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 ?-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 ? 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? 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 ?-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?-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 ?-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.