Photos by Jay Fleming
Tucked 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 Tochtermann 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 high-end 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-of-mouth 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-in-law, 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 better-stocked 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.”