Ah, Spring! When flowers bloom, trout start biting, and a man’s thoughts turn to headnets and insect repellent.
My buddy David, my son Justin and I recently indulged in one of our Spring rituals, an overnight camping expedition . Our goal was to hike some trails, fish for some little, wild, native brook trout, check to make sure the flowers are blooming, and spend an evening watching the stars turn overhead.
We do at least one or two of these a year and try to time it perfectly so we get all of the good stuff—dry hiking trails, hungry fish and wildflowers before the blackflies come out.
As usual, we got some of it right.
We definitely got the dry hiking trails. In fact, a couple of weeks of no rain, persistent wind and occasional warmth had dried the top inch or two of the forest floor to extreme fire danger. We cooked on a stove and used an LED lantern to light the evening.
The wildflowers, too were cooperating nicely, especially the Stinking Benjamin (red trillium) which were blossoming in profusion. What a treat.
The trout weren’t cooperating at all—the water was still very high, very cold, and a passing cold front the day before probably hadn’t helped (gotta have some excuse . . .)
And the blackflies? Well, we hit it almost right. They were present in small numbers but not biting yet. A day or two later would have been a different story . . .
Yes, the blackflies are out across much of northern New England. It’s probably the surest sign of spring—or, at least, the most annoying, ranking right up there with TV pitchmen.
Lots of folks have never actually encountered blackflies because they’ve never spent any time outdoors where and when blackflies live. Blackflies only breed in clean, flowing water. So if they are swarming around you, it means you’re probably in someplace pretty nice—where wildflowers bloom and trout swim in the streams.
If they didn’t happen to feed on our blood, blackflies would be pretty interesting critters. There are some 50 or so species which inhabit New England, all in the family Simuliidae. They all look and act pretty much alike, so, unless you are fascinated by the minutia of entomology, a blackfly is a blackfly is a blackfly—except that you are more likely to see thousands than “a blackfly.” They tend to visit in swarms and feed by sawing a hole in the skin and sucking up the blood that pools in the wound—as opposed to mosquitoes, which plunge in a miniature hypodermic needle through the skin.
Another fact, for what it’s worth: Only female blackflies and mosquitoes drink blood. The males are harmless plant feeders. Warning: This is not something you want to point out to a human female if she is complaining about being bitten.
Blackflies start earliest and disappear first in the south, linger longer in greater numbers the farther north you go In far northern Quebec and above the Arctic circle in Russia, I’ve seen them form a dense fog.
But, when the blackflies do come out, it’s a sure sign that the trilliums, trout lilies and lady slippers are blooming, and the trout are probably biting. Alas, trout biting is never a sure thing.
In other words, blackflies or no blackflies, this is a good time of year to simply get out and do something. Life isn’t a spectator sport. Get out and enjoy.
Here are some other tips for avoiding black fly bites. I’ve shared them before, but even I tend to forget until I’m being bitten, so I’ll share them again:
1) Get out early in the day: blackflies are generally inactive until the air temperature has risen to at least 50 degrees. They also disappear as soon as the sun sets.
2) Keep moving. Blackflies may follow a moving target, but they rarely land and bite. This is a good excuse to avoid gardening and do something more active like biking or fast hiking.
3) Wear light-colored clothing and cover up completely. Blackflies are attracted to dark colors. Unlike mosquitoes, they can’t bite through clothing—light long underwear is perfect for keeping them off.
4) Whenever possible, keep to open areas and higher ground; blackflies disperse in a breeze. This is a perfect excuse to climb a mountain.
5) Carry a DEET-based insect repellent (personal favorite: Ultrathon) in case you need it. I dislike bug repellent. But there are times when you just have to have it. I’ve still never tried a “natural” insect repellent that actually works, if you have, please share the secret.
6) If things get really bad, use a polyester mesh bug suit.
TICK, TICK, TICK
If you live anywhere in New England, you probably heard my sweetheart Marilyn squeal the other day when she found a tick crawling on her hand. She’s tolerant of blackflies, mosquitoes and even deer flies. But ticks, apparently, still trigger her “EEK!” reaction.
Fortunately it was a large brown dog tick—easy to spot and remove before it bit, and comparatively less dangerous than the tiny deer (black legged) ticks which spread Lyme disease. Still, you don’t want to get bitten by any tick if you can help it.
Ticks crawl up on grass or brush and wait to fasten on to any warm-blooded animal that happens to pass by. Like blackflies, ticks can be kept at bay with protective clothing. Wear long sleeved shirts and either long pants or light-colored, light weight long underwear tucked into your socks. Check your clothing for ticks before your remove it, and yourself afterward.
Ticks don’t like DEET. A quick spray on your ankles, wrists and back of your neck is probably good insurance.
For more good information on ticks, start at www.lyme.org/ticks/tick.html.