FISHING LINES : Bitten by fear of Mister Bug

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LIVING near a river means we acquire more than our share of insect- bites. But I rarely complain. After my experience in the Ecuadorean rain forest, I vowed never to whine about stings and bites again.

During the two weeks we spent fruitlessly trying to catch giant arapaima from the river Tiputing I didn't get attacked much but one of our party, a fair-skinned, freckled lad had the sort of epidermis that makes all biting insects go: "Yum!"

During the day it wasn't too bad, though wasps stung you for the hell of it, and inch-long ants bit like pit bulls. Even our native guide screamed when one of these took a nip. We quickly learned that we should not leave rods on the ground, and that fishing from our canoe in open water was generally safe (if you didn't worry about the piranhas).

At night, it was a very different matter. As dusk started to fall, all sorts of things with wings came out hunting. Fireflies, blinking their mad Morse code to each other, were no problem. Vampire bats flew, silent as death, through our ramshackle hut, but never sucked our blood. Then there were the mosquitoes.

We surrounded our sleeping bags with so many mosquito coils it looked as if we were trying to invoke some dark entity from a Dennis Wheatley book. We covered our skins with raw Deet like teenage boys with their first bottle of after shave. At 20 per cent strength, it's supposed to ward off British mozzies. We used 100 per cent proof. Even with this sort of protection, and a mosquito net, we still got bitten.

We drank only sparingly at supper. Drinking or eating heavily could mean the ordeal of padding out into the night jungle, armed only with a torch and a panga, neither of which was much good for fending off mosquitoes. It was bad enough worrying about large animals roaming the forest, never mind unseen tarantulas or deadly snakes under your feet. But however fast you went about your business (it was the best cure for constipation I've ever found), you were certain to find tell-tale lumps on your bum, or even more tender places, the next morning.

Fair-skinned Danny came off worst. One night he inadvertently failed to tuck in a small corner of his net. That night, squadrons of bloodsuckers drank their fill. Danny counted 169 bites on one leg alone the next day.

In one way, I suppose, we were lucky. We got stung by wasps, bitten by ants and served as portable blood-banks for mosquitoes and blackfly. But we never encountered tapir fly, chiggers, ticks, assassin bugs or the human botfly, whose larvae bore into the skin, eat bits of you for about 40 days then emerge as inch-long maggots.

And thank goodness we avoided the sandfly, which carries leishmaniasis, a leprosy-like disease said to affect 80 per cent of Brazilian troops on jungle exercises during the rainy season. Unless treated quickly, my medical book warns that it "eats away the warm extremities". Gulp.

Although we faithfully took the tablets, we discovered afterwards that these give only about 50 per cent protection against Ecuador's anopheles mosquitoes, which give you malaria. Fortunately, none of us contracted the disease.

Why are so many of the world's best fishing places infested with biting creatures? I've never fished in Canada or Alaska, but I'm told mosquitoes and blackfly there are so numerous that they form locust-like clouds, and will drive you to contemplate suicide unless you dress like a bee- keeper, with every part of the body covered.

Of course the main problem is not bites, which are irritating but nothing more. It is that high-pitched squeal, a dentist's drill with wings, wheeling around as you try to fish or sleep. Worst of all is when the squealing stops. Convinced that an insect has landed on you and is drinking away, you slap your body like a masochist saying goodnight to himself. It's impossible to concentrate on fishing when mosquitoes are rampant.

There doesn't seem to be any 100 per cent successful cure. I've tried every shop remedy and still get bitten. I've covered myself in citronella oil and got some very funny looks from fishing companions. I've even tried smoking a pipe. That helps a bit, but it made me feel so ill that the cure was worse than the complaint. Do any readers have sure-fire repellents? I have discovered only one remedy. Find a companion whose pheromones are even more attractive to bugs than your own.