Story of the Egg

In an age of manufactured baits and lures, sometimes the best trout bait available on the market is Mother Nature's own salmon egg

By Chris Shaffer

At 86, Otto Keith Williams wakes up in time to make it to work at 4 a.m. each morning. He refuses to be fully retired and shows up each day in slacks or jeans with a belt, a tucked in collar shirt and always brings his smile.

His job isn't overwhelming or high paying. He takes it upon himself to bring donuts to the plant each day, clean the bathroom and make lunch for employees. Behind his thick glasses, Williams isn't just a janitor or a cook, though. Not even close. Williams is an icon in the fishing industry. Someone just forgot to tell him about it.

In a world overwhelmed with egos, Williams should be a lesson to all. For a man who created, built and ran the largest and most successful salmon egg company in the world, his ability to remain humble is inspiring.

"It's not my company," said Williams of one of the longest lasting companies in the fishing industry. "It belongs to my grandson, but they still let me clean the bathroom."

Without Williams though, there'd be no company or world famous Balls O' Fire salmon eggs sitting in a clear jar with a green lid on the shelf in nearly every Wal-Mart and sporting goods store in the US. However, for Williams, the American dream didn't happen overnight. Pautzke has always been based in Ellensburg, Washington, a small city between Seattle and Spokane.

Pautzke was founded in 1934 by Williams' uncle Ernie Pautzke, who passed away in 1938, after selling very few eggs. At that time an 8-ounce jar sold for .50 cents. When Williams returned from World War II in 1946, where he served as a fighter pilot in the Marine Corp, he purchased the salmon egg recipe from his aunt for $50. The sale also required him to pay $199 for the remaining inventory of empty glasses used to bottle the eggs.

"At the time I felt that if I could get the eggs to sell then maybe I could get out of working at the sawmill. I figured my uncle was an alcoholic and he probably didn't even try," Williams said. "I knew it would take time. Ellensburg wasn't the only place to sell eggs. I went to Seattle."

Seattle was the stepping block for much more to come. Soon William's idea of jarring salmon eggs to be fished for trout, salmon and steelhead had spread across the West. Nevertheless, it wasn't until a simple, yet brilliant idea in 1948 got the ball rolling that Williams began to realize the company's potential.

In 1948, Williams — in response to poor sales of natural colored eggs — tried dying the eggs deep red. That year, he sold all 3,600 jars of eggs he manufactured. Balls O' Fire had been born. Furthermore, the most effective trout bait on the planet had now been created.

"The eggs are round and like a little ball. The die was fluorescent red and it looked like fire, so I called it Balls O' Fire," Williams said. "I thought the fish would be able to see it better and people were impressed. I couldn't believe it. The idea just took off."

In 1949, Pautzke Bait Company was growing so fast that they were forced to hire three sales reps to cover 11 western states. The craze of salmon-egg fishing in lakes, reservoirs, ponds, streams, rivers and creeks was spreading rapidly.

"We sold damn near everything I could get. Salmon eggs were hard to get at that time," Williams added. "I'd get in the truck and go after the salmon to get the eggs."

Williams came to agreements with canneries in Astoria and Portland, Oregon, Seattle and Vancouver to take as many eggs as they could provide.

For the first five years, Pautzke continued to grow. Sales improved annually and have excelled since. To date, more than 81 million jars of eggs have been sold since 1934, most coming since 1948. A man who set out to find his own line of work so he didn't have to report to a sawmill had now developed a product that every coldwater angler in the country was fond of using. "I was cooking eggs in my mother's garage and stirring them by hand," Williams said.

The time had come for a move. The company invested in a 22,000-square-foot building and opted to take to the national market. In order to keep stride with demand, eggs were now being purchased from the Great Lakes, New York and California, as well as the Pacific Northwest.

Egg sales peaked in 1979 when Williams and Pautzke sold more than four million jars. Williams semi-retired in 1982, when he sold the company to his sons. The company changed hands this year when grandson Casey Kelley took over operations. In a market heavily influenced by dough baits, Kelley is hoping to reestablish the Balls O' Fire egg as the ultimate trout egg.

"We still believe the salmon egg is the best trout bait available," Kelley said. "The old-timers still use eggs, but we need to reach the youth of America. The younger generations have been taught that manufactured baits are the best way to catch trout, but that's not the case. There's nothing better than a natural salmon egg."

The process

Making Pautzke Balls O' Fire eggs is a trade secret, one they don't share with the public. While the egg canning process may seem simple, it's actually complex. When you are referring to Tyee, Cheese Giants, Red Label, Green Label, Premium, Orange Deluxe or Yellow Jacket's, all the eggs come from chum, chinook, coho and silver salmon.

"It's a secret," says Kelley of the egg process. "Nothing changes in our recipe except for the eggs we use and there's only about five of us alive that know exactly what needs to be done." On the surface, it may sound quite simple. Today, most salmon eggs are shipped from the Great Lakes in 45-pound buckets. Pautzke used to receive skeins, but now the eggs come in caviar form. The eggs are stored in large refrigerators prior to being placed in cooking pots where they are cooked under a predetermined temperature for a set time.

"If you don't cook them long enough they won't come out right," Kelley said. "Cook them too long and they burn. Then we'd have to throw them out. We make sure all the eggs are cooked perfectly."

Keep in mind, this isn't a chemical process. A few ingredients, a food preservative and in some cases dyes are used during the cooking process. After the eggs are cooked they are put in strainers where excess juices are drained and abnormal eggs are removed. The eggs are then placed in jars and packaged.

The new generation

At the turn of the 21st Century, Pautzke made a pact to expand their line of products and create interest for products other than eggs. In the last few years Pautzke has impressed the fishing industry with Liquid and Gel Krill, an all-natural scent that works universally for all species in fresh and saltwater. They've also begun to market Nectar, another scent that is exceptional for trout, kokanee, catfish and salmon.

"The scents are beginning to do very well," says Kelley of the Liquid and Gel Krill. Each scent masters the Pautzke way of being an all-natural product with no chemicals added. "Anglers are realizing that you don't have to buy one scent for every kind of fish you want to catch. The Gel and Liquid Krill works for everything, anywhere in the country."

On the other hand, when you think of Pautzke, you think eggs and it's their Yellow Jacket and Orange Deluxe salmon eggs — which are colored yellow and orange, respectively — that they see the most potential in. These natural colors were added to the Balls O' Fire line a few years ago and are rapidly making their way into the national market.

"You can't go wrong with natural color eggs," added Kelley. "It's what trout are used to eating."

Award-winning writer Chris Shaffer is the author of several fishing and hiking guides. He can be reached at cshaffer@fishingcalifornia.net. Read the original article at ESPN Outdoors.
Traveling Classroom