The Pautzke Bait Company (A National Treasure)

Just before the end of the year, I visited a national treasure – just down the street, on Dolarway, right here in Ellensburg, Washington. Homey Bill Boyum works the rush season, and gave the management a heads up for me. He figured, given all the times he’d heard me talking about fishing with those “Soft but Satisfying,” “Balls O’ Fire,” eggs as a kid, I was long overdue for my pilgrimage to the Pautzke Bait Company.

I easily remember that sunny spring Saturday morning on Lake Wenatchee in the early 1950s, when Earl English pulled out a new jar of Pautzke eggs and smiled. “Soft but satisfying,” he chuckled, “that is always a good thing. Trout love ‘em.” I was probably 11 or 12, too young to get the joke, but I dutifully chuckled and started fishing with the new single-egg hooks Eagle Claw had designed just for the salmon eggs. I couldn’t tell you what we caught that day, but I can tell you we always had a jar of those eggs and we never got skunked.

Earl was the big kid from up the block in East Wenatchee, on the east side of the Columbia River. He was funny, he knew everything, he drove, he fished, he loaded ammo and shot targets from his upstairs bedroom window, he hunted, and he somehow took me under his wing. He often described me as a “pesky pup” chewing on his pants cuff, but he kept me around. He was my first – maybe greatest ever – outdoor hero.

At any rate, I’ve often thought we were among the first fans of those Balls O’ Fire when they began conquering Washington’s fishermen – and fish.

One of the company’s bylines is “Soft but satisfying since 1934.” In those first days, Ernie Pautzke was cooking up some especially effective salmon eggs at home. Right after WWII, Ernie’s nephew, Keith Williams (grandfather of current owner Casey Kelley) bought the recipe from him for 50 bucks and started Pautzke Bait as a way to fully live his outdoor lifestyle. It was tough early on; those king salmon eggs were deadly effective, but just didn’t sell. Williams gave away most of his first 200 cases, and took on some other work to feed his family. Pautzke Bait finally sold 20 cases in 1949.

Keith Williams always credited his wife, Marnie, with Pautzke Bait’s rise to prominence. At some point in the very late 1940s, she suggested that he dye the eggs a bright red. The rest is history. (I do know that, while Earl and I used Pautzke’s natural pale orange eggs, we always carried those bright beautiful “Balls O’ Fire” reds.) Today, the company still revolves around those bright fluorescent eggs – also available in natural, chartreuse, orange, pink, yellow and sparkly. There are a half-dozen other fish-catching products and colors as well. Today, Pautzke baits are sold in mom-and-pop stores and retail giants all over North America and Mexico – you would not be surprised to see them being used in Europe and Africa.

Pautzke Bait is part of our fishing culture. In the last Century, some four decades ago, I was debating greenback cutthroat trout fishing with one of my fly-fishing nut buddies along the South Platte River southwest of Denver. I suggested worms and Balls O’ Fire and he snorted about how a real fisherman used hand-tied flies which imitated only the natural things fish ate. In one corner of his well-stocked fly box I saw a small, round, fluorescent red thing that looked a lot like one of Pautzke’s best. “You tie that, too?” I asked. He didn’t want to talk about it.

My end-of-2017 tour of Pautzkeland? It was great.

I walked into the large processing and shipping room, and waited to chat with owner Casey. I was standing in a forest of five-gallon buckets holding hundreds of gallons of raw, light orange salmon eggs waiting to be cooked and processed. (For the last four-plus decades, the eggs have been sourced from the Great Lakes – a much more reliable source of Chinook salmon eggs than the original sources in Alaska and Canada.) The wait gave me a chance to look around.

This is the hectic time of year for Pautzke, and a couple dozen very busy workers were at key locations in the various processing and shipping sections of the warehouse. Two or three folks were cooking and stirring eggs, another was examining and testing a vat of dye, and others were overseeing the ancient machines which filled and sealed the jars. Along a conveyer and roller belt, men and women were counting and boxing and shrink-wrapping jars of fishing magic. At the end of that line, a couple guys loaded cases onto pallets and prepared them for shipping to the store where some teenaged guy or girl will grab a jar so that they can teach a pesky pup youngster how to catch his or her own food and begin a lifetime of outdoor pleasure. There wasn’t much talk in that big busy production room, but most everyone was wearing a relaxed look or smile.

How could it not be like that? These men and women are integral parts of an American National Treasure: the Pautzke Bait Company of Ellensburg, Washington.

Come on, spring!

Written by Jim Huckabay. Posted in Uncategorized