Immortal

by Joe Evans

In 1996, on a magazine assignment, I met the man who would change my approach to life. He was born in 1925 and died today, March 14.

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Fly-fishing for striped bass was beginning to develop here in the 90s, and I was obsessed with the concept. It is the kind of complicated and inefficient pursuit that appeals to me—like sailing, banjo-playing, writing and parenthood.

The only solid source of information on saltwater fly-fishing at the time was a book—Fly Fishing in Saltwater by Lefty Kreh. I kept it by my bed and read it every night. In the mornings before work or instead of work, I’d take what I learned and try it out on the Severn River—and it clicked.  

The editor sent me to Cockeysville, MD to get Lefty’s story. In a few hours of talking and tying knots in his tackle-packed basement and during a day of fishing, I came under the spell of the most generous and thoughtful person I have known. The interviews were challenging only because he was more interested in learning about me than sharing his own story. What he wanted was for me to pick up every trick and nuance of the challenge so I might enjoy the satisfaction and success he had on the water, and by extension, it turned out, in life.

It was never about shining his own light, but helping others get their own candles burning. He wrote that book—and about 40 more—simply to help others, and so he “wouldn’t have to keep answering so many damn questions.” It wasn’t meant to make him famous, and he wasn’t comfortable with the fact that it had.  

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Lefty was an unlikely champion of such an esoteric avocation as fly-fishing. The sport presents itself as a rarified pursuit for well-heeled sportsmen, with emphasis on the word “men.” He came from dire circumstances—the eight-year-old man-of-the-house after his father died, rolling a welfare food cart home to his mother and siblings, catching catfish for the market so he could buy clothes and lunch, surviving the Battle of the Bulge and then an anthrax infection while working shifts at the U.S. Biological Warfare Lab. From there, he developed a relentless writing and one-on-one teaching career.

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He hated the idea that the pleasures of fly-fishing should be reserved for rich guys, and he poured his heart into making it accessible to everyone, especially women. He said that “Women listen better, and are faster learners than men, who often think they know it all before even getting started.”  As he became a force in the industry, he pushed fly-tackle makers to get down to earth on pricing and open up the sport to everyone. And he succeeded.

We became fast and constant friends, and I thereby became a member of an extended tribe of Lefty disciples, numbering in the thousands, stretching around the world. 

With his passing, I believe we recognize the treasure we carry forward as the result of his 93-year life. Whenever we help a young angler learn to tie Lefty’s famous Deceiver fly, and every time we release a fish back into the water to swim away, or when we stand up on behalf of natural resource conservation, or put a fly rod away upside-down in the tube because it’s more efficient that way, or tie a non-slip mono-loop knot just the way he showed us, or shun the archaic ten-to-two casting style in favor of his more-effective full-rotation method…

In fact, any time we pause to improve someone else’s experience on the planet, we can share a wink knowing that we are the lucky ones and the keepers of the inextinguishable Lefty Kreh flame.