REEL­ING IN THE YEARS

THIS TACKLE SHOP IN THE MID­DLE OF BAL­TI­MORE HAS BEEN HOOK­ING AN­GLERS FOR 102 YEARS

Anglers Journal - - CONTENTS - STORY BY GARY RE­ICH PHOTOS BY JAY FLEM­ING

Ven­er­a­ble Tochter­man’s tackle shop in Bal­ti­more has been sat­is­fy­ing the wants and needs of gen­er­a­tions of fisher folk for 102 years. By GARY RE­ICH

TTucked amid the brick-faced row houses only a mile or so from the high-rises of down­town Bal­ti­more is a tackle shop that’s bliss­fully out of con­text. The build­ing that houses it is unas­sum­ing, though a red and green neon sign with a jump­ing 6-foot large­mouth bass on it hangs out front. Across the elec­tri­fied fish is the word tackle, and be­neath it, in block let­ters, is the name Tochter­man.

Most peo­ple would go out of their way to avoid the scene out­side — im­pa­tient driv­ers, nearly im­pos­si­ble park­ing, the sounds of the city and the pun­gent diesel fumes of de­liv­ery trucks mak­ing their rounds — but thou­sands of an­glers from as far away as North Carolina and New Jer­sey make re­peated pil­grim­ages here to buy bait and tackle, get ad­vice and shoot the breeze with like-minded souls. Tochter­man’s has been in busi­ness for more than 100 years and is the old­est tackle shop in the coun­try op­er­at­ing con­tin­u­ously from a sin­gle lo­ca­tion. And it’s thriv­ing in to­day’s world of big-box fish­ing stores and dis­count on­line re­tail­ers. Thomas Tochter­man and his wife, Anna (of Ger­man and Pol­ish de­scent, re­spec­tively), started sell­ing bait at 1925 East­ern Ave. on Feb. 8, 1916, from the ground floor of the row house where they lived. Thomas worked close by at a seafood mar­ket, and fish and crabs were so plen­ti­ful that he could bring home sur­plus to sell as bait. A pic­ture taken in 1916 shows him stand­ing in front of the store un­der a sign em­bla­zoned with the word peel­ers, a nick­name for blue crabs about to

shed their hard shells and a prized bait among Ch­e­sa­peake Bay an­glers.

Dur­ing the past cen­tury, the shop has grown into ad­ja­cent build­ings. It now takes up two lev­els, run by third-gen­er­a­tion owner Tony Tochter­man, his wife, Dee, and their two full-time em­ploy­ees. Tony has worked at the store since he was 12 and took over the reins from his fa­ther, Thomas Tochter­man Jr., in 1981. Dee came on board in 1993.

“I re­mem­ber the day my fa­ther talked to me about tak­ing over the store and said, ‘Boy, are you ready to work harder than you ever have in your life?’ ” Tony says. He hasn’t taken a va­ca­tion in 30 years, and he and Dee work in the store seven days a week, of­ten for 12 hours a day. They live in a row house steps away, across the street.

I’m a rel­a­tive new­comer among the store’s reg­u­lars, hav­ing first vis­ited on a rainy Sat­ur­day in 2004. “Hey there, love, how are you do­ing?” Dee said as I walked to­ward the ser­vice counter that day. I handed her an old fly reel that I was con­vinced I’d never find parts to fix. “Tony, come up here for a minute,” she hollered.

Tony ap­peared from the back and ex­am­ined my reel. “Hey pal, how are ya?” he said.

He dis­ap­peared up a set of creaky stairs, re­turn­ing about five min­utes later. “Here you go. It just needed a small part for the drag.”

“How much do I owe you?” I asked.

“Noth­ing. Come back when you need some­thing big­ger,” he said with a wink.

The en­counter re­minds me of a story I read about Tony in the Bal­ti­more Sun. A guy walked into the store with a cou­ple of old reels to sell. They’d be­longed to his brother, and the brother had died. The guy showed them to Tony and asked for $30. Tony went to the back and came back with a check for $200. “I’d be steal­ing if I only paid you $30,” he said at the time.

