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Mudcats, Warmouths

and Yellowflies

 

"I'm going back to Albany and do something relaxing, like catching murderers and dope dealers," said Dougherty County Police Chief Bill Kicklighter, packing his truck. At least he was still speaking, although his words were garbled by a swollen upper lip. I watched my wife Claire through my one eye that wasn't puffed shut. The yellowflies had spared her better than they had us. Something in her skin lotion deterred those blood thirsty vampires better than our insect repellant had, but her ankles and upper arms were studded with small, bloodless blisters.

Our original idea was to fish the Okeefenokee Swamp for redbellies and warmouth. Our idea now was to head back to Albany while our friends and loved ones could still recognize us. I was being real careful with Claire, since I had sweet-talked her into coming. "I'll even bait your hook," I had promised. She brought a pasteboard box full of fashion magazines and a new color of fingernail polish she wanted to spend all day applying. The pasteboard box ended up over her head. Kicklighter burned her magazines to smoke away yellowflies, after he turned green chainsmoking cigars.

And to make a sad story worse, we had been forewarned. Leaving home, we dropped my Boykin spaniel off to board at Dr. Henry Hart's Veterinary Clinic.

"Watch out for yellowflies," Dr. Hart cautioned, when he heard we were going into the Okeefenokee. "They come in with the blueberries, around the first of June."

"How can we avoid them?" Claire asked.

"Don't go," Hart advised.

"Yellowflies love horses' ears," he added irrelevantly. "If there's a horse around, they won't come near you."

Then he digressed into a tale about how he had once tamed some horses by fanning yellowflies from their ears.

"I'm not taking a horse fishing," I said.

He pulled at his mustache."A pony might work."

"What do wild horses do about yellowflies," Kicklighter wanted to know, "When you ain't around to fan their ears?"

"They take turns kicking each other in the head," Hart said.

The Suwannee River at Griffis Fish Camp a few miles from the Stephen Foster entrance of the Okeefenokee was low. We used the trolling motor some (outboards under 10 hp are allowed), but I had to pull us upstream most of the time with a rope. We passed an occasional fisherman huddled in the muggy heat around a campfire.

"What's biting?"

"Mudcats and yellowflies."

"That's all?"

"That's all you can hold still long enough to catch."

The afternoon sun dappled the lush green and the heart-shaped catalpa leaves reflected on the black water, which turned amber as it swirled over the sugary bottom. Extravagantly colored butterflies hopscotched gothic roots of big-bellied bays and cypress.

"This is fun," Claire said. In her wide brim sun hat and white dress, she observed the primal beauty of the upper Suwannee near its source. She sat demurely in sharp contrast to Chief Kicklighter, who was hunkered down in the stern, serious as a cigar store Indian. He held his fishing rod like a buggy whip, goading me on to places deep enough to fish. Claire sure was a picture before that first yellowfly zapped her, turning paradise to torment.

"I'm ready to go back now," she decided, fanning her cheeks with bright new nails.

A yellowfly landed on my jaw and I slapped myself hard enough to get mad, but then I heard the first plop.

"What was that?"

"Yellowfly."

"No, that plop. Like something falling into the water."

"Nothing," said Kicklighter, who wasn't ready to take his turn on the rope. He was baiting up with crawfish and catching warmouth the size of footprints from every hole we passed that was deep enough to fish.

"Step easy now," he said, his nylon line zinging through the water. "Don't muddy up the water and mess up my fishing." The fish were hitting like piranha, and I couldn't fish. Kicklighter was whooping, swearing, swatting yellowflies with his hat and catching warmouths so fast he couldn't string them.

"Somebody's got to handle the boat," he said, throwing another warmouth in the bottom of the boat and rebaiting his hook."Hold her right there. We'll swap off after awhile."

But the yellowflies escalated their attack, and soon our Okeefenokee paradise was swarming with them, leading us to the conclusion that it may not have been modesty that made Adam and Eve hunt up some fig leaves to cover themselves. It may have been these bloodsuckers that William Bartram described in his 18th century travels as "persecuting demons" with a sting"no less acute than a prick from a red-hot needle or a spark of fire on the skin." I decided I didn't mind being in the water. That portion of me that was underwater was the portion the flies hadn't been able to bite.

"Son of a gun!" Kicklighter howled, dropping his pole to scratch and swat.

Strictly speaking, the insects that were tormenting us were not sons of guns, as Dr. Hart would later remind us, but daughters, who need extra protein to manufacture eggs. Male yellowflies sit around home munching pollen, while the ladies step out lusting for your vital juices. If you had a large magnifying glass and the grit to hold still, you could watch her light on your arm, shift her feet like a golfer getting ready to tee off, and have at you with mandibles shaped like miniature Ghurka knives. (Imagine scissors sharpened on the outside edges that stab then slice outward as they open). She drools some anti-coagulating saliva as she buries her face in the cut slurping blood through a proboscis. By this time you have dropped your rod and kicked over your tacklebox.

