In 2008 Fly fishing instructor and legend Mel Krieger passed away. Mel was an exceptional caster and fly fishing instructor and was the face of fly fishing for many years. In the 90s when I was still living in San Francisco, Mel was a regular at the Golden Gate Angling and Casting Club. I had the honor of interviewing Mel and meet his lovely wife Fanny. He was also one of the last people I photographed using film.
FFJ: It was great today seeing you again in action. How many people do you think you’ve taught fly-casting throughout your career, any idea?
MK: I couldn’t begin to tell you, but it has been thousands.
FFJ: How long have you been doing this now?
MK: About 30 years. I first started teaching in the Fenwick schools. For a while the Fenwick Rod Company was one of the first companies ever to set up fly fishing schools throughout the country and Fenwick actually appointed different people to run the schools. I did the schools on the West Coast, Gary Borger did them in the Midwest, and another man did them on the East Coast. I did all these weekend schools while I worked at other things. And got more and more involved in teaching, started writing a bit and then Fenwick lost their power in the marketplace. At one time Fenwick ruled the fly fishing market. I mean if you didn’t have a Fenwick rod . . . I mean people laughed at you. If you had a Winston bamboo you were the odd one in a crowd. And then what happened is that Winston started making a good glass rods as well. In those days Fenwick did a really wonderful thing . . . I mean we had schools almost in every state of the union and they were full, but nobody was really promoting fly-fishing schools. So we got into it.
FFJ: What did you do before fly-fishing?
MK: Well, I was a sales manager for a refrigeration company, mainly involved in sales. Then I opened up a small business, a travel agency, and we opened up a visa service.
FFJ: What kind of service?
MK: A visa service, we got visa’s for people traveling outside the United States because San Francisco is a center for the consular corps. So that earned me enough income so I had a little more time to start doing more teaching, more fishing. I started traveling and taking groups with me. I discovered that I was pretty a good analyst and I started reading on fly-casting and what not.
I discovered that the tournament casters were much more sophisticated than all the fishing writers were in terms of fly casting, and much of the fly casting information was the kind of stuff that was passed on from generation to generation. It wasn’t really up to snuff with modem fly casting, so with that in mind I started writing a little bit and exploring. The best information I got on fly-casting at that time was from a tournament caster in England, who wrote a pretty good book on casting. He was heavily involved in tournament casting.
FFJ: How long ago was that?
MK: That was about 25 years ago, I mean after I had been into it for 4 or 5 years. I read all the books on fly casting, weren’t that many. I learned that it wasn’t a very sophisticated thing and nobody had written down the real mechanics of fly-casting. That’s when I started writing and I got a little recognition. Fenwick dropped out of the picture, they stopped the schools. Gary Borger and I continued to do our schools . So we did our own schools, and I kind of adapted them to myself and they became reasonably popular and that’s the story of my fly fishing life. With my travel agency I started traveling and taking groups fly-fishing in various places in the world. Now in my travels I do clinics in Japan, Argentina, and I am going to do some clinics in France, England, and I have done a whole bunch of them in Italy, everywhere.
FFJ: When did you meet Fanny (Mel’s wife)?
MK: I met Fanny in Houston, TX some 42 or 44 years ago. And we married 41 years ago. While I was picking up on fly-fishing Fanny was not very involved at that time. We have two kids, and while they were growing up Fanny and the kids came with me to a casting school in Squaw Valley or Southern California, or what have you, and they would go swimming in the motel swimming pool and sometimes they would piddle with the casting, really not involved at all. When the kids left home, they went off to college, Fanny didn’t want to be left at home since she loves traveling. . . so she started casting. And although she is really not an outdoors kind of person, she is not athletic, in the sense of being a tennis player or golfer, she came out here (Golden Gate Fly Fishing Club) while I was gone for a long trip. And she really worked hard at it for about a month and became reasonably confident as a caster and now I must tell you if we go up north and I go fishing, Fanny spends more time on the water than I do, she loves it and really, really enjoys fishing!
FFJ: Are you competitive when you fish?
FFJ: Do you still fish in California a lot?
MK: Yes, I have a little place up in Northern California on a small stream and I got an old trailer and we made a kind of a cabin out of it and that’s kind of my little church. I go up there and do some writing. I do a little fiddling with my casting and a little fishing. When we go up there Fanny fishes, while I almost take a break from fishing.
FFJ: What’s your favorite river in California if there is such a thing?
MK: That’s a hard question it’s probably that little private stream that I located.
FFJ: How do you think fishing compares to fishing 20-30 years ago?
MK: I am not really a good judge of that. I actually took up fly fishing 35 years ago and at that time I didn’t really have very much experience. From what I can gather a love of fishing has gone down a little bit, more industrialization, more people on the river, more utility of the water, etc. But I also know that in recent years some of the rivers have come back stronger than they were before . . . like the upper Sacramento and some rivers in Montana. I think that right now there’s lots more fishing than there was 20-30 years ago with the advent of salt water fishing. It has been a real good jump on fly-fishing. And in some areas because of the validity of a commercial enterprise it is more advantageous to keep clean water and have good fishing that it is to siphon the water off for raising alfalfa. That’s obvious in Canada, in Canada and in Iceland they stopped a great deal of the commercial fishing because their fish is worth infinitely more as a sport fish than can be caught 5 or 6 or 8 times compared to being caught once and killed and sold as meat. So some of those countries are beginning to recognize the economic value of sport fishing. Of course the bad side of that is, that some of the best fishing is very expensive. So it is all for the people with money but there are some wonderfully good fishing areas that are developing . . . and I see more. I don’t really have a bad outlook on the potential for water. I think we’ve got a good chance for it. If we can curb the population growth a little better I think fly-fishing has a lot of room to grow.
