The World Champ of Fly-Casting Just Wants to Be a Teen
Maxine McCormick is already a fly-fishing legend. But how can a 15-year-old make her way through a world dominated by retirees?
One morning in February, 15-year-old Maxine McCormick leaned her fly rod against her shoulder and watched her coach, Chris Korich, warm up.
Wind chopped the surface of the shallow casting pond. Korich, a 60-year-old 12-time casting world champion, gently whipped the fly rod in his hand. He knelt in a box painted on the concrete shore, aimed at a Hula-Hoop target floating on the surface 35 feet away, and flicked his arm.
A perfect loop of bright green line unrolled across the water, but just as it reached the target, a gust of wind blew the yellow fly at its end a few inches off course. Korich flicked another roll cast and missed. He missed again.
He shook his head at himself and the wind, took a deep breath, and finally dropped his fly inside the target.
“I’d shorten my tippet if I were you,” he said to Maxine, reeling in his line. “It’ll help you with this wind.” He walked back to the clubhouse at California’s Long Beach Casting Club.
Maxine knelt, aimed, and splashed her fly on target with one, two, three roll casts in a row. She stood, dropped her rod off at the clubhouse, and spent the remaining minutes before the Southwestern Regional Casting Tournament standing on the club’s front porch, staring at a tiny green hummingbird whizzing around the bushes.
Several of the world’s best casters were at the Long Beach club for the tournament, but the only one causing any buzz was Maxine. During an earlier warm-up session, members of the Swedish casting team recorded her on their phones, and a few old men wreathed in cigar smoke called her the future of the sport. In 2016, when she was 12, Maxine won gold at the Flycasting World Championships in Estonia. That same year, she outscored Steve Rajeff, modern casting’s LeBron James, during a tournament in Kentucky. At the next world championships, in 2018, she repeated her gold. This trio of feats made her arguably the best female fly-caster in the world, all before she got her driver’s license. The New York Times called her “the Mozart of Fly Casting.”
And she had been. But Maxine was in tenth grade now. She worried about schoolwork, college applications, her friends. She liked snowboarding. Her family had moved from San Francisco to Oregon two years earlier, away from her coach and casting club. And except for a few hours spent shaking the dust off in the days before the Long Beach competition, she hadn’t practiced her cast in four months.
At competitions like this one, put on by the American Casting Association, a few dozen casters compete in various scored games, most of which are centered around hitting a smattering of circular 54-inch targets with 30-inch bull’s-eyes floating between 15 and 50 feet away. Every competitor starts with 100 points; two points are subtracted for missing the target with the fly entirely, one for missing the bull’s-eye.
Maxine’s round didn’t go great. Five times in a row she missed the same roll-cast target she’d hit in practice, to score an unusually low 95 points, behind Korich and her dad, Glenn, who is also a competitive caster. After her last cast, she shot up from her kneeling stance, her face reddening, and spoke tensely for a moment with her dad before stalking off. “She’s pissed,” Glenn said.
She seemed more perplexed than pissed when I caught up with her a few minutes later to ask how the round had gone. “Not good,” she said, scuffing her shoes in the grass. “I haven’t missed a roll cast like that in a long time.”
Still, she said, she wasn’t going to start practicing regularly. She was looking forward to a summer fishing camp and her family’s annual trip to the McCloud River, in Northern California, later in the year. Otherwise, she was taking time off from casting.
Her phone buzzed. “It’s hard to practice when your friends are sending you Snapchat stories about all the fun they’re having,” she said. She ran off to rescue drowning worms at the casting pond’s edge with her eight-year-old brother, Tobi.
The next morning, Maxine scored a 99 in the dry-fly accuracy competition, then won the event by beating Korich in a tiebreaker castoff, 99 to 97—missing perfection, twice, by inches.
The cast is as fundamentally important to fly-fishing as the swing is to golf or the brushstroke is to painting. In many circles, the cast defines the angler as much as catching fish does. Catching fish requires luck. Casting well requires skill.
A fly is made to imitate an insect or a minnow, usually out of animal hair, feathers, and thread. It is extremely light. To move it any distance at all, you actually need to throw the plastic-coated fly line. A fly rod works kind of like a pole vaulter’s pole: moved quickly, then stopped and forced to flex and then unflex, the rod flings the fly line, which unrolls as a loop, dropping the fly elegantly on the water.
