“Your whole life changes when somebody is trying to kill you.” Tibor ‘Ted’ Juracsik
The world of saltwater fly-fishing has spawned an interesting cast of characters over the years. They have each brought unique talents that they share with us all. Names like Lefty Kreh and Flip Pallot come immediately to mind. Lefty’s encyclopedic knowledge and ability to teach and make people laugh and Flip’s experience and poetic narratives are all a huge part of why so many of us fly fish today. But there are so many more talented individuals who have contributed to the sport and they all have fascinating stories. But, I can assure you, few stories are more unique and interesting than that of the man who changed the way we fight fish.
Seeing the free-jumping tarpon silhouetted above Ted Juracsik’s head only ten yards behind him in the early morning sun was, to say the least, a surreal moment. I can still remember the first time I held and admired a Billy Pate reel in my hands and reading the engraving on the side that said “By Ted Juracsik.” I did not who he was but thought to myself- he must be special if his name is engraved in this reel. Shortly thereafter I learned who he was as he poled Flip Pallot through the mangroves of the ‘glades in an episode of the Walker’s Cay Chronicles. I never would have guessed that twenty years later that I would be sharing a skiff him.
“You get a little excited, don’t you?” he asked as I announced the presence of every tarpon that rolled within eyesight. “Well, tarpon make me stupid,” was my reply. He smiled.
As the morning progressed, I watched him meticulously cover the water over the top of and around every rolling fish. As he worked over one area, I saw a tarpon roll at our nine o’clock and called it out. He quickly changed the direction of his cast and laid the fly out just beyond the roll and started counting the fly down before the retrieve. Moments later his line came tight and the water erupted as nearly a hundred pounds of silver took to the air. I watched in awe as he calmly played the fish with a smile on his face as he admired the smooth drag of his latest contribution to the world of fly fishing- the Tibor Signature Series reel.
So what does a person like myself do when he is fishing with a man who has been a part of and contributed so much to the world of fly fishing for the last 40 years? Well, I asked a lot of damn questions. A conversation of which I recorded for the purpose of sharing his story but then, realized- nobody can tell another persons story as well as they can. So… I decided let him tell you his story, in his own words, in the form of the Q&A below.
When did you come to the states?
Did you come with your family?
No, no… just by myself. I was 18 years old and fought in the revolution in Hungary in 1956 against the Russians. I escaped and went to Austria and stayed there for a month or so in a refugee camp. Then I came to the United States in January of 1957 and I wind up in New Jersey in a refugee camp. In those days, when you came to this country, somebody had to sign you up and take care of you for a year until you learned how to speak English and you could take care of yourself.
So this Catholic orphanage in Brooklyn, the St. Vincent Home, they took me in. That started my new life in the U.S. I was 18 and didn’t have nobody. I had to leave my father and mother and sister behind. I had to escape because I didn’t want to be hung. I was lucky to escape because a lot of guys they picked up were executed or just disappeared.
So how did you end up fighting in the revolution? Were you drafted or did you just feel the need to fight?
The college students started the revolution because the communist was there and was terrible. That is why I hate communist so bad. I can’t understand this thing with this country and China. Why would anyone want to do business with communist? They hall their people away if they say anything…there is no freedom.
So the students start marching with flags and the secret police start shooting at them so they started throw rocks and things and that is how it started. But the occupying soldiers wouldn’t shoot at the students. But the secret police, they did. But then, when all the soldiers went home, we broke into the armory and got rifles and machine guns and started shooting back at the secret police so pretty soon, there’s no more secret police.
So, we were great, the Russians, they pulled out of the country. And, we were happy for a month, month and half because we got the country back then all of a sudden the Russians came back in with a big force and just killed everybody and we could not fight against tanks and things like that. So the revolution was over and the secret police came out of hiding and then start picking up people who were in the revolution and hauled them away.
I just don’t know what to say.
Yeah… it was tough.
Wow, again, I had no idea that you fled for your life. I guess in my ignorance, I think of people wanting to come to the U.S. for a better life.
Well, yeah, when I was a kid we always talked about America. America was a country that everybody literally thought the sidewalks were paved with gold. Everybody’s dream was to go to America- the greatest country in the world. I was lucky to escape and make it here.
When you came to the states, did you come thru Ellis Island by boat?
Oh no. By aeroplane. After Austria they took us to Germany by train, and we signed up to come to the U.S. I had never been on an aeroplane and when we were coming over here, all of a sudden, the translator we had says we gonna to land in Iceland because one of the motors quit and they have a problem with the other motor. We was kinda flying sideways. They told us if we crash land to take the pens and pencils out of our pockets and put the pillow over our heads. I didn’t know nothing about it and he told us if we land on the water to swim away from the aeroplane because it sinks blah, blah, blah. But then I looked out the window and all I saw was ice flows everywhere. I had no warm clothes and thought that wasn’t going to be good. But luckily we made it to this Air Force aeroport in Iceland. We bumped around on the snow but made it and these trucks came out and got us. It was the coldest I have ever been in my life. They took us in the trucks to the barracks until they fixed the plane. And then we come here and landed in New Jersey.
