Mel’s Gift

Mel’s Gift

Jason Borger | Tuesday, 8 March 2016

It’s late on a Sunday night and I’ve been tweaking words and images in my latest book project. Specifically, words and images about fly cast pantomiming, a teaching technique made famous by the late Mel Krieger. Although he died in 2008, Mel Krieger’s voice still lives on in the world of fly casting. His influence on me was truly significant, and I remember feeling as if the end of an era had passed along with him that October day. Not long after Mel’s death, I was asked to write a remembrance of him for a Japanese magazine. What follows are those words. I hope that a few SL readers will recognize Mel in the same way that I’ll always see him.

A fly cast is like a kinetic sculpture, dancing momentarily in the air before settling onto the blue stage below. A fly cast is an expression, a desire, a hope, springing toward the unknown. It unrolls to reveal a tiny prize, a wisp on the water, an offering. A fly cast is thing of numbers, of formulae. It takes a path, it has momentum, physics enjoys toying with its intricacies. A fly cast is art, it is poetry, it is science.

It is Mel Krieger’s continuing gift to so many in this world.

I first met Mel when I was a 5-year old kid with impossible dreams of 100-foot casts and 20-inch rainbows dancing in my head. It was the summer of 1975, in a little town near the famed trout waters of the American West. The Federation of Fly Fishers was holding its annual conclave, and my father had come partly to attend a meeting with other Fenwick instructors. At that meeting, Mel changed the way fly casting would be taught.

I remember flashes of that day simply because it the first time that I was introduced not just to the man, but to a new way of learning casting: the pantomime. Not only did Mel’s new method for teaching the double-haul give me the skill, but it became the basis for nearly every cast I learned from that day forward. The pantomimed haul was reinforced with Mel’s mantra of “DownUp…DownUp!”, and fly casters the world over soon learned to double haul with nothing but their hands and the rhythm of that famous chant.

But of course, Mel’s impact went far beyond a simple teaching paradigm. He was a “people-person,” going out of his way to make fly casting accessible, to make the joy of the thing a reality to so many, and to simply be Mel. When he was in a room, people were drawn to him. His eyes were creased from smiling, and his signature laugh permeated any conversation. He was welcoming to old friends and new alike, and language never seemed to be a barrier.

For me, as a kid growing up in the sport, Mel’s openness, his handshake, his interest in my life, truly meant something. From childhood until the last day that I saw him, Mel always referred to me as his friend.

When I was on the cusp of publishing my first casting book—which owed much to Mel—he happily read a piece of my manuscript, then asked for more. He was genuinely pleased that one of the next generation was off and running toward the casting horizon. Mel didn’t try to patronize, nor did he try to diminish, nor did he undercut. He was honestly and openly pleased that I was continuing our collective passion for teaching the sport.

What do you say when a friend like that passes? At first I could say nothing—I just felt hollow. I would not see him again, and it seemed too sudden and final. But then it dawned on me, that despite my sadness, I could still see Mel. Not in a video or in the pages of a book, but flowing through the casts that I made, and through the words and actions that I used when I taught our beloved sport.

In that way, a piece of Mel—his gift of art, of poetry, and of science—will always be with me. Thank you, my old friend…