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  • August 9th, 2019


By Joel M. Vance


By Joel M. Vance


            It was June and I was on a New Hampshire trout stream, armed with a fly rod, a box of miniscule flies and a permit.  The dark water burbled promisingly over rounded granite rocks, with deep pockets that simply shouted “Trout here!”  What more could an angler expect from life?


            The black fly, as it happened.  In the next few seconds I broke the world record   100-yard dash, wearing waders and a cloud of black flies.  I sat in the car with the windows shut, scratching myself frantically, thinking You’re not in Missouri anymore, Dorothy!


            The black fly was invented by the Devil to remind anglers that fishing isn’t all fun…or maybe that Hell is a blue ribbon trout stream with trophy trout but where, no matter how good it looks, the black fly is present and hungry…and you have no insect repellent.


            The calendar art of fishing depicts the angler in that most idyllic of moments, fast to a wallhanger, with nary a biting midge in sight (not that you could see it even if it were).  You won’t see a fishing supplies catalog with a cover shot of an angler wildly swatting at noxious insects. 


             Biting insects range in size from midges to horseflies, but you can see a horsefly which is a lumbering, awkward klutz that might be able to chew on a horse, nevermind where, but if a human can’t swat him before he begins lunch, that human should stay off the stream.


            But, ah! the biting midge!  It’s the Invisible Man of biting bugs.  I was in a camp in Arkansas, on the verge of falling asleep in my tent, when I began to itch.  Fierce itches.  Midges go through bug netting as if it weren’t there.  Think of a stampeding herd of bison charging through a chicken wire fence. This is the biting midge ignoring an insect screen on a camping tent. I clawed at myself and mumbled selected words from gangsta rap. 


            I had been attacked by little specks of insect with jaws like a great white shark.  No bigger than a grain of pepper, they have the penetrative ability of a .30-.06 bullet.  I stumbled around the camp in the pit of night, feeling one after another of the little demons ravaging my lovely complexion.  Finally I happened on a bottle of guitar polish and, lacking anything else, slathered it on my exposed skin.


            It worked.  Perhaps I have found one of those miracle products that, while developed for something else, makes a guy a millionaire from a peripheral use.  Yeah, and maybe pigs will learn to fly like biting midges. 


            Proving that some people never learn from experience, I was fishing on Wisconsin’s Chippewa River on a sunny day with blue skies, the river rippling and rushing over rocks in the rapids, still pools, eddies where the foam line simply screamed “Fish here!”


            My guidebook said there was a long stretch of fast water ominously named “Deer Fly Alley.”  Now, a comprehending person, one who had experienced black flies and biting midges, might approach this place cautiously.  That would not be Joel M. Vance.


            I barreled into the fast water, working hard to run the rapids without tipping over and quickly discovered a bit of natural history trivia that is more interesting if you’re reading about it; a whole lot less so if you’re experiencing it—that deer flies hover over fast water, just waiting for a canoeist who has both hands occupied.


            You’ve seen King Kong, clinging to the Empire State Building with one hand, swatting at airplanes with the other.  Picture Vance flailing at a swarm of biting flies with his paddle, banging off rocks, caroming down a long rapids like a pinball machine. 


            I bailed out, clinging to the gunwale with just my head above water.  Even that wasn’t good enough.  A head was as good a target as any.  I finally took a deep breath, ducked under water and rode the rapids out, hoping I would run out of fast water before my breath ran out of me.  Reluctantly the flies left and went back on station, waiting for the next gourdhead who refused to heed the guide book.  


           Years ago I was at a National Guard summer camp at Camp Ripley, Minnesota, protecting the rest of the country from invasion by people named Olson. We got to camp out like pioneers and shoot big guns and talk on radios like John Wayne in the movies. 


           Along with my socks and skivvies my barracks bag contained a tackle box.  We weren’t far from the Mississippi and Crow Wing Rivers and I told our commanding officer that I was going on a reconnaissance.  He was pleased to see me taking an interest in the military, since I never had before. Ostensibly, I was the Battalion communications officer, but I turned the radios off so I would become incommunicado figuring that I could blame my silence on faulty equipment since most of it didn’t work anyway. Thus, equipped with my very own vehicle and a concealed fishing rod, I was free to spend the day exploring Camp Ripley’s hidden fishing spots while my fellow troopers played John Wayne saves the world.