So, you made it to the U.S., how did you end up becoming a machinist? Is that the first job you had?
No, no… back in those days in Europe, education was very different. We went to school till we were like 14 then you had to decide a trade. I wanted to be a jet aeroplane mechanic but there were way too many kids who wanted to do that so my next thing was to fix equipment and be a tool and die maker. So… at 14 I started my apprenticeship. It was a four-year apprenticeship but I was lucky enough to pick it up pretty fast and became a master in the factory at 17. I was very lucky to have a good trade and I was very fortunate to be able to bring that trade to this country.
Was it difficult to find work?
Well don’t forget now. This country has a horrible system about the inches. But what happened is when I was staying in the orphanage, I was a pretty decent soccer player. On Sunday afternoons we would go under the Brooklyn Bridge and play and this guy that worked in a watch factory saw me and he came over to talk to me because they had a team but I couldn’t understand what he was saying because I didn’t speak English. The following week he brought an interpreter and asked me if I would like to play for their team. But I couldn’t leave the orphanage because I couldn’t take care of myself yet because I didn’t have a job. See back then there was no welfare. We didn’t know anything about that…
The good old days…
Yeah! So he said they could give me a job at the watch factory if I would play so, I went to the monsignor and said they were gonna give me a job. I didn’t speak any English and but it wasn’t any problem. They showed me what to do and I loaded boxes and all that. I know how to run all those machines at the factory but I couldn’t because I didn’t speak English and you had that crazy system… not metric. I know everything metric.
One day we went on to Long Island to play a German Team and they had some Hungarian players and all of a sudden they were asking me to come play with them. I didn’t have any Hungarians on the factory team and they said the guy who sponsors the team owns a plastic factory and could give me work. So I moved out of there and went to Long Island to play for them. I didn’t like living in Brooklyn anyway. Then I went to Long Island and started learning English and I could communicate better. I was there for about a year and then a good friend from California called and said they had a good team out there and they paid you to play. They didn’t pay me before. You would get $30 a game and $20 a goal. But I told him I couldn’t because I didn’t have any money so…they sent me a plane ticket and I went to California and I played there for a season. After that I came back to Long Island and by then spoke pretty good English and learned how to convert the measurements. I went to work for a tool and die company and started working in my trade and have been doing it ever since.
When did you set out on your own?
Somewhere around ’59.
So at what point did you feel like it had all come together? You know, after having to flee for your life and all. When did you know it was all behind you and all that was left to do is work hard?
Well, let me tell you…my very first impression of this country. When I knew how great this country was…you might think this is funny but it is not. When I was in the orphanage, about the forth or fifth day, I’m gonna go outside but I don’t speak any English. I was scared to go because if I got lost, I wouldn’t know how to get back so I didn’t go far. So I go out on the street to look at this country and I find, on the sidewalk, six or eight Coke bottles. In Hungary, the bottles were very expensive. When you would go to get vinegar or milk, you would bring your own bottle. So I picked up these bottles and I find a sack and put the bottle in it and then put them under my bed. I says to myself- I’m rich. I could not believe that people would throw those bottles away. I told my Hungarian friends and nobody believed. That was one of the most incredible things I had ever seen. That was when I realized how rich this country is.
So it was pretty early on that you were happy to be here?
Oh, I was very happy to be here.
We all know you as fisherman. Did you start fishing here in the states or was it something you did as a child in Hungary?
Oh yeah, all the time. I fished in the Danube River nearby our home and I fished for carp and catfish. It was very interesting when in the second World War, when the allies came dropping bombs, you know we were on the German’s side. The planes came bomb the bridges and missed a lot and made these giant craters right next to the river and when we had floods, these craters filled up with water and became lakes. I did lots of fishing in these lakes. My dad punished me a lot because I skipped school a lot to go fishing.
Well, there are a couple things we have in common.
What is that?
For one, my dad had to punish me a lot skipping school to fish and, I spend several days a year fishing in bomb craters for redfish. Matagorda Island, where I grew up fishing and guide most of the year, was and old WWII training base and bombing range. Some of the bomb craters have become tidal fed over the years and the occasional redfish or two find their way into them.
That’s pretty cool.
Tell me how you got into the fly reel business.
Well it was in 1962 and I wanted to get married because I had nobody here and start a family to get stable. So I got married in ’62 or ’63, I can’t remember exactly and I had two jobs. When I got married I got a third job and figured out real quick, if I was to get ahead, I would have to start my own business. So then I had an opportunity to make some tools for some people but I did not have any machines and we were living with my in-laws. So I asked my father-in-law if I could by some machines and put them in the garage. He said it would be alright so, I quit my third job and would come home and work at night making things for other people. That’s how I got started. When things got better and I quit my second job and my regular job. I started doing really well after three or four years.
