As rain spits from a low gray sky one evening, Mike Bostwick, perhaps the best fly-caster in all of Colorado, stands by himself in Aurora's Utah Park. An observer can tell it's Mike Bostwick (he looks a little like Stalin, but much friendlier) because of his rugged-sportsman-looking shirt, on which is stitched "Mike Bostwick," and because he's the one tossing a fly line an unusually long distance out onto the grass, the green filament curling gracefully into Picasso loops before snapping out like an unrolling tongue several dozen feet away.
This solitary scenario couldn't play out if John Elway wanted to heave some spirals through a tire in City Park, or if Peter Forsberg decided to stop by Big Bear ice arena for a little slap-shot practice. Yet even among fellow anglers, Bostwick and his competitors have felt the loneliness of the long-distance caster. They are the Maytag repairmen of sports champions.
"No groupies," sighs Washington state's Steve Rajeff, who has towered over the sport for three decades without enjoying anything resembling widespread recognition. "No Nike sponsorship. It's not like, 'There goes Tiger Woods!'"
Competitive casting belongs to that niche of athletics born of extracting the highlight-reel moment of a recognized sport and then concentrating it into a stand-alone activity. This process has yielded such spectacles as long-drive golfing competitions, slam-dunk-offs and home-run derbies. Each is defined by a certain pointlessness of effort: hitting a golf ball without actually playing a round, dunking with no game on the line, blasting a pitch over the fence without it counting for a run. Or casting a fishing line on dry land, with no intention of reeling in a fish.
Yet all these sports have found large, receptive audiences -- with the exception, alas, of competitive casting. While there are numerous casting clubs across the country (none in Colorado; the real fishing's too good), and the American Casting Association promotes the sport, competition audiences are more Pop Warner than pop star. This year a fly-fishing show on the Outdoor Life Network was canceled after a three-year run.
Unlike, say, slam-dunking, the pursuit of casting is galling to many of its own. Serious fly fishermen (usually a redundancy), whose wordy yammerings about Zen and angling-as-metaphor-for-life manage to clog bookstores every spring, see casting against a fellow fly fisherman as a perversion of their near-spiritual sport. "There are a lot of people who look down on the competitions -- who say that real fly-fishing is not a competitive sport," says Jon Spiegel, who manages Boulder's Front Range Anglers store. "A lot of people take fly-fishing a little too seriously."
Then again, Bostwick is no dilettante. A Denver-area native who grew up fishing in local ponds alongside his father for anything and everything, he found his very specific calling in 1987, when he scraped together enough money and time off to travel to Montana, where he studied for three days at the feet of master caster and fishing-video guru Doug Swisher. Swisher, an ambidextrous distance caster, told him that with enough practice, anyone could crack the ranks of big-time casting, and Bostwick set to work with the determination of an ant moving a brick.
Bostwick estimates that between 1987 and 1998, he put in about 20,000 hours of practice, a training schedule that makes Jerry Rice look slothful. Most of the time was spent in his Westminster back yard, or at various parks across the metro area. (It will come as no shock to learn that Bostwick, a licensed electrician, is divorced.)
Each of his solitary practices follows a certain pattern. First he stops by a local park, perhaps on the way home from work. (During the winter, he wears a parka and casts in the snow.) Bostwick warms up with some straight casts -- the foul shot of the sport -- with about three or four hundred throws to start. Next he works on curve-line casts. Then it's on to double hauls and slack lines and reach casts. By the time he's done for the day, he's put in another three or four hours of practice (more on weekends) and has another thousand or so casts under his belt.
The near-full-time work has paid off. For a while, Bostwick was the undisputed best competition fly caster in Colorado. He won the Colorado Open Fly Casting Championship, held annually in Lyons, every year between 1991 and 1996. (The tournament is no longer in existence.) Prior to each year's competition, Bostwick would virtually move on-site, where he would practice throwing for hours on end. He kept a meticulous notebook, listing where he was at any given moment on the river.
In a casting competition, contestants must drop a fly -- really a piece of yarn on the end of a leader -- inside a hula-hoop-like target; for the distance portion, they haul their line back and forth until they let it fly with one final, mighty toss. Distances vary according to the line weight permitted by individual competitions. But Bostwick's record of dropping a five-weight line 105 feet from his body stood as the standard until very recently.
Like most competitive casters, he keeps a special pedestal for the sport's colossus, Steve Rajeff, whose feats of accuracy and distance are the stuff of legend, at least among a tiny group of obsessive anglers. "He can set a split shot on a pop can from thirty feet away," Bostwick says, shaking his head. "He's amazing."
"Well," Rajeff says modestly, contacted at his day job as a rod designer at Washington-based G. Loomis, "I guess I could put five casts in a row on top of a soda can -- if it was just pulling the fly out of the water and then placing it back in the same place."
And, he adds, it's true that he's been known to toss a tennis ball into a lake and then nail it a half-dozen times in a row with spin-casting equipment. But that's just showing off. Even more impressive has been his casting under pressure, in tournaments. At one competition, Rajeff cast at 67 targets and hit 61 of them. The six times he missed, his casts were each off by less than a foot. Rajeff has been equally deft at distance casting. His longest one-handed fly-fishing cast, a contest in which a nine-foot rod is used, is 238 feet -- the U.S. record. In the two-handed category (which calls for a seventeen-foot rod), he's hurled a line 290 feet. So, for example, if an angler needed to place a jig into a hole across Invesco Field, Rajeff could do it.
Such skills have resulted in an unprecedented run of victories, and for more than a generation, Rajeff has dominated the sport, perhaps more so than any single person in any competitive athletic endeavor. He won his first all-around national American Casting Association championship in 1972; since then, he's lost the title only once (he came in a close second), sewing up the tournament an astounding 31 of 32 times. It's as if Jimmy Connors, who won his first Wimbledon title in 1974, were still playing professional tennis and hadn't lost the tournament since.
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Back at Utah Park, where a deluge-like rainstorm has just passed, a handful of members of the Cherry Creek Anglers Chapter of Trout Unlimited are beginning to show up. Many unpack their latest early-season, barely used equipment. Bostwick, who makes a handsome second income guiding and teaching casting, has agreed to host a free casting clinic.
The club members watch as the master methodically whips his $680 Sage rod (the company is a sponsor) from the ten o'clock position to the two o'clock, like a metronome, placing cast after cast straight and true.
"Three hours of practice a day," muses one man, a Texas transplant. He shakes his head as Bostwick uncurls another cast yards in front, his yarn alighting gently on the wet grass. "I don't put in three hours in a year."