It Takes All Kinds

a Few Stories and Profiles by Erik Hedegaard
mainly from inside the pages of Rolling Stone
(with additional commentary and folderol provided by the author aka Charlie, sometimes)

Lefty Kreh’s Only Flycasting Failure

Posted on | February 4, 2014 | No Comments


The Greatest Flycasting Instructor of Ail Time has taughtthousands and thousands and never had a failure. Until now.

AT FRESHWATER FLYCASTING, I’m pretty darn good. But when it comes to the long-distance, heavyweight demands of saltwater, well, not many people can go at it for as long as I have and still not cast worth a damn. It’s been five years. Basically, the line just dribbles out the tip of my flyrod and puddles there. It’s humiliating. My friend Jimmy Mack, a bad-tempered UPS driver who’s got a sweet stroke that shoots the line 80 feet out, will no longer even fish next to me.

“Hey, buttnut,” he says, “whyn’t you go back to dapping for trout and leave this saltwater game alone? You aren’t cut out for it.”

One time, he offered to break my super-fancy 9-weight Sage RPLX saltwater rod in half, and one time, I nearly begged him to do it. But then I had a brilliant idea: I ought to see Lefty Kreh, the Greatest Flycasting Instructor of All Time, a man who has more than three dozen fly-fishing books and videos to his name, the man who invented the famous fly Lefty’s Deceiver. That’s where I belong, with Lefty.

I get him on the horn and suggest that I sign up for about four hours of lessons at his $100 per hour rate and that he teach me out in the salt, maybe on the Chesapeake Bay, near his Cockeysville, Maryland, home.

He pauses, briefly, then his voice roars back at me through the receiver like it’s God on a bullhorn.

“Nope!” he shouts. “That’s what the problem is! You don’t know what you’re talking about! You don’t know a f—–g thing about the thing, see?”

“I don’t?” say I, rattled. Lefty groans and snorts.

“Look,” he says, “I’ve been teaching since ’51, teaching people from all over the world, maybe 1500 a year, and I ain’t never heard nobody tell me I have to teach them on the kind of water they fish. You don’t know a damn thing.”

“Okay,” I say. “All right.”

“Second,” he says, “if you’ve got two hours of me, unless you’re a flaming idiot, you’re going to know what to do. You will be amazed how much better you are. I ain’t met an idiot yet that needed more.”

We agree on a date and I hang up, my heart gladdened.

Lefty might be a filthy-mouthed, old-fart, tough-guy know-it-all–but he’s also a mirade worker. By my calculations, he has successfully taught a mind-boggling 70,500 men and women what it means to flycast on salt water with precision, skill and grace. I want the miracle, too. I want to feel it shivering through me. I really want it very badly.

A FEW DAYS LATER, LEFTY drives me to a pond near his home. A somewhat short, somewhat well-fed fellow of 74, he wears lots of khaki and a funny-looking hat with turned-up sides. He starts by lecturing me on the evils of the traditional 300-year-old method of teaching flycasting in which the back-and-forth business of casting traces out the movement of a clock’s hands from 9 o’clock to I o’clock. Lefty shakes his head in disgust.

“That system actually impedes you from casting,” he moans. “Why? Because you can’t make any cast until you get the end of your line moving. And when people tell you to make a backcast from 9 o’clock–well, if you ain’t got the end of your line moving, I don’t care what time it is. It ain’t going to work.”

It’s a marvelous blue-sky day. Lefty strings up a salt-water stick. I cast. The line dribbles and plops. Lefty scratches the back of his neck and says, “Well, okay now, make a long cast.”

“You’ve seen about the extent of it,” I say, nervously.

Lefty doesn’t look too distraught. He says, “The nice thing about the technique I teach is, it’s much easier, and for women and older people, that’s great.”

Being neither a woman nor an older person, I find this comment hurtful. Nonetheless, I nod and smile. I don’t want to get Lefty riled up.

Now he takes the rod from me and lays out his own cast. It is a thing of beauty. Turning sideways, he brings the rod back way past i o’clock, speeds up the stroke, stops it short. Line unrolls into the distance, seeming to confound the laws of gravity. Then he brings the rod forward, speeds up the stroke again, stops short again. Line charges out. Back once more, then once more forward, then he allows line to shoot through the rod’s ferrules until there’s no more line left to shoot. It looks effortless.

“Holy cow,” I whisper, truly moved. Lefty chuckles, as if there’s nothing to it. But there is. There’s Lefty’s Five Principles of Distance Casting, plus a few corollaries:

The rod is a flexible lever, and the longer its forward-and-back arc through the air, the more distance you get.

Before starting the initial backcast, the end of the flyline must be lifted from the water.

The cast itself, in both directions, is composed of a rather long stroke followed by a quick speed-up-and-stop.

The faster you move the rod during the speed-up-and-stop, and the shorter the distance the rod tip moves during it, the longer the cast will be.

And, finally, to make super-deluxe, extra-long casts, the rod needs to travel well behind the angler, which can be accomplished only with a side cast.

Corollaries: Make sure the rod hand doesn’t rise above the shoulder on the backcast and that the rod tip travels well below head height; keep the rod-hand thumb facing the target; and make the speed-up-and-stop with the forearm, not with the wrist.

