It Takes All Kinds

a Few Stories and Profiles by Erik Hedegaard
mainly from inside the pages of Rolling Stone
(with additional commentary and folderol provided by the author aka Charlie, sometimes)



The Grass Casters: a Fanatic’s Tale

Posted on | February 4, 2014 | No Comments

NO BLAST NOT EVEN A SPLASH!

Long-distance casting–it ain’t the meat, it’s the motion.

THE GREEN FIELD stretches on, with bales of hay piled in the distance, and nary a body of water in sight–no roaring ocean, no sparkling lake, no tiny stream. Yet men are casting here. They are casting just as if there were fish swimming under the dirt. One of the men leans back, hauls forward, lets go. His rod propels an object at terrific speed. It’s not a wooden plug, nor a chunk of mullet. It’s a plain 5 1/4-ounce lead weight. And boy, does it travel. Almost instantly, the thing is out of sight. Then, seven long seconds later, it lands, punching up a small cloud of field dust, and the shouting commences.

“You beast, you!”

“You animal, you!”

“My God, mate!”

The caster grins as a car passes by the field, slows down, the driver looking entirely baffled by what he sees. As it happens, these men (and, okay, a few women) are participating in the first annual Shore Fishing and Casting Club International Austin, Texas, Open Championships, the point of which is to throw that little lead weight as far as is humanly possible, sometimes see it land (though most often not), bake under a broiling sun, make ribald ripostes, recall past distance-casting feats of wonder, anticipate the evening’s festivities (beer!), look forward to the national championships held every May in Lewes, Delaware (more beer!), declaim on the possibility of distance casting becoming an Olympic sport in 2004 (“It’s going to happen!”), bemoan the lack of spectators, worry about the fat new caster from Oklahoma, express astonishment that anyone could think their sport dull and, on occasion, take a stab at explaining why they love it so.

“It just makes my sticker peck out,” says a young tobacco-chewer named Tyler Thorsen. “I mean, I know it sounds stupid, but it’s like, you just can’t believe how far that weight goes!”

“It’s all up here in the head,” says a caster named Dalyn Vick, touching his own. “A man is going to want to throw to the other side. It’s been that way ever since I can remember. Every man wants to throw far!”

And these fellows do indeed throw far. The current U.S. record, held by Lou “Big Lou” McEachern of Beaumont, Texas–a man who once threw a sinker over the Houston Astrodome–stands at 817 feet, or well over two-and-a-half times the length of a football field. Any number of top-notch casters can regularly best the 700-foot mark. This is mighty impressive, of course–almost breathtaking. At the same time, though, you really do have to wonder: So what? What does any of this have to do with the sport of fishing, wherein it is said that 75 percent of all fish are caught an easy lob away?

“Look, mate, the only reason that might be true,” says Nick Myer, the English owner of Breakaway Tackle USA, the largest supplier of distance-oriented rods and gear in the United States and the man running the Austin contest, “is because 75 percent of the people fishing only fish right under their f—ing feet! They don’t know how to fish at extreme long distances. And in certain places, especially along the Texas coastline and the Outer Banks of North Carolina, if you can’t cast beyond the second or third gut, you may never catch a fish!”

He rolls his eyes, snorts, and excuses himself to go get the contest underway by bringing forward Jerry Valentine, who is a pest-control specialist from Lumberton, Texas, and the 1998 U.S. distance-casting champion. Jerry bows his head and leads the assembled in prayer. “Father, we want to thank you for this sport you have blessed us with,” he says solemnly. “It’s something we have all grown to love…and as we give this world a family-oriented sport that they can participate in, we ask that you would bless that sport….”

Then the contest begins in earnest for today’s 12 competitors. They mostly favor the same kind of equipment: superlong graphite rods of n feet or more and conventional baitcasting reels that have been tinkered with and customized to high degrees. But what really gets a weight moving toward the horizon is the specialized long-distance cast they all use, known as the pendulum cast. You start off facing rearward, rod tip held high; then you drop the tip, causing the weight to swing back, out and up; then you lift the tip, causing the weight to swing back past your head–and it’s at that point that you turn your body to face your target and begin loading the rod so that it can propel the weight into the great beyond and bring you the admiration of your fellow distance casters.

“After that one, we’re going to want a urine specimen!”

“I’ll give you stool, semen and urine!”

