Yesterday was a sunny, warm, and dry fall day, a rarity this year. I had just finished watching my beloved Pittsburgh Steelers cruise to an easy win against the Tennessee Titans without getting Ben Roethlisberger killed (another rarity this fall), and I decided that the best way to top-off that victory was to spend the last hours of sunlight fishing. I had worked a streamer three quarters of the way through the pool in front of my house when Ruthann began yelling. She was across the street from me, in our front yard, cleaning up the remnants of our garden–decaying tomato, pepper, and bean plants–preparing for the long winter ahead.
She said, “You have to see this. There are flying ants everywhere.” I looked at the flat pool in front of me. The trout were not rising. Trout love flying ants. If they weren’t eating them then how many could there really be 40 yards behind me? But I decided to get out of the creek and take a look. I have a book due in February, and a nice flying ant shot would fit the text. And, truth be told, I hadn’t moved a single fish with my streamer, so what the hell. But what was taking place in my yard was unlike anything I had ever witnessed.
I’ve had a chance to fish some great flying ant swarms. Once, on the Upper Delaware’s Mainstem, it seemed like every trout in the river rose to them. There were thousands, and the fish sucked them off the surface by the mouth-full. I have fished ant swarms as late as November on the Delaware’s Lower East Branch. But if Penns Creek’s trout tried to take on this swarm, they may have been eaten. There were millions of ants, so many that you could hear them move–crunching sounds from their mouths and clicks from innumerable pairs of wings.
It wasn’t a surprise that the ants were there. Charlie Meck taught me, years ago, that you can expect to see Eastern U.S. fly ants begin their flights within three days of August 25. After August 25, they can show up anytime, out of the blue, until the first or second frost. And when it comes to eastern bugs, Charlie is seldom wrong. I had witnessed Charlie’s prediction come true year after year, probably about 95% of the time. And today was a perfect day for flying ants. They really seem to move on dry, warm days.
I grabbed my camera and began shooting. Immediately, I was covered with ants. Ants were in my shirt. Ants were on my waders. Ants were flying into my eyes. And yes, ants had crawled down my waders, and I now had ants in my pants; they were everywhere. My neighbors came over to see what was taking place. This was, as they say in New York’s Catskill Mountains, “Big Doings.”
It was about this time that I began noticing the smell. As we walked around the yard, we were stepping on, and crushing, hundreds of ants. You couldn’t miss them if you tried. But when you smashed one, it gave off a strange smell. I know this sounds a little weird, but they smelled like lemon Pledge furniture polish.
Ruthann, and my neighbors, looked at me a little strangely when I first mentioned it. But I’m used to that. After all, I’m commonly known as the weird bug guy in my neighborhood. But soon, they smelled it too. The permeating lemon smell must have cleared my mind. I thought, “the trout!”. I had forgotten to look at the water again during my photo frenzy. The trout must be going crazy! I ran with my rod to the water’s edge, and feverishly peered over the bank, excited to see the gluttony that was surely taking place. But there was nothing to see. One fish popped on a caddis, and that was it. I walked back to the yard, but the ants were mostly gone. It was like they were never there; like a lemon Pledge hallucination.