Home » Archives for Rick Pope

Author: Rick Pope

TFO Ambassador Chris Thompson

At some point, one’s life memories and friends become so cherished that they can cause you to dream in color. Such has been my relationship with Chris and his two “Brothers”.

Sometime back around 2005, three Gunnery Sergeant Marines ended up in Quantico, VA after multiple tours of duty. One of the three, Alex Colonna, had (and still has) a cute blonde wife (Chrissy) who met and endeared herself to Lefty Kreh at a regional consumer fly fishing show. Alex, Chris and the “third Brother”, Paul Norman, were in various stages of learning to fly fish and Chrissy boldly asked Lefty if she could buy a casting lesson for Alex’s USMC retirement gift. Lefty kindly declined, but offered to have Alex and his brothers come to his house. Paul was deployed and couldn’t join them. Chris tagged along with Alex and they were treated to a full afternoon with Lefty at his home in Frederick, MD.

The boys didn’t realize Lefty was a WWII veteran who fought through the Battle of the Bulge … and Lefty didn’t fully realize that they were both active duty Marines with a passion for fly fishing. About six months after that fateful meeting, Paul Norman was medevaced back from a tour in Iraq and they all became great friends of Lefty’s. The bond formed was so strong in the initial meeting that Lefty gave Chris one of our prototype 389-4 Finesse rods that had Lefty’s signature electric-pen engraved on the reel seat. Grateful, humbled and a bit confused, Chris emailed me to find out exactly what he had received from Lefty.

It turned out that Chris had a pre-approved prototype that we action tweaked and not a rod I would suggest he fish. I reply “It will make a great wall hanger-memento so I’ll send you one of the production models”. Chris replied “things are tight until next payday … and I don’t know when I can afford it”. “Chris, if you impressed Lefty to the degree that he gave you that rod – I’m doing the same thing”. We became great friends.

But let’s go back to Chris’ beginnings where he was born in Goldsboro, NC near Camp Lejeune, a major USMC military base. Although Chris’ biological father was active Air Force, he separated from Chris’ mom while Chris was young and many of his formative years were with his biological grandfather, Elmer – a USMC veteran of WWII’s Pacific theater. Both he, and Chris’ dad, Cecil, who adopted him when he was young, were excellent shots and avid anglers so as we say, “the acorn didn’t fall far from the tree” given their early influence with Chris.

After high school, Chris joined the Marines, graduated first in his Scout Sniper school training and after active duty tours, primarily in Europe, he ended up as an instructor back at the Infantry School at Camp Lejeune– and continued to fish for bass with gear until meeting Paul Norman. Paul introduced Chris to fly fishing. In spite of the claim that Paul was not a very good instructor … Chris freely admitted that he was not a very good student either! Chris, Alex and Paul became what I’ve called the “Fly Fishing Band of Brothers”. Another great example of how fly fishing, casting and fly tying makes friendships even stronger.

On one of my early trips to the Project Healing Waters (PHWFF) Two Fly event in Syria, VA, Chris and his brothers offered to both deliver me to the event and to help in any way they could. PHWFF founder and retired Navy Captain Ed Nicholson’s response to my suggestion that they would like to attend was “Navy guys love Marines! Bring them along”! Another set of friends entered Chris’ life and he so moved by the good work of PHWFF that he recently assumed the Program Lead position for the PHWFF Camp Lejeune Program near his home.

Of all the great times I’ve had with Chris, one of the most memorable was spending three days in Florida with my longtime friend and television host of The Seahunter where we filmed Chris’ first tarpon, first shark and first blackfin tuna out of Key West with Captain Mike Weinhofer of Compass Rose Charters – the blackfin highlights are here and definitely worth a watch:

Chris’ all-time favorite specie is false albacore which arrive out of the gulf stream to the shallows off NC when the bait balls start coming out of the many estuaries on the way to the Atlantic. Weighing from 15 to as much as 25 pounds and cruising at 40 MPH while attacking bait in water as shallow as 20 feet makes for an incredible fight on fly tackle. His most memorable catch was a near 100 pound tarpon with me and Rob Fordyce (another television event) in 2015. We had chased tarpon all day and finally decided that a certain Flamingo Park flat could produce a chance at redfish. Within minutes of picking up an 8 weight and storing the 10 weight, the tarpon showed up less than 50 feet from the bow … a quick back cast, hookup and great fight brought the magnificent fish to Rob’s hand. I must admit it was one of my more memorable catches to watch as well.

