A few years ago a friend of mine, an avid backwash fly fisherman, got himself into a pile of trouble up in the Allagash wilderness. For those who don’t know where the Allagash is, it’s in the remote northern part of Maine that butts up against the triple border of the US, Quebec and New Brunswick. There’s a whole lot of nothing there for jobs but a whole lot of black flies in the spring.
On this particular wilderness fly fishing weekend for city slickers, led by guides who were far slicker at lifting several hundred dollars from their acolytes then the lads were at lifting fish from the Allagash, my friend made the acquaintance of a swarm of black flies.
Black flies have two things on their minds in spring: a nice warm blood meal and making little black flies. Thankfully their lifespan is measured in days. You never see a black fly travelling alone. They like to swarm and bedevil anything with warm blood. That bottle of Skin So Soft some smartass back at the office told you would ward off Satan himself might as well stay in your backpack. This is Fly Dope country.
Pat, my friend, a red-haired Irish kid from Boston, came outfitted by Orvis and LL Bean but not with an ounce of sense. On Day Two of the great wilderness adventure, the black flies caught up with him. He recalled the first thing he heard was a humming and the second thing was being engulfed in a black cloud. Within a few minutes of screaming and swatting he was being dragged away by two guides wisely covered with Fly Dope and black fly netting and gloves. But it wasn’t over for Pat.
It took a bit for the symptoms to develop but he began to swell up like a party balloon. At this point the guides knew there was trouble and it was time to evacuate Pat to a hospital. But the nearest hospital was a 60 mile round trip on poor secondary roads and with their charge looking like he had come out on the wrong end of a prize fight and beginning to complain of burning and difficulty breathing, it was time to call the medivac helicopter way down near the other end of Maine and the New Hampshire border. Still, it was the best bet.
Pat was evacuated several hours later full of Benadryl and epinephrine the guides carried for this kind of emergency. After several days in the hospital during which he had what the doc called “Black Fly Madness, he swore off fishing, gave away his gear, and made some promises to friends he would later regret.
I’m telling you this because this is the time of year when we all have bug stories. Maybe not as dramatic as Pat’s but some beauts nonetheless. And we have black flies. The no-see-ums and mosquitoes come later. Maybe if you live in the center of a city or stay indoors with the shades down and the doors locked, you will not experience the torment that is black fly season.
For the rest of us, how about some black fly trivia? Did you know these things can survive underwater in 32 degree weather? Or a determined black fly will fly up to ten miles to get a good burger? And did you know there are about 40 species of black flies in the northeast out of the estimated 1500 species spreading their misery across the globe? And, yes, you can die from black fly bites, although it’s not likely unless you’re like my friend Pat who is allergic. On the plus side, if water is polluted, black flies will not pause and they’re an excellent source of nutrients for bats, fish, and a few other insects.
What’s a gardener, hiker, angler, or anyone interested in being outside in the summer to do? Wrap up. Wear netting over a hat, wear light colors and long sleeves and don’t give them a chance to chew on your ankles. For about $11 you can buy some summer mesh bug gaiters that go from ankle to knee.
Midday is a great time to get outside and avoid the black flies, especially if it’s sunny and hot; but, overcast, humid, still days ring the dinner bell and swarms go cruising for brunch. And you might want to stay away from the woods or great outdoors at the ends of the day when they’re especially active. Avoid perfumes, smelly shampoos and consuming lots of sugar. These change your body’s pH and set you up as an entree. And don’t forget to apply DEET insect repellent to your clothes.
If you hike or camp, take Benadryl and calamine or witch hazel in your kit. If you get bitten, be alert for signs of an allergic reaction: swelling of your face and extremities and difficulty breathing or swallowing. An acute reaction is unlikely but be prepared. Wash the bite site with soap and water and liberally apply the calamine or witch hazel you brought with you. Remember, if you have any symptoms of a true allergic reaction, don’t wait to get to medical care.
Black fly season in the northeast extends from early May to early July. We still have a couple of weeks to go. The folks over in Maine know all about black flies and Downeast.com has a handy Black Fly Survival Guide, the one-stop guide to what they are, why they’re after you and how to thwart them.
It’s Summer. Don’t let the black flies, ticks and mosquitoes get you down.