On the 90-degree day his boat engine’s steering control cable snapped, North Andover’s Steve McCarthy became a particularly tasty target for the wicked winged carnivore known as the Greenhead fly. His stalled craft caught the interest of a squadron of observational sorties. The more the captain of “Seascaper” sweated, the sweeter he turned, because greenheads love salt.
“I had to hold the engine with both hands all the way in from the bay down the Parker River back to Perley’s Marina going two miles an hour with carbon dioxide fumes attracting the flies,” McCarthy recalled. “We had welts the size of Necco wafers. It was [like] something out of a horror movie!” Encounters with Tabanus nigrovittatus and Tabanus contenninus (a.k.a. the “salt marsh horsefly”) are regularly likened to Hollywood horrors.
“It was Stephen King meets ‘The Birds,'” said Maura Long Canty, reflecting on her then young family’s harrowing escape from Plum Island 15 years ago. “The sky was blue; it was a wonderful day Â… until we walked over the dunes. That’s when they attacked. We scooped up the kids and ran back into the cottage. And they followed us! We were swatting hundreds off the screens.
It was before cell phones so my husband was forced to run to the pay phone at the corner store. They covered the phone like a blanket as he was trying to get us help. We only lasted two days. “Indeed, many an uniformed visitor or determined sun-worshipper who heads for the beach, ready for a swim, a tan, and a read ultimately kowtows to the Lord of the Flies.
John “Matty” Mattheson, owner of Matty’s Service in Methuen, has summered for 55years on Plum Island and has anchored his boats on the Parker River and in Ipswich Bay for decades. “I could write a book about greenheads,” he said.
“My worst time was when we got stuck in low tide. We got swarmed so bad we had to get under water. I mean underwater. We could only stick our mouth… out for air and they were waiting for us to come up to bite our lips. I hate them! “It’s a classic tale rife with conflict between man and nature. And for the first two weeks in July, the dive-bombing, flesh-ripping varmints usually win. Adding insult to injury, these gods of the insect empire take a fortnight hiatus to digest after their gorging orgy, and then return for a weeklong second helping in August.
The sky blackens like the flying monkeys scene in “The Wizard of Oz.” The deafening drone of the flapping wings could drown out a squadron of idling Indie 500 racecars. So hellish indeed, one swears these demons are sporting hockey masks and carrying chainsaws. Yet, the academic world references them in gentle tones. Entomologically speaking, the salt marsh greenhead fly is “light brown in color with bright green eyes, a reddish brown thorax and abdomen, and wings with markings only along the front edge.”
Introducing them as “an abundant and bothersome summertime pest along our coastal marshes,” a report from Rutgers University admitted that, “to anyone who has not visited coastal areas during ‘fly season,’ the impact of these flies on daytime activities is hard to imagine.” Hard to imagineÂ…and even harder to endure!
I too have gone into battle and returned bloodied. And I will again. My freckles will blossom into welts, my hair will get glued to the so-called “fly strips” of shipping tape suspended from our boat’s interior top, and I will morph into a screaming ‘tween freaking out because I am quite literally head to head with dead greenheads. Yuck! Then I shall avenge myself In a Dirty Harry display of righteousness, I shall suck up marauding intruders with our trusty vacuum.
And, standing a sanitary distance away, as I observe my ship’s captain discharge the vacuum’s daily catch, I will relish an emotional rush of simultaneous disgust and delight as I watch the intruders gasp their last breath. “Die suckers, die!”
DISCLAIMER Lest you, dear reader, feel we are doing an injustice to the salt marsh-situated enterprises, be mindful that the story idea came from a member of the Rowley Chamber of Commerce (a member who, for obvious reasons, wishes to remain anonymous)