Steve Rajeff: The Gentle Giant of Fly Casting
December 06, 2019
(This story appeared in the 2019 Oct-Nov-Dec issue of Fly-Fisherman.)
Heroes in the outdoors should be revered not just for their accomplishments, but also for the way they relate to people and pass on their knowledge. Steve Rajeff is known for his unparalleled achievements in national and international tournament casting, and as the senior rod designer for G.Loomis since 1985, but his public persona is an enigma—very few people know what he does for others, and who he is as a person.
Those lucky enough to have had contact with him and his family know Rajeff as an extremely humble, generous, thoughtful, and lighthearted man. He has taught me a lot about casting, and we’ve shared volunteer responsibilities, great fishing, food, beverages, and friendship, and he is one of the best practitioners of the Golden Rule I know.
At a casting tournament maybe ten years ago, I looked up and saw a handicapped caster holding her specially adapted spin outfit, ready to be assisted to the casting box before her event, but her caregiver wasn’t paying attention. Steve jumped right up and walked her with locked arms to the casting box with an expression of happiness beaming from the faces of both casters.
Steve has shared everything in his life with his partner Ellyn Papenfuse. She said, “I’ve had the great pleasure of living, learning, and loving Steve Rajeff for over 25 years. Steve has three true loves: fishing (any kind, but fly fishing is by far his preferred), classic cars (any kind—and I mean any kind), and our family, especially our grandchildren (ages five and two).”
Steve doesn’t participate in social media or self-promotion. You can’t follow him on Instagram. You won’t read his tweets or follow his daily life on Facebook. He does, however, participate in tournament casting in public, give demonstrations to promote the sport, and offers personal instruction to those who ask.
“Yup, I am protective of my time, and I don’t like being glued to the phone or computer,” says Steve. “I enjoy one-to-one communications, but find committee/social work too much like herding cats.”
His younger brother Tim Rajeff, owner of Rajeff Sports and Echo Fly Rods, defends his big brother: “Some people might think of him as aloof or standoffish. This could not be farther from the truth. Steve is happy to engage in conversation, but it is uncommon for him to initiate a casual conversation.”
A Big Kid
You have to get to know Steve to see his sense of humor in action. Steve and I were joining a long table of senior American Casting Association casters for dinner in a restaurant before one of the national championships and I asked Steve, “Would it be okay to get a Scotch at the bar and bring it back to the table?” He replied, “That’d be fine. We used to be casters with a drinking problem. Now we’re drinkers with a casting problem.” This usually serious man revealed both a grin and his lightheartedness in one quip.
Ellyn loves his sense of humor. “Most people don’t know that Steve has a witty sense of humor, often causing me to laugh to the point of tears.”
“Steve is just a big kid trapped in an adult’s body,” says Tim. “But because of his upbringing and his brain chemistry, his sense of humor can be a bit dry.”
Back in 1988, when G.Loomis also made golf shafts, Rajeff did a stunt as a kick-off for a pro-am golf tournament, where they pitted the world’s best caster against one of the top golfers at that time.
“The long drive skit was the last thing before play started,” says Steve. “I cast against Fred Couples, from the 18th flag putting surface, back down the fairway. He whacked a mighty drive that measured 333 yards (999 feet).
“I used an 11-foot surf rod with a 30-pound leader and eyelet screwed into the ball. I only had 30 feet of leader to the reel, with no other line connected. It was only a means to launch the ball, then free sailing.
“During a warm-up swing, I almost wiped out the Senior Tour players who were seated around the putting green as I winged the ball in front of their noses. It was all in good fun. I cast 337 yards, (1,011 feet).”
Few people have the humility, generosity, and unselfishness of Steve Rajeff. “Among the elite in our sport I can think of no one with less ego than Steve,” says his brother Tim. “Steve is a breath of fresh air in an industry filled with a lot of hot air.”
Ellyn was shocked by Steve’s humility early on, “For the first 10 years we were together, if I wanted to know more about him, his awards, accolades, achievements, I had to search the Internet. I was in awe of his accomplishments and his humbleness in keeping it to himself. Even though he’s known as one of the best casters in the world, he’s genuinely humbled when he wins a casting event.”
“Rajeff is the most generous person in our business,” says Dick Kondak, a now retired tackle sales rep. Since Steve first started out as a rod designer, he has made arrangements with his employers to let him design custom tournament blanks for himself, and he shares limited builds with his fellow casters. Steve still designs distance blanks made by G.Loomis, but those aren’t available just to him . . . they are available to anyone through the American Casting Association for tournament casting. Casters don’t know what they would have done without him.
When I asked Tim where this generosity came from, he said, “Steve and our sister Laurie and I are first-generation Americans. Our parents taught us to recognize how lucky we are to live in the United States. We had everything we could want in material things, and were reminded that not everyone was as lucky as we were, and that we should help others whenever possible.
“Our parents would give the shirts off their backs to help those in need, and I guess much of that mantra/attitude washed off onto Steve.” I asked Tim about the most generous act he has witnessed from his brother, and Tim replied gratefully, “Steve loaned us money to start Rajeff Sports, which really helped us when we were in a pinch.”
