Three Generations of Baltimore’s First Family of Tackle Keeps it Old School
To anglers, the spotlit window displays at Tochterman’s, Baltimore’s seemingly ageless tackle shop, glow like a toy store at Christmas whatever the season. On this autumn day, one window features T-shirts depicting trophy-esque bass and billfish, a long-handled landing net and pint-sized rod and reel combos for youngsters. In the opposite display, a pair of disembodied chest waders presides over an impressive array of fly-fishing gear.
And that’s just merchandise visible from the sidewalk. Inside, to paraphrase a devoted customer, you need a GPS to navigate two floors of inventory deployed at maximum density and diversity. From tiny sinkers to towering saltwater rods, from feathers for fly-tying to fish coolers for icing flounder, the profusion of gear stems from a business philosophy preached by generations of Tochtermans: Selection, selection, selection.
“Don’t just sell them what you’ve got,” explains Tony Tochterman, who owns the store with his wife, Dee. “That’s the problem with most stores today. They have the most popular items because that’s the most profitable. That’s great to make money, but that’s not taking care of your customers. That’s where Dad taught me [the importance of] selection.”
“Dad” would be Thomas “Tommy” Tochterman Jr., the blunt-speaking, silver-haired businessman who ran the family store with a firm hand and a gentle heart for 60 years until his death in 1998. His philosophies on merchandising and customer service survive in the persons of his son and beloved daughter-in-law, who strive to uphold the motto: “If Tochterman’s doesn’t have it, you don’t need it.”
Corporeally, Tommy Tochterman has never really left; his ashes, and those of his wife, Antoinette (known as Toni), reside in mini-length rod cases in a first-floor display cabinet. Tony often speaks to his father; at least once, Dad apparently answered (more on that later).
Tochterman’s sits in the same modest urban neighborhood where Tony’s grandfather (Tommy’s father) launched the business on a cobblestone street more than a century ago. It’s reputedly the nation’s oldest family-run tackle shop still operating in its original location. Even competitors would have to concede it’s one of a kind.
Thomas George Tochtermann Sr. was a Baltimore seafood market worker and part-time entrepreneur. When his employer suggested he take home about-to-perish peelers and soft crabs on weekends—when the market was closed—he decided to start a brick-and-mortar business. On February 8, 1916, he and his wife, Anna, opened a bait and sundries shop on the first floor of their Fells Point row house. They sold the basics: the leftover crabs as fish bait, plus candy, cigarettes and Anna’s homemade crabcakes and codfish cakes to entice fishermen.
Within a few years, as the world went to war, the Tochtermanns shortened their surname (one “n” sounded less Germanic in World War I) and expanded their inventory. In addition to bait, the couple—aided by young Tommy and his kid brother Eddie—offered bamboo poles, hand-tied fishing rigs and sinkers made in-house using wooden molds. Anglers riding the trolley hopped off at 1925 Eastern Avenue, bought bait, tackle and snacks, and resumed riding to their fishing destination.
Tochterman’s has since annexed four adjacent buildings. It still lacks a parking lot, and streetcars no longer rumble past, but customers keep rolling in. Over the decades, the shop has catered to business leaders, philanthropists, politicians (including U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski and Maryland Governor William Donald Schaefer), fishing royalty (fly-fishing gurus Joe Brooks and Lefty Kreh), baseball royalty (notably Red Sox slugger Ted Williams) and genuine royalty (free-spending Saudi sheikhs). But it’s best known for treating its regular clientele like family.
In a blue-collar block of brick row houses, Tochterman’s trumpets its presence. An iconic neon sign depicts a largemouth bass with the word “tackle” on its side. The fish leaps above the Tochterman name, outlined in red. Tommy and Eddie Tochterman had it installed above the store when their father died in 1938. Ten years ago, a large rockfish mural was added to part of the building.
Tony has applied his touch inside the store’s Dutch-blue doorway, where rows of fishing rods cross above customers’ heads like a saber arch at a military wedding. Exiting this tunnel of tackle, you’re greeted by a store employee or by Tony or Dee, both of whom work the store’s six-day weeks. (It used to be seven until Dee put her foot down.) Dee insists on promptly greeting customers, not as salesmanship but as solace.
“You can tell when someone’s having the worst day. If that first greeting is nice, it changes them. Their shoulders go down a little bit,” she says. “It’s fishing; now they’re comfortable. You don’t have to sell them a thing, you just made them comfortable.”
