Legend of Lefty
Frederick Native Cast a Legacy With a Rod and Reel
By Lisa Gregory
Hurricane Andrew left nothing but devastation in its wake. And Flip Pallot and his wife, Diane, who were residing in Homestead, Fla., in 1992, lost everything.
“We were living in the back of our truck with our birds and cats,” says Pallot. “And there was no getting to Homestead. Everything was destroyed. The power lines were down. There wasn’t a tree standing as far as you could see. Road signs were gone. It was like a war zone.”
But that wasn’t going to deter his longtime friend and fishing buddy Lefty Kreh, who was in Maryland at the time of the storm. “Two days after the hurricane, Lefty shows up and he had a paper sack with $25,000 in it,” says Pallot. “And he put it in my hand, and he held my hand over it. He said, ‘This is money that Evelyn [Kreh’s wife] and I just stuck away. We don’t need it.’”
A member of three fishing halls of fame, Kreh is a certifiable legend in the fly-fishing world, and rightfully so. Before passing away in 2018 at the age of 93, he had cast a line on every continent but Antarctica, caught 126 species of fish, was the author of 32 books and thousands of magazine and newspaper articles, plus made frequent television appearances. In 2021 Fly Fisherman Magazine voted him the “Greatest of all Time.” He fished with U.S. presidents, Cuban leader Fidel Castro, writer Ernest Hemingway and baseball great Ted Williams, among others. In honor of all that he has accomplished, his hometown of Frederick is erecting a bronze statue of him at Culler Lake in Baker Park later this year (see page 50).
But for those who met him for just a few minutes at a fly-fishing event or knew him for decades as a close friend, Kreh was so much more—kind and engaging and always ready with a one-liner. “Lefty was a really incredible human being,” says actor Michael Keaton, who through his love of fly fishing came to know and become friends with Kreh.
GROWING UP FAST
Bernard Victor Kreh was born in Frederick in 1925. The nickname Lefty came early from using his left hand for sports. The eldest of four children, he became the man of the house at age 8 when his father died.
Young Lefty found joy in nature even as he was trapping, hunting and fishing on the Monocacy River to help to put food on his family’s table and to make money to help support them. He caught catfish to sell and hunted squirrels and ducks.
“Lefty was a student of the natural world as much as he was a student of fly casting and fly fishing,” says Pallot, himself one of the most highly regarded anglers in the history of saltwater fishing. In fact, Kreh also became an outdoor photographer and a conservationist. “He knew the name of every plant in the woods,” says Pallot. “He knew the habits of every critter.”
During World War II, Kreh was an artillery spotter who fought at the Battle of the Bulge and was among the few men in his unit to survive the perilous duty. “He remembered it being so cold,” Mike Baumgardner, Kreh’s brother, says of the battle fought in sub-freezing temperatures with snow, sleet and freezing rain. “And years after, his feet, when they got cold, stayed cold.”
Following the war, Kreh returned home and found the love of his life, but not before first enduring a broken heart. “He started dating Patsy Cline,” says his daughter, Victoria Kreh, of the young woman who would go on to become a famous singer. “After about a month of dating, she broke it off.”
To get his mind off the failed romance, Kreh decided to take in a movie. “He went to the Tivoli Theatre on Patrick Street and bought a ticket,” says Victoria. “There was this girl in the ticket booth. He went inside and found she had mistakenly given him a child’s ticket. He went back to get it straightened out.” She adds, “He then waited ’til she got off and took her out for a soda.”
Kreh was smitten. He and Evelyn married in 1947 and the couple remained together until Evelyn’s death in 2011. “He always said she loved going fishing with him up until they were married,” says Victoria with a chuckle. “She knew sure enough how to catch a man. … She was the love of his life.”
Kreh took a job at Fort Detrick, working in the biological warfare labs with anthrax where he experienced an accidental exposure to the bacteria. “He was kept alone for a month in a small glass room for treatment,” says Victoria. Later, Kreh discovered that scientists had extracted some of his blood to create a strain of anthrax which they named BVK-1 using his initials.
ON THE FLY
As he worked at the base, he continued his passion for hunting and fishing. Especially fishing. In 1952 he began writing an outdoor recreation column for The Frederick News-Post. His many articles also appeared in The Baltimore Sun, where he eventually became outdoor editor.
It was also during this time that he met Joe Brooks, a well-known outdoor writer and fisherman. It was Brooks who introduced Kreh to fly fishing. “Joe encouraged him, and then Lefty typically on his own, just went rushing ahead of everybody else, including Joe,” says Pallot. “Lefty used to talk about Joe and how Joe mentored him and how much respect he had for Joe and how great Joe was. I would always smile because Lefty had eclipsed Joe at that point to such a tremendous degree, which is what every mentor hopes will happen.”
Kreh was a natural.