By then my in-laws moved to Florida and had a guy working for me and was doing really well making stuff so we went to visit Florida. Me and my wife and daughter, Marianne and what I saw was incredible- the fishing. I had fished some in Long Island with my brother-in-laws, they were surf-casters for stripers so I did a lot of surf-casting back then. After visiting FL I said to myself, I gotta figure it out and somehow move to Florida because that is where it is at.
So one winter, while I was visiting Florida, I met Tony Lay he was fishing one of the bridges for snook and we became friends I kept contact with him. Then in ’72 or so I came down to visit again and he had already moved to the Keys and went to work for Worldwide Sportsman and that is where I met Billy Pate.
And one time, Billy Pate came in and was complaining about his reel and how he had lost a big tarpon because his drag wouldn’t work right and it locked up. Then Tony told Billy that I would make him some reels that he would not have any trouble with and Billy says, “Really, you make fly reels?” and I said well let see what you got. He had Finor anti-reverse so I took it apart and I could see right away what was wrong with his reel. To me it is just a piece of machinery. I could just look at it and tell that it’s not right. So I said, I can make you a couple of reels.
So I went home and drew it up and started making them. Everything back then was hand-made because we didn’t have any CNC equipment. So I made these two reels in my spare time and went back to Florida the next year to fish with Tony and I gave Billy the reels. He really liked it right away. He asked me if I could make him some more so he could sell them in his store but I told him that I could not make him two or ten because it would be way too expensive but…I could make a hundred. And that is how the Billy Pate reel started.
But you didn’t fly fish then? How did you get into fly fishing?
Well… Billy asked me what he owed me for the two reels and I told him nothing, just teach me fly fishing and he did. I stayed by his house and he taught me how to cast and he took me to Buchanan Bank and I couldn’t cast so he hooked up a tarpon and handed me the rod so I can feel what it is all about. After that I knew I had to figure this out because it was pretty cool.
So the first fish you caught on one of your reels was a tarpon?
Yes, that is correct.
By the time you learned to cast, were you just tarpon fishing?
No, no. Remember I wasn’t living here so I went up north and took a rod up with me and I made a couple of reels, just for myself and I start striper fishing. It opened a whole new perspective of fishing for me because fly fishing is a really cool way to catch fish. But, I never forget, if you are just gonna fly fish- you miss a lot of opportunities.
I could not agree more.
If the wind is blowing 30 knots, you cannot fly fish, at least I can’t anyway. If the wind is blowing, pick up a spinning rod or plug-casting rod and just enjoy fishing. Why fight it?
Can I quote you on that to all of my customers who think it is beneath them to pick up conventional gear?
Absolutely. They are missing a lot of great fishing.
So back to your reels…how much have they changed over the years?
The only things that have changed is we made them lighter. And the reel foot- The original is stainless steel and it aluminum now. Other than that, it is still the same everything. The anti-reverse reels that is. Here, let me show you. I’ll be right back.
Here you go. This is the first or second, I’m not sure which, reel that I built for Billy. My good friend John Donnell went to the auction that Billy’s wife had and bought this as a gift for me.
Oh wow, you are kidding me. This is one of the original reels?
Yes. And, I’m not sure but they made it sound like he was still using it after all these years. Look how smooth the drag still is.
So tell me about the Tibor and Tibor Signature Series reels. Why did you introduce them? The Billy Pate seems so flawless.
Well, I did the Tibor reels because the direct-drive Billy Pate had the drag adjustment on the side that the handle would turn and you could not adjust when the fish was running line out. It did not matter on the anti-reverse because the handle does not spin. The direct-drive reel does though so that is why I made the Tibor. The Signature Series is a lighter reel and has a sealed drag. It is a better design because even though the drag is sealed, it can still be taken apart to maintain or work on it.
What is your favorite fish?
Well my favorite fishing is to go offshore and bottom fish but my favorite fish to pursue, by far is the snook.
To me, tarpon fishing, when it happens, is spectacular but I ain’t chasing them. When it happens, it happens… I just go fishing.
Just go fishing, huh?
Just go fishing.
As I sat there held and admired the first Billy Pate reel, the machine marks still visible some 40 years later, I came to the realization that I was holding a true piece of the history of fly fishing- the reel that made it possible to tame the largest and wildest of fish. I then looked across the room to the man sitting in the chair and didn’t have a thing to say that could ever compare to the story I had just heard.
It was more than clear that Ted Juracsik was a man that is truly happy with who, what and where he is. A man who came to this country with nothing but the clothes on his back and who truly believes in and lives by the words Made in the U.S.A.
CAPT. SCOTT SOMMERLATTE
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