Chris lives with his beautiful fly fishing wife Kellie and three of their five children in Hubert, NC. Saltwater fly fishing opportunities abound and they have only a short drive to the Shenandoah Mountains for trout. We’re honored to have him as a member of the TFO Ambassador family.

TFO Ambassador Joel Stewart by Rick Pope

In my 50 plus years of fly fishing and 25 years in the industry, I’ve met all sorts of incredibly interesting people, made some lasting friendships and heard stories from all sorts of fly fishing luminaries. Get ready for a really good life story on Joel Stewart, Captain (USN).

Back in early 2005, my first introduction to Joel was through a mutual friend and frequent fly fishing bulletin board contributor, Ed Laine. I found out through Ed that he knew of a Naval LT transferred to Baghdad’s Camp Victory surrounded by several of Sadam’s palaces … and lakes, which Joel soon discovered had various warm/hot water fish swimming around. On a whim, he had brought along a fly rod and soon found out that the carp and various carp like species would, in fact, take a fly. As soldiers rotated in and out of the facilities, Joel’s fly rod attracted a ton of attention and interest.

Ed let me know that Joel wanted to start the Baghdad Angler’s Club and School of Fly Fishing so that he could share fly casting and fishing techniques with soldiers during their down time at the camp. “They need some rods and reels” per Ed and TFO was perfectly positioned to help them out with 5 weight outfits. Several months later, Joel sent me a very prized photograph of a group of soldiers in battle dress with M4s … and fly rods … standing on the bank of one of the palace lakes. Take some time and check out the Baghdad Angler’s Club and School of Fly Fishing as I know you’ll find the pictures and stories entertaining.

After Joel’s tour ended in Iraq, he served as Navigator on the USS Makin Island (LHD 8), a Wasp Class amphibious assault ship. Through a couple of years circling the globe, Joel kept me entertained with all sorts of saltwater fly fishing adventures that of course, requited the use of an arsenal of rods and reels beyond the 5 weight class. Joel reminded me that when he first met Lefty Kreh and Flip Pallot at an event in New Orleans, Lefty peppered him with questions about the various locations, species and opportunities Joel had experienced. I doubt very much that Lefty even mentioned his time in WWII and the Battle of the Bulge. They became good friends – once again drawn together by their passion for fly fishing and desire to share knowledge with others.

At that same New Orleans event, Joel also met Captain Ed Nicholson (USN Retired) who concurrent with Joel’s fly fishing efforts in Baghdad, Ed started Project Healing Waters for wounded veterans in recovery at Walther Reed Army Medical Center. Once again a close friendship ensued and Joel continues to support PHWFF at every opportunity. In fact, Joel’s book written about his fly fishing opportunities – A Fly Rod in My Sea Bag – is full of great stories plus, all profits go to support PHWFF and their over 50 active chapters throughout the US and internationally.

But let’s first go back to Joel Stewart’s origins in Great Falls, MT where he was raised as the oldest of four – one brother and two sisters. Joel’s father worked at the Great Falls Sporting Goods Co. which sadly closed around 1980. This was the genesis of his Christmas gift when he was twelve … an early seventies vintage 3 piece South Bend glass rod and an automatic Perrine fly reel. He worked hard at casting and managed to attain great distances (at the time) of up to fifty feet. Through high school, Joes worked part time at the Mountain Bait & Tackle where he “sold everything from night crawlers to dry flies”. As fly fishing began to consume him, Joel’s epiphany moment was catching an 18 inch native cutthroat trout. Although a bit ridiculed for targeting carp with his fly rod on the fabled Missouri River, he loved the challenge and the fight, little did he know that these experiences would serve him well in the Baghdad palace lakes. Years later, Lefty Kreh’s 101 Fish book, published in 2012, validated Joel’s enjoyment of “a fish is a fish” approach to what would become his exotic and global fly fishing adventures. For Joel, this closed the circle he started by targeting carp in the Missouri River as a teenager.

