This Bug's For You: Maggot Ranchers Have Learned To Live With The Grossness

PORTHILL, Idaho - Dennis and Pam Ponsness might not be able to stomach raising millions of maggots for bait and pet shops without the sweet smell of success to keep them going.

The biggest drawback is the stench of rotting fish corpses used to fatten up the fly larvae before they're shipped in canisters to retailers across the United States. '

"It's gross. I did a lot of gagging before I got used to it," said Pam Ponsness, who still sometimes wears a respirator into the trailer where the fly larvae are hatched.

"Some people thought we were a little nuts when we started," said Dennis Ponsness. "It used to bother me to say I raise maggots, but now it's kind of a kick."

Every 12 hours, seven days a week, fish are laid out over piles of sawdust that contain the larvae. The maggots devour the carcasses, leaving only bones. The Ponsnesses buy fish parts 3,000 pounds at a time from processors in Seattle and Alaska.

Prior to shipping, the Ponsnesses' grubs are sifted through sawdust to remove the strong ammonia smell, then stored in a commercial-sized refrigerator to keep them dormant.

The odor of the grubs and the rotting fish permeate clothing.

"We have to shower twice a day and wear the same overalls that we leave hanging outside," Ponsness said. "It's a smelly operation, but we don't smell any worse than a hog farmer."

Ponsness, 46, quit his job at a hop farm last year to devote his full attention to the business on the couple's ranch, 30 miles north of Bonners Ferry, near the Canadian border.

"In the beginning, I didn't want to have anything to do with it, but Dennis said if I ever wanted to see him, I'd have to be out there helping," said Pam Ponsness, 40.

The business was started five years ago by Ponsness's father, Lloyd Ponsness of Bonners Ferry, an avid fisherman who thought he could produce better quality bait.

"The live-bait business is a real narrow market that demands quality, and we provide a quality product," Ponsness said.

The business was moved to the ranch after Lloyd Ponsness's neighbors' complaints about the stench of ripe fish and sated maggots.

The company has grown by trial and error to where millions of the fat grubs are shipped each year.

Pam Ponsness laughs as she remembers her husband running through the house with a vacuum, sucking up flies to start the business. Once, the temperature in the trailer was too high and the maggots became more active, some squirming out of their boxes.

"I knew we were in trouble when I could see them coming out the door," Pam Ponsness said. "They covered the floor.

"I always know something went wrong when I hear Dennis outside with the vacuum cleaner."