“Lefty had incredible hand-eye coordination,” says Baumgardner. “He was a gun rep for the Remington gun company, and he would do demonstrations where he would shoot aspirin tablets. He would take metal washers and put postage stamps on each side and people would throw them up and he would shoot right through the postage stamps.”
Adds Pallot, “I think more than any other one thing Lefty had a unique understanding of the dynamic of the cast, the mechanics of the cast, what made the cast happen, and what made the cast successful. Lefty understood that as a function of basic high school physics. He just knew what it took.”
Kreh was also an innovator. In the 1950s he designed the world-famous Lefty’s Deceiver, which is considered one of the best-known fly patterns in the world. Years later the U.S. Postal Service honored his creation with its own stamp.
Kreh was quickly making a name for himself. Bob Clouser, today an accomplished smallmouth bass guide and fly tyer, remembers the first time he saw Kreh in action.
“I was near Middletown [Pa.] on the Susquehanna, and I saw a fellow in a boat making these casts with a fly at such a distance where you almost couldn’t see it after he casted it,” says Clouser. “I’m sitting in my boat watching him cast, and I said to myself, ‘Well, I guess I better go talk to this fellow.’ So, I went over and said, “Who are you sir?’ He said, ‘Lefty.’ I said, ‘You mean Lefty Kreh?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ I read all the articles that he wrote.”
Clouser adds, “I shook his hand, and I said, ‘My name is Bob. And you’re going to teach me how to cast, aren’t you?’”
It was the beginning, as they say, of a beautiful friendship—one that would last decades. Like his friend, Clouser is also known for a famous fly pattern—its name was suggested by none other than Kreh himself. “He said, ‘It’s tied by Clouser and it goes deep and swims like hurt baitfish. How about Clouser’s Deep Minnow?”
MOVING AND CASTING
In 1965, Kreh and Evelyn moved their family to Florida, where Kreh took a job managing the prestigious Miami Metropolitan Fishing Tournament. “He replaced the person who we were all really, really fond of and had tremendous respect for,” says Pallot. “And here came this short chubby guy from Maryland who knew nothing about saltwater and had no credentials that we were aware of.”
Kreh set out to win them over. He visited the local fishing clubs that participated in the tournament, including Pallot’s. “The club was not kind to Lefty,” Pallot says. “He was trying to speak, and they were having their own conversations. It was fairly rude. I remember him walking over to one of the club members who was fooling around with a fly rod and not paying much attention to Lefty and Lefty asked him if he could borrow his fly rod for a minute.”
The man agreed. “So, Lefty took the reel off the rod and began to strip or peel, you know, take line off of the reel and lay it on the ground,” says Pallot. “And then with his hand, not the rod, he began to cast the fly line across the room,” says Pallot. “It was a very, very large room. And Lefty is just casting across the room with his hand. It was an amazing thing.”
Kreh was accepted after that, and Pallot was particularly enamored with his skills. “I decided that that was absolutely something that I had to learn how to do,” he says. “And that if he knew how to do something like that, he could help me tremendously with my regular fly casting.”
That showstopping demonstration aside, though, Kreh “was incredibly humble,” says Pallot. “I don’t think he saw himself as gifted, but knowledgeable. And he saw it as his responsibility to share his knowledge as opposed to demonstrating it, and that made him eminently approachable.”
Kreh fished with celebrities, sports legends, presidents and other world leaders. But his head was never turned by any of that, says Baumgardner. “He didn’t watch television except for that How It’s Made show,” says Baumgardner. “He loved that show. He didn’t go to movies. He would call me up and say, ‘I’m going fishing with this country and western singer Kenny Chesney. You ever heard of anybody like that?’”
He treated everyone the same and focused on the fishing. And there was always Evelyn to keep him in his place when the need arose.
“I remember he told me one time that George [H.W.] Bush called him up and asked him to take him fishing,” recalls Baumgardner. “When he hung up, Evelyn said, “Who was that?’ And Lefty said, ‘That was the president of the United States.’ And Evelyn said, ‘Why in the world would he want to talk to you?’”
Baumgardner adds, “He hated fishing with presidents because the Secret Service men were all over the place scaring the fish.”
He might not have watched much television, but Kreh was good on camera with his warm smile, piercing blue eyes and vast knowledge of the sport, which he shared with enthusiasm. He was a participant on Pallot’s The Walker’s Cay Chronicles, one of the top outdoor shows of the time. He was also a participant on Buccaneers and Bones, a fishing show which featured network television journalist Tom Brokaw and such celebrities as Michael Keaton. The show took place in the Bahamas and Belize and focused on fishing for bonefish in the saltwater flats. Buccaneers and Bones was not only about fishing but spotlighting the importance of preserving the species and others like it.
