Lessons from Lefty Kreh, a Fly-Fishing Legend

“Why I Fly Fish,” a new book by Chris Santella, interviews 25 of the most well-known names in the fly-fishing world, from actor Henry Winkler, Donald Trump Jr. to the CEO of Ford Motor Company. One of the anglers, Bernard “Lefty” Kreh, is among the most respected names in the sport. In this excerpt, Lefty shares what drew him to the water and the life lessons he’s gained from more than 60 years in the sport.

Why I Fly Fish Cover.jpg

Photo from “Why I Fly Fish” by Chris Santella © Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2013

Lefty Kreh: Imparting Wisdom

THE LEGIONS OF FLY ANGLERS who have looked to Lefty Kreh for half a century for guidance on everything from casting to saltwater techniques to knot tying might be surprised to learn that one of the foundations of his knowledge is his willingness to be wrong. “If I had had a more advanced education, I might have approached many challenges in life—and fishing—in a different way,” Lefty said. “These limitations have compelled me to think in simple terms, and often, to learn from my mistakes. I don’t accept problems as such, but as opportunities for improvement.”

Lefty shared a case in point. “In the 1950s, I began studying knots. I was trying to determine if knots under contortion lose strength. At one point, I tied ninety-eight blood knots, and broke thirty right away. Six weeks later, I tied more knots and broke thirty more. The following year, I tied—and broke—more knots. Eventually, Mark Sosin and I did a book on the topic, Practical Fishing Knots; it went on to sell more than three hundred thousand copies.

After the book came out, I was giving a presentation at a fly-fishing club in Long Beach, California. I was showing different ways that you could attach a leader to fly line. I thought I did a pretty good job, and I asked if anyone had any questions. A kid in the front row who must have been twelve put his hand up and said ‘I’ve got a better way.’ He came up and attached the leader to the fly line in about ten seconds with a nail knot. I said, ‘You forget what I did. Listen to what this kid has to say.’ It goes to show that you can be a ‘world-class expert’ and a twelve year old can teach you something.

Throughout my life, I’ve always listened to other people’s ideas and methods. I may start out doing things one way and after a while, I’ll modify. Everything I do is subject to change. You’re always learning; it’s an unending process. I’ve been doing this since 1947; every day I’m out on the water, I learn something new.”

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Photo from “Why I Fly Fish” by Chris Santella © Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2013

One of the great allures of fly fishing for Lefty is the opportunity to identify and solve problems. Lefty shared nuggets of wisdom on a number of topics:

• Trout fishing—Ask yourself these questions: Where should I stand? What are the currents? How can I get drag-free drift? (Tip: It’s getting the tip of the line and the leader to fall almost vertically. You’ll get some slack in the line, that’s how you get a drag-free float.) If I hook a big fish, where can I land him? What are the half-dozen dry flies the best local fishermen rely on?

• Bonefishing—Use a sixteen-foot leader on clear, calm days as fish will be wary; use an eight-foot leader on windy days to turn the fly over. If it’s blowing really hard, put the fly rod down, get a cup of coffee, and read a book instead. You can’t fight twenty mile per hour winds. And if you’re fishing in Islamorada, bring your best game. The bonefish there have PhDs. They’re fly inspectors; they can tell you who tied the fly you’re using.

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