Dee greets me warmly at the back counter, where we chat about worms. Once known as the “Worm Girl,” she was for years the devoted caretaker of shipments of bloodworms the store handled during fishing season. These writhing, biting bristle worms—deadly bait for species like rockfish—had to be sorted, cleaned, refrigerated and kept in a special-salinity bath that Dee developed to mimic the worms’ native coastal Maine and Canadian waters. It was a painstaking, seven-days-a-week chore that boosted the business’s bottom line; bloodworms sold for $12 a dozen and Tochterman’s peddled tens of thousands weekly in the summer.
But bloodworms became overharvested, overpriced and physically underwhelming, Dee says. So, when COVID-19 hit in 2020, she made a leap of faith. The store switched to selling lugworms imported directly from diggers in China. “I don’t have to do anything with them,” Dee says of their care. “It’s kind of nice. It’s kind of strange.” Slow to catch on at first, “lugs” are becoming more and more popular with customers, and Tochterman’s once-renowned bloodworms are a bait of the past.
Tony joins us and we climb a time-worn stairway to chat. The Tochtermans just look like they belong together. At 73, he’s showing some of his dad’s gray hair. She’s 65, dark-haired, and as perpetually pleasant as her husband. They’ve been a couple for 30 years, married for 12, having met when Dee began working at the store in the 1990s. Both come from families who believed above all in hard work.
“When I asked her to marry me, she was counting worms downstairs,” Tony says. Dee’s reply was “Yes, okay, we’ll talk about it tonight.” They live directly across the street in two row houses joined by a walkway, enjoying what leisure hours they have in the home’s tree-shaded courtyard, which features a koi pond. They have two dogs, but no children.
Talk to them for any length of time—we conversed at a fly-tying bench as they welcomed clients who wandered by—and you’ll hear stories about family, their customers and the store, but little about their own fishing exploits, although both enjoy the sport.
Dee’s mother, Rusty, often worked two jobs, including stints as a waitress, a cab driver and, for 38 years, soldering missile components for Westinghouse. But she made time to take her daughter fishing—everywhere. “If it was semi-bad weather, like windy, we’d go to Loch Raven [Reservoir]. We’d have lunch and fish,” Dee remembers.
Tony never knew his grandfather but was told he preferred tending store to fishing. “He fished, but he wasn’t obsessed with fishing. He was obsessed with working.” His father and uncle fished when they could, especially in Middle and Back rivers for bass and pike.
Tochterman’s once kept unimaginable hours: 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily, including holidays. (These days the store is open Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.) Second- and third-generation Tochtermans were expected to help from a young age.
When other boys were playing with Matchbox cars, Tony was unpacking boxes of lures for his father, sorting the River-Runts, Tiny Torpedoes and others by size and color. “I learned the colors and I learned the lures. By repetition, I learned the products,” he says. He remains a tackle geek. “I like fishing, but I love fishing tackle and I love the industry. I appreciate where tackle was, the quality of it, where it came from and how it’s progressed.”
In his teens and early 20s, Tony fished in freshwater and saltwater, from the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries to South America and the Mediterranean. One of his mentors was the late Lefty Kreh, the fly-fishing legend and Baltimore Sun outdoors columnist who bought his first fly-fishing outfit at Tochterman’s in the 1940s. He and Tony grew so close that, towards the end of his life, Kreh signed his letters to Tony as “Dad.”
Tony’s fishing stories tend to be either vicarious—his customers’ adventures—or self-deprecating. Like the time Kreh was advising him how to cast for bonefish in the Turneffe Islands off Belize, telling Tony to aim well in front of the notoriously spooky fish. “Sure enough, my cast went right into the middle of the school and the whole water exploded,” Tony recalls.
In print, Kreh seemed to delight in slyly tweaking his protégé. Describing a trip to the Eastern Shore in search of crappie, Kreh was amused to learn that Tony’s insulated mug held not hot coffee but cold Coke, “something I would have considered a form of punishment,” Kreh wrote. He went on to describe how Tony—while protesting that he wasn’t hungry—devoured two bags of Kreh’s cookies: “He graciously allowed me to eat my cheese, but I found out later that he didn’t like it.”
Contemporaries in age, Kreh and Tommy Tochterman were friends in business and temperament, Tony says. Straight-shooters who were generous with their knowledge, neither could abide pretension. Once, Tony recalls, his father upbraided a wealthy businessman who wanted him to order what Tommy considered substandard tackle for his employees’ fishing outing. Not only did the man ultimately accept Tommy’s outfitting recommendations, years later, he helped him get a bank loan.
“He was honorable. He was ethical. Just a hard act to follow,” Tony says of his father, who insisted his four children get good, often strict, educations. The two boys, Tony and his brother, Tommy, attended McDonogh, a then-all-male prep school in Owings Mills where students wore military-style uniforms. The school was so formative for Tony that when he and Dee married, they chose McDonogh’s chapel for the ceremony.
