It came up during a FaceTime phone session on Father's Day, one of those communication things my kids are far better at than their technology-challenged father. Though it's not quite in-person, seeing your child's face and smile half a continent away while she conveys Father's Day good wishes to you is pretty amazing.
I had passed the phone to my son, who-as a new father, but able to be with us-was similarly receiving her good wishes. I heard him sharing with his sister what had taken place at the family cabin during their weekend visit. He was telling her that the annual eruption of mayflies-"fish flies," some call them-was in full swing. He shared how the grass between the cabin and the lake was so thickly carpeted that they crunched underfoot with every step, that they clung to every wind-sheltered nook and cranny of the house, and the trunks of the tall pines on the west property line looked like they had grown hair, so thick were these two-inch long mayflies. And then he added: "But dad likes 'em!"
I have to confess that I'm "a bug guy." I have always been attracted to insects. When I was young I was an equal-opportunity entomologist, extending my interest to butterflies, beetles, grasshoppers, stinkbugs and many others. Insect study, unfortunately, involves the demise of any specimens you collect, the insects ending up impaled on a common pin in a cigar box or some other display container.
The "demising" required that you expose the insect to something lethal in a "killing jar." It sounded technical, but was generally nothing more exotic than a pickle jar with a lid, some cotton or other absorbent material in the bottom to hold the killing agent, with a cardboard layer above to keep the condemned insect from being ruined as a specimen.
Carbon tetrachloride, "carbon tet," was the recommended killing agent, used in dry cleaning and some fire retardants. Because it's so toxic its availability was restricted, and not something a young person could easily get his hands on. Casting about our home for something I thought might serve as a substitute, I settled on rubbing alcohol. Its smell seemed toxic enough to me.
I discovered that alcohol was not the effective insect killer I'd hoped for when some of the specimens I had immobilized in the jar and mounted on pins revived, and began moving their tiny legs in a futile attempt to escape. It was creepy, to say the least, and I felt genuine remorse at having inflicted cruel and unusual punishment on another creature, notwithstanding the fact they were "just" insects.
Though I long ago ceased capturing and impaling insects, I've never stopped being fascinated by them. I imitate some with thread and floss and fur and feathers in creating lures to catch panfish, bass and trout, the imitation depending on the time and place, and which natural insect might be around. These imitations include various sizes and colors of mayflies-like the aforementioned fish fly-as well as grasshoppers, spiders, caddis flies and others.
Apart from the angling dimension, I find myself fascinated by insects for the diverse and amazingly adapted creatures they are. They occupy every environment imaginable, above and below ground and above and below the water. They're the foundation of many food chains, feeding fish, birds, small mammals; even a few especially adventurous humans.
Because I'm on the lookout for them, I find each insect marking the passage of weeks and months from spring through fall. As is stated so well in the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes, "there is a season" for everything, including things as humble as insects.
Some are a mixed blessing. In mid-May I began noticing the presence of mosquitoes. I found this especially true where dense foliage gave them cover to hang out when not looking for blood or for a mate. This included a woodland where a trout stream I regularly fish meanders. In order to tolerate fishing, mushroom hunting or any other activity, liberal use of repellent became an unfortunate but necessary precaution.
Late May and the early days of June saw the arrival of June bugs, those shiny brown beetles about the thickness and length of the first joint of your finger. They seasonally emerge from the earth where they've spent several years as a squirming white grub. They're drawn to lights in the darkness, which explains why we often find them liberally sprinkled on our steps, sidewalks, and driveways in the morning where none were found the day before.
Mid-June has brought the first major hatches of mayflies. Though one of these is the so-called "fish fly," there are many kinds found in lakes, rivers and streams, with hatching cycles timed to their own particular season. Their underwater form is a bottom-dwelling, crawling creature called a nymph. It swims to the surface when the time is right, breaks out its underwater shell, and is transformed into a delicate flying form with gauzy, transparent wings and several long, hair-like tails. After emerging, they typically alight on trees or other vegetation or-where we've changed the landscape-on docks, boats or buildings.
A day or so later, the mayfly goes through a second transformation, again breaking out of its skin as a fully mature male or female. They swarm above the water, find one another, fertilize the female's eggs in-flight and those eggs are either dropped or deposited into the water to begin another cycle, which is likely to be a year-long before it's repeated. Fish in both lakes and streams feed on mayflies when they're emerging from the water, and when they've mated and are depositing their eggs.
I've fished for panfish and bass in lakes during these mayfly emergences, and for trout in streams. Anglers are at a disadvantage because the fish have a lot of the real thing to choose from, rather than the artificial you're offering them. But when they're actively feeding on the surface you don't have to guess where they are, or what they're feeding on!
The "fish flies" on our lake have pretty much run their course. As I watched their numbers on land and their swarming above the water diminish day by day, I began to notice the first empty shells of dragonfly nymphs. They, too, live most of their lives underwater, in this case as a crawler much more robust than a mayfly.
Under the water they're fierce predators on other insects, and even very small fish. When dragonfly nymphs emerge from the water to transform into adults, they crawl out onto land rather than swimming up and transforming on the surface as mayflies do. Also unlike mayflies-which live as adults for no more than several days-adult dragonflies may live for several months, each one endearing itself to us by the many mosquitoes it eats.
It won't be long before we begin to see emerging caddisflies. These, too, will be of several varieties adapted either to lakes or to flowing water, living underwater lives while immature, then brief periods of life in the world above as adults. Their cycles of emergence and mating are more extended; some continue to be available over periods lasting many weeks. Caddis are also an important food source for fish, especially in trout streams.
As full summer arrives, and fall looms not far in the future, we'll begin to see grasshoppers. In late summer and early fall we'll again see more mayflies, this time a variety that is almost microscopic compared to the massive "fish flies" of June.
When it comes to insects-and the seasons-long parade of many different kinds-my son's assessment was spot-on: "Dad likes 'em."