SHIP BOTTOM — Fisherman’s Headquarters, a bait-and-tackle shop at the entrance to Long Beach Island, was one of the first businesses to reopen after Hurricane Sandy slammed into Ocean County.
Manager Greg Cudnik, 26, the son of owner Stan Cudnik, spent the first days back drying out the store and selling gum boots and rain jackets to island residents gearing up to begin their own arduous cleanup.
He motored over to the island in a boat from the mainland where he had weathered the storm, but reopening the store so early made little difference since the island remained closed for weeks.
This wasn’t the first major storm to strike his business. A coastal storm in 1992 caused such extensive street flooding that customers posed for pictures pretending to fish off the store’s front porch. Cudnik, who was 6 at the time, remembers paddling his dad’s fishing cooler like a canoe around the parking lot.
“Our preparations made the outcome much better,” he said of the recent storm.
Cudnik spent days in advance of the hurricane moving inventory onto the higher shelves of the store, sandbagging the garages and boarding up the glass doors. His efforts paid off when flood water entered the lower storage room of the shop on Ninth Street.
But Cudnik said they were comparatively lucky. They had just gotten a $65,000 shipment of new clothing that he had the foresight to protect. The store’s entire inventory of high-end rods and reels was safe.
A load of dry ice even kept both walk-in coolers chilled while the power was out so the store did not lose its supply of bunker, clams and other frozen bait.
The storm struck right as the annual fall striped bass season was getting under way. East Brunswick resident Joe Czapkowski had reeled in a nearly 49-pound striper off Barnegat Light’s beach Oct. 19.
Czapkowski, 44, who has a home in Barnegat Light, said he sympathizes with Long Beach Island businesses such as Fisherman’s Headquarters that were affected by the storm.
“They lost five weeks of fall business,” he said. “And many are going to struggle to get back open for the summer.”
When residents and visitors were finally allowed back, the towns continued to restrict access to the damaged beaches.
“We had a great spring and a fantastic summer. We were prepared to have the best fall we’ve had in a long time. A lack of beach access killed our fall business,” Cudnik said.
Now the question for him is how the island’s businesses will bounce back for the spring boating season.
His shop is especially busy this winter. On top of the normal restocking of inventory and winter preparations, they have been inundated with orders to repair reels and rods damaged in the storm.
“More people in this economy are looking to get their gear refurbished instead of buying new,” he said.
In a back-room workshop, employees take apart reels down to their gears and replace and clean parts as needed.
Cudnik studied computer science at Ocean County Community College and has a bachelor’s degree in business administration from The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.
But he is expert at dismantling and repairing the inner workings of a these surprisingly complicated mechanisms, which contain dozens of tiny moving parts. He makes custom rods as a hobby.
The store keeps a large inventory in stock to cater to the wide range of fishing interests — from surf and jetty, to boating to fly fishing.
“I try to keep fishing really simple. You don’t need to make it rocket science,” he said.
His next goal is to improve the store’s online presence, since Fisherman’s Headquarters has a robust mail-order business.
And he wants his out-of-state customers to know that Long Beach Island is back open for business. It’s a message he hopes to spread at the off-season fishing flea markets the store supports, including Southern Regional High School’s market Feb. 16.
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