Upon his 1985 graduation from High School in Great Falls, Joel enlisted in the Navy so that he would eventually be able to apply college benefits and hopefully become the first member of his family to get a college degree. After his enlisted duty ended, he and his wife Barbara agreed that a career in the Navy held great promise and this proved to be the case. Although less than one in a hundred Navy enlistees are ultimately promoted to the rank of Captain, Joel’s dedication and interpersonal skills allowed him to do just that. His progression has been as impressive as any I’ve ever known.

Just this past year, Joel returned from an assignment in Bahrain where once again, he found opportunity to bend his favorite TFO A2 fly rods. You’ll enjoy this article Joel wrote for the Amberjack Fishing Journal on fly fishing for queenfish in Dubai. He is currently stationed at the Army War College in Carlisle, PA. Upon completion, he anticipates assignment to amphibious operations in San Diego where he expects to ultimately retire. With 33 years of service in the US Navy, 19 of those at sea, he deserves some time off as well as a big THANK YOU from all of us for his service. He plans to return to his favorite fishery in Montana’s fabled Bob Marshall Wilderness in order to chase his favorite wild west-slope cutthroat once retired and who knows … he just might find carp out there too!

Joel will join TFO in our booth at the Virginia Fly Fishing and Wine Festival in Doswell, VA January 12 & 13 – then he will join us again in Edison, NJ January 25, 26 & 27th. If you have a chance to attend either of these great fly fishing shows, please be sure to stop by and meet one of what Lefty called “a truly great American”.

Another Perspective on Lefty by Rick Pope

I met Lefty Kreh back in the mid-80s on a hosted trip to Turneff Island in Belize to learn more about bonefish and fly fishing in saltwater. Flip Pallot and Mark Sosin joined us in a week of the absolute worst bonefishing trip ever — but one that I’ll never forget.  I met Flip first – as Lefty suggested Flip as a guide on my first trip to Florida in the early ‘80s. Like all who met Lefty, he was and has been a friend since.

A career change and my entry into the fishing business in 1995 meant that I would see much more of Lefty and, like all of us, I clung to every piece of fishing advice that he so generously dispensed. He honored me with acclaim for TFO’s entry into rods that were “affordable” – as he lived a frugal life and he believed affordability would allow more folks to enjoy the sport.

Our friendship grew along with our opportunities to spend time together at various fly-fishing events around the country. Lefty’s personality, people skills, humility and candor began to impress me even more than his casting skills.  His interest in TFO’s affordable concept also grew, and ultimately, I decided to write him a letter and beg him to join us and help design our rods. That was in late 2002. Unfortunately, he suffered a “minor” stroke just before Thanksgiving, so I delayed my pitch. Then between Christmas and New Year’s Day, he suffered his first heart attack. Not wanting to add to his stress so again, I delayed.

I got a report in mid-January where Lefty performed at the Denver ISE show that he was in fine form. He even shared with everyone the story of both the stroke and heart attack.  So I sent the letter. He replied with a phone call “I can’t say yes, but I’m not ready to say no. Can we talk about this for a while?” What was essentially an interview with Lefty lasted almost a month and consisted of much more than rod design and concept discussions. Life stories, family, relationships and business philosophy dominated the many conversations we had. Not one mention of money was made. Ultimately, he called me in late February and confirmed that he made the decision to leave his rod company of 20 years and would enjoy helping us with rod design. The press release was written February 25, 2003 – the day before his 78th birthday – and TFO’s business world changed dramatically.

