11th April, 2006
Nearly everyone has at some point in their lives been bored to tears by some version of the “Where were you when…?” discussion. In years gone by, this tiresome conversation has usually been focused around the assassination of President Kennedy; more recently (and a lot more tiresomely), it has involved the death of Princess Diana, an event which even this devoted anti-royalist must concede had a degree of newsworthiness about it. In my case, the most recent example of this question is rather less important on any sort of global scale, but I shall repeat it here in the interest of manufacturing a dubious focus for the subject of this column. It is simply this: "Where were you when you first realised that Jennifer Lopez was uniquely wooden and talentless?"
For me, it was the film Anaconda which provided the answer to this question. J-Lo may not have been the best thing about this film – indeed, she is almost certainly not the best thing about any film ever made, not even Gigli – but the film itself has stuck in my mind because it contains a quote which is more or less guaranteed to cause every sentient male on the planet to cross his legs uncomfortably. Here it is:
"The last time I was in water like this, I had to stay up all night picking leeches off of my scrotum."
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Leeches have an unusually profound and disturbing effect on people. If you were to compile some sort of Revulsion Index, they would almost certainly be right up there with spiders and snakes and folk music. For many, the mere mention of them is enough to induce a visible shiver – and the thought that they might actually be somewhere nearby is enough to have most people brushing their legs and looking around for the nearest hermetically sealed room, preferably one located in the middle of a large urban (and thus hopefully leech-free) sprawl.
I have never really shared this view of leeches; perhaps because, as someone who has spent considerable lengths of time in places where things like leeches and spiders (although not folk music, I’m happy to report) are simply part of the landscape, just another minor inconvenience one has to deal with as part of one’s obsession with chasing fish. For fishermen or travellers of any kind, they really need to be expelled from the psychology of disgust; they are simply too common, and too often encountered, for anyone who dislikes them to be able to carry on fishing for very long. There are thousands of species worldwide, in all kinds of habitat and with all kinds of lifestyle. I’ve experienced them dropping onto my shoulders in rainforests in India, and found my legs crawling with them after fording rivers in Australia; and last month Paul and I discovered several of them dining happily on his ankles while fishing a shallow, muddy-bottomed lake in New Zealand.
Now, I am the first to concede that this can be a disagreeable find. As far as anyone knows, leeches (which, by the by, are segmented annelids closely related to earthworms) are not capable of transmitting dangerous diseases to people; indeed, the majority of leeches are not blood-suckers at all, but instead are highly voracious predators of everything from earthworms and snails to chironomids and other insects. That said, the novel feeding adaptations of the sanguinivorous varieties can make life unpleasant for those who they single out as lunch. For one thing, they have highly efficient mouthparts which can cause non-trivial wounds; many species of leech have three jaws, each equipped with 100 or more tiny teeth, which can create a sizeable hole in one’s skin. As if this wasn’t enough, they secrete a variety of interesting and important chemicals, such as hirudin, to prevent their host’s blood from clotting – the principal reason why they are of renewed interest to medical science, and the subject of much research into pain-relief, anti-coagulants and various other complaints related to the flow of blood through some of our more critical vessels.
For most people, all this means is that the wounds can take a long time to stop bleeding. I think most of us would agree that the sight of rivulets of blood trickling down one’s legs for several hours is not necessarily a welcome one, but it is unlikely to result in anything more traumatic than being turned down for a date, or being offered a part in a teen slasher movie. If you happen to be a so-called celebrity who finds herself in a rainforest surrounded by TV cameras, it seems that they can have a somewhat deflating effect; and for a tiny and unlucky minority of people who accidentally swallow them or (and those of you of a squeamish disposition may wish to cover your eyes at this point) who are unlucky enough to find them literally worming their way into one’s other orifices, they can cause much more serious complications of which I shall spare you the details for the time being.
You’re probably ready for the good news by now, and for the real point of all this. Like it or not, leeches are an important and often-overlooked part of the trout fisher’s universe. Although most species of leech are terrestrial rather than aquatic by preference, you will find them almost everywhere you find trout – even in New Zealand, which despite some claims to the contrary is home to at least 11 species of freshwater hirudineans. And trout love to eat them. One never really knows what a trout thinks it’s eating when it takes one of your flies, but there is good evidence that they often interpret woolly buggers and other large, wiggly patterns as leeches. Judging by the ferocity with which these flies are often taken – and the quality of the fish they can produce – it would seem that they really are favourites on the trout menu; just one reason why I am going to be tying a lot more of these patterns for the forthcoming season. We all spend a lot of our time worrying about exactly how to copy the insects and fish fry that make up a big part of a trout’s diet; but I have yet to hear of anyone taking a rigorously scientific approach to imitating leeches. It’s time to put our revulsion for these superbly adapted creatures to one side and see them for what they really are; something else to obsess about while drunk in charge of a vice at 4am. You know it makes sense.