North Fork Outdoors/Martin Garrell: It’s time to stock up with insect repellents

As I stare out from the window of the study, trying to write, it’s a marvelous June day outdoors. A bluebird is sitting on her nest across the driveway, a newly arrived hawk has chased or eaten some of the surplus pigeons in the horse barn as well as lots of starlings, and one of our woodchucks, probably the old matriarch, has had her fill of pansies this morning and rejected the marigolds. Yet there are always a few flies in the ointment (literally) that can turn the joys of our summer into “oys.” Knowing how to deal with these things is useful.

Let’s start with flies themselves. Biting flies come in all shapes and sizes, from the horseflies that drive our geldings nuts and the deer flies that latch on when you least expect them, to tiny gnats, midges, or no-see-ums which descend on summertime beach anglers when winds die down. While almost every repellent on the market, whether DEET-based or citronella-based, makes claims about effectiveness, most have serious limitations. You can smear them on skin, spray them on clothing and usually hold a dense swarm of critters at bay for a while. Don’t expect too much more. In fact, if the flies are really coming at you in echelon, they will hover about you the whole time just waiting for the repellent to evaporate. When they start settling, of course, it’s time for a new application.

Almost 20 years ago, on an extended summer trip to Labrador, we got a real education about flies. The folks up in the Maritimes figure there are at least seven varieties of them, and, although the repellents that smell worst repel best, when the buzzing gets to you, you’ve got to don treated clothing AND throw a net over your head. Fortunately, the fishing up there for brook trout and lake trout was so good we didn’t mind.

When the sun goes down, although the flies quit, mosquitoes are out in force almost everywhere. However, today’s repellents generally do a much better job with the night raiders than with flies. One tip for anglers, however, is to get the goop off your hands when you are handling equipment or baiting up. Needless to say, repellent can be a turn-off to fish when you make it the “flavor of the day” on a bass worm or bunker chunk. And some solvents used in those repellents will wreak havoc on certain plastics and enamels. In our collection I have an ancient Pfleuger Medalist fly reel that saw me through many nights of fly rodding while under attack by mosquito squadrons on New York and Connecticut reservoirs. The reel handle has been eaten away to a nubbin by some of the popular repellents used 40 and 50 years back. I recall one concoction labelled “6-12” that was especially rough on plastics and synthetics.

Ah, yes, then there are deer ticks, the scourge of the outdoors today from New England down to the Carolinas. There are times when we feel that our Brittanys are better off than we are, now that they can be vaccinated annually with Lyme-Vax and given a dermal shot of Front-Line every month during the extended field trial season. To tell the truth, we go even further, using a technique that dates back to our guide days on the Mashomack Preserve on Shelter Island. Perhaps once a week when the dog comes in from its field workout we take aerosol type repellent, usually pyrethrin-based or even a dilute DEET-based spray, and spray the animal lightly around legs, neck, hindquarters, ears and belly. Then we rub it into the fur. Next day, we comb any remaining ticks off the animal.

As for ourselves, un-vaccinated, we fall back on the usual preventive measures: light long-sleeved and long-legged clothing with pants tucked into socks. On our arms and legs, up to elbows and knees, we administer a drop or two of a concentrated DEET-based repellent. Also, we rub some onto our necks. Then we use an aerosol spray, lightly, on pant legs and shirtsleeves, too. At day’s end, all clothing is destined for the laundry, and, just like the dogs, we do a complete body search.

One of the few breaks you get with Ixodes ticks is the one-day delay time between tick arrival and embedding. Also, thanks to the systemic medication on the dogs, some of the ticks seem to die on the animals. Finally, repellents appear to work pretty well in keeping ticks from going further than outer clothing or dog coats. Naturally, if you or your pet appears “down” after a local trip into our tick country (lawns and roadsides included), you or the animal should be checked and tested by an aggressive physician or vet. A two-week course of antibiotics should be tried sooner rather than later.

Stock up on repellents — so you can enjoy the summer even more!