The day after superstorm Sandy hit Long Island, Denise and Bill Witchey of Combs Bait and Tackle in Amityville found much of the shop’s merchandise intact but the power out. They returned a week later to the smell of $2,500 in spoiled bait wafting from the still-powerless freezers.
Electricity was restored 14 days after the storm, but the Witcheys have kept the 58-year-old store shut as they address another problem: Sandy flooded their Cape Cod home on Surf Street in Lindenhurst with four feet of water. The house is still unlivable.
“My business is standing, but there’s no income,” Denise Witchey, 57, said. “It’s hard when it hits you at both ends. A lot of people lost everything in their house, but they still go to work every day and get a paycheck. We don’t, so that makes it even harder.”
The Witcheys bought the store in 1989, but Bill Witchey had his eye on the shop since he was a child, back when he harvested clams and sold them to the former owner, George Combs.
This is the biggest challenge they’ve faced since owning the store, they said.
“We had a lot of customers that just recovered from Tropical Storm Irene,” said Bill Witchey, 58. “It’s going to take a toll on everyone in the fishing industry. A lot of our customers have put their hands up and said, ‘Enough is enough,’ and are moving.”
Ben Treadwell, 27, of North Massapequa, worked at the shop part-time in high school. He said he’s seen the business struggle in the past and the last two storms haven’t helped.
“Unfortunately, there’s no business because there's no fish. Everything got wiped out by the storm,” said Treadwell. “A lot of people lost their boats.”
Paul Johnson, a mechanic at the Pearl Grey Marine on South Ketcham Avenue in Amityville, has been a customer of Combs Bait and Tackle for nearly 20 years.
Fishermen used to pull up in their boats to chat with friends on the docks and compete to catch the biggest fish of the day, he said.
After the storm, boats went missing, sunk in the Narrasketuck River or landed on properties.
“Fishermen around here are depressed,” said Johnson, 46, of Amityville. “This is a big fishing neighborhood, but people are first taking care of their damaged homes.”
He added that Combs Bait and Tackle has always been the place to buy fresh bait, fishing equipment or ask for advice on where to get the best catch.
“I go fishing for fun, but I buy bait from him,” Johnson said. “All of us do. I’d hate to see Billy go, but he got kicked hard [by superstorm Sandy].”
Before the storm, Thomas Natale, 70, of Massapequa, would go crabbing at least three times a week after purchasing fresh bait from Combs Bait and Tackle. Now his 22-foot boat “Blue Rose” sits on cinder blocks in his driveway after the water from the river lifted it off its trailer.
His other two boats were not damaged, but before he can get back on the water, he has to clear out and repair the first floor of his cottage, which had been submerged in four feet of water.
“I love hunting and fishing, but everything is just on hold for now,” said Natale. “But I’m not going to give it up.”
Bill and Denise Witchey are optimistic that they will be able to open up the tackle shop soon and that business will return to normal, but they are first concentrating on their house. They are currently staying with their daughter, who also lives in Lindenhurst.
“This will be a whole new chapter of fishing, but we’ll overcome this,” Bill Witchey said.
Added Denise: “This is our life and we’re not ready to quit. No matter how hard we’re hit, we’re not going to give it up.”