FFJ: In the time you have been fly fishing, what in your opinion has changed the sport the most?
MK: Catch and release. I think that it was brought on as a conservation measure and its proven valid . . . it has really helped some rivers . . . it doesn’t help all the rivers.
But that’s not the real impact. The real impact in our sport is the philosophical, the idea that we “go out” and release fish. Suddenly instead of a blood sport where you count the numbers, instead of playing golf where you have to have numbers, instead of tennis where you have to have a competition across the net, suddenly we have a sport with no reward. You don’t tell people how many fish you caught. You don’t need to catch any fish; we’re strictly relying on the experience. I mean even a mountain climber has got a summit. We don’t have anything. And its an unbelievable concept. As a result women are jumping into our sport in unbelievable numbers. If women get involved in it we have got a family oriented thing we’ve got kids getting involved in it. I see fly fishing as being one of those sleeping giants that are beneath the soil and I think one day its going to explode. If catch and release has done a tremendous amount in that area, even in areas where catch and release doesn’t make any sense, because they have got too many fish in the rivers and biologists even encourage people to keep fish, even there fly fisherman release fish.
Some of us fly fisherman can’t conceive of killing a fish, you know its changed the sport dramatically. The only place it hasn’t changed is England, which it sitting on its laurels of 500 years ago. But even there it’s starting to happen. Iceland is one of the great salmon fisheries in the world and they have catch and release in many of their rivers. You pay $8000 a week to fish there and you can’t keep the fish on some of these rivers. You will have fly fisherman who won’t go to rivers where fish are maimed and killed. It is a revolutionary concept.
FFJ: If fly fishing is becoming so popular we are going to have many people on the rivers. Do you think that there is a danger that we are going to love our sport to death?
MK: There is a little danger of that, I think, but I think we are a long way removed from that. Salt-water fly fishing has really taken off for example. Bonefish which is a great sport fish, is the rat of the ocean, its everywhere, and we probably exploit a 20th of all the bone fish that’s available in the South Pacific. We probably exploit a 10th of all that’s in the Caribbean. We haven’t begun to explore all the other species that are untouched. Black Bass, that never really quite hit home and it’s one of my favorite things to do of all. So I think there is that danger, but I think we are a long way removed from that . . . I really do.
FFJ: Do you have any hobbies?
MK: Yes, through the years I have had a lot of hobbies. I have been involved in a lot of games. I’ve been a tennis player, and a handball player, and I’ve done it all. I have taken up golf in the last couple of years. I took up golf for two reasons, first because it’s kind of fun to learn a new sport and second because of my interest in understanding communication and teaching. I figure that golf is a much more sophisticated sport than fly-fishing, in that there are many more people, it’s a much more studied game. There are the huge prizes and people are really analyzing it to death and I thought that maybe I could learn some communication skills or instructional skills. And I think they’re interesting. Right now I’ve probably gone through a dozen books, I have had lessons from three professionals, I subscribe to magazines, and I am really trying to learn the game. So far I have found that it’s every bit as convoluted as our instruction and it’s confusing, I have an advantage in that I understand some of the mechanical aspects of the game. So it has been very intriguing for me.
FFJ: I am not going to ask you about your favorite fish, that doesn’t seem to make sense now-a-days anyway . . .
MK: . . . you can ask me about my favorite fish, I mean I really do fish for bass and steelhead and salmon, Pacific salmon, Atlantic salmon, fishing in Argentina, trout fishing everywhere. I really do have a hugely varied fly fishing background. I have caught various salt-water fish, all of them have an excitement and intrigue. I fish for Bonefish . . . stepping out of the boat and fly fishing in water that is knee deep, crystal clear, and its warm. You don’t have to wear the rubber boots you know, you wade around in the shallow water, like walking around in the shallow aquarium, it’s a wonderful, neat thing hunting those fish. But if I had to pick one fish . . . fortunately I don’t . . ., but if l did have to pick one fish, there is no question that to me the trout would be on the top of the list. The trout is everything from a macho pulling a big streamer through the water, to the chess game of matching the hatch. Trout fishing to me has got to be the most intriguing, even though they are not the strongest fish.
FFJ: One last question, a hypothetical one . . . we are going on a trout stream and I only let you take four flies, 2 dries and 2 wets . . .
MK: . . . . are you thinking of in terms of efficiency?
FFJ: . . . efficiency, like how they do it in golf. When I used to play we sometimes only took 3 clubs to play nine holes. So I would pick a 7 iron, a putter and sand wedge for example.
MK: I would probably choose a humpie, the original the homer. . . invented by Jan Homer. I would probably pick a homer, and probably an Adams . . . if I had to choose. And then for the nymphs . . . I’d probably pick a Sawyers pheasant tail; and there used to be a zugbug, but now I would probably choose a prince . . . it would be the most effective all purpose fly that I can imagine.
FFJ: Thank you very much it was a true pleasure.
Mel passed away at his home in San Francisco, on October 7, 2008, at the age of 80, he is truly missed.