            My scouting expedition somehow wound up at the river where I paused to test the local waters for military significance.  I discovered that pausing for more than half a second was an invitation to the Minnesota State Bird, the mosquito, to home in.  So I slathered military issue bug dope on me and commenced to fish.


            Happily I hummed a tune in harmony with the humming of the insect population.  Then I noticed that my hands were curiously sticky.  I looked down to see the plastic handles of my treasured reel melting like ice cream in August. 


            Military fly dope keeps the bugs at bay, but it’s death to plastic and not only did my reel handles dissolve, so did every plastic lure I’d touched.  I had a Jitterbug that looked like the Phantom of the Opera with his mask off.  A Bass Oreno could have played the lead in Elephant Man. 


            Our family is fond of Spoonerisms, named for a legendary Oxford don who mixed up words and phrases for comic effect. Comedian Archie Campbell of Hee Haw fame used spoonerisms in such mangled fables as the “Pee Little Thrigs” and “Rindercella.” Thus, when our house in town, before we moved to a wooded area, was assaulted by termites, they became “mertites.” When our newly wed son-in-law, Ron DeValk, first came to visit, we told him about having had mertites and I’m sure that he felt he had married into a family occasionally beset by alien beings.


             No, just another form of noxious insect (they don’t bite people but do bite your house until it falls down around your ears— the mertites also ate the album cover of the only valuable collectible record I had “Word Jazz, featuring Ken Nordine.  I don’t miss the house because we were going to sell it anyway but I deeply regret the loss of the record album.


            Hands down, the most annoying little insect, although not a biter or stinger, is the gnat. Battalions of these little pests appear in midsummer and a walk on our woodland trail is an exercise in learning new ways to swear. A gnat is genetically programmed to do a one and a half gainer into your eyeball and swim around like Ryan Lochte free styling for another Olympic gold medal. Unlike most insects which have some ecological reason for existence, the gnat seems to exist for no other reason than to dive into your eyeball like kids at the park pool on a hot summer day.


            Nearly as pesky a summertime annoyance is spider time when tiny web spinners string endless virtually invisible nets across the trail and you can’t walk 10 feet without contacting face first something that the poor little arachnid has spent countless hours fashioning to try to catch dinner.


            I sort of feel sorry for the little guys or girls when their eight eyes see me coming.  No doubt the little web spinners think, Oh no! Another eight hours shot to hell! I usually take along a stick, not to use as a walking staff, but to wave ahead of me, hoping to fungo webs out of the way before I face plant them.  I look like Arturo Toscanini conducting Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at breakneck tempo and if the neighbors would happen to see me they would be even more convinced than they probably already are that they are bordered by a madman.


           Looming above all the other insectival pests is the tick. Ticks have evolved over the centuries to be a host to more diseases than are contained in a physician’s handbook of perilous afflictions. Ehrlichiosis is one that you could die from before you learn to spell it. At least Rocky Mountain spotted fever or Lyme disease bear names containing familiar words although neither of those or any of the other tickborne indignities contribute to fun time at the emergency room.


           Thanks to folks@consumerreporting.com who did all the testing, the most effective insect repellent is a bracelet made by Simple Natural Products. The main ingredient is citronella oil, a natural substance that, according to some, even will quiet barking dogs (possibly even better than threatening them with top of the lung cursing).


           I once knew a couple the wife of whom, when they returned from a hike outdoors, would squeal “tick check!” After which they would disappear for quite a long time. Apparently they had found a substitute for insect repellent.


          The most often prescribed tick repellent is any product that contains Deet, a repellent that dates to the mid-1940s when it was developed for the armed forces, and which came into use by the general public in the mid-1950s. Deet has been known to cause skin irritation and, in extreme cases, seizures. I knew a fellow who claimed that he reacted seriously after spraying his clothing while turkey hunting. The experts recommend wearing clothing permeated with permethrin which actually kills invading ticks, but how many folks shop for and wear permethrin- impregnated clothing?


           Instead, they grab for the nearest aerosol can of whatever repellent contains deet and spray away. If it kills them, at least they’ll be free of ticks when they go.


            There are times when the disease is worse than the cure. 


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