Blackflies, the little blackflies…

always a blackfly, no matter where I go
I’ll die with a blackfly pickin’ my bones
In north On-tar-i-o, in north On-tar-io.
(From “Blackfly,” an animated film from the archive of the National Film Board of Canada)

Ah, yes. It’s time for the annual blackfly post.

In Spring, a young angler’s fancy turns to stark dread, dread of small black blood-drinking insects arriving in clouds, swarms, battalions, and armies to drive him to the very brink of madness. As if fishing weren’t madness enough. Allow me to introduce a fly who needs no introduction to any Mainer who even occasionally ventures into the Great Outdoors: Simuliidae.

If you feel the need to curse in an ancient language at the small black bugs that are hacksawing away at your flesh in the Maine woods at this season of the year, then Latin is your language and the Family Simuliidae is your target. You may be surprised, though perhaps not delightfully, to learn that not just one but dozens of species of blackfly are out there lusting for your blood. It’s a large family business, sort of like the Mafia only more annoying. You may be somewhat relieved to know, though I sincerely doubt it, that only the females do the bloodwork. Guy blackflies take their nourishment elsewhere, maybe in guy blackfly taverns. And the old folk “wisdom” that the blackflies are only around from Mother’s Day to Father’s Day? Fake news, mi amigo. A bit of Chamber of Commerce puffery crafted to allay the fears of Visa-bearing tourists who may be headed for Maine.

Modus operandi:
Your lady blackfly is skilled in anesthesia and surgery. When she lands on one of your tender spots (and aren’t they all?) she immediately goes about setting up her OR. First, she numbs the area with her magic saliva. Then out come the power tools. Her little Sawzall opens up the flesh, the blood flows, she drinks. That’s where her Med School training ended. Does she carefully suture the wound and apply a soothing antiseptic? She does not. She moves a few millimeters, to virgin (so to speak) flesh, and repeats the process. Eventually she lumbers off through the skies, a tiny black 747, heavily burdened with your vital body fluids, to find a suitable wet spot to raise her family. By the time you start to itch and swell, she’s moved on.

And itch and swell you will. And bleed, thanks to your tormenter’s limited surgical repertoire. Our pal Trout Boy (not his real name) often staggers out of the woods doing his impression of Chuck Wepner, a New Jersey palooka known as the Bayonne Bleeder, after going 15 rounds with Muhammed Ali.

Defenses are limited. Think Maginot Line. Clothing has been developed that is pre-impregnated with bug repellent. Pullover hooded jackets made of fine mesh are more or less effective. You can see through the mesh, as through a glass darkly, but it’s really hard to change trout flies when you’re wearing it. There is Deet, you think? Well now! Here’s some great news, from an article by E. Ann Poole on the Hike New England website: “Recent findings indicate that Deet-based repellants may actually attract greater numbers.”

There are some Deet-free sprays and lotions. I use these in combination and then light a cheap plastic-tipped cigar. I don’t smoke, so the cigar offends me as much as it offends the blackflies but at least it doesn’t draw blood.

In summation, the best advice I can offer you for dealing with blackflies is to follow my example and employ all of the above strategies simultaneously and then stay home.

I hope this helps.




Nick Mills

About Nick Mills

Full disclosure: I was not born in Maine, alas! I was born in Massachusetts, but the family moved to Maine when I was eleven, and I grew up in Thomaston. My dad was skipper of one of the draggers that sailed out of Rockland, in the days when it was a rough-tough working fishing port. When he came in from the sea his favorite activity was freshwater fishing with me and my brother, Peter. We learned together to flyfish for trout in the Alder Stream in Eustis. Once hooked on the sport, pun intended, I fished at every opportunity in every place I could -- in the rivers, streams and ponds of Maine; in the mountain ponds of Utah, where I was stationed for a year in the Army; in high Andean lakes in Colombia, where I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer; even in a lagoon that surrounded one of Saddam Hussein's palaces in Baghdad. I tried once to go trout fishing in northern Afghanistan, when the U.S.S.R. occupied that country; a landslide blocked my path, but that led to a more interesting adventure, which I will tell you about in a future post.