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When a stubby, bald, 55-year-old man named Bernard (Lefty) Kreh shows up at a fishing-club meeting or sporting goods show, fishermen gather like sunnies around a worm. Elderly Wall Street brokers, oil tycoons and blue-collar working stiffs alike shout, "Lefty! Remember me? Hey, Lefty!" The reason for all the excitement is, as Kreh immodestly puts it, "There ain't nobody in the country who knows more about fishing than I do."
At home in both fresh and salt water, Kreh is one of the best light-tackle fishermen ever and a master caster with fly, plug or spin. Ambidextrous, he can cast a spinning rod and a plug rod, one in each hand, simultaneously, or, dispensing with a rod, he can easily cast the whole length of a 90-foot fly line with just his bare hands. He can hold a crowd around a fly-tying bench in thrall as he ties everything from a huge salt-water streamer known as Lefty's Deceiver to a Caenis mayfly on a teensy-weensy No. 24 hook. He also makes his own jigs, plugs, spoons and "the best carp doughballs anyone ever made." He designs new rods, reels, fly lines, anchors and tackle boxes, and he knows as much about knots as anyone in the world. Professionally, he is the outdoor columnist for The Sun in Baltimore, and he is the author of three books, one of which, Fly Casting with Lefty Kreh, has been translated into Japanese, German and Swedish. Lefty once held 16 world records in salt water, but as he says, "I never deliberately tried to catch a record fish. I think that's the wrong approach. I simply caught 16 fish that were world records. I don't want to compete with anyone but myself."
A camera bug, Kreh has taught advanced nature photography for the National Wildlife Federation for the past 10 years. Perfectionist that he is, he develops his own color film when he has the time, and he keeps 10,000 slides filed so neatly that he can locate one in 50 seconds. "You got to be organized," he says. His luggage and tackle are color coded, and he can take off instantly from his Cockeysville, Md. home on a trip for smallmouth or tarpon or trout, or to give a lecture on the West Coast. Although Kreh defines an expert as "any s.o.b. more than 150 miles from home with a slide show," he travels extensively each year, showing slides and lecturing on such topics as Why We Fish, Fly Casting and Its Problems, and Light Tackle in Salt Water. On the road, Kreh always makes it a point to get in a day or two of fishing with the best fisherman in each area. "The main reason I lecture is that it allows me to travel on someone else's money to gain the latest information," he says. "That's how I keep on top of everything."
Filled to the gills with fishing expertise, gifted with gab and equipped with a seemingly limitless repertoire of jokes, put-downs and one-liners, Kreh comes across to his audiences like a cross between Jack Nicklaus and Don Rickles. When his slide projector broke down and had to be fixed during a talk at a Trout Unlimited meeting in Linden, N.J., Kreh announced he would fill in the time with a few Polish jokes. There was a stir when three men stood up and one said, "We want you to know we're Polish."
"That's all right, fellas," said Kreh. "I'll tell them nice and slow so you can understand."
Everyone, including the three men, laughed, but Poul Jorgensen, a flytier who was on the program with Kreh, says, "Anyone but Lefty would have had his head punched in." Kreh says, "Everybody ought to be able to laugh at himself. When you stop laughing at yourself, you're in trouble. People take things too damn serious."
Kreh himself had a hardscrabble life as a youngster in Frederick, Md. The oldest of four children, he was six when his father, a brick mason, died and his mother had to go on relief. "Their were no toys," Kreh says, "but I had a good time." The North Bench Street neighborhood was tough, and he responded to the chalenge. After Jo Louis won the heavyweight title, billed as the White Bomber, fought a kid from the black neighborhood, Jimmy Hill, who was the Brown Bomber. "A white kid stole a beautiful rug rom a store and rope from a trucking company, and the kids put up a ring in a neighbor's backyard," Kreh recalls. "They charged kids to see the fight. I hit Jimmy with a lucky punch on the chin and knocked him out. I had beat up a lot of kids before, but I had never knocked anyone out, I thought I had killed him, and we all ran off leaving Jimmy on the stolen rug. The lady who owned the house saw him unconscious, and she called the cops, who identified the rug, and a couple of us almost wound up in jail. The kid who stole the rug was never even questioned, but later he was killed pulling a holdup. Another friend was later shot pulling a holdup. I might have wound up in jail or getting killed myself, but when I was 11 I was told that I could go to a Boy Scout camp if I would wash dishes. I did, and I joined the Scouts. The Scouts gave me a moral base, and that really helped save my life."
On his way to becoming an Eagle Scout, Kreh won the first angling merit badge in his part of Maryland. In his spare time he earned money trapping muskrats and mink and catching catfish in the Monocacy River, which he sold to local stores. "The river was only a two-or three-mile walk away," he says, "and I'd go there to bush bob. I'd take strands of mason twine, put hooks on them, bait them with fresh-water mussels and tie the twine on branches overhanging the river. In those days there were a lot of fresh-water mussels to be found. You could take half a bushel on any sandbar. The catfish would roam the banks at night and grab the bait, and the limb would set the hook and fight the fish. The average catfish was 10 to 15 inches long, and I got 10¢ a pound, cleaned. Ten cents was a lot of money, and frequently we'd get catfish up to six pounds."
In high school Kreh was a basketball guard despite his lack of height. He got the nickname Lefty because he would dribble downcourt with his right hand—thereby giving the impression of being righthanded—and then suddenly change hands, shooting or passing with his left. When he graduated in 1942, he joined the Army and served as a forward observer with the 69th Division in France, Belgium and Germany. While in the Army, he became a Roman Catholic. "In Frederick I'd gone to the Baptist church, and as a poor kid I saw that poor people were kind of looked down upon," he says. "I looked at all religions, including Judaism, but Catholicism seemed to answer what I wanted more than any other."
Discharged as a corporal with five battle stars, Kreh returned to Frederick and got a job with the old Army Biological Warfare Laboratories at nearby Fort De-trick. He soon became the night foreman in the main production building, raising bubonic plague, anthrax, tularemia and a host of other deadly infectious cultures.