Putting this all together in one motion looks complicated, and it is, even for people who cast all the time. Any number of simple errors, like misplacing your thumb on the rod’s cork grip or letting your wrist get loose, affect the line’s trajectory as it whipsaws back and forth through the air. One hiccup and your line is snared in a tree. Another and you’ve snarled a tiny “wind knot,” which ruins the leader attached to your fly and forces you to tie on a new one. Meanwhile, fish are rising around you, eating for the first time all day. If you make another error on your next cast, you’ll spook them. Anglers get the yips. They start going to casting ponds and practicing. They start wishing they had a perfect cast, like Maxine’s.
Good casters create “tight” loops by rolling and unrolling their fly line from the tip of their rod with extreme efficiency, accuracy, and power. These loops are beautiful—momentum rippling through fluorescent line. Maxine’s loops are so tight that they almost fold into themselves. Other casters compare them to a knife: they slice the air rather than unfurl through it.
Maxine’s cast is informed by decades of knowledge. In the early 20th century, fly-casting—as opposed to, say, just fly-fishing on a river—boomed, and local clubs built ponds around the country. Madison Square Garden hosted competitions. Legends were born. Bernard “Lefty” Kreh fished with Ernest Hemingway and wrote a column about fly-fishing for the Baltimore Sun. Joan Wulff, the First Lady of Fly-Fishing, could cast 161 feet with one hand, still the women’s world record. Kreh, Wulff, and others founded their own schools of thought on the casting motion and published libraries’ worth of instructional books and videos.
Today, the sport of fly-casting is far from mainstream—just a fraction of all anglers participate. But devotees live on in small pockets across the country. Chris Korich’s casting method is an efficiency-focused version of the classic West Coast style that birthed many of the great casters. You can try it now: Pretend you’re holding a coffee cup in front of you at your waist. That’s the handle of your fly rod. Now throw the coffee, hard, back over your shoulder, ending with the handle of the cup by your ear. Bring it back down again, hard. You’ve made a fly-cast—poorly.
Maxine’s version, Korich says, is the most efficient cast he’s ever seen. She applies just the right amount of power and not a watt more. This makes it look like she’s launching 100-plus feet of line through the air while not doing much work at all. She can subtly adjust this motion to aim the fly and land it on a square inch 50 feet across a pond, and when she wants to, she can give up that precision and double down on her power to cast an unthinkable amount of line. Having a smaller frame and less muscle than most anglers doesn’t hinder her. Ranel Kommits of Estonia holds the world record for the longest cast using a one-handed fly rod and regular fly line: 187 feet. Maxine has cast 161 feet, tying Wulff’s record. That’s like chucking a feather more than half the length of a football field.
Casting competitions are only held a few times a year. Maxine also attends several sporting, fishing, and fly-tying expos around the country, performing casting demos. She’s paid well for her time at these events—usually around $1,000 for three 30-minute demos across a weekend. Korich accompanies her and gives a spiel to the audience while she snipes targets.
Korich was a teen casting champion himself and remains a fierce competitor. He’s poured his attention into Maxine, in the hopes of inspiring other young people to join the sport. He teaches Maxine, as he does all kids, for free.
Korich once showed Maxine videos of the Olympic gymnast Mary Lou Retton, then gave her a Team USA jacket that looked just like Retton’s. He’s an uncle figure. But 15-year-olds have different relationships with their uncles than ten-year-olds do. She loves him, but spending weekends with her coach and not her friends drives her nuts.
“What do we call our technique, Maxine?” he’ll say during casting demos.
“That’s right—e-fish-iency. That middle syllable is the important one, isn’t it Maxine?”
You can’t hear her groan, but you can feel it.
He calls her Michael Jordan with a fly rod—then Annie Oakley with a fly rod. She outscores the men. If he sometimes sounds like a carnival barker, well, that’s the life of a hype man.
He’s aware that she’s drifting away from the sport. “I believe in her, no matter what,” he says. “I also believe that if you love something, you come back to it.”
Crowds do not pick up on this gentle coach-student friction. They break into spontaneous applause when she hurls her line with a two-handed fly rod the size of a claymore sword. Grown adults who’ve been practicing casting for decades mutter, “Jesus.” Even people who don’t cast themselves yell out, “Holy shit!”
