Writing a Front Page like this is a tough thing. Not just because it’s about the loss of a very close friend, but also because it’s almost impossible to put into such a small space all of the things that this good man accomplished in his life. Equally as hard, is to articulate just how much he meant to all of us whose lives were infinitely richer and exponentially more interesting for having known him.
My first interaction with John Tebbetts was in early 2002. My company had just started to gain traction in the product development end of the fishing rod business, and John was keen to expand his rod building repertoire by learning how to turn grips and reel seats. When I started manufacturing grip turning mandrels, John was one of the very first customers to purchase a set from me. We eventually met face to face a short time later at a small rod makers gathering just south of Austin TX. I had driven up from San Antonio, and John had flown down from Dallas to rub elbows with the local contingent of Texas builders. We hit it off immediately and quickly paired off from the rest of the group, where I learned about his career as a plastic surgeon, his love of saltwater fly fishing, and his newfound passion for rod making. It was and still is rare for me to meet someone like myself that is hardwired to be involved at the most intimate level of every aspect of the angling experience. John was definitely that guy, and I immediately loved him for it.
A few weeks later, I received an email from John with an offer that I couldn’t refuse. He wanted to spend a weekend with me learning how to use a wood lathe to turn grips and reel seats, and in exchange offered me the opportunity to spend a couple of days with him chasing Tarpon in the keys. I feel certain that I got the better end of the deal. However, one of the things I learned early on about John was how important it was for him to give people opportunities to do things they may not be in a position to be able to do for themselves. It was in fact on this trip to the keys that he and I hatched a plan to produce the first instructional video in the rod building industry on the DVD format. The following February found my future wife Emily and I at John’s farm in East Texas shooting this production with a professional videographer that John flew in from Florida specifically for this project. 18 years later I still receive feedback from rod builders who say this DVD was instrumental in giving them the confidence and inspiration to purchase a wood lathe and turn their own grips and reelseats.
John and I stayed in regular contact for many years after that, but somewhere around 2010, we lost touch for a short while. Not for any particular reason other than life just kind of got in the way. One afternoon in 2012 I got a phone call out of the blue from him, just wanting to “see how his old buddy was doing”. That phone call meant so much to me, that I vowed to never lose contact with him again.…and I never did. Up until the day he passed, he was as valuable to my life as anyone who wasn’t blood kin could be, and in some ways even more so. He was like the older, wiser, smarter brother that I never had. He could be tough and demanding, but not without good reason. His decision making ability was absolutely impeccable, and even though you may not like his opinion or his advice, you couldn't help but listen to it, because he was usually 100% correct.
As an angler, he was one of the best I’ve ever fished with. Although I never heard John utter a bad word about any species of fish, he had a very long, very passionate love affair with the Tarpon. For over three decades John pursued the Silver King with an intensity and passion rivaled only by his love for photography. The majority of those years were spent with Captain Rob Fordyce on the pole. Rob is considered by many, if not most anglers (myself included), to be the best Tarpon guide to ever pole a skiff. With Rob on the pole, John booked not only an IGFA line class record for Bonefish on the fly but also won the 2001 Don Hawley Tarpon Invitational. Like most everything he did in his life, John’s attention to detail and pursuit of excellence in all things, including angling was a large reason for his achievements. Several years ago he gave me 6 large binders that were filled with fly patterns he and Rob had developed over the course of two decades on the water. Each pattern contained a full page recipe with extremely detailed tying instructions, along with a full color 5"x7" photograph, that he personally took of each pattern. He was a rabid documentarian whose attention to detail bordered on obsessive, and it showed in his success both on and off the water.
As a surgeon, he was one of those rare individuals who had the type of impact on his industry that will be felt for decades to come. Not only did he develop some of the early anatomically correct breast implant bags known as the gummy bear implant, but he also pioneered many techniques used in other cosmetic surgical procedures, particularly Rhinoplasty. One evening when I was in the Keys with him, a fellow surgeon named Stanley Sherman stopped by John’s house for dinner and cocktails. Stanley is also a very accomplished fly fisherman, having won the Gold Cup in 1986 and 1991. At one point Stanley inquired as to how I knew John. I told him I was helping John learn how to build fishing rods. He replied, “do you have any idea who you’re hanging with?” I replied, “well I know he’s a successful plastic surgeon”. Stanley just shook his head in disbelief, then proceed to school me on John’s body of pioneering accomplishments in the field of cosmetic surgery, including his groundbreaking work on breast implant design, as well as his textbook on Rhinoplasty. I'll never forget Stanley saying that John's book “was 20 years ahead of its time when it was published, and will continue to be used in surgery schools around the world 20 years from now”.
As a friend, I can’t begin to describe the profound effect this man had on my life. Aside from keeping me (and just about everyone else) in tears laughing with his “good ol’ boy” logic and humor, he was by far the most generous and loyal individual I have ever met. I wouldn’t have had nearly the career I’ve had in rod building if it weren’t for John Tebbetts. Nor would I have had the opportunity to chase Tarpon in the Florida Keys with the best of the best if it weren’t for John Tebbetts. Four years ago when my son Jackson showed an interest in fly tying, he called me and requested that I come for a visit to his farm in East Texas, and spend the weekend with him. As he put it, he had “something” he wanted to give Jackson. That something turned out to be a literal truckload of over 50 years of accumulated fly tying tools, materials, and literary resources. By that time he had sold his house in the Florida Keys and had moved on to other hobbies and had no need for it anymore. His exact words were that he was “thrilled to gift it to someone who could continue to get enjoyment out of it”.
Over the last two decades, I have relied on John for both personal and professional advice more often than I care to admit or remember. There wasn’t a week that went by where we didn’t text each other about fishing, hunting, politics, world events, women, or just general life struggles. And in every one of those conversations, there never failed to be a gem of pure John Tebbetts redneck wisdom. I used to tell him quite frequently, “Bubba, I have no idea what you get out of being my friend, but I am sure glad you get something out of it because you are one of the most valuable people I have in my life”. He would always respond “Brother... because you are one of the few who GET IT!”. I am pretty sure I know what “IT” is, but I am not sure I can put IT into words. What I can say is this; The void that John's passing has left in my life is very deep, very wide, and impossible to fill. And, although I am sad he is gone, the privilege I feel for having known someone like him far outweighs the sadness I feel.
I miss you brother…the world is a far less interesting place without you in it.
You can learn more about my friend Dr. John Tebbetts through a couple of youtube videos that showcase him here:
Hope you all are staying safe and healthy,