It appeared as though nothing was biting when a Spokane fly fisher approached Idaho’s St. Joe River around 5 p.m. last Wednesday.
The situation changed instantly when Tyler Comeau put his hand on a bat.
“No fish were rising and it seemed pretty dead,” the recent Eastern Washington University graduate said.
He was scrambling down a steep trail on the south side of the river to fish a pool upstream from Avery.
“I had fly rods in my left hand and was grabbing tree branches with my right hand to keep from slipping,” he said. “I was about 6 feet from the river when I braced my hand on a stump and felt a sharp pain in my finger.
“There was an odd noise and I saw something fall to the ground. It was a bat screeching at me. I had two pinhole cuts in my index finger. I must have accidentally put my hand on its face.”
In hindsight, Comeau has learned that he probably should have found a way to capture the grounded bat to bring to medical officials.
“I figured it was bad news, but I’d never dealt with a potential rabies situation before,” he said.
With the bat on the ground making noise and acting defensive, Comeau went to the water and washed his finger with soap.
“Then I just went fishing,” he said. “My friend and I had been dredging with nymphs and doing quite well for fish up to 18 inches.’
When he left the river, he noticed the bat had crawled back up the side of the stump.
“It was making really uncomfortable noises and baring its teeth,” he said.
The next day, he sought medical attention and began getting his education about rabies.
“The urgent care wouldn’t touch me, and the (Spokane Regional) Health District directed me to the hospital emergency room,” he said.
“The first thing I learned was that I’d just finished my most expensive fly-fishing trip ever,” he said.
Hospital officials told Comeau the average cost to treat for rabies is $10,000.
“I’m still working with my insurance, but initially they’ve told me it basically would not be covered.”
Dorothy MacEachern, epidemiologist with the Spokane Regional Health District, said she has referred cases to health care providers that treat rabies for around $4,000, depending on the case. However, Comeau said neither the Health District nurse on duty nor the front desk staff gave him that information.
MacEachern also said she’d be surprised if a health insurance company did not cover rabies treatment. “It’s not an elective; it’s a life-saving treatment,” she said. “Rabies is fatal.”
Bat bites are extremely rare, even for people who work with them.
“I know many bat biologists who have worked around thousands of bats during their careers, but I’ve never heard any of them recount being attacked by a bat or even getting one caught in their hair,” said Ella Rowan, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist who works with bats.
However, bats – like most wild critters – will bite when someone tries to hold them. “We anticipate this, are vaccinated against rabies and wear (thick, leather) gloves,” she said.
About 5 percent of the bats Washington health districts test are rabid, MacEachern said. Considering that sick bats are the easiest to catch and bring in for testing, experts believe the rate of rabies in bats is lower than 5 percent, she said.
Scientific literature pegs the average incidence of rabies in bats at about 0.5 percent, variable by species, Rowan said.
However, in the St. Joe River incident, the silver-haired bat’s reluctance to fly wasn’t necessarily an indicator of its health.
“It’s difficult for that species to take off from the ground,” she said. “They usually have to climb up to get some vertical to drop from.
“As for the vocalizations, it’s pretty normal for bats to make tons of noises when we capture them or disturb them.”
Silver-haired bats – one of the more easily identified of the region’s various bat species – usually roost in tree cavities, but may be on the outside of tree trunks or in the foliage, she said. Sometimes people find them roosting on their firewood piles.
“A few bat species have been found using tree stumps as roosts. They like the region where the bark buckles away.”
The forest along the St. Joe River is a prime place for bats, since they feed on the same insects that nourish the river’s famous cutthroat trout.
Yet Rowan said Comeau simply had an extremely unlucky day to be bitten by a bat in the outdoors.
“I’ve heard of fly fishers hooking bats in the evening while they were casting,” she said. “But I’ve never heard of a fisherman being bitten.”
When people say they’ve been bitten by a bat, health officials suggest capturing the bat with something like a blanket or bucket and bringing it in for testing.
“You can’t bop it on the head because it can’t be tested effectively if its brain is damaged,” MacEachern said.
“Then you have to keep it in a cooler or refrigerator until it’s tested,” Rowan added. “Sorry to hear the fisherman was bit, but I’m glad he is seeking treatment and didn’t ignore the incident.”
Rabies treatments aren’t as painful as they used to be when they were administered in the abdomen. After the initial six painful injections in the finger at the site of the bite, the rest will be in his arm, Comeau said.
“There’s no doubt this is the thing to do,” he said. “I checked and learned that Idaho’s had two silver-haired bats test positive for rabies this year. “I also looked into the disease, and I can’t think of a worse way to die.”
Meantime, he’s revised his sense of threats and rewards while fishing the region’s streams.
“I always figured moose were the animal I had to fear the most,” he said.”And I’ve had dreams about saving the money for a $10,000 fly-fishing trip some day. But I thought it would be for tarpon.”
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