One of my good fishing buddies recently put together a short essay about some of his memories of a legendary fly fisher - Mel Krieger.
Was chatting earlier today with a fishing buddy, and we were talking about casting. Talk eventually turned to instruction, and from there to great casting instructors. Bringing up that subject with me will reliably elicit mention of Mel Krieger.
I thought the world of Mel. He was one of the brightest shining stars in the fly fishing constellations that dominated my days and dreams growing up. I admired his energy, his exploits, his technique, and his no-nonsense instruction skills. I remember making a minor hajj to the Golden Gate Casting Ponds on a long West Coast summer swing late in college, hoping perhaps I’d find him chatting amiably with Steve Rajeff and then I’d....I’d....well, I didn't have a clue what I’d do. Ask for autographs? No, no, not right. Stare? Probably. Stroll up and chat? Maybe. Ask for tips? Ugh. Pray? Yup.
They weren't there, so it didn't matter. But I did meet him years later at the International Fly Tackle Dealers show in Denver, must’ve been in the late 90s. My Dad was working at Ross Reels, and I’d weaseled my way into a show pass and a semi-regular gig talking trash at the booth. Got to meet Joan Wulff and Lefty Kreh, watched AK Best tie, hung out with Brad Befus, took home bags of swag and saw all the new gear. Fun, right?
They had two big casting ponds and a fairly serious distance competition on Saturday night. I wasn't brave enough to enter, but I was fresh back from a long steelheading trip and feeling pretty good about my stroke. Off in a back corner some rod dealer had built a simple casting game with a timer and pizza boxes. The boxes were staggered at 10’ intervals on either side of a narrow aisle out to 100’ or 110’, as if they were unusually squarish boulder pockets in an exceptionally straight stream. They’d rigged a couple 8wt rods with a yarn fly, and you had to hit each box within 90 seconds -- or maybe it was two minutes, can’t remember. Simple, but good fun. Easy to replicate at home, too.
I took a break from our booth during a quiet period and found that the pizza box casting course was likewise empty. I picked up a rod, stripped out and stretched a pile of line, set the timer and started casting. I hit every box out to 60’ on the first try, and I was feeling pretty good about myself. It took me two tries to hit the box at 70’, and I missed the 80’ box on my first throw. Plenty of time on the clock, no stress. I stripped in some line and worked back into my stroke, double-hauling like I’d been born doing it. I looked back over my shoulder to watch my backcast -- still textbook -- and saw Mel Krieger standing about 10’ behind me, arms crossed with a stern look on his face.
Oh shit. I missed the grab on my backcast haul and dropped 80’ of line on the floor behind me.
Oh shit. Mel’s watching. He’s not happy. Scrambled to pick up the slack. Started flailing with too much line out, couldn’t load the rod. Stripped in more line. Short cast, mangled the plane, threw a pathetic tailing loop, stripped in aga----BUZZZZZZZZ.....thanks for playing, you lose.
Oh God, what a mess. I was red and sweating, my shattered pride coiled in knots on the floor along with my loops. It was like missing a layup with Michael Jordan watching. BECAUSE he was watching.
I’m not sure what he saw that he didn't like. Could’ve been the burritos, who knows? He was all smiles when I looked back again. He chuckled and ambled over, chucked me on the shoulder and said something like, “Pretty good there....for awhile. What happened, son?”
I shuffled and stammered, finally mumbled something about him scaring me. “Little ole’ me, scare you? Hahaha...” Didn't really make me feel better. But then he asked where I was from and who I knew and started an amiable little chat.
10 minutes later I floated back to the Ross booth on a Dickensian Cloud: it was the best of times and the worst of times, simultaneously. My hero had noticed me, even conversed with me. And I had made a fool of myself. Uff-dah. But I still thought the world of him, and I’ll never forget that encounter.
I looked up his bio today and discovered, sadly, that he passed away in 2008. Here it is, four years later, and I didn't even know. I feel chagrined, out of touch with what was once a familiar realm. And yet, his star in the most rarefied of my personal constellations will never dim, no matter how infrequently I manage to look to the sky these days...or to the water. RIP, Mel.