Once a well-regarded bamboo-rod maker begged Maxine to cast one of his rods. He watched as she flexed the rod forward, then back, soaring line through the air. “Wish I could cast like that,” he said.
“What she does,” whispered a man nearby to no one in particular, “is just so beautiful.”
After her casting demonstrations, Maxine returns to her booth with her dad and Korich and awaits the well-wishers and autograph seekers who line up to see her. Women are the fastest-growing demographic in fly-fishing, and at general sporting expos, the crowd is a mix of men and women, young and old.
But at the Northwest Fly Tyer and Fly Fishing Expo in Albany, Oregon, it is not. People over 40 make up more than half of all anglers, and men still make up two-thirds of them. Millennials and Gen Zers are rare. In Oregon, the older men are a mass of technical jackets and denture-white smiles. They have seen Maxine cast. They are astonished. They are on a mission to look her in the eye and let her know that they are just so proud of her.
Maxine is a pro at dealing with all this. When someone makes a joke about the Hoover administration, she politely giggles, says thank you, and signs their hat.
“It’s hard when it’s all old people,” she eventually admits. “With any other more conventional sport, you can do it with friends, which motivates you to do it, because you can chat and keep each other company. In this sport, there are no other kids my age to keep it exciting. So I get bored.”
Later, at another casting event, I watch a girl who is 12 or 13 approach Maxine, smiling hugely.
“You really inspire me,” she says.
Maxine smiles back and nods and says thank you.
The girl leaves. I ask Maxine what it feels like to be told something like that. She thinks for a minute. “It’s weird,” she says. “Because, I mean… it’s a big deal. But to me, it’s not that big of a deal.”
To most people in her life, Maxine is not a world champion. She is a teenager in jeans and sneakers with blond hair. She’s a good big sister to Tobi. She spends long car rides staring at her phone and laughing hysterically at… something. She takes a certain delight in horrifying her parents with tales of kids who she almost hung out with once who have since moved away and been arrested.
Glenn was signed by the Oakland A’s as a shortstop in 1987, but an injury ended his career. Now he works as a gym teacher. Maxine’s mom, Simone, is a German-born lawyer who litigates data privacy and employment cases. Maxine grew up in San Francisco, where she was the ringleader of a group of younger kids who lived on her block. When Glenn ran an outdoor day-trip summer camp, Maxine led kids around, tree climbing and adventuring in that aimless, Huck Finn sort of way. “She was always fearless,” Simone says.
In 2012, nine-year-old Maxine did not hesitate to try casting when she visited the Golden Gate Angling and Casting Club with Glenn, who thought casting better would make him a better fisherman. A few weeks later, when Maxine and her dad returned, both Korich and Steve Rajeff, arguably the two best competition fly-casters in the world, happened to be at the club. They started giving Maxine pointers. After several minutes of Korich’s help, she was able to roll-cast to targets 30 feet away, a skill I did not master in my first five years of fly-fishing. Glenn started taking multiple lessons a week from Korich. Maxine liked casting with her dad, so she came to practice, too.
Korich taught her a simple motion that worked better for her small frame. He modified the smallest rods he could find to fit her perfectly. Together they created a training regimen to maximize her potential. She worked hard at it because she wanted to cast well. She liked to win. Within three years, she was a world champion.
Then Maxine became a teenager, and the rest of her life filled in. She picked up snowboarding and started running high school track. She focused on her schoolwork. She realized she wanted to be a veterinarian or a doctor.
The next world championships are in the fall of 2020, in Sweden. The world championships aren’t something you just show up for, her parents say. Usually hands-off, they insist that if she wants to compete, she’ll need to follow a strict practice regimen for several months to prepare. Maxine doesn’t let on much about her intentions.
There are few opportunities in the sport for someone like Maxine. She was once asked to go on Good Morning America, but it didn’t pan out. Korich is trying to get her signed as a Patagonia brand ambassador, but that hasn’t happened yet. Maxine could make a little money winning the occasional championship or tournament shoot-out—but not anywhere close to enough to earn a living. Guiding or working in a fly shop are full-time passion jobs and don’t seem in the cards. Teaching private casting lessons is a decent way to make some money, but she hasn’t tried it yet.