Tony and his father had a loving if hierarchical relationship; the latter in charge, the former a self-avowed “SOB” (Son of the Boss). “That’s the way it was back then,” Tony says. “This is mine and when I’m dead, then it’s yours. It’s a little different today.”
“Is it?” Dee teases. “How old were you when you took over? C’mon, tell us, Tone.” Tony’s father, she says, “was the boss til the day he passed away.”
In 1981, Tony and his brother assumed control of the business from their father and uncle. But the brothers split, bitterly, over differing business philosophies. Tommy III left in 1986 to open a short-lived outdoors store, Tochterman’s of Timonium. “He went his way and I went mine,” Tony says. The family’s financial disputes dragged out for a decade in court. “The war,” Dee calls it. (Tommy Tochterman III died in 2013. No other family members are currently involved in the business.)
Dee was particularly close to her father-in-law. Asked to describe him, she purses her lips in a knowing grin. “Old school, number one,” she says. “A handshake man, you know? If he says, ‘I will do this,’ he’s going to do it.”
Even when he ought not to—like showing up for work despite declining health. “The last day he was here we had to pick him up from the car and physically carry him in,” Tony says. Once, Tommy lost consciousness while tending the register and woke surrounded by EMTs. He ordered them to leave and resumed work. “He didn’t want to be out of here. And that’s why his ashes are in the case, because that’s where he wanted to be.”
No longer able to speak, Tommy Tochterman Jr. died at his home four blocks from the store. Tony recalls visiting that night, the Saturday before Labor Day 1998. “I told him, ‘We made it through the summer. I appreciate all the help you gave me. You know you missed your dad. It’s about time for you to go home.’” Forty-five minutes later, Tony says, he and Dee learned that Tommy had passed away.
Tommy’s wife of 68 years, Antoinette Kolodziejski Tochterman, died in 2007. Another avid angler and the store’s some-time bookkeeper, she and her husband rest in Tochterman’s trophy case among vintage reels and family mementos, just below a baseball Ted Williams autographed for Tommy. (Tommy and Eddie Tochterman advised Williams on a line of tackle the Hall of Famer endorsed for Sears & Roebuck.)
Not long after his father’s death, Tony was closing up one night with an associate, telling the man he might move a display of surf-casting accessories. “Dad hated those sand spikes hanging up there,” he explained. Soon afterward, several spikes fell to the floor. “I told you he wanted them moved,” Tony quipped.
The customers Tochterman’s serves today are often the children and grandchildren of previous customers. Recently, a man brought his grandson in to buy the boy’s first fishing rod. “As he walked out the door, he turned around and gave me a hug,” Tony says. “You know,” the customer told Tony tearfully, “my grandfather brought me in here when I was 6 years old to get my first outfit.”
Mike Orr, a fisherman from Eldersburg who ties and paints jigs, tells me he’s been shopping here since Tony’s dad ran the place. “They’re really friendly. You can’t beat them. And their prices are good,” he says, comparing them favorably to a larger chain retailer. “Even if they raised their prices, it’s still worth coming here for the people. If you need anything, they’re willing to work it out with you.”
Newer customers echo similar sentiments online:
“Tony let me try every reel to fit my old Blue Stream rod.”
“They fixed a Penn reel bought there almost 20 years ago for free in five minutes.”
“These people know their stuff and make you feel a part of the family.”
Tochterman’s doesn’t do internet sales, preferring to deal one-on-one with customers. And forget about franchising the operation: “I don’t want to be McDonald’s,” Tony says. “We enjoy life, and we enjoy our reputation.”
Which means they plan to keep working. “We’ve had three weeks’ vacation in 30 years,” he says. Dee seems skeptical. “Three weeks, really?” They start counting: England for a week to see friends, and …. “Wait a minute!” Tony says. “For your birthday, I took you to tackle shows.”
With no family heirs, Tony admits the business lacks a succession plan. He hopes that, when the time comes, someone will offer to buy Tochterman’s based on its reputation and run it with the same customers-first philosophy. He says he won’t accept an offer based purely on financial gain: “Our name is too important to us.”
Despite Tochterman’s multigenerational legacy, Tony says that he’s neither anxious nor pressured about its future. If the right buyer fails to materialize, he’s prepared to liquidate. “I told Dee when it gets to the point—whether it’s this year or ten years from now—you got a key, I got a key, lock the door. It’s done.”
Somehow that seems like one thing that Tochterman’s faithful customers just won’t buy.
Maryland native and award-winning contributor Marty LeGrand writes about nature, the environment and Chesapeake history.