“SEE HOW SIMPLE IT IS?” Lefty asks, showing me again his wonderful cast. “And clocks ain’t got a goddamned thing to do with it.” He looks at me. “Okay, let’s see you try it. Don’t try to shoot line. Just try the cast.”

My wrist flops. My rod hand rises way up. My rodhand thumb faces God knows where. The rod makes a long swishing noise. Plus, I find myself trying to shoot line.

“What happened to the speed-up-and-stop?” Lefty shouts.

“Oops,” I say. “Forgot.”

“Don’t tell me what you didn’t do,” says Lefty. “And don’t shoot no f–g line!”

“I didn’t mean to.”

“Okay, now, just shut up,” Lefty says. “Here’s what I want you to do. See the tip of your rod? I want you to bring the rod back and just try to throw the end of the line toward the tip of the rod. Does that make sense?”

I say it does, and I do it. Once. By the second try, I’ve forgotten everything Lefty has said.

“Jesus,” I say. This next time I see some results. Forward and back, the line actually forms a loop and unrolls, gaining distance. I tremble a little, with happiness.

“You’re doing all right,” Lefty says, putting his arm around my shoulder. His arm is warm and feels good there. “Okay,” he says, “let’s go on to something else.” He gives me a lesson in the grifterly ways of outdoor writing, gleaned from 18 years at the Baltimore Sun: “There’s three stages. First you do it so you can get fishing stuff wholesale. Then you try to get stuff for nothing. Then you try to get them to pay you to use the stuff.”

That’s Lefty’s way, teaching and talking. He’s always barking and braying and cussing, but he doesn’t mean anything by it. It’s just part of his nature. He can also be an exceedingly cheerful and humorous fellow. Contemplating his lack of hair, for instance, he likes to say, “Anything that grows around the ass ain’t no good for the head.”

He’s trying to take my mind off this business of casting. Too much thinking is counterproductive. So he does his best. Only, in my case, that’s not good enough. By the end of the hour, I am right back where I started, puddling the line in the water. I stand there looking at my latest mess.

Lefty says to me, “I am very satisfied with your progress. I really am. Myself, I see a helluva improvement.” And so that’s another thing about Lefty. He’s one helluva liar.

THAT NIGHT, I dream of catching huge stripers and stupendous blues. I heap scorn all over Jimmy Mack and his crummy 80-foot casts. My casts are vastly superior, nearly godlike. Then, the next morning, I show up at the pond with Dan, my best friend, who comes just to watch. Lefty has me demonstrate, then grimaces and says,”Raised your arm out, turned your thumb away, twisted the reel, bent your wrist. I think a man ought to be smart enough to learn to stop his damn wrist from bending.” He guffaws loudly.

“Wasn’t that bad,” I say.

“Pretty damn bad,” says Lefty. “The rod’s supposed to go back and pop, forward and pop. But what you’re doing is swish back, swish forward. Try this: Have you ever thrown a potato or an apple off the end of a stick? Can you visualize that? Don’t think about casting. Throw a potato. Forward and pop.”

I throw the potato, and all of us watch it go.

“Now that potato you throwed up is in them trees over there,” Lefty groans.

“Goddamn potato,” I say.

“Hey, Danny,” says Lefty, pointing at me. “Fifth grade was his five hardest years in school, don’t you know it?”

Pretty soon, Lefty and my so-called best friend Dan are laughing so hard you could probably hear them over in the proximate Gunpowder River, where all the dainty trout boys fish. Those boys don’t need to make booming, 80-foot casts into the wind. I could cast alongside them any day of the week.

Suddenly, I have half a mind to snap my rod in two. I am disgusted and furious. I pick up the rod, turn away from the pond, and begin casting over grass. The rod goes forward and pops, comes back and pops. My arm stays by my side. My rod-hand thumb faces the target. I hear no swish, only the vacancy where swish once was. Nor do I hear Lefty and Dan laughing.

“Yeah, that’s it,” Lefty is whispering. Louder: “That’s it. That’s it, by God! Excellent! Seriously! That’s got it!”

It’s a glorious, sunny, nearly fragrant moment out there on the pond with Lefty. I would not be surprised if tears of joy and relief ran down my cheeks.

“Tremendous,” Lefty says. Then he says, “Now, let’s take the grass away.”

“We don’t want to do that,” I say.

“We need to try it on water,” Lefty says, seriously.

Before turning to the pond, I pause for the longest time. My stomach is churning. I want the miracle. I want it very, very badly.

“Way to go!” Lefty shouts happily. Only, he’s jumped the gun. I haven’t cast over water yet. Then I start. Instantly, the flyline grabs onto itself and snarls and tangles and drops in a hideous, quivering bundle at my feet, like something freshly mauled. I’m finished here. We shuffle back to the car and don’t talk much more about flycasting.

A week later, I am home again. Lefty has been teaching since ’51. He’s taught many thousands to cast. He’s the best teacher there is. Never had a failure, except one, and that one failure–me, for reasons unknown, unglimpsed, but surely quite awful and well worth avoiding; some wretched, tragic coincidence of ineptitudes both physical and mental–now stands in a trout stream with his wee, brittle trout rod. Upstream is a goofy neophyte caught in his own line. I chuckle and show off my small-stream skills with a perfect 20-foot cast. The fly floats down from the air, lands softly. I do it again. I’m not thinking about salt water. It’s the farthest thing from my mind. I could care less. I’m okay with this. Really, I am.  


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