Fishing rod reels in cherished memories

The Baltimore Sun

During a recent spring-cleaning at my mother's house, the basement rafters gave up a treasure.

A rod and reel - my dad's - covered in dust and rust was wedged between some cracked plastic sheeting used to cover basement windows and some ancient curtain rods.

I hadn't seen it in years, make that decades, since my dad and grandfather used to take me fishing on the Pennsylvania portion of the Susquehanna River, from Tunkhannock to Laceyville.

I figured it had disappeared in 1972, when the floodwaters of Hurricane Agnes swept away Uncle Walter's riverfront cabin, lock, stock and hammock.

Somehow, though, the rod and reel had made it from Pennsylvania to New Jersey. I'm guessing it had nothing to do with my mother, who had nothing to do with fishing. Except to fix it for dinner.

My dad must have brought it back in the trunkload of summer gear he hauled back and forth each year like a long-suffering Sherpa.

Even brand new, it probably wasn't much to look at because my dad and his dad didn't believe in fancy stuff. Not that they made a lot of it 40 years ago.

It didn't look particularly handsome by the light of a single bulb in the basement. But it sure brought back memories.

Like the story about their fishing buddy who used his hair as a bait bucket, lifting his cap and harvesting a three-inch hellgrammite whenever he needed one. And the story my mother tells about the time my dad's bait bucket behind the front seat tipped over, releasing hellgrammites within inches of my unsuspecting mother's feet. Her shivers of horror came only after they arrived at the cabin and the car dome light illuminated the scene.

Maybe that explains why I haven't fished with the nipping little buggers since I was 12.

Next week marks the 10th anniversary of my dad's death, and Saturday is my mom's 80th birthday. So that rod and reel mean a whole lot more than stringers of catfish and bass.

We're talking root beer floats on hot days. Sweet, sweet corn on the cob with butter running down our chins. Scooping up toads for jumping contests and then placing the winners in kitchen drawers to make grown-up relatives scream. Real strawberry shortcake. Trying to figure out why adults couldn't wait to turn on the radio for Don McNeil's Breakfast Club ("Good morning Breakfast Clubbers, good morning to ya, we woke up bright and early just to howdy-do ya."). And my very own lantern, which we used to make shadow puppets on the wall after lights out.

My dad and granddad weren't big on posing for photos, especially in their fishing gear. There might be one or two stuck in some old scrapbook somewhere, but I doubt it. So with the exception of what I can remember, the rod and reel are about all I have left from those years.

Hoping to keep those memories front and center, I carefully placed the rod and reel on the back seat of my car and drove to Tochterman's, a tackle shop that has been in business since 1916.

If anyone could tell me the history of this old gear - and appreciate what it means to me - it's Tony Tochterman and his soul mate of 17 years, Dee Taylor. The Eastern Avenue institution might be in the business of selling the latest gear, but there's a lot of the old school in Tony.

Tony's dad, Thomas Jr., is still on the premises, his ashes in a fishing rod case behind the counter, surrounded by a fine collection of old reels.

The present proprietor starting working at the shop while in grade school and has seen and fixed more types of tackle than anyone I know.

When I was just a kid, I remember my granddad talking about Tochterman's, which wasn't too far from the Hudson Street rowhouse where my mother grew up. Even after granddad saved up enough money from his job at Beth Steel to buy a house and move my mom and the rest of the family to "the county," just over the line on Fait Avenue, he still frequented the shop.

Tony nodded his head. Lots of people have long ties to Tochterman's.

"We sold thousands of these. Thousands," said Tochterman, turning my dad's rod and reel over in his hands. "It's an average, run-of-the-mill outfit."

The rod is solid glass, a True Temper Eagle. The reel is an Oreno level-winding, anti-backlash casting reel No. 1000 made by The South Bend Quality Tackle Bait Co. of South Bend, Ind. It's filled with Cortland camo line, a braided line stained olive and brown.

I told Tochterman that my wish is to fix it up well enough to use once or twice and then retire it to a place of honor.

After giving it the once over, Tochterman pronounced it salvageable, and maybe more.

"I have 90 percent of the parts. If I don't find anything wrong when I take it apart, there's no reason why you couldn't fish with this every trip," he said with a twinkle in his eye.

Meanwhile, Taylor grabbed some fine sandpaper and steel wool from a back room and went to work on the rod's cork handle, removing decades of grime to reveal a surface the color and texture of toast. She finished up by applying a cork sealer.

After a good bath in mild dish detergent, the rod will look brand new.

Antique fishing tackle collectors have filled me in on the company. South Bend has been around since about the time Thomas Tochterman Sr. opened his tackle shop.

In 1942, the company shelved the tackle and lure business to make equipment for the war effort. It switched back to its roots in 1947.

The South Bend Bait Co. was renamed The South Bend Tackle Co. in 1955. Three years later, it was sold to Benjamin and Seymour Fohrman, who moved the operation to Chicago only to move back to South Bend and then sell the company to B.F. Gladding & Co. in 1964.

It still exists, as a wholesaler called South Bend Sporting Goods Co. in Northbrook, Ill.

I can't wait to pick up the refurbished reel and reunite it with the rod.

Already the first fishing trip is taking shape. The map has a light blue line drawn from Baltimore to that stretch of the Susquehanna just below the New York line.

A Father's Day celebration, a little late, but no less heartfelt.

Happy Father's Day to all you dads out there.

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