Blackflies

Kill one blackfly and thousands will come to its funeral

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Flies on the landscape
Flies in the air
Flies in your whiskers
Flies in your hair.
Flies up your nostrils
Flies down your neck
Flies on your eardrums
Flies by the peck.

180,000,000 years

That's how long female blackflies have been sucking blood from the inhabitants of earth.

Patrick Stewart said, "It is an historical fact that sharing the world has never been humanities defining attribute."

Well this is not the case when it comes to blackflies. We have no choice but to share the world with them, they outnumber us, and, seeing as there are 300 pounds of insects for every pound of us, they most probably outweigh us. The problem is, blackflies have never learned to live with humanity.

No matter how much dope you spread on your skin there's gonna be at least one day in your fishing season when the little buggers drive you off the river.

One time, when I had my bug jacket on, the blackflies were pounding on my head so hard I'd have sworn it was raining. Like a fish in a landing net, I can only take being confined for so long and decided to open my jacket and light the cigar I carried for such occasions. When I flicked the lighter a large flame flared skyward and melted a huge hole in the face of my bug jacket. Knowing that my day was lost, and surrounded by a thundercloud of flies, I left the river (the picture was the end result, and that was just one eye!).

Another time, in Rose Blanche, Newfoundland, I made the mistake of stepping out of the truck without my hat. I reckon it only took ten seconds for the blackflies to find me and for my head to feel like it was on fire. The burning sensation was so intense that I could actually visualize flames flickering from my hair.

I'm sure you all have horror stories about blackflies but here's a few samples of what other people have written about them.

Back in 1859 Louis Agassi wrote, " ... neither the love of the picturesque, nor the interests of science could tempt us into the woods, so terrible were the blackflies. One whom scientific ardour tempted up the river, after water-plants, came back a frightful spectacle, with blood red rings around his eyes, his face bloody and covered with punctures."

Here's one that any fly-fisherman can relate to. In 1903 Stewart Edward Wright wrote in his book The Forest, that the blackfly " ... holds still to be killed. No frantic slaps, no waving of the arms, no muffled curses. You just place your finger calmly and firmly on the spot. You get him every time. In this is great, heart-lifting joy. It may be unholy joy, perhaps even vengeful, but it leaves the spirit ecstatic. The satisfaction of murdering the beast that has had the nerve to light on you just as you are reeling in almost counterbalances the pain."

In 1913, during a halibut trip to the Anticosti fishing grounds, Frederick Wallace set ashore at Sou'west Point. He wrote in his book Roving Fisherman that "The woods abounded in deer and game of all sorts. During the blackfly season, many deer were to be found lying dead on the beach, having fallen over the cliffs in seeking relief from blackflies and mosquitoes."

In The Americans are Coming, a fictional novel, Herb Curtis wrote, " ... Dryfly feared getting lost more than anything else in the world. The thought of being alone in the woods to battle the flies horrified him. He even had nightmares about it."

In No Man's River Farley Mowat wrote, "The country hereabouts was aquiver with blackflies of a new and virulent breed, and ominously devoid of deer."

Giles Blunt wrote in his fictional novel Blackfly Season that ..."The blackfly may be less than a quarter-inch long, but close up it resembles an attack helicopter, fitted with a sucker at one end and a nasty hook at the other."

In an essay entitled A Fly-fishing Primer P.J. O'Rourke wrote about fly fishing by stating that ... "Furthermore, it's conducted in the middle of blackfly season. Cast and swat. Cast and swat. Fly fishing may be a sport invented by insects with fly fishermen as bait."

In Mercy Falls, a fictional novel by William Kent Krueger, we find the following ... The drone of blackflies, an oddity for so late in the season, filled the quiet. The insects lit on Stone's bare, salty skin and crawled over his hairless chest and shoulders. He seemed not to notice, although blackflies were vicious biting insects, one of the worst scourges of the north country.
In Bernie Howgate's book entitled Around the Rock in a Bad Mood he states that ... "It is said you can hit a blackfly with a baseball bat and it will come back for more. They don't so much bite you, as mug you ... Blackflies don't take prisoners. They eat until they drop."

Chief Judge Hugh O'Neal of Newfoundland, an avid fisherman, said that "what he had taken out of the rivers and ponds had been taken back in the pints of blood taken from him by the black flies and mosquitos."

In another Newfoundland based book entitled Mattie Mitchell by Gary Collins we find the following ... Up the Indian River from Halls Bay he led them in the month of June, when the flies feed in swarms. Or, as Murray put it: "The black buggers have voracious apatite, and tek a mon's bluid so that I wonder the greate horrads of them aire not redd."

In Jim Harrison's fictional book The Great Leader he states that ... By June and the beginning of the obnoxious bug season that would last at least a month he was back in his home study. There was simply no dealing with the mosquitoes, blackflies, and deerflies unless it was very windy at which point he would launch himself back into the woods.

And last of all, but I forget where I read it ... "In the village of Adamant, which holds the undesirable title of being the blackfly capital of Vermont, they cope with the upcoming misery of the blackfly season by holding a blackfly Festival on the first weekend in May. The festival includes a parade of small children dressed up as blackflies, a road race around the blackfly ponds, and a blackfly pie tasting event."

As an attachment to the above paragraph I found the following description in a fictional book called The Dog Stars by Peter Heller ... At first I thought he was crazy, I mean he could have been sitting on his little porch watching the Vermont spring turn into a riotously green and sultry summer for the last time, watched the wrens and larks and owls in the lyrical commerce of breeding and nesting, leaf and air. Got bitten by black flies, gnats, then mosquitoes, on the last exquisite evenings.

