fish? Saltwater?
LK: Smallmouth bass. Bonefish.
Q: What is the most beautiful place you've ever fished?
LK: Probably southern Chile, trout fishing. There are mountains down there that rise up like the top of a sombrero, clouds that look like smoke rings. It's not the best trout fishing; that's in New Zealand of all the great trout areas I've fished. But I think Chile is the prettiest area I've fished. And it's got some of the friendliest people too.
Great Books and Fishing Q: What would you say are the best old and contemporary fishing books that you've ever read?
LK: I think McClane's fishing encyclopedia was a major breakthrough. Al had told me that book sold 40,000 copies before it was even printed, just to libraries. Even today that's still a remarkably informational book. I don't want to sound immodest, but my book Fly Fishing in Salt Water (referred to by many as the Koran of saltwater fly fishing) has been a standard and has introduced people not only in this country but all over the world to saltwater fly fishing. Wherever I fish all over the world people come up to have me sign their copies. I'm amazed! Art Flick's little book which showed that if you had a certain few flies you could catch trout. You didn't need the underarm hair of an orangutan mixed with the fur of an Australian possum and some Iberian sheep. I think that woke a lot of people up. I think Matching the Hatch was another landmark book. Certainly, and not just because we did it, but Practical Fishing Knots has sold over 300,000 copies.
Q: You have an international reputation as a very nice guy. What do you think accounts for that?
LK: I believe that people sense when you're trying to do something for someone. I have more friends than anybody I know and I think one reason is that I enjoy trying to help people without trying to get anything back.
Q: The time you're giving me here bears testimony to that. You are universally respected as not only a sportfishing expert but also as a good human being.
LK: The nicest thing that has started to happen to me over the last ten years is that perfect strangers, who have nothing to gain, will come up to me, shake my hand and thank me for what I've done for the sport of fly fishing, for helping them to cast better and get more out of the sport. The odd thing is that I cast spinning and plug tackle as well as I do fly. And few people know that I actually designed spinning reels for Garcia for years. Their modern drag and all of the modern plug reels were actually designed by three other guys and me. But nobody knows that stuff and I don't worry about it.
Q: When will your autobiography be published?
LK Oh, I don't know. I started two years ago and I've got some words down. It seems like every time I get started to writing it, something comes up. This morning I had a guy call who said he needed the two stories I promised him. I was going to work on the autobiography today but I ain't going to do that now. I thought you might enjoy seeing my fly-tying room, and where I keep my tackle before you leave. Lefty Kreh's home in suburban Hunt Valley, Maryland is a handsome two-story colonial on a modest and well landscaped lot. It's similarity to any other home, however, ends when you walk into it. Meticulously kept by Ev, it is effectively a combination sparkling museum of 40 years of fishing memorabilia and a treasure trove of fishing tackle that rivals the display at Worldwide Sportsman. All of it is organized, in its proper place, and benefiting from Lefty's resourceful refinements, each of which should command a copyright. In addition to his study/library, he toured me through his fly-tying room which had nary a hackle or hook out of place, his darkroom where he develops his own photos and his living room which, above the sofa, features a realistic replica of a gleaming, giant tarpon.
Peter Budryk is the author of Trout & Salmon Lakes of CT and How To Fish Them, Covered Bridge Press/Parnassus Imprints, 2000, and The Innermost Waters, Fishing the Ponds & Lakes of Cape Cod, 1st Books Library, to be published in 2004. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org