By that point, we had established a good consumer following – although many dealers and certain rod companies threw stones at us for being Korean made and “too cheap.” I even had advice, or a threat, from one dealer that we needed to raise our price, that the rods are too good for their price. Even more upsetting were the complaints levied against Lefty for working with a cheap rod importer.  Our exclusive Korean factory was (and still is) owned by a brilliant engineer who both Lefty and even Gary Loomis claimed is one of the best they’ve ever worked with.

With the benefit of hindsight, splitting design from engineering proved to be very beneficial. Lefty could see transition issues in a rod by analyzing loop and shock wave issues in the fly line.  He could quite accurately predict where within the blank such issues exist – and how much line weight or fly resistance caused them to appear. To this day, I’ve never seen another with such an intuitive understanding of rod dynamics.

His first trip to Dallas was in March of 2003 and involved three days of evaluating every rod we had while we took detailed notes on action, performance, power and finish out. Changes and modifications were made while he took over the design of our prototype TICR series that, after six different 8-weight prototypes, we were able to introduce the family at IFTD in September.

Lefty proved to be more than the “pied piper” with consumers following him as he would call and ask, “Do you know Ed Jaworowski … then Nick Curcione, then Bob Clouser, Jake Jordan and Flip Pallot? They might be interested in working with us and each has excellent insight into rod design.” Through the 15 years and one month Lefty worked with us, we prototyped over 2,000 rods and he gladly accepted final responsibility for every one we’ve introduced. We became a true family, with epic sales meetings, dinners, stories and jokes – all because of Lefty.

Our incredible family of Advisory Staff members – four of whom are inductees into the IGFA Hall of Fame – have ideas and solutions to enhance rod performance and fishing enjoyment. Lefty always enjoyed the group discussions whether small or all inclusive. From talking knots with Cliff Pace and Larry Dahlberg to rod design with Flip Pallot and Gary Loomis to casting with Ed Jaworowski, he learned, taught and made us all better people. Ed, as one of his closest friends, convinced him to join us on an epic three-year production of The Complete Cast DVD set and watching its evolution remains as one of my life’s highlights.

He loved women and always seemed to pick one out of the crowd when on stage while claiming he could “teach any woman he wasn’t going with or married to” how to fly cast unlike “hardheaded guys who don’t listen well.” Lefty even coached a Catholic girls’ basketball team for a while after his return from WWII.  He always claimed, however, that his greatest catch was Evelyn – his wife and best friend for 65 years. Ev Kreh passed away November 25, 2011 after several years of declining health that caused Lefty to limit the length of his travels as he didn’t want to be away from her for more than two nights. With her passing, he came to Dallas the following weekend for an event with our major dealer, and we met a couple with a lodge on Ascension Bay that offered great permit fishing. We booked for the spring of 2012 and I caught my first (and only) two permit the same day with Lefty as my boat partner. After that, we always kept a couple of trips planned and enjoyed many until his health and lack of stamina began to slow him down.

Over the past few years, I came to realize that Lefty was much more than one of the best fly casters, teachers and rod designers in the world. His humility, people skills, passion and insights proved to be incredibly valuable to me as well as all who were fortunate enough to know him well. I regret that I never begged him to write the Lessons on Life book. I was blessed to work with him for the past 15 years and I pledge that his teachings on life will eternally remain part of our corporate ethic as his rod design influence will continue to exist in every TFO rod we make. May he rest in peace.

Indy 500 Wrap-up with Rick Pope (Chairman, TFO)

So it was only a couple of months ago that Ricardo Juncos purchased 4 Indy cars and decided to enter the 101st running of the biggest racing event in the world.  His team has great experience and has enjoyed great success in both the Pro Mazda and Indy Lights circuits.  It was a logical next step although rife with daunting challenges – not the least of which is the level of competition and experience of most all the greatest racing teams in the sport.

