LONG BEACH — At 8 a.m. on a recent Sunday, the crisp smell of bacon permeated the air of a large wood-paneled room. Sitting near walls adorned with mounted trout were men wearing flannel vests and rubber boots, threading their fishing poles. As they worked, warmed by the flames from a stone fireplace, an almost subliminal anticipation brightened their eyes and quickened their fingers.
"Being outside in the early morning air . . . , " said Dean Rickard, 48.
"The camaraderie of the people . . . , " said Allan Rohrer, 58.
The place was Recreation Park, and the would-be fishermen were members of the Long Beach Casting Club out for their biweekly lark.
For more than 60 years, the club has practiced its arcane sport in this grassy area surrounded by city streets within a mile of the Pacific Ocean. In the 1930s, they say, as many as 200 would gather on a Sunday morning. Now they are lucky to get 20.
"More Interested in Being Entertained"
"Today, people are more interested in being entertained than in participating," said Rohrer, a Newport Beach aerospace worker who has been casting for 20 years. "I think it's reached bottom."
Yet a dedicated knot of practitioners gathers at the park's casting pond every other Sunday in winter and on Wednesday evenings in summer. During the rest of the week, the 130-by-265-foot cement pool attracts dogs and children unaware of the lofty purpose for which it was intended.
The sport, club members say, began in the 1860s among an elite group of New York fishermen who found a way to keep their hobby alive even in the midst of the city, namely by hitting floating targets with the business ends of their fishing lines.
The rules are simple: Targets consist of, among other things, brightly colored floating hoops placed at intervals on the surface of the pond. Beginning with scores of 100, competitors casting from the shore lose points each time their lines land outside the circles. The farther off they land, the more points they lose.
Casting enthusiasts tie their lines with a variety of materials, ranging from heavy plugs to lightweight flies. In addition to the events measuring accuracy, there are some that measure distance. What all the events share, casters say, is a resemblance to the real casting situations found in nature.
"There's a hidden motive," noted John Van Der Hoof, 34, a Long Beach landscape architect who said he owns $10,000 worth of tackle and travels all over the world to satisfy his passion for fishing. The more practiced one is at casting, he said, the more fish one is likely to catch away from the concrete pond.
'Better Than the Next Guy'
"You're already ahead of the game," Van Der Hoof said. "You're better than the next guy."
Indeed, competition is a big part of the attraction to the caster's art. Nationwide, casters say, there are perhaps 50 active casting clubs, mostly in the Midwest. Besides national tournaments, many hold regional meets. This weekend, in fact, the Long Beach casters will host a San Francisco club whose members, they say, are their only serious competitors in the state. Action begins at 8 a.m. both Saturday and Sunday in the park.
The sport first came to Long Beach in 1923, when a young Finnish artist named David R. Linder arrived from Chicago. An accomplished tournament caster who missed the casting competitions held by his old club in the Midwest, Linder got together a group of local sportsmen to form the Long Beach club.
Because there was no casting pond, members say, the group held its early practice sessions at the beach and on the lawn in front of the old downtown Chamber of Commerce.
Eventually the city agreed to put up half the money for the pond, to be constructed on city land at its new Recreation Park. A clubhouse was added in 1934 after the club purchased and moved the city's main fire station building--damaged in an earthquake the previous year--to the site. After being used as officers' quarters during World War II, the building was expanded to its present 2,500 square feet.
Treasure Trove of History
The walls of the place, which resembles a mountain cabin as much as anything this side of the Ozarks, are a treasure trove of history with photographs of the club's former presidents and colorful moments in its past. One shot, dated 1947, shows the entire Long Beach City Council posed with casting rods on the bank of the pond. Another shows an Olympic casting exhibition held there in 1932.
Though the city retains title to both the pond and the clubhouse, the club controls and maintains the facilities in exchange for offering inexpensive public classes in fly-tying, rod-building and casting. The club also organizes frequent fishing exhibitions and family social
events for its members, each of whom pays $20 a year in dues.