When I ask Tony about the story to­day, he says, “You don’t get any­where be­ing dis­hon­est or greedy. This is a long game, and my cus­tomers are my main pri­or­ity.”

There are more times than I can re­mem­ber when I’ve seen Tony or Dee hand a piece of gear or a box of bait to a cus­tomer and say, “Go fish­ing. Come back when you have the money.” That sort of ser­vice has earned Tochter­man’s some big-name fans.

“Tony’s dad, Tommy, sold me my first fly rod in 1947,” fly-fish­ing master Lefty Kreh said in 2010. “That store has so much stuff, you can get lost if you’re not care­ful. If they don’t have it, you don’t need it. If you’ve got an old rod or reel that needs fix­ing, chances are they can fix it. Tony and Dee are the nicest two peo­ple you’ll ever meet and will do any­thing for their cus­tomers. I don’t know of any other tackle shop that op­er­ates the way they do. They’re like fam­ily.”

Other well-known cus­tomers have in­cluded Ma­jor League Base­ball play­ers Ted Wil­liams and Boog Pow­ell, and Mary­land’s Sen­a­tor Bar­bara Mikul­ski and Gov. Wil­liam Don­ald Schae­fer. “We’ve even had sheikhs from the Mid­dle East stop by to stock up on high­end bill­fish tackle be­fore head­ing to Cen­tral Amer­ica and the Caribbean,” Tony says.

There’s vir­tu­ally no part of the store that isn’t cov­ered in some kind of tackle or fish­ing-re­lated gear. Um­brella rigs dan­gle from the ceil­ing amid a for­est of 1,400 fish­ing rods stand­ing on end. Pack­ages of lead sinkers, hooks, monofil­a­ment and braid rim the store’s edges, and foul-weather gear and waders are hung as high as the rafters. Rows of peg­board dis­plays run the length of the store, ev­ery inch of them cov­ered with a rainbow of lures for catch­ing ev­ery­thing from pan­fish to blue mar­lin. The en­tire back wall of the first floor is stacked high with boxes of about 700 mod­els of fish­ing reels — ev­ery­thing from sim­ple spin­ning out­fits to Penn In­ter­na­tion­als.

A charm­ing patina makes the place feel like a 1950s hard­ware store. Car­peted floors squeak un­der­foot, and a car­pen­ter would be hard-pressed to find a square cor­ner in the whole build­ing. De­spite the age of the place, it’s or­ga­nized and clean. And most folks wouldn’t change any­thing about it.

The only vis­i­ble piece of mod­ern gad­getry is a credit card ma­chine on the front counter. Ev­ery one of the 50,000 or more items for sale is priced by hand and rung up on a sim­ple cash regis­ter. Look on­line for a web­site, and you’ll come up empty. Face­book? There’s a page, but it goes mostly ig­nored. Bait reser­va­tions are tracked in a note­book out front. The only on­line pres­ence Tony seems to care about is Yelp. “We’ve got five stars,” Tony says. “Word-of­mouth is the only thing I care about; it’s what’s car­ried us for more than 100 years.”

Dee is in the back most days, re­pair­ing rods dur­ing the win­ter and car­ing for as many as 30,000 blood­worms each week dur­ing the fish­ing sea­son. She calls them filet mignon for fish. “These are the best blood­worms you can find any­where,” says a cus­tomer who drove from

Penn­syl­va­nia to pick up two dozen jum­bos. “Look at how fat and wrig­gly they are. They al­most look happy.” The phone rings off the hook all sum­mer with peo­ple scram­bling for Dee’s blood­worms.

When Dee first took over for her mother-in­law, the shop was los­ing half the worms that came in. “It wasn’t just a ter­ri­ble waste of the re­source,” Dee says. “It also cost us money we couldn’t af­ford to lose.”