Ricardo as it turned out, is incredibly humble and one of the most loyal people I’ve ever met … the epitome of both a leader and a team builder.  I realized the same about his beautiful Brazilian wife, Danielle and his father, son and relatives who made the trip from his home country of Argentina and from his residence in Florida.  Every crew member including his drivers were quick to welcome us into their wonderful family and glad to answer all of our “rookie” questions.  Only my partner, Tom Lydick has closely followed racing while Frank – Paul King (FP), Jim Shulin, Ronda Webb and I went to the event without a clue, but with great enthusiasm.

In a word, it was incredible.  Watching these team members work is worthy of a business leadership study … from 7 second pit stops to a rebuild of the 11 car that Spencer Pigot unfortunately wrecked during time trials.  The car was back on the track the next day which not only impressed us, but also was widely talked about by other teams.  That level of loyalty and commitment to success can’t be purchased.  I can’t resist a special shout out of thanks to Jayson Marksberry (COO), his wonderful wife Rose and Chief (retired) Mike Dove who all treated us like both royalty and close friends.  Mike of course represents TFO in the Great Lakes and is an incredible bass angler.  He is responsible for introducing us to the Juncos Racing team and we’re ever so grateful.

Friday morning started with a tour of the new “shop” … a 60,000 plus foot garage with bays, transport trucks, offices, lots of trophies  and even a simulation room where the different circuit cars can take laps on most every racetrack in the world.  The cars that actually race have downloadable information that can re-create running the track both at the shop and at the garage (Gasoline Alley) inside Indy Motor Speedway (IMS).  Each race is reviewed thoroughly by both driver and engineers immediately after leaving the track.

Next was the garage inside IMS – two bays with both Indy Light cars undergoing final inspection and pre-race preparation.  Apparently most of the Indy Light races are road courses – not ovals – and the driving skills and car performance are quite a bit different.  The lead driver, Californian Kyle Kaiser finished last but endured the race with an almost flat right rear time due to debris on the track from a crash in the first couple of laps.  That said, he remains the points leader for the Indy Light Championships as a result of his brilliant management of a crippled car … there are no pit stops allowed in this 40 lap/100 mile race.  Most of us watched the entire race from the pits and near the finish line.  To be 20 yards or so from these 200 MPH cars was awesome and Kyle was both humble and a true gentleman. Rumor has it that he’ll drive an Indy car soon and I’ll definitely be a fan.

Saturday was a day to enjoy the track, hang out in the pits and take in the IMS experience without any races.  It is a big place and is attended by something over 300,000 fans on race day.  We finished the day with dinner at Fogo de Ciao with Ricardo, his family, drivers and some of the crew.  It was a great opportunity to spend quite conversation with Ricardo, Kyle and Sebastian Saavedra who finished 15th in Sunday’s race.  Interestingly we talked more about fishing than race cars.

Finally, the big day arrived.  We started at the shop and were met with a police escort at 10 AM.  It was a good thing as it took nearly an hour to get to the hospitality suite inside IMS.  From there, we “fought” crowds of thousands of people and worked our way to the viewing suite, inside the track about a quarter mile from turn 4 where the long straightaway allowed for some of the most aggressive driving and passing going into turn 1 – just past the finish line.  The mass of spectators was beyond my ability to anticipate and the cars, with lap average speeds of 230 would scream into this last stretch at what must have been 240+ MPH.  Few prop planes cruise at such speeds.

Thanks to an inside room with bar, buffet and television, we could react to the crowd roar and run inside to see the crashes – at least one by Dixon (pole sitter) was horrific and amazingly, he walked away.  It was obvious that there were about 6 cars that dominated the field and the race was exciting to the end.  Throughout the race, we even had access to the pits and were able to watch the pit crews fuel, change tires and tweak car adjustments from about 20 feet away.  These guys were really good.  The smell of exhaust, burning rubber and the high pitched screams of Chevy and Honda engines literally reverberated throughout the track.

Bottom line, the experience was incredible.  Finishing both cars at 15th and 18th left Juncos Racing very pleased with overall performance and I will guarantee that this fine group of folks will be formidable competitors at Indy going forward.