Casting with Joe

Who Needs the Buffalo Paddock?

Joe Brooks earned the deepest respect and utmost admiration of all who knew him well.  And so it was for me and my fishing friends, Marvin, Bert, and Harrison. His positive influences on our lives began soon after we met him during the 1960s and continue to this day. Nearly 50 years separated us in age, almost two generations—he was a gentleman of another time, a different vintage.

Joe had his formal side, the one familiar to the many viewers of The American Sportsman, but he was not above having some fun.

In the summer of 1966, Marvin and I had just graduated from high school in Richmond, Virginia. With encouragement and help from Joe and his wife Mary, we tied flies for some income that summer, and being close neighbors to them, we dropped by their house now and then to keep in touch. Marvin was there more regularly than I, as he mowed their lawn and helped Joe prepare for his fishing trips worldwide.

One mid-August day, Marvin and I were shooting hoops in the back alley a few houses down from Joe and Mary’s home. During a break, we decided, “Hey, let’s see what Joe is up to.” Not considering that he might be deep into a book chapter, an Outdoor Life column, or on the phone planning another trip.

Mary came to the door, grinning. “Go down to the office and see Joe,” she said. “He just got some new toys.”

Music to our ears.

Joe Brooks and Bing Crosby. Photo courtesy the Joe Brooks Foundation.

Hey, look at what I got today,” Joe said. And he rushed to bring out two new bamboo rods—big rods—one 13 feet long, the other 15 feet. These were overhead casting rods (not spey rods) for an upcoming Atlantic salmon fishing trip with Bing Crosby to the Cockermouth Castle Estate in England for an episode of ABC’s The American Sportsman.

Such rods are needed to handle the huge salmon flies, up to size 9/0, used for fishing for large Atlantic salmon in European rivers with heavy flows. Joe often used Battenkill rods of 8 ½ to 9 ½ feet for his salmon fishing, baffling his hosts and gillies, who considered those to be “trout rods.”

“Let’s take these babies out and see how they cast,” he said.

Writing could wait.

“Where are we going to cast them?” we asked.

Joe and Mary had a small yard, nothing that could accommodate these monsters.

“Let’s take these babies out and see how they cast.”

“Let’s go down front,” Joe said. “I’ll grab a reel and put a tag of yarn at the end of the leader.”

“Down front” was Prince George Road, a dead end with a small strip of grass beside it—better than the side yard, but with overhanging trees. It was not the ideal spot to cast any fly rod, much less these giants. Only the tightest loops would work on our makeshift casting lawn.

Down the hill, we went. Joe pulled the rods and rigged them up.

“Look at these guys,” he said. “Aren’t they beauties?”

Beauties indeed, but huge—and heavy.

Joe worked out some line and made a few casts.

“Man, they are powerful. Bing Crosby and I head to the Derwent River in England in two weeks to fish for salmon, and these will be just the ticket for some classic camera shots for the show. Great background ‘color.’”

After a few casts, Joe handed the 13-foot rod over to Marvin. Getting the backcast under the overhanging tree limbs was challenging, but Marvin managed it well. With a big GAAAF (perhaps even a 4A) line loaded onto one of Joe’s big Fin-Nor Wedding Cake reels, the outfit was a handful, but it could sure throw a line.

Marvin handed it off to me, and I made a few casts. This was an outfit for giants, for sure. Another world.

Joe rigged up the 15-footer and limbered it up.

Just then, a mailman appeared to deliver some mail to the next-door neighbor, whose front steps were far down the block.

“Let’s see what this rod can do,” Joe said.

A couple of false casts and a double-haul, and Joe shot enough line to drop the bit of yarn softly just short of the mailman’s feet as he headed up the steps, intent on his mission. The mailman never noticed it. Even if he had, he wouldn’t have connected it to the three figures standing so far away. Marvin and I grinned at each other as Joe chuckled, mostly to himself. This was a side of Joe we seldom got to see, but when we did, it was a special treat. Just one of the gang, hanging out, having fun—fooling around with a fly rod.

A previous version of this story was published in Fly Fisher International‘s The Loop.