PAT NEAL: The horse fly menace

THIS IS A story about wilderness survival, told in hopes it will provide inspiration to others.

I remember it like it was yesterday, because it was yesterday.

Visitors to the Olympic Peninsula often harbor unrealistic expectations. When fishing the Peninsula, the sooner you realize your expectations are unrealistic, the better.

We were floating down a river catching bull trout. Maybe they were Dolly Varden or Dolly Varden/bull trout; I don’t know. They are also called char.

We used to call them egg-sucking smolt-eating scrap fish. People got mad if they caught a Dolly or a bull trout instead of a salmon or a steelhead.

Now the Dolly Varden/bull trout are threatened/endangered species. If you are unlucky enough to catch one you must release it without removing the creature from the water. If you keep one of these critters, they can take your fish, your gear, your truck and your boat, throw you in jail and give you a fine.

So, we let them go.

Fishing was slow. Tourists ask questions when fishing is slow.

“If bull trout are endangered how come that’s all we catch?”

Because the rest of the fish are extinct.

Then I answered the question almost every tourist asks: “Are the cougars and bears dangerous?”

Of course not, I assured the tourists. The most dangerous critters you are likely to encounter on a camping trip on the Olympic Peninsula are the mice and chipmunks who will rip your camp apart while stuffing the engine compartment of your vehicle full of highly flammable materials in an attempt to make a cozy nest.

Generations of people have lived on the Olympic Peninsula their entire lives without seeing a bear or cougar.

It’s the bugs that will eat you alive. For whatever reason — the acid bile in my blood, negative energy vibrations or the fact that you have to have a tough hide to write for a newspaper — bugs generally leave me alone.

Except for horse flies. The horse flies of the Olympic Peninsula are a stealthy, bloodthirsty adversary for even the savviest fly swatter. They often attack in teams where one fly buzzes in front of you as another delivers a bite from behind.

While sucking your blood they inject their anti-coagulating saliva that makes your blood flow faster. It stings and itches so the victim scratches and scratches, spreading the saliva and enlarging the wound while fending off more bugs with everything from chemicals to tree branches.

The state of Washington Department of Health warns that horse flies are capable of transmitting tularemia to people. Also known as rabbit fever, symptoms can include fever, skin ulcers and enlarged lymph nodes.

The Department of Health recommends you avoid areas that the horse flies inhabit, which would include most of the Olympic Peninsula that isn’t paved.

Other than that, you should keep yourself covered up, which I did.

That is, until I took my boots off. This is an annual event that can occur when the sun comes out that is not unlike the groundhog seeing its shadow or the loggers shedding their woolies.

Taking the boots off marks the survival of another winter.

Just then we hooked another big bull trout. During this brief lapse of divided attention, I felt a sharp sting in my ankle.

I killed the horse fly, but he got me good.

There was only one thing to do with a big bull trout on: I spit on my hand, wiped my saliva on the bite and put my boots back on.

There was no itch or infection. Sometimes hillbilly medicine works.

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Pat Neal is a Hoh River fishing guide and “wilderness gossip columnist” whose column appears here every Wednesday.

He can be reached at 360-683-9867 or by email via patneal [email protected]