“The winning of casting championships and all those sorts of things is great,” said Wulff, who won her first competition at 12 and has run her casting school for 40 years. “But it’s not a lifetime career. Maxine should cast as much as she can. But I think she should go to college and be a veterinarian.”
In April, the Golden Gate Angling and Casting Club teemed with energy. Fifty kids and their parents gathered at an event to eat hot dogs, tie flies, and learn to cast.
Maxine was there, helping Korich give a presentation, gratis. The pair had just returned from a competition in Utah, where Maxine won $3,000. A half dozen adults shepherded the kids to the casting pool’s edge and gave firm instructions on the slow lift-then-snap motion of a roll cast. “Raise your elbow, higher!” a mom shouted from the bank.
Maxine gravitated to the youngest caster, a five-year-old boy having some trouble. He flicked the rod forward awkwardly. The line went nowhere. He frowned.
“Flick it forward again. But keep the rod high in front this time,” Maxine coaxed. She guided his hands as he tried it. Better. A smile.
“Good job! You want to try again?” He did, and sent the roll cast looping straight to the target. After every attempt, Maxine asked if he wanted to try again. He did.
After a few minutes, the boy said something. Maxine bent over to talk to him, then gave him a high five and walked away. He put the fly rod down and stood happily, watching the others cast, until an adult came over and made him pick it up again.
“What did that boy say to you?” I asked Maxine later, as the kids filtered to the fly-tying station.
“He said his arm was tired, and he didn’t want to cast anymore,” she said. “I told him it was fine to take a break.”
At the top of the steep gorge, the McCloud River rumbling somewhere below, Glenn, Maxine, Tobi, and I assembled our rods and slipped on fishing vests. Maxine looked at the only other car in the pull-off area, where a few almost drinking-age boys were stepping into their waders.
“Those are counselors at Fish Camp,” Maxine murmured. It was late June, and she was heading to the summer camp in a few days, where she would be a counselor-in-training. The boys headed our way.
“Hey Maxine,” a tall one said. “You ready to teach casting this year?” She nodded, color rising to her cheeks, and continued fiddling with her vest. The boys talked fishing with Glenn for a few minutes, then headed out, yelling, “See you at camp, Maxine!” over their shoulders.
“That was so embarrassing,” Maxine said, smiling.
Down in the gorge, twilight nestled in. Little yellow sallies were rising off the river, unsteady on new wings, while fuzzy stone flies the size of nickels dipped low to lay their eggs among the riffles. Shadows of hungry trout rose, sipped down a bite of dinner, and disappeared, forming a slow, steady chorus of small splashes and plops. I sat down and watched Maxine flip perfect roll casts across the river, then stared at her fly, along with her, waiting for a trout to rise.
While she fished, Maxine talked about camping on the river every year with her family, and how the McCloud was her favorite water in the world. She hadn’t cast since we last saw each other several months before, but she’d decided she would compete in the world championships in 2020.
“Just to defend my title,” she said. “When high school’s over, I think I’m going to be done with fly-casting competitions.”
A fish snapped up her fly. She yipped and missed the hook set, tightening her line after the trout had let go. “Did you see that?” she said excitedly. “I always set too late.” For ten minutes she cast to the same hungry fish, which tried to eat her fly over and over again. She couldn’t hook it.
For months, I’d stared at Maxine’s perfect cast. Now I watched as she missed take after take. Each time, she gave an excited, anxious bounce and exhaled a cheery “Ugh!”
I thought about the old men at the fly-casting expos calling Maxine the future of the sport, the new Joan Wulff, the Mozart of Fly Casting. About the pressure of it all.
Glenn stepped up beside me and watched his daughter fail and giggle. “She doesn’t like to be told how to do anything,” he said. “She’s figuring it out herself.”
Maxine cast and cast and cast. At last light, she sent a beautiful loop to the exact square inch where a fish had appeared a minute before. The same dark shadow rose and inhaled her fly.
She set the hook. The canyon rang with a joyous yelp.
Glenn netted the fish. “A brown trout!” Maxine yelled. She lifted its dappled body free of the water, removed the fly from its mouth, and admired its golden flash. Then, moving quickly, she raised the fish to her lips, kissed it on its head, and let it go.