Having said all that, blackflies do have one redeeming feature (as far as trout fishing goes anyway). The larvae and dead adults are a source of food for all ages of trout, and for predator aquatic insects such as dragons, damsels and stoneflies. Mind you, research has shown that if black-fly larvae are removed from a river the trout and insects will turn to other food with little or no change to the eco-system.

The only other thing blackflies do is pollinate flowers, but I think the birds, bees and butterflies do a better job, and the females of these species do not need my blood to ripen their ovaries and lay their eggs.

Thus, we turn to that age-old question as to what are blackflies good for?

Before I answer that, it's interesting to note that Albert Bigelow Paine asked the very same question about mosquitoes in his book The Tent Dwellers. The reply he received from one reader was that they were created in order to aid civilization, in that only an idiot would choose to live in the woods.

But you know what I think? I think if blackflies were good for anything a rich man would have cornered the market on them and I, being but a poor old fly-fisherman, would never see another one again.

One last addition - a verse from the Blackfly Song
by Wade Hemsworth ...

'Twas blackfly, blackfly, everywhere
A-crawlin' in your whiskers, a-crawlin' in your hair
A-swimmin' in the soup and a-swimmin' in the tea
The devil take the blackfly and let me be.


P.S. I received the following email from Bill:
On a guided outing at Keji park one late spring on a trail that followed along a stream we were discussing the blackflies and the best way of getting rid of them. The park interpreter told us that by being a park employee (or anyone in the park for that matter) you were not supposed to wilfully kill any living thing - even beasts such as the blackfly!

He then went on to gently wipe the horde of blackflies from his face and they seemed to leave him alone.

We were all suffering - waving and swatting frantically without much success when someone said "What is the good of them anyway, why do they have to exist, isn't there someway to get rid of them all?"

The Interpreter responded by telling us that if there were no blackflies then one of the best berries would not exist - The beloved Blueberry!

We all thought that he was full of it until he explained that at night, the blackfly will settle to the ground and will crawl around throughout the night (I assume for mating purposes). During their night time walking they inadvertently pollinate the blueberry flowers.

So for the rest of the tour there were no more complaints about the blackflies - we just walked faster!

Well, After I wrote this letter, I searched the web and in a short time I found this:
NRC Canada. Shattering the folklore: blackflies do not pollinate sweet lowbush blueberry

Looks like the interpreter was just trying to shut us up.

And now a word from Fishgirl on how she feels about the subject of bugs ...

Let's talk about bugs. We had this discussion at the supper table tonight and I thought I'd run it here on the blog. I'm still experimenting with how wordy to be - words versus pictures. I'm testing the waters.

Back when I started fishing it quickly became apparent that biting bugs, particularly blackflies, our main Nova Scotia menace, liked me. A lot. They liked me more than they liked other people. Each time we went I got bitten, so much so that I'd go to work later in the day and customers would gasp at the welts on me and I'd have to explain.

Many people had "theories" and I tried many things. I tried every herbal remedy on the market, including one product that came in a weird midnight blue bottle and did not list ingredients. I rubbed it in well and good. Useless. I put dryer sheets in my hat. I gave up deodorant. I chewed special chewing gum. I had showers with no scent products and used the same product on my hair which ended up with my hair being like a Brillo pad. I used products with as much DEET in them as is legally available in Canada. I tried Listerine on my skin (whoever started that urban myth on the Internet should be flayed). In short, there is nothing I haven't tried. Ate more garlic, ate less garlic - Bottom line? You can take me and you can take Fishboy and you can take two guides or any other number of fishing people. Put the same stuff on all of us. On them? It works. On me? Useless. Like I am using nothing. Bugs just like whatever is going on with me.

One day in year one it just got to me. I actually felt crazed with how badly I was being bitten. We were up at Crouchers. I think it was the day I tried the Listerine so the bites were all stinging and itching. I walked down to where Fishboy was and broke into tears. He agreed that yes, I was being eaten to death. I asked for the keys to the vehicle (which was a longggggg way from where we were) and said I was going back to sit in it. I started running. Running in felt soled wading boots and waders. Not a slow jog, sprinting. While weeping. While still being bitten. I was stumbling and weeping and feeling very, very sorry for myself. I got to the vehicle and got in and scratched until most of the bites were raw.

Fishboy, in all truth, said something a few days later that was bang on. He said, "You'll have to get used to the bugs or give up fishing." Give up fishing? Was he nuts? I was NOT going to give up this thing I'd found and loved so much. No way. But it was true and he said it with no malice, just matter of fact. Then and there I decided that the bugs would not defeat me. I would defeat the bugs. It would be like walking on hot coals or lying on a bed of nails. I'd do it. I'd work out some kind of frame of mind where I did not react to the bugs. They could bite me, I'd ignore them. I was on a mission. I meant to win this fight.

Years passed and many people winced as they saw the blood on me. I remember our guide in Newfoundland being stunned and appalled that a) anyone could be bitten so bad with the bug dope on and b) that anyone would stay and put up with the bugs if such were the case. I think my body has developed some kind of immunity to the itch. Either that or I'm getting numb with age and scar tissue. I do bleed a fair bit from some of the bites and it's not pleasant when they swarm me and there is a black cloud around my head. I can't say that is pleasant but they're really only in that phase for, oh, a few months. Laughing. Yeah. A few months. Then they kind of level out and get less voracious.

Someone suggested a bug hat or jacket but they take all the fun out of it for me. It's like a screened porch on your head. Hard to see the dryfly on the water, hot as all get out, murder if you sneeze or try to spit. I have, though, on occasion used one just to keep my wits about me.



So, my friends, that is the story of me and the bugs. I'll get some shots this year of the welts. The first month is calm and quiet. April. April is grand. Now the lines ice up but hey, it's a small price to pay. No bugs. May? They come around. I'll keep you posted. It just goes to show how much I love fishing. That's what it tells me.

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Pat Donoghue, Canada, ©1997