The Machinist

From Hungarian refugee to American fly fishing legend.

Saltwater Fly Fishing
December 2005

The first time Ted Juracsik got struck by lightning, all the grommets blew out of his tennis shoes, and he suddenly saw himself as a child pedaling down a street in Budapest. In the flashback, he was riding a red tricycle, and the buttons on his jacket were blue.

Juracsik tells this story in the den of his Everglades getaway, tight against the tip of Chokoloskee Island, Florida. And after a day of
 chasing snook with the guy, it is easy to believe his tale of being 
twice struck by lightning, simply because of all the other wild yarns he spins out on the water.

Readers probably know Juracsik
 as the founder of Billy Pate and Tibor fly reels, those made-in-America workhorses that helped bring saltwater fly fishing into the modern age. But behind the great product, there is also a classic parable of the American experience and a couple of milestones worth noting.

Fifty years ago, Juracsik was a teenage revolutionary fighting the communists in his native Hungary, party to an unsuccessful uprising that lasted only a few bloody weeks. As the Iron Curtain swept up Freedom Fighters for execution, Juracsik scrambled across the border into an Austrian refugee camp, where he was offered refuge in either Australia or the U.S.

Juracsik spent the next two years in a Brooklyn orphanage, where he quickly learned to shower with what little money he possessed hidden in his mouth. He scraped and scrapped. He got knocked out, and he learned to swing first. Early on, Juracsik was prone to hoarding empty soda bottles from the streets. Glass had been a precious commodity in communist Hungary, but only the monsignor and an army of sugar ants could convince him that, here in the land of plenty, sticky bottles were no great windfall.

At 17, he had been the youngest person ever to receive Hungary’s “master machinist” certification. But the best job he could get here was loading boxes at a factory. He also played on the company soccer team, making $40 per week and $10 per goal.

One day, now living on his own, he invited a friend over for a sandwich. Juracsik still couldn’t read English very well, and thus Red Heart canned meat had become a staple in his pantry. But after his friend studied the label, he said, “You know, this is what dogs eat.” Ted looked up from his sandwich, thought about it for a second, and then replied wryly: “I don’t blame ’em.” By 1959, the frugal young immigrant had started his own tool-and-die business.

Pate showed Juracsik a fly reel that had burnt out on a big tarpon, and the master machinist quickly spotted the problem.

As the years went by, his passion for fishing—first in the Danube River and later for Montauk stripers—led him to the Florida Keys and a chance encounter with flats-fishing pioneer Billy Pate. Pate showed Juracsik a fly reel that had burnt out on a big tarpon, and the master machinist quickly spotted the problem: not enough drag surface to dissipate heat. Juracsik agreed to build Pate two reels if Pate would teach him to fly fish. The prototypes worked so well that Pate commissioned a hundred more, selling every one of them. Juracsik formally introduced the Billy Pate series of reels thirty years ago this year, and today Ted Juracsik Tool & Die employs 50 people, serving clients worldwide in a variety of industries.

Ted is semi-retired now, fishing and telling tales down in the ‘Glades. But these are “funny” times, says Juracsik, who watches the exodus of U.S. manufacturing jobs with dismay. “If we don’t watch out, we’ll become a third-world country ourselves.” He has had many offers to have his reels built overseas at a cut rate, and each time he refuses. “I just can’t do it,” he says. “I’m a refugee myself.”

About ten years ago, Juracsik started putting another name on his reels. He called them Tibor, a word no doubt foreign to most readers’ vocabulary of life. I suppose one could say that in English it stands for hard work, quality, and making the most of the American dream. In Hungarian, it simply means Ted. ✦