Museum Pieces: A Fly-Fishing Icon’s First Reel

Lefty Kreh improved his line drag by cutting a thumb insert in his first fly reel, this Pflueger Medalist.
Photo by Sara Wilcox

Editor’s note: The American Museum of Fly Fishing is located right next to the Orvis Flagship store in Manchester, Vermont. The folks from the museum have shared many of the cool items from their collection in an ongoing series called “Museum Pieces.” You can take a little virtual walk through part of the museum at the bottom of this post. 

In the photo above, you can see Lefty Kreh’s very first fly reel, purchased in 1947, the year Lefty discovered fly fishing while guiding legendary angler Joe Brooks. Here’s the story as he told it in a 2013 interview with Chris Wright for Gear Patrol:

In 1947 Joe Brooks, who was at this time writing for a tiny paper called The County Paper near Baltimore, called me up because I had a reputation as a hot dog fisherman. He came to fish with me and to write a column about it. At this point, I didn’t know anyone who was fly fishing. Joe Brooks came up, and when we got to the river he started putting this bamboo rod together — it was a fly rod, though I didn’t really know what that meant at the time — and he was sort of a regal type of person, not stuffy, but regal. I said, ‘Joe, if you don’t have a plug caster I’ll loan you one, the wind’s blowing 10 miles per hour’. So he borrowed a plug caster and caught a substantial amount of fish.

At lunchtime we were sitting on a ledge that slanted into the current. He walked up the ledge with his fly rod. Looking back, I now know there were flying ants trying to cross the river, and fish were rising, feeding on them. But at that point I had no idea what he was doing. He dropped a black and white fly into the middle of a rising fish’s ripples and hooked a fish. He did this 8 or 10 times in a row, every cast, and I thought, I have to have this. He picked a fiberglass rod for me the next day, and a Pflueger Medalist reel. He gave me my first fly casting lesson.

Click here for the full interview.

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6 thoughts on “Museum Pieces: A Fly-Fishing Icon’s First Reel”

  1. A very interesting and enlightening story that I very much enjoyed reading.
    – My first thoughts turned to the reel itself, the Pflueger Medalist, a work-horse reel that many anglers started out with back in my era. I first saw the reel upon careful examination of a photo that appeared in one of my favorite titles, Larry Koller’s “Treasury of Angling” (1963). My Jr. High School library had a copy—in 1968. There was Ernie Schwiebert, on page 113, casting on a Pococno PA stream–with a Medalist. Of course, they evolved out once a lot of folks were after British-made J. W. Young models, Hardy Lightweights (and Orvis CFO’s, I must add!)

    -My second thought was how the heck Lefty didn’t slice his thumb open on the cut-away and exposed metal. Wow! But I have to admit it was kind of genius….which didn’t surprise me.

    -A great post, and thank you Phil for the great tale!

  2. Amazingly, anglers are rediscovering the vintage medalist reels. The values are going up as seen on the auction sites such as E bay. In the Pacific Northwest, I witnessed more than a few salmon and steelhead anglers using a Shakespeare Wonder Rod/Medalist combo.
    Good equipment always in style.

  3. Pingback: Tippets: Kreh’s First Reel, Top Ten Winter Flies, “Strip-Set” Book Review | MidCurrent
  4. Is it a “thumb hole” or and index or middle finger hole? The back of the reel should be facing the rod holding hand. The cranking hand can finger the outside of the spool. The thumb would be needed on the handle at all times in order to hold the grip (opposable thumbs are what separates us from other primates!) but you could easily use another finger in the hole to add some drag. My other worry with this arrangement is that but pushing on the inside of the spool you could easily pop off the spool if the locking mechanism wasn’t fully engaged. I’ve seen a number of reels where this latch doesn’t work so well over time. I did have a number of Pfleuger Medalists when I started fly fishing and the latch never was an issue. Regardless, this modification does such an innovative mind. I would like to hear it right from the horses mouth what finger he used in that reel!

  5. Pingback: Video: Lefty Kreh, in His Own Words | Orvis News

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