What are they fishing for?" somebody asked. "Grasshoppers?" They might well have been, these people with fishing rods standing out there on dry land. But they were tournament casters, who do not rise at dawn or carry a net, and the big ones never get away from them. Not far away, at least. Always the quarry is there before them—a distant point on a field, a rubber ring in a pool—for rising in the caster's dreams are not trout, but the flat trajectory of his next cast, a record one for sure.
Salmon could be spawning in the caster's bathtub but the fish would be safe with a competition near. And that is how it is in northern California now. In the streams big trout are slurping dry flies, but a major threat to their security is in San Francisco—fishing, as they say, for grasshoppers. His name is Steve Rajeff, and he is a 16-year-old casting prodigy. In two weeks he flies to England for the world championships, so the trout are safe for a while. That is more than can be said for the world's best casters who will face Steve.
Last year, at 15, an age at which most casters are at the minnow stage of development, Rajeff became the youngest ever to win the national all-around championship. And two weeks ago in San Antonio he won it again, demonstrating such precocity and calm under pressure that a much older caster was heard to mutter, "The kid's got concentration, strength, timing, everything, damnit."
There are 12 different events in the all-around competition—six are for distance, on grass, and six for accuracy, in a pool; half are with flies, the other half with plugs—and Rajeff had five firsts, three seconds and two thirds.
The ‚Öù-ounce plug competition for distance is a fit opener. To start with, there is this thing about the line that is used. As 65-year-old Steve Aleshi said, "It's finer than the hair on my head," and he removed his hat to reveal utter baldness. The breaking strength of the line is under one ounce, with a short length of heavier line at the butt end to withstand the snap of the cast. Steve Rajeff brought a little insurance line with him, 24,000 yards of it, wound on a tiny spool originally used for sewing thread.
Rajeff was third in the ‚Öù event. His best cast was 409 feet, portentous enough for his future competition; last year his best cast was only 353 feet, and he finished seventh.
His improvement was even more striking in single-handed distance fly casting. As always, the three best of five casts were averaged in each distance event, and Rajeff's 196 feet beat his own national record of 191‚Öì feet, set two years ago.
Rajeff took a third in two-handed distance fly casting, in which he was 10th last year, and second in the ‚Öú-ounce distance spinning event. But all this did not bring down the house. There was no house. As spectator sports go, distance casting is not one. On the field at Fort Sam Houston were the 12 all-around competitors and the judges and three or four young boys darting around far downfield, planting a forest of little metal markers where the plugs fell. But the only other signs of life were puzzled drivers who slowed as they passed.
Rajeff had held the 489‚Öì-foot average record in the two-handed distance plug event, which is another stunt that employs a spinning reel, but with an elongated spool. Then he and a 27-year-old Texan named B. L. Farley each broke it, with 508 feet. It was windy in Texas, but wind-aided records are official. Farley won with a longer single cast of 523 feet but it was too late for him to win the all-around. Earlier, in the ‚Öù-ounce distance competition, he had three times broken his line. And Rajeff won another distance fly event at the end of the second day, the halfway point, and now the grasshopper fishing was over. Rajeff was in the lead with only 26-year-old Terry Schneider within casting distance, and it was on to San Antonio's Hemisfair pool.
Rajeff had come a long way since catching his first fish, a tiny rainbow trout, on a worm, with a plastic bait casting outfit. He was five years old then, but his skills grew in spurts. He began hanging around the pools of the Golden Gate Angling and Casting Club. He got a fly rod for $1.50 at what he calls a junk store. He found someone to coach him, and learned to cast a little. At 10 his dad bought him a better fly rod, and a month later he entered a tournament and beat his coach.
Steve Rajeff was 10 the first time he used his fly rod on real fish. Trout were rising all over the Truckee River and he got so excited he forgot everything he had learned. At San Antonio he forgot nothing. He scored 99 points in the dry-fly accuracy event, but Farley, hoping for a miracle, had scored a perfect 100. And now it was Schneider's turn. Accuracy targets consist of 30-inch rings set inside 54-inch rings, at five varying distances, and on his second cast Schneider missed both rings and lost two points, which dropped him down to 98. Suddenly dispirited, he hurried his remaining casts and scored a 92.
Rajeff was all but in. He won the next three events, two with a plug, and then the trout-fly accuracy, tying his national record in the latter with a perfect 100. Everyone stopped to watch during that one. The Hemisfair monorail train screeched by above his head but he didn't flinch, and one spectator said, "He just seems nerveless. Nothing bothers him."
But Rajeff was used to even greater pressures. His favorite fishing is for big rainbow trout with a dry fly, and one day last June he was in northern California's Lassen County, wading a creek which he will not name. He was using the same outfit he scored the 100 with in the trout-fly accuracy event, and he saw a good fish feeding 50 feet away. It was in a little pocket in the tules, a foot wide and two feet deep. It was dead calm in the pocket, with fast water just outside, and Rajeff dropped the fly in there as gently as a shadow. He mended the line so the current wouldn't yank it out; the fish hit, and during a 10-minute fight it took 30 feet of backing from his reel. It was a three-pound rainbow, which Rajeff landed and released. And that is coolness under pressure.
There were two more events at San Antonio—bass-bug accuracy, in which Rajeff took a fourth (he loves to bug for bass in California's Berryessa Reservoir), and ‚Öù-ounce plug accuracy. He also tied for fourth in that. Terry Schneider won it, but Steve Rajeff was national champion again.
That night there was a party for the casters at a local brewery. The tickets noted that no one under 21 would be admitted. No exceptions. But they made exceptions, and Rajeff all but wore a trench from his seat to the MC's microphone. He collected an armload of trophies and plaques, and someone called him the Mark Spitz of casting.
Next morning Rajeff flew home to prepare for the world championships and for his senior year at San Francisco's Lowell High School, where he has a B-plus average. He plays trumpet in the school's symphony band, and he thinks he wants to be a dentist. Those are things that people understand. Not like fishing for grasshoppers.