Shaffer's Marina sell rods, hooks and bait, but the advice is free
Mystic — In 1936 when Harry and Maude Shaffer opened their marina and boat livery business, people went fishing so they had food to eat.
"I like to think they saw a need and filled it," said Cheryl Fee, who with her brother, Allen Fee, is the third generation of family to run the Masons Island Road business now called Shaffer's Marina.
In 2001, the siblings bought the operation from their late father, Clifford Fee, who had acquired it from his aunt and uncle in 1967.
Maude and Harry Shaffer lived on Masons Island Road and bought adjacent waterfront property on Williams Cove to open the business and help get people out on the water.
More than eight decades later, that's what Allen and Cheryl Fee are still doing. The business has evolved over the years — it's no longer a livery renting boats, and they no longer sell fuel — but they're still berthing boats, selling saltwater bait and tackle, and operating a busy ramp for people who trailer their boats to get them into and out of the water.
They gave up boat rentals in 2007 when the liability became unmanageable and abandoned fuel sales in 2004 because of onerous compliance regulations, but the business has grown since. In 2012, they expanded across the street at their location near the Masons Island Causeway, opening a spacious bait and tackle shop where boaters and fishermen stop in to resupply, get advice and swap fish stories.
And they've leased the original office/bait shop, a tiny building built by Harry Shaffer a year after the historic hurricane of 1938, to Sea Well Seafood, which runs a brisk fish market there.
Allen Fee, 45, handles much of the dock work and Cheryl Fee, 48, oversees the office and bait and tackle shop, but both siblings are adept at almost every job at the marina. They pride themselves on being a team.
What sets their business apart, said Allen, is the expertise and knowledge they share with their customers.
"Cheryl and I do a lot of teaching," said Allen Fee, about educating customers who want to go saltwater fishing, crabbing or clamming. "We tell them what, where and how. And then we tell them what to do with it after they catch it."
Many people today are recreational fishermen, more interested in a day on the water and adventure, not necessarily trying to stock their freezer.
And what the Fee siblings offer is what Allen, a former fishing guide, calls "Fishing 101." They have simple diagrams to show customers how to cut and hook bait, and offer tips on what gear is necessary, where to go to land what species, and when and how to catch it.
They know the regulations, which can be confusing since saltwater anglers might end up in New York, Rhode Island, or Connecticut waters, and each state has its own rules.
Many customers start out as novices and, in some cases, become accomplished fishermen over time, said Allen Fee.
They sell rods and reels and a wide assortment of hooks, line, nets, traps, rigs, lures and more. For bait, they've got it all: eels, squid, mackerel and clams. There are also sundries, like ice, T-shirts and sunglasses.
"Our customers pretty much dictate what we have," said Cheryl Fee, adding, "We have bait, tackle and information."
"We do have a lot of good information. We know about techniques and new things," said Allen, explaining customers share what they know and the owners at Shaffer's pass it along.
"There are no secrets," he said. "If you don't want anyone else to know, don't tell us."
Growing up on Masons Island, Cheryl and Allen were regulars at the marina, helping out by bailing and cleaning the 30 rental boats, or doing any other jobs they were asked to.
Decades ago, their uncle and later their father built and sold boats. Harry Shaffer started by making wooden boats, but by the late 1960s had updated to fiberglass. He partnered with Rob Pittaway, and the two created the 15½-foot Stonington skiff, which was immensely popular with fishermen, lobstermen, crabbers and clammers. Clifford Fee continued to cast the boats, but the siblings, who still have some of the original molds, no longer make them.
They focus on their docks, which can berth 103 boats, mostly outboards averaging about 20 feet in size. Some customers are the second or third generation of their families to keep their boats at Shaffer's, and many include children. From the Fees' Masons Island marina, there is easy access over Williams Cove to the Mystic River and under the causeway to the open waters on the east side of Masons Island, making it an attractive place to dock for boaters.
Their ramp is also busy, and at high tide boaters pay the $15 in-and-out fee to get their boat in the water.
With the opening of summer flounder season earlier this month and the improved weather, the Fees are gearing up for another busy summer. They're open daily and will be going full-throttle until September, when things slow down just a bit, before the final crunch of tautog, or blackfish season, in October.
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