A yellowfly is a deer fly (Chripops vittatus), which is about the same thing as a gadfly. It's a golden varmint that can't quite wingspan a dime, and it can inflict more torment on a man than any of God's female inventions other than woman. In fact, one yellowfly will cause the fightingest human couple to break and cooperate long enough to fan one another's backsides.

In Greek mythology a jealous Hera, mad at Io for receiving Zeus' taurine advances, transformed her into a heifer and sicked a yellowfly on her, which assaulted Io's ears and kept hanky-panky off her mind from one end of the Earth to the other.

I leaned against the bow line, tugging the Jonboat off a sandbar into waist-deep water and discovered what was making the plopping noises. Watersnakes the size of vacuum cleaner hoses dropped from overhanging limbs. As one scooted downstream past me, I thought I saw it wink, although I know snakes don't have eyelids.

"Don't worry about the ones that plop," Kicklighter advised. "The cottonmouths are too fat to climb. They just wallow into the river."

About that time an alligator with a head like an ironing board splashed in from a sandbar, and I jumped flat footed from chest deep water into the boat without touching the sides, shedding water like a Polaris missile.

"Hot dang!" Kicklighter exclaimed, slapping the inside of his wrist."Yellowfly!"

We drifted downstream until we heard startling crashes in the palmettoes, like somebody beating a Zor Tex poncho with a tennis racket.

"What was that?"

"Deer."

Sure enough, a wild-eyed 6-pointer, tucking his ears between his knees, had gotten his velvet rack snagged on his forelegs and had somersaulted into the palmettoes. Back on his feet, he bucked off through the gallberry bushes, flashing a yard of white tail, skidding sideways as his hams tried to outrun him.

"I never saw a deer hang up in his own horns," I remarked.

"Yellowflies," Kicklighter said tersely.

Back at the landing two teenage girls danced to a pick-up truck's radio, while their parents and grandparents hovered over a campfire, fishing for mudcats. The butts of the anglers' cane poles were jammed under roots, leaving both hands free to defend against the airborne invaders. Mudcats bite slow, so setting the hook wasn't crucial, giving the anglers time to cuss, stomp and swat between pulling in mudcats and putting them on the stringer.

"Yonder comes another swarm of them vampires," said grandpa, hitching up his overalls and moving closer to the fire.

"Those little girls surely can dance," Claire observed. Their choreography looked like a hybrid cross between the Charleston and M.C. Hammer as the high-stepping girls slapped their ankles and wagged their heads.

"All of that ain't dancing," Kicklighter said, his upper lip puffed into a meaty overbite.

The worst time of day is the moment the descending sun lines up with cypress treetops. At that moment the symphony of yellowflies rises to crescendo before the mosquitoes take over the vibrant swamp at dusk. This time belongs to the yellowflies. They like your ears best but will settle for your wrists, your face, your ankles - - anywhere blood runs close to the surface. This is when the yellow hordes increase in numbers and blood minded truculence. This is when you drop your rod and jump out of the boat, disregarding things that go plop from the overhangs into the water. This is when you dash pell-mell and howling to your cabin, anxious to put some screen wire between you and the outside world.

Vengeance is the most exquisite pleasure I can think of concerning the yellowfly. Sometimes a belly full of your blood will make her slow down enough for you to spatter her with your hat. A veteran fisherman in the Suwannee River or Billy's Lake can kill a yellowfly without interrupting his cast, plug work or retrieval of a broken-backed Repalla or Lucky 13. The arm coils, removing the hat in one smooth motion, hesitating before it unwinds like a rattlesnake or a pitcher slinging a knuckleball - -ZAP! The hat lashes out, blistering the fly neatly before returning to a jaunty tilt upon the angler's head. It is delicious to see the stunned fly mumbling on the water, vibrating distress signals until a warmouth or stumpknocker rises and splats it into oblivion.

"Look at it this way," I told Claire and Chief Kicklighter back in Albany over a supper of fresh fish,"if it wasn't for the yellowflies, there'd be so many folks in the swamp we couldn't find a parking place."

"Well," said Kicklighter. "I'll admit it's a nice change to be eating something out of the swamp instead of something out of the swamp eating me."

But the taste of those Okeefenokee fish makes going into the swamp after them worthwhile. Even the mudcats that swim in the clean black water beneath those cerulean skies are sweet. You can partially protect yourself from yellowflies by reapplying a high DEET content inspect repellent as quickly as your perspiration dilutes it, and you can try to fish where there is a breeze, but staying out of the Okeefenokee is not an acceptable alternative to persecution by yellowflies. Religious pilgrims go there to fish because just being in the Okeefenokee is good for your soul. It gives you a tangible notion of the biblical Eden, which was, as a matter of fact, located in a southernmost section of the Okeefenokee many millennia B.C. before there were yellowflies.

(end)

 

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