I live in New York City, in downtown Manhattan, on the seventh floor of a 13-story apartment building. Two or three times a week, I wake up early, ride the elevator down to my lobby and say good morning to my doorman, in the custom of millions of city dwellers everywhere.
But on the particular days I’m describing, my next move isn’t so familiar: I plant myself in the middle of West 12th Street and commence fly-casting — essentially fly-fishing without the fish — slinging 30 or 40 feet of thin nylon line behind me and in front of me, over and over again while stepping in and out of the street in sync with the traffic-light cycles to avoid passing cars, like some kind of bastardized urban version of Brad Pitt in “A River Runs Through It,” God and Norman Maclean forgive me.
I’ve been practicing this peculiar ritual for years. Some time ago, I was looking to shake off the rust and get my arm in shape to prepare for an upcoming fishing trip to Wyoming, but living where I do, I didn’t have a suitable place to do so. Or I thought I didn’t, anyway. But then it occurred to me that a city street — long, straight and, in my case, relatively free of traffic — is actually quite suitable. Pretty great, even. Peculiar is in the eye of the beholder.
This year, street-casting has taken on a new urgency. I typically fish 20 or so days a year, everywhere from the Catskills to the Bahamas, but because of Covid-19, I haven’t managed to get out on the water at all. And yet, like many of us these days, I’m desperate to find pockets of joy wherever I can. Some people bake bread; others do jigsaw puzzles. I cast a fly rod on West 12th Street. For now, it’s not a way for me to prepare for a trip — it is the trip.
While street-casting, per se, may not be an actual thing, fly-casting definitely is. The sport dates back some 150 years and was popular enough in the first half of the 20th century that competitions were held at Madison Square Garden. Today the pursuit is mostly centered on local clubs, with various associations hosting distance and accuracy competitions around the world. Fly-casting’s undisputed GOAT, 63-year-old Steve Rajeff, won the American Casting Association’s all-around championship 46 years in a row and has taken first place at the World Casting Championship 14 times. Its newest superstar is Maxine McCormick, a 16-year-old who took up casting at age 9 and notched two world titles by the time she was 14. (She has been called the Mozart of fly-casting.)
There’s a simple Zen pleasure in the metronomic rhythms of fly-casting, and it’s a pretty cool experiment in applied physics. The trick is to “load” the line on the back cast, then transfer the coiled energy on the forward cast, stopping the rod at precisely the right moment to shoot the line forward with maximum speed. As with a golf swing, a million things can go wrong. But when you get it right, it’s magic.