Tochterman's Fishing Tackle celebrates its 100th birthday

Tochterman's Fishing Tackle has been a Baltimore staple for 100 years.

On Feb. 8, 1916, Thomas Tochterman opened a bait shop on the first floor of his home at 1925 Eastern Avenue, hoping to make a few bucks. Folks bought it hook, line and sinker, so soon after, he began selling that stuff, too.

One hundred years later, Tochterman's Fishing Tackle keeps reeling them in. Same locale, same family. Baseball Hall of Famer Ted Williams shopped here. So have U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, former Orioles slugger Boog Powell and the late Gov. William Donald Schaefer. There's a familiarity and constancy about the place that has attracted anglers for generations, from Arab sheiks shopping for $800 reels to 6-year-olds smitten with a $19 Spider-Man rod.

Fishing gear crowds the floor, lines the walls, hangs from the ceiling. There are so many rods that "it's like walking into a forest," said Lefty Kreh, a world-famous fly fisherman. "You almost need a compass in there."

Kreh, 90, of Timonium, bought his first fly rod at Tochterman's in 1948 and said the store's selection and service are legend.

"Whether you want specialized tackle for deep-water fishing or a small trout rod for the Gunpowder River, they have it," Kreh said. "What really built their business is the concept of customer importance. Whatever you buy, you don't walk out of that store without knowing how to use it."

Powell, 74, a lifelong fisherman from Key West, Fla., was awed on his first visit by the maze of products.

"You walk in, stumble around and somebody says, 'Can I help you?'" he said. "My son and I wanted to go to western Maryland, wade in a stream and catch trout. They assembled our gear, told us where to go and even how to catch the fish. I can't think of any place that handles as many facets of fishing. But at Tochterman's, it's an attitude more than anything. People treat you special."

How far will the store go to please patrons? Some years back, a client phoned from Nicaragua. He'd snapped both of his rods during a fishing trip. Tochterman's dispatched another, which was delivered the last few miles on horseback.

"You enter not as a customer but as a friend," said Joe Bruce, 70, a longtime fisherman from Westminster. "My dad took me as a kid. There aren't many shops around with that much loyalty and longevity. It's not located in the greatest spot in the world, but people go out of their way to get there."

Some go for the worms.

"They sell the best bloodworms in the state," Bruce said. "They've gotten it down to a science — a saltwater solution keeps the worms happy and spry. You don't get bad bait from them."

Though a century old, Tochterman's has never modernized.

"It's like walking into an old hardware store instead of a Home Depot. People want to step back in time, hear the floor creak and see these crappy old metal bins," Tony Tochterman said. The grandson of the founder, he took over from his dad, Tommy Jr., in 1986 and runs the shop with his wife, Dee. Tommy loved his work so much that when he died and was cremated in 1998, his son took some of his ashes to keep in the store.

"We put them in a cigar humidor, which we use as fishing-rod tubes, and mixed in some dirt dug from the basement," Tochterman said. The humidor sits in a display case alongside wooden 19th-century salmon reels and an autographed baseball that reads, "To Tommy, your pal, Ted Williams."

"Dad is very happy there. He's the first one I talk to in the morning and the last one I talk to at night," said Tochterman, 66. "Sometimes, he talks back."

A few years ago, Tochterman and a coworker were admiring a display of sand spikes (for surf fishing) that they'd hung on the wall weeks earlier.

"I mentioned that dad never wanted me to put those spikes there," Tochterman said. "Within 30 seconds, two of them fell to the floor. I'm sure it was caused by a truck rumbling by, but ... the timing was perfect."

The store has expanded since 1916, consuming four adjacent buildings now packed with everything from bobbers to Buck knives, and from caps to coolers. There are fishing backpacks, key chains and sunglasses that let you see six feet under. There are high-tech gizmos that make one wonder if fishing has become, well, unfathomable. Not so, said Tochterman.

"Fishermen have made it more complicated, not the fish. Basically, it's a jerk at one end waiting for a jerk at the other," he said.

So it was when Thomas Tochterman, of German descent, first opened shop on then-cobblestoned Eastern Avenue. Employed at the city's Fish Market (now Port Discovery), he brought home leftover stock — fish and peelers (crabs) — to sell as bait. Upstairs, his wife, Anna, cooked codfish cakes and crab cakes for hungry customers. The sign over the door read "Tochtermann's," but the owner dropped an N from his name during World War I when anti-German sentiment started hurting business.

By all accounts, Thomas Tochterman was a trusting soul.

"My grandfather kept bait tanks filled with minnows out back for people who got up early to fish," Tony Tochterman said. "They'd take their bait and either leave the money or pay the next time they came."

Apparently, that faith in customers persists.

"A friend was going sail fishing in Panama, but with only one rod," Kreh said. "Tommy gave him a spare in case it broke. He told the guy, 'Don't buy it. If you don't need it, bring it back.' I don't know of another tackle shop in the U.S. that would do that."

There's payback, of course. Anglers have been known to share their catch with the Tochtermans. Three years ago, a sheik returned with a cooler filled with tuna fillets.

"There must have been $1,000 worth of fish in that chest," Tochterman said. "We gave most of it to our employees. It was so gosh durn good."

Tochterman toyed with retiring this year — the couple has no children — but has put it off.

"I live through our customers' stories. It's a shot of adrenaline every time they tell you what they caught," he said. "You feel the enthusiasm of everyone who comes in; you thrive on their fishing hopes, their dreams. When I think of how many peoples' lives we've touched over six or seven generations …

"Others come in and say, 'I miss your dad. Let me tell you about the time we went out on the bay.' I've heard the stories 100 times, but they never get old. How many times have you seen 'It's a Wonderful Life'?"

mike.klingaman@baltsun.com

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