When Keaton and Kreh first met, of course an autograph was requested. By Keaton. He had brought along one of Kreh’s books to sign. “He was the star,” says Keaton. “People would say, ‘There’s Michael Keaton. There’s Tom Brokaw.’ And we would say, ‘Yeah, but there’s Lefty Kreh.’”
Keaton treasures the moments he and Kreh would just sit on the boat on the flats and talk about fishing and life, while making the occasional cast. “Just listening to his stories,” says Keaton.
Not that Kreh couldn’t be ornery, if the need arose and he recognized a person who could benefit.
“The first time I was in a boat with him, we were down in the Bahamas,” says Brokaw. “And we had some guides and they had been down there for a long time, and they were all very aware that Lefty Kreh was in the boat. And we took a break. One of the guys couldn’t wait to get up at the bow of the boat and start casting. I thought he looked pretty good. And I said to Lefty something to that effect.”
Kreh wasn’t too impressed. “He said, ‘Yeah, but he’s dumb,’” recalls Brokaw. “The guy turned around and said, ‘What did you say?’ Lefty said, you heard me, ‘You’re a dummy.’”
Kreh then offered the man an olive branch in the form of his expertise, guiding the man through his next cast. “And he threw the cast yards farther than he had been throwing it,” says Brokaw. “And Lefty said, ‘OK, now do you understand?’ And the guy became a disciple on the spot.”
Like Keaton, Brokaw was a longtime admirer of Kreh’s who was delighted to meet the legend. “It was just one of the great experiences of my life because he was all that I wanted him to be,” says Brokaw. “He was cordial. He was friendly. He was extraordinarily gifted, not only as a fisherman but also as a storyteller. It was the beginning of a wonderful, wonderful relationship.”
In his later years, the man who had traveled the globe and taught countless people the art of the cast began to struggle with his health. “He had a very serious heart condition,” says Pallot. Years earlier, Kreh had returned to Maryland and was then living in Cockeysville.
Keaton was the last person to speak with Kreh before he died. “He was coherent enough to have a nice conservation,” the actor recalls. “He knew it was me. We had a nice little exchange. I didn’t want to tire him out. We just talked as pals; you know. Not long after that, he moved on.”
Kreh’s death was a void in the lives of those who knew and loved him. But his legacy lives on in the hearts of those he touched through his expertise and kindness.
“I say his name,” says Pallot. “I say his name every day. I just say his name.”
Lefty Kreh was born and lived in Frederick before he went out into the world and became a fly-fishing legend. Now, in some ways he is coming back home. A bronze life-sized statue is being erected at Culler Lake in Frederick’s Baker Park to honor Kreh, who died in 2018 at age 93.
The effort, part of The Friends of Lefty Kreh campaign, is being spearheaded by the Potomac Valley Fly Fishers, of which Kreh was a founding member. “We have been met with nothing but positive responses,” Andy Mekelburg, current president of the organization, says of the community’s reaction to the effort to honor Kreh in his hometown.
Donors have included golf great Jack Nicklaus, who fished with Lefty and said, “It takes rhythm and leverage to hit a golf ball. Lefty Kreh used rhythm and leverage to become the fly-fishing GOAT.” The celebrity star power surrounding Kreh extends to the co-chairs of Friends of Lefty, which include actor Michael Keaton and former network news anchorman Tom Brokaw.
Sculptor Toby Mendez of Knoxville was chosen for the statue. The nationally known Mendez is no stranger to turning legends into works of art including the Thurgood Marshall Memorial in Annapolis and the Baltimore Orioles sculptures at Camden Yards.
Mendez says he has engaged in intensive research on Kreh to bring the statute to life, talking to family and friends of the late angler and studying photos and other images. “I want them to feel like I’m seeing Lefty through their eyes and capture something that really rings true to them,” says Mendez. “I can’t meet Lefty, but I can at least meet people that were influenced by him. And to me that’s kind of exciting.”
During the process, Mendez has developed an admiration for his subject not unlike the countless people who met Kreh when he was alive. “He treated everybody that he cared about like family,” says Mendez. “And I think that says a great deal about him.”
Mekelburg hopes that the presence of the statue will not only bring to mind a much-admired man and hometown hero but help others to appreciate the same outdoors that Kreh loved so much. “Hopefully it is going to inspire people to put the phone down, pick up a rod and just get out there and enjoy nature,” he says.
And what would Kreh himself think of an honor such as this? Brokaw thinks he knows. “He would have thought, ‘This is nice,’ says Brokaw. “‘Now, let’s go fishing.’”
For more information on the statue project or to donate, visit the Friends of Lefty Kreh website at www.friendsofleftykreh.com.
Very nice article about one of Frederick’s most famous natives. As I am also from Frederick, I have followed Lefty’s exploits and have devoured his stories and fishing knowledge. My oldest brother, W. Leslie Burger, was a FHS classmate of Lefty. Thanks for the written tribute.