Home page image by Leslie Mansmann from At One by Lynn Plourde

The Big Bug Battle

06/25/2018

By V. Paul Reynolds

"The Big Bug Battle," an excerpt from V. Paul Reynolds' book Backtrack first appeared in Islandport Magazine, Summer 2018.

Zzzzzzzz . . . zzzzzzzzz. . . swat. Zzzzzzzzz . . . swat. Zzzzzzzzz . . . swat.
That is not the sound of music. It is the sound often heard when a trout fisherman is trying to catch brook trout on an alder-choked stream or a big dead water. You know the drill. Brookies and bugs. Salvelinus fontinalis and the order Diptera. They seem to be inseparable. You can’t have one without the other. It’s the downside of good trout fishing. Trouters all have their bug stories, too.
“Why, the black flies were so thick they tried to carry off Uncle Herbie, and you know how big he is!” “You talk about bugs; man, they were so thick they blocked the sun and cast a shadow as big as a buffalo.” “I’m telling you, they were so thick we were breathing them and gagging with the dry heaves. We got some fir boughs and started a smudge fire right there in the cedar-strip canoe. I swear.”
You haven’t really experienced the bug terror unless you’ve fished Labrador in early July. One early evening on the Atikonak River, Diane and I were mesmerized by lunker brookies sipping surface bugs so close that they were slapping our waders. I was so concentrated on trying to seduce one of those slab-sided beauties that I actually forgot about the annoying cloud of black flies feeding on my flesh. My fishing trance was broken only twice: once, when a stout (an eight-ounce Labrador horsefly) took a chunk out of my neck, and, again, when the stub of my smoldering cigar burned my lower lip.
Back at camp, under the gas light, Diane looked at me, aghast. “Check yourself out in the mirror,” she said. My face was peppered with blotches of dried blood. I looked like an upland gunner who had spent a day hunting quail in the Texas sage with Dick Cheney.
Another time in late May during a particularly brutal bug season, Diane and I had an encounter of the bug kind on Little Houston Pond. It was a warm, windless morning. The trout were hitting good and the black flies were as thick as I have ever known. As I chain-smoked cigars, Diane donned her bug jacket. Though the bugs could not reach her flesh, they began to work on her psyche.
“I can’t take much more of this,” she said with a wifely urgency.
“Golly, hon,” I said, “the fishing is just getting good. You’ll get used to the buggers. It’s mind over matter.”
As I recall, she was a good sport and finally resorted to a cigar.

Use What Works
Speaking of bug repellents, have you found one that really works? When I was a kid, my dad used to slather me with an utterly foul-smelling bug dope. It was, I believe, called Old Woodsman, and it was ranker than its namesake could ever have been under the worst conditions. It helped. As far as I can tell, modern bug repellents stopped working when the manufacturers watered down the ratio of DEET. The so-called homemade remedies don’t work any better than the store-bought fly dopes, either. Writer Henry Beard has a very good definition of insect repellent in his book, Fishing: “One of a number of gag items available in the novelty sections of tackle shops, along with waterproof clothing, damp-proof matches, and long-life batteries.”
Let’s face it: You can’t battle the bugs without using something that works. And for it to work, it’s probably going to have to be nearly as bad for you as it is for the bugs. DEET works, but as far as I know, the commercial repellent makers are, for health reasons, not allowed to spike their bug potion with a big enough percentage to do much good.
During my bug-battling trouting career, I have found only two ways to keep these nattering nasty nits at a tolerable distance.
1. Cigars
2. ThermaCELL
My doctor tells me that cigars are bad for me and to avoid them at all costs. (He is probably not a trout man.) As for the ThermaCELL device, it also comes with a precautionary statement: “Harmful if inhaled. Avoid breathing vapors.” No wonder the bugs don’t like it!
Of course, in a desperate buggy situation, in which your very sanity may be on the line, there is always the primitive bug repellent recommended by Maine survival writer Charlie Reitze. He simply finds a good low place in the woods and slathers his face, neck, and ears with black muck from the arboreal forest.
Zzzzzzzzz . . .

V. Paul Reynolds is editor and co-publisher of the Maine Northwoods Sporting Journal. For twenty-three years, he worked as editorial page editor and managing editor of the Bangor Daily News. He is an active outdoorsman, a devoted deer hunter, and a Registered Maine Guide. He is a member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America and serves on the board of directors of the New England Outdoor Writers Association. His outdoor columns and outdoor photography have won a number of first place awards in New England competitions. He and his wife, Diane, a retired teacher, live in Hampden with an English setter named Sally.