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Originally published October 25, 2011 at 9:01 PM | Page modified October 26, 2011 at 9:08 AM

Restless Native

Northwest company reels in anglers for 80 years

Dick Nite lures, first produced in the 1930s, are an iconic part of Northwest fishing lore. In an industry now dominated by cheap imports, the small local company, which turns out 250,000 lures a year, is a rare local-manufacturing success story.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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TOP SECRET LOCATION, Snohomish County — It's not like Dick Figgins is anti-social. The guy is a talker, and he loves visitors. But safety is a consideration.

If Figgins disclosed to the entire world the precise location of the global headquarters of Dick Nite Spoons Inc., well, there'd surely be trouble.

Anglers desperate to find the "hot" lure of the day, sold out at their local tackle shop, would be knocking on his door at all hours, asking for a hookup.

And it would only be a matter of time before millions of sleuthy Puget Sound trout, salmon and steelhead would move upstream and home in on the mother lode of Dick Nite spoons, a Northwest fishing-lure standby since the 1930s.

"Fish have been seeing Dick Nite spoons in the waters around here for 80 years," says Figgins, 55, his eyes flashing that fish-story glint. "They like them. When guys are out in the water, they open up their tackle boxes, the fish see the reflection of all those Dick Nites in their sunglasses — and swamp the boat."

He will go on if you let him, telling you how UPS stopped shipping Dick Nites after repeated fish ambushes on bridges over local rivers. And of course he's lying. But a kernel of truth is in there.

The fact is (and the author speaks here from experience), the properly fished Dick Nite spoon, a diminutive brass lure sold in three sizes and 84 color combinations, truly will (sometimes) entice a trout, salmon, steelhead or other reluctant fish to strike when other methods fail.

The lure, which claims several world-record fish, has earned its reputation as a go-to standby — a rare lure that will attract a broad variety of fish species. That's why you'll see, on almost every online fishing chat board, at least one post ending with this sage advice: "If nothing else works, try a Dick Nite."

Word spreads fast: If a guy pulls a 15-pound coho onto the banks of the Snohomish and is kind enough to share his lure choice with friends, that particular spoon — the "Number One 50/50 nickel/brass," just for the sake of discussion — is likely to be sold out the next day at local tackle shops.

Many anglers, in fact, have grown accustomed to learning what lure they need simply by reading the lonely tackle-shop rack card containing the stock number of the one that sold out the day before.

To all those folks, Figgins has a message: He's sorry, but he's making them as fast as he can. When you're creating a product completely from scratch in a backyard shop with a total crew of five people, you can't just push a button and ramp up production.

It's been this way, more or less, since the 1930s. In an industry now dominated by imported products, the company is a rare local-manufacturing success story, with deep Seattle roots.

Local angler Dick Knight made the first tiny lure in his own garage eight decades ago, fashioning a small strip of brass into a fishing spoon which, when pulled or drifted through moving water, "swam" in a way that proved irresistible to fish during field trials, Figgins recounts.

Knight and a friend, Lake City barber Bill Williams, went into business. The first lures were so small, and the partners' metal-press equipment so limited, that a "Dick Knight" stamp was too big for the lures. Rather than make the lures bigger, they made the name smaller, shortening it to "Dick Nite."

Williams sold the slowly growing business in 1969 to his letter carrier, Ken Figgins, who along with wife, Hilda, ran the company for 35 years, expanding it in a large Paine Field factory space that also produced paints, dyes and pigments for other industries.

Dick bought the company from his parents in 2003. It's now co-owned by him and his wife, Terri Wineman.

They've "taken it back to reality," Dick Figgins says, ditching the expensive factory space to focus exclusively on the handmade fishing products that made Dick Nite an iconic brand. Slashing overhead by moving the business "back home" was necessary, Figgins says, to keep Dick Nites in the same price range as cheap, foreign-made fishing tackle flooding the market.

They make the classic spoons in three sizes — from the inch-long No. 2 to the tiny No. 0 "wee" Dick Nite — and a rainbow of colors and finishes. The company also sells a line of lure paints, as well as scented fish attractants and, beginning last year, trolling dodgers for kokanee anglers.

All the lures are tested by the Dick Nite "pro staff" — mostly local river guides who experiment with new colors and patterns.

Part of the sales appeal is the prominent "MADE IN THE USA" lettering on the front of every turquoise package. Even longtime customers might be stunned to learn that the quarter-million lures produced by the company this year all came from the modest Lake Stevens-area (sorry, Dick, had to do it) shop, no bigger than a large garage.

As one visitor put it upon seeing the facility: "There's no way all the Dick Nites in the world come out of this place."

They do.

Figgins and two full-time employees do all the major work right here, running rolls of thin brass through a 47-year-old pneumatic stamping machine that cuts and presses the lures into their distinctive shape. They're then placed for up to three weeks in motor-driven tumblers to smooth out the edges and apply a mirror finish. Spray painting and other finishing touches are applied by hand in the next room.

Boxes of the finished spoons are delivered to the company's other work force: The Dick Nite "hookers" — three longtime female employees — work at home, affixing sharp Eagle Claw hooks to one end of the lure and hand-soldering a tie-on ring to the other.

The finished lures are returned in paint cans to the shop, where they are sorted, packaged and shipped to 37 states, Canada and Japan. "We try to keep a year's worth in stock," Figgins says, but it doesn't always work out. If he runs out of a particular model, it takes two or three weeks to catch up.

Figgins spends about a dollar making every Dick Nite lure, which sell from $3 to $5 retail. He reports being approached by people offering to put Chinese knockoffs in his hands, ready to ship, for as little as 25 cents apiece.

But Figgins knows those wouldn't fish like a Dick Nite — or hang onto an angry coho like a Dick Nite. The brand has been around for so long that fishermen expect a certain level of quality, he says. Hence the company's crude-but-simple manufacturing credo: "We don't make crap."

But they do provide ample choices. The palette of Dick Nites now ranges from classic plain old brass to chartreuse gold sparkle, and even includes a popular speckled "frog" pattern favored by local coho anglers.

That's all great for sales. But Figgins, when you can get him to tell the truth, admits that he believes the particular Dick Nite likely to work best on any given day is the one an experienced angler can place right in front of a fish.

In a field increasingly dominated by expensive, complicated lures that flash, move or rattle, the Dick Nite's appeal — to fishermen and fish alike — Figgins believes, is its simplicity.

"We're not in the market to catch fishermen," he says. "We're about catching fish."




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