The Man Who Changed Fly Fishing Forever
How a refugee from Hungary invented a reel that would tame the biggest, baddest fish in the sea
A drapery of mangrove juts from the shore. Tibor “Ted” Juracsik knows it will push the redfish into a narrow channel in the mud, away from the overhang of twisted roots and into the tide. Behind me, Juracsik leans on the push pole, and the flats boat gently rotates clockwise, placing me at a perfect ninety-degree angle to the fish. I wiggle the fly rod tip to free a bit of line. “Another moment, another moment,” Juracsik murmurs, his Hungarian accent hanging in the air of the Everglades’ Ten Thousand Islands. We wait, together.
All of Juracsik’s life, it has been this way—as a teenage tool-and-die maker in a Budapest bicycle factory, as a young refugee in New York City, as a metalworker and the designer of perhaps the best-known fly fishing reel in the world, the Billy Pate Reel. Standing on the poling platform, the seventy-five-year-old Juracsik runs it all through his head—the angles, the loads, the efficiencies—and when the pause on the deck of the flats boat becomes nearly unbearable, he says, softly: “Now.”
I make two false casts and the distance is spot-on, the black Clouser minnow dimpling the water not three inches from the exposed mud. Unfortunately, my windage isn’t so precise. The cast is eighteen inches too far to the left, and as the leader grazes the fish’s back, the redfish explodes in a blowup of brackish water and mud.
My shoulders slump. It is not the first fish I’ve sent fleeing for cover this morning. “It’s okay,” Juracsik consoles, and I feel the flats boat shift as he plants the pole, already hunting for another target. “I have done the same thing.”
Maybe, I think. But not in a very long time. After all, Ted Juracsik is a name engraved—literally—in the history and development of big-game saltwater fly fishing. With the 1976 introduction of Juracsik’s Billy Pate Reel, a stout, machined anti-reverse reel with a brawny drag inspired by the clutch plate of an old Ford, anglers found a tool that could whip the strongest game fish in the ocean. Ever since, the reel has been the undoer of untold numbers of tarpon and marlin and roosterfish and reds, as it established Juracsik as one of the pioneers of a new era of big-game fishing along with luminaries such as Pate and Lefty Kreh and Flip Pallot. In 1995, Juracsik introduced a new line of reels under his boyhood name—Tibor—and these elegant, hand-finished tools are considered by many to be the pinnacle of fly reel design.
“Outside.” That is what the locals call this place, the stone crabbers and pompano netters and fishing guides of the Chokoloskee area. “Outside” is the westernmost edge of the Everglades, where the Gulf of Mexico meets dry land in a lacework of mangrove islands and hummocks and keys that spreads over fifty wilderness miles of Florida’s southwestern coast. Mind-boggling numbers of redfish and snook prowl the rising and falling tides here along the outside edge of the Ten Thousand Islands.