Steve has always been driven by competition, but as long as someone isn’t after his trophy, he revels in their success. Chris Korich—who was coaching casting champion Maxine McCormick at Rajeff’s pond last January—said Steve is always willing to act as a mentor to anyone regardless of skill level. “He just wants the best for people,” says Korich.
Rajeff never had biological children of his own, but loves his grandkids just the same. “Steve is an incredible grandfather who’s teaching his grandchildren to appreciate and respect the wonders of nature, identify birds by their names and sounds, to thank the fish then let them go, tie flies that emulate insects, catch snakes, look under rocks for bugs, and collect empty bird nests. He’s also teaching them to work on cars, chop and stack wood, plant flowers, the list goes on. He loves being outside adventuring around the property with them, and they love him,” says Ellyn.
Steve learned at a young age he does not have the instinct to kill for sport. In a recent podcast with April Vokey, Rajeff told the story of shooting his BB gun until he ran out of ammo, then he suddenly saw a hovering hummingbird feeding. Skeptically, he loaded a little pebble and fired at the tiny bird and killed it. He picked it up in sorrow and cried. He also cried at age 60 retelling the story. He now shoots at inanimate targets only.
In advance of any fishing trip, Rajeff researches, then ties his own flies. He has enjoyed fishing all over the globe and has kept some flies for various locations going back decades.
He tied flies commercially for Dave Sullivan’s Sports Shop in San Francisco when he was a teenager. When asked what his favorite patterns are, he said the best ones always come from a collaborative effort.
“My favorites flies are the ones I tie for fun with my five-year-old grandson, who picks random materials from the desk and says let’s make a dragon, or a bat, or a butterfly, or a mouse, or sometime a Christmas fly when it is that time of year.”
Steve’s most significant mentee is Chris Korich, of Oakland, California. Korich is one of the most successful tournament casters the U.S. has ever produced, and now at age 60, he’s the coach who helped lead Maxine McCormick to her world championship title.
Korich remembers the first time he went to Steve’s parents’ house for lunch. He was surprised by the number of casting trophies on display everywhere. They spent the morning practicing distance for three hours, then Steve made scrambled eggs with chopped vegetables, which was not Korich’s normal fare. Afterward, Rajeff showed Korich his tying bench, and showed him how to tie flies. “Steve is an extremely sensitive, giving guy, beyond belief,” says Korich. “When he truly sees that someone is genuinely passionate or interested in anything to do with fly fishing or casting, he will engage. He’ll go beyond the call of duty to help someone out.”
Just after Steve won his first world championship at age 16, he was the star casting demonstrator at the San Francisco Sports and Boat Show. Steve asked Korich to share the spotlight with him. Later, when Jimmy Green asked Steve to demonstrate the new graphite Fenwick rods at the first International Sports Expo, Steve again included his friend and talented younger caster.
When Steve was busy with college, he helped Korich take over all of his show appearances. This included The Chicago Sports and Boat Show. “He truly wanted to share what was going on with him and wanted to include me,” says Korich. “He was really mentoring me and really helping me at a really early age. Steve is a Michael Jordan sort of fierce competitor, but at the same time he’d give you the shirt off his back.”
Revolutionary Rod Designer
Jim Green of Fenwick first got Steve interested in rod building and designing glass tournament blanks. Together they developed and then introduced both graphite and boron rods to the public.
Steve’s first industry job was in sales with Winslow Manufacturing, and just after he was hired, the company changed its name to Sage, a name Steve helped pick. Then fortuitously, he met the inventive Gary Loomis, who had just started his namesake company. Steve saw a future in rod design with G.Loomis, and soon switched companies.
Steve learned to design rods from two pioneers (Jim Green and Gary Loomis) and after taking over design responsibilities at G.Loomis, he developed the actions of the first IMX and GLX rods. These were evolutionary rods using different levels of graphite modulus that had never been seen before in the fly-fishing world.
Steve also helped design the first single-foot fly-rod guides, and brought the first fly rods with them to the market. He came up with the idea during development of the GLX series in 1994. He also designed NRX rods, which introduced a new (at the time) nanotechnology resin. And most recently for fly fishers, he designed the flagship Asquith rod series that has spiraling graphite fibers up and down the rod that form an X pattern, instead of the more traditional perpendicular longitudinal fibers over the top of a hoop or scrim. And that’s just in the fly-fishing world. Rajeff has designed approximately 2,500 models of G.Loomis conventional rods the company has offered over a span of the last 31 years. It’s unlikely that any person has designed as many fishing rods as Steve has over his 34-year career
Rajeff says he’s looking forward to a long future designing rods. “As a lifelong rod designer, I hope I can keep my hand in the design world for fishing or tournament casting. As new materials and manufacturing methods afford new levels of performance potential, it will be fun to see how new rods in the future will cast easier, more accurately, and to greater distances.”
As far as what his fishing future holds, Rajeff says, “I would still like to fish some of the Pacific atolls for the wide variety of species, including GTs. I would also like to go back to Argentina and Tierra del Fuego for sea-run brown trout.” But most of all, Steve looks forward to sharing more fishing experiences with his grandchildren and Ellyn.
John Field (fieldflyfishing.com) is a fisherman, author, and conservationist. He has written two fly-casting books, and his next book project is Trophy Striped Bass on the Fly. His last article for Fly Fisherman was Miracle on the Miramichi in the April-May 2019 issue.