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MONDAY, JUNE 25, 2007
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Trust me on this: Leave hornets alone

Caution: This is the time of year when some flying insects are better left alone. I know this all too well and learned this outdoor lesson the hard way.

I have had two occasions where I mixed it up with a hornetsí nest. Both happened when I was a teenager, and both were with my good friend Anthony Francis. We were true outdoorsmen and, of course, were not afraid of anything — or so we thought.

First contact

My first contact was during the summer as Anthony and I headed out to catch some bluegill around willowfly swarms. It is something we already had done dozens of times before without having the least bit of trouble.

We developed our own technique when chasing after willowfly hatches. Just before the sun would start to set, the willowflies would rest on the branches of bushes and trees lining the shoreline.

We always knew where to fish and that the willowflies would be there.

Our transportation was a 14-foot flat-bottom boat and an ancient five-horsepower engine. It didnít get us anywhere fast, but it was definitely better than paddling.

On this particular day, we arrived at our destination near the mouth of Flint Creek fairly close to Point Mallard Golf Course.

The sun was starting to set, and we knew that the next hour or so was prime time for catching bluegill on fly rods using popping bugs.

Our technique involved using an old Zebco reel and a rod with a broken tip. On the line, we would attach two one-ounce pyramid sinkers. Getting fairly close to the bushes and trees where the willowflies were laying dormant, Anthony made the cast with the old reel and hit his target.

He let the sinkers wedge between some branches of the willowfly bush and then started shaking the rod tip like crazy. This method almost immediately would make the sky black with willowflies. We would already have our fly outfits ready and start casting.

I had grown accustomed to having hundreds of willowflies land on the boat and me. I felt one willowfly land in my hair and I thought to myself how fast it must have been flying to land so hard. Feeling it crawl through my hair, I reached up and grabbed it, and a hornet deposited a large stinger in my finger. I threw the insect to the floor of the boat and yelled, ďHornets.Ē

About that time, I had hornets hitting me in the chest, and Anthony found the angry critters flying full speed into his hair and chest. My first thought was to crank the engine and outrun the aggressors.

It didnít take long to realize that the engine couldnít outrun the hornets, much less anything else. After receiving our second sting each, there was only one thing to do — dive into the water.

Anthony and I hid by the engine and occasionally had to submerge to avoid one of the menacing buzz bombs. Lucky for us, there was a current flowing and the boat, with us clinging to the foot of the engine, slowly drifted away.

Later that winter, Anthony went back and retrieved the nest, which looked bigger than a beach ball. It became a decoration and conversation piece for his bedroom.

The moral to this story is that when fishing around willowfly swarms, be extra careful to make sure that the flies are the only creatures you will disturb when shaking up a nesting tree.

Second contact

My second encounter happened in the late 1970s. Anthony, several friends and I had three large fields all to ourselves on the Swan Creek Management Area. It became our home away from home.

A week into dove season in September, Anthony and I decided to go to the next field and hunt. To do that meant walking through a tree line and a line of bushes and saplings. We had done this dozens of times and, again, knew what we were doing.

Approaching the sapling line, I yelled for Anthony to stop. He thought I had seen a snake, but to me, it was something much worse. It was another large hornetsí nest. Anthony wanted to try and retrieve the nest, as it looked abandoned. All I wanted to do was get as far away from it as possible.

After being called a coward several times, I agreed to help Anthony in his quest. I was a baseball pitcher back then and the plan was for me to hit the sapling with a rock and see if any hornets come out. On my second toss, the rock hit the sapling square about two feet up the six-foot tree, which was bending over, from the weight of the nest. Ready to take off running, we saw that nothing happened and prepared for the next assault.

It was a cool afternoon, but I could feel my skin sweat underneath my lightweight hunting jacket. I wanted nothing to do with this undertaking.

Backing a good distance away, Anthony raised his shotgun and fired a blast of birdshot at the nest. The nest moved about six inches or so, but still, nothing happened. Even I was convinced the nest was empty.

We made our approach, and Anthony asked me if I wanted this nest. I quickly told him I wanted absolutely nothing at all to do with it — period.

As we got about 25-to-30 feet away, the disaster began. The sky turned dark with angry hornets, and we were running for the woods as fast as we possible could. I could feel the hornets hitting me in the back of my hunting jacket, but I survived without receiving one sting.

After a good 50- to 60-yard sprint, Anthony got stung on the hand, and we ran another 100 yards or so into the woods. Again, a few months later, Anthony went back and retrieved the nest during the dead of winter.

To this day, when I go bream fishing around willowfly hatches, I send out a recon mission to make sure there are no hornet or wasp nests nearby to disturb. And, to this day, if I walk into a store and there is a large empty hornetsí nest hanging from the ceiling, I turn around and head the opposite direction.

Thatís just the way I am, and I donít foresee any changes in the near future.

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Paul Stackhouse
Outdoors
Paul Stackhouse

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