Look, most of us who love to fish Maine in early June expect to be swatting a few bugs, right? When I was a lad fishing with Dad he always lathered me up with that black, foul-smelling Old Woodsman fly dope. I’d complain about the stinky stuff and whine about the buzzing hordes and he would say, “It’s part of the deal, son, bugs and trout. You can’t have one without the other.”
Over the years, a halo of cigar smoke or a puffing pipeful always made the bugs bearable, at least for me, if not the other person in the bow of the canoe. Generally, the bug situation has never been at the forefront of my fishing memories. There have a been a couple of times, though. Once in a canoe on Little Houston Pond, the black flies were so thick that Diane’s head net was festered with a black cloud. Though they weren’t biting her they were doing a job on her pysche — she admitted it. She toughed it out, however. She overcame and we boated some slab-sided brookies.
Labrador was a challenge, bug-wise. Worse than the black flies were the big horse flies that the local call “stouts.” Now they are serious flesh eaters. Ouch! Flying over a remote stretch there in a Beaver I asked the pilot how you would ever find your way out if the engine quit and he had to put her down. “Wouldn’t matter,” he smirked. “The bugs would drive you mad long before anyone located you or you found you way out, eh?”
As far as June black flies go, this year may go down in history as one of the worst in recent memory. Man, they are bad on the West Branch of the Penobscot. These “mindless, merciless eating machines,” as Dean MacAdam described them in Downeast Magazine, got the best of Diane and me during a recent fishing outing. We came home looking like victims of Rocky Mountain spotted fever. My defense arsenal, cigars, pipe, headnet, Off and Repel, and that headwear that makes you look like a terrorist, did not fend off the black horde. They are insidious and relentless this year.
According to MacAdam, it’s only the females who bite you. And when they latch on, they scissor into your flesh while simultaneously bathing the wound in their saliva, which keeps the blood flowing and anesthetizes the bite so you have no clue they are there until it’s too late.
Although the Maine black fly season in Maine generally winds up by Father’s Day, MacAdam writes that there is, in the Lincoln and Winn area, a multiple generation of black fly species that buzz and bite all summer long.
Interestingly enough, a plentitude of black flies is an indicator of clean water. Back in the 1950s, when many of our rivers were polluted with industrial and municipal waste, there were few black flies.
If this is the yardstick, the upper reaches of the West Branch of the Penobscot River is about as pristine as it gets. That’s a good thing — bugs be damned — and may also explain why the fighting, silver warriors that we endure the bugs for are the strongest, scrappiest landlocked salmon in Maine.
Hand me that bug spray, please.