She had gal­lons of wa­ter shipped from the worms’ nat­u­ral habi­tat in Maine and, with the help of lo­cal marine bi­ol­o­gists, an­a­lyzed it. She cre­ated the per­fect briny brew for worm stor­age. When blood­worms ar­rive, she puts them in shal­low plas­tic trays where they dou­ble in size. Dee puts her fingers on ev­ery one of them, sort­ing less-than-per­fect spec­i­mens be­fore plac­ing the trays in a bank of re­frig­er­ated cases. She changes the wa­ter ev­ery day. Her at­ten­tion to de­tail has earned her the nick­name, “Worm Girl.”

Back out on the sales floor, Tony is help­ing a cus­tomer. “I’m look­ing for some num­ber 10 cir­cle hooks for rock­fish,” the man says. “You sure?” Tony asks. “I think this is what you’re look­ing for.”

Tony hands the man a pack­age of 8/0 Mus­tads. “Would you like me to show you how to tie these on?” The man grate­fully ac­cepts the of­fer.

“This is what I love about this place,” the cus­tomer says. “I al­ways walk out with what I need. I can go to the big stores and wan­der around with­out one per­son ask­ing me if I need help, and I guar­an­tee you ain’t no­body go­ing to show me how to tie knots.”

Tony loves to fish but doesn’t have much time for it. The 68-year-old shows me a pic­ture of him­self at a much younger age, cast­ing from the bow of a sk­iff. The photo was taken by Kreh, who took Tony on fish­ing trips to Belize. “Man, I was young in this pic­ture, maybe late

20s, early 30s,” Tony says. “Lefty was so gen­er­ous tak­ing me on those trips. Truth is I love fish­ing, but to­day I get more of a kick hear­ing about a cus­tomer I helped who had a great trip be­cause of our ad­vice. I’d rather hear sto­ries like that than catch a fish any day.”

A glass dis­play case is mounted on the left side of the first floor. The case is filled with an­tique reels, old lures, black-and-white photos, signed base­balls, old ad­ver­tise­ments and hand­writ­ten let­ters. One of the balls reads, “To Tony, Your Pal Ted Wil­liams.” Also in­side the case are a por­tion of the ashes from Tommy’s par­ents. “Some peo­ple think it’s creepy,” Tony says, “but I like hav­ing them here. It’s com­fort­ing. I even talk to them ev­ery now and then.”

The lat­est project is hap­pen­ing on the sec­ond floor, a fly fish­er­man’s candy store stocked with hun­dreds of rods and reels, fine sad­dle hack­les and all man­ner of fly-ty­ing ma­te­ri­als, waders, hooks and vises. The sec­tion takes up the en­tire sec­ond floor and, still in its in­fancy, looks bet­ter­stocked than just about any fly shop I’ve vis­ited. “I think we’re go­ing to call it the Lefty Kreh Ty­ing Room, but we’ll have ev­ery­thing a fly an­gler would need,” Tony says. “We talked about it with Lefty be­fore he passed away. We’ve also toyed around with calling it Lefty Kreh Fly Shop.”

Tony has thought about re­tir­ing but says it doesn’t feel right to him, at least not yet. “I was go­ing to re­tire when the store turned 100, but I wouldn’t know what to do with my­self,” he says. “I’ve never wanted to do any­thing other than what I’m do­ing. Not a lot of peo­ple can say that about their life’s work. Dee and I have al­ready started work­ing on a foun­da­tion aimed at teach­ing dis­ad­van­taged kids about fish­ing. We don’t have any kids, so when we’re gone, it will all go to­ward that or­ga­ni­za­tion. Un­til then, we’ll just keep tak­ing care of our cus­tomers and help them catch fish. They’re our fam­ily, and we love all of them.”

Tony and Dee Tochter­man haven’t taken a va­ca­tion in years. They work seven days a week and say they love ev­ery minute of it.

Tochter­man’s loyal fan base keeps com­ing back be­cause they’re treated like fam­ily.

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