What you generally won’t get for your efforts, however, are the cheers of spectators, primarily because there aren’t any spectators. Longcasting competitions draw large crowds in some countries, especially in England, where the sport is especially popular, and in Japan, which is behind the lobbying effort to get the sport into the Osaka Olympics in 2004. But not here. Here, a contestant is lucky to get a blood relative or best buddy to watch.

“These things are about as much fun as watching paint dry,” explains one contestant. “To have some guy in a field wind up with a stick and throw something no one can see and have everybody look around and say, ‘Where’d it go?’–oh, it’s the boringest piece of shit ever!”

“Boring?” yawps Nick. “That’s totally wrong! There’s an explosive release of energy–and what people see they can hardly fricking believe!”

“Plus,” he says, “this sport is dangerous. That sinker travels at 200 miles per hour plus. When it hits the ground, it digs itself in six inches deep! And if it hits someone, it would instantly put them in shit!”

IT IS COMMONLY AGREED that without Nick and his unflagging optimism, the sport of distance casting would not even be where it is today. In one form or another, it’s been around in the United States since the early 1900s, when a couple of fishermen in Ocean City, New Jersey, thought it would be a good way to pass the time. In the early 1980s, it even briefly flourished, thanks to the sponsorship of the Stren fishing line company. But once Stren backed out, the sport floundered. Then along came Nick, a longtime distance caster and a gutsy entrepreneur who, back home in England, had once hoped to make his fortune in the beef jerky importation racket. When mad cow disease crushed that dream, he moved to the United States, where he formed Breakaway, to give this country what it did not have: specialized long-distance rods, such as those he had used in England, and the specialized rigs to go with them.

At first, tackle shop owners were incredulous. Said one in Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, “We don’t want your sort telling us how to cast. We already know how to cast. Get the hell out of here or you’re going to end up shot.”

Nick persevered, however, and when fishermen finally saw how far he could fling a bait, they put down their guns and began to eyeball his gear.

These days, the sport of distance casting draws to it a surprising variety of people, including women and children, a number of whom participate in the Austin event. Of the men here, you have the seriously athletic types, like Jerry Valentine, who before casting can be seen stretching out and limbering up and laboring over reels that have never felt a drop of corrosion-inducing water and never will. You also have the more relaxed and casual competitors, like the one known as Baitboy, who lights a cigarette, puts it between his lips, and does not remove it until he has finished taking his turn in the casting spotlight.

“I’ve seen you throw a mullet further’n that,” appraises a fellow sportsman.

“That’s true,” says Baitboy, puffing on his smoke.

And then there is “Tiny” Tim Smith, a catfishing guide from Oklahoma who has driven eight hours to enter the contest, his first ever, and seems to be one of a kind. He is recovering from heart surgery, claims (and looks) to weigh 400 pounds, has a lower lip that is swollen with Copenhagen chew, prefers an old-style fiberglass rod and a stock levelwind reel, and has said he can cast 800 feet. The more polished casters here either dismiss that claim outright–“If he can do that with the shit he’s using,” they say, “he’d be a miracle man”–or they worry about it. This brings out the trash talk so common of athletes today. Says one half-trembling caster, “Didja see his fat ankles? You prick them with a pin, they’ll pop open like kielbasas.” He pauses. “I just want to beat that fat bastard.”

This particular caster gets his butt whipped by the Okie and is forced to retire to the shade, where many of the other casters are lost in deep reverie, recalling the day when the great Hector Hernandez, while fishing the pier at Texas City Dyke, got pissed off at a boat that kept buzzing by and rocketed a great big sinker into the windshield, thereby adding greatly to the list of practical applications of the sport.

“Here’s the thing,” says Jerry. “There is no competitive throwing event that throws farther–not javelin, not discus, not archery, not that Scottish event where they throw 125-pound poles.”

After the last throw, Nick reads the names of the winners. Jerry has hit 708.65 feet; Nick, 643.59; a fellow named Rip Ripley, 643.155; and Tiny Tim, 629.43. “Look how close we are,” Nick says to Rip. “I beat you by four pubic hairs of an inch!” Then, as the sun begins to decline against the horizon, the men pack up their rods and put away their weights. Pretty soon, the place is empty. But for all those six-inch-deep holes, you can’t even tell that it was once trod upon by fishers of dirt.

Nick takes a last look around. “This,” he says, “is our field of dreams.”

“Not much of a dream, Nick,” says a bystander.

But neither Nick nor Jerry nor Tim nor Tyler nor Baitboy nor any of the others appear to have heard this comment. Or if they have, they pay it no mind, such is their love of their sport. 

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