The Hex hatch is not for the faint of heart!
For over 35 years I’ve observed a tradition on par with the opener of deer season, Thanksgiving or Christmas. Mid June is when the fabled hex-hatch begins on Michigan trout streams and when fly fishing buddies connect for what usually amounts to a social event as much as a serious fishing pursuit. Most other hatches or milestones in fly-fishing tend to be more solitary, or at least less of an event. The hex hatch draws crowds to the Northbound highways, riverine communities and the trout streams on which they survive. It’s the one event in the summer when as a fly-fisherman, you’ll be likely to run into old acquaintances, friends and possibly relatives that you’ll only see once a year. Anyone from Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, New York or other “up North” states can identify with our unique “Deer camp” scene. The Hex Hatch draws many parallels. Whether in a stream-side campsite, an old family cabin or one of the many lodges that cater to fly-fisherman, tales are told, cigars are smoked, libations are sipped, meat is BBQ’d and real hard-core fishing is performed.
Why all the excitement? Aside from the social aspect, which is cause enough, there are opportunities for huge brown trout on dry flies. There are also opportunities for danger and excitement and who doesn’t like that? There are bragging rights at stake. Bragging about huge fish, potential for bizarre and unique experiences that only Hex fisherman can claim and understand, and for having “been there, done that”.
The Hexagenia Limbata mayfly, which I’ve written about before, is a huge mayfly with a 3″ wingspan, that emerges as a dun, and returns as a spinner in blizzard like swarms, in the middle of the night. Big brown trout, that are otherwise difficult to locate, and are often sticktly nocturnal cannibalistic denizens of deep inaccessible lies, come to the surface and act like trout, feeding heartily in steady rhythms, allowing for a dry fly presentation. 6-7 pounders are not uncommon on larger rivers and the biggest, cagiest fish available in any river, will show themselves.
The mystery in Hex fishing isn’t just a chance at a big fish on a dry fly, It’s the whole experience. Fishing in the dark without any light, in the most gnarly river, full of structure, flowing through the deepest, darkest cedar swamp can be intimidating to say the least. Things to expect that most Hex-fishermen can relate to include, having a beaver glide unseen to within 3-4 feet, in the still balmy silence, then slap it’s tail close enough to get your face wet and ring your ears. Substitute an angry beaver with a whole family of river otters trying to intimidate you to give-up your fishing hole. Step into a hat floating hole while feeling your way down-stream, heading to the sound of a big fish “gulping” Hexes from the surface. (this can sound like softballs falling into the water….and can cause a fly-fisherman to throw caution to the wind). You haven’t lived until you’ve flushed a whole flock of roosted turkeys from just overhead…in the silent black of night. Then there are bears, wolves and coyotes, or maybe elk, or a cougar or just just a surprised deer blowing a warning call from a couple of yards behind your left ear. How often have you caught a bat while false casting….more than once? I have….more than once. Many hex fishermen can tell tales of “bat release” procedures. It’s not fun and the telling usually includes an involuntary shiver.
Many Hex fishermen return year after year to familiar haunts where monster trout are known to reside, but there’s a limitless number of logjams and structure and looking for new spots is half the fun. Most anglers “post-up” in a spot before the sun goes down, after having spent an entire day fishing for smaller, less spooky trout, with flies to imitate the other daytime hatches that coincide with the hex hatch. Sulphers, yellow stone-flies, tan caddis, terrestrials and maybe blue-winged olives if there’s a bit of rain, can all happen from mid-June to mid July, when the hexes are hatching. With all the activity, sleep is a lower priority.
Posting-up in a spot where, in theory, two or three of maybe four likely feeding lanes, adjacent to deep holding water, can be reached with a cast, without having to move too much, is a good plan. Picking a place where a successful exit, or relocation is possible, is a good idea too. Checking before dark, to ensure that a back cast, or roll cast is possible is wise too. Having a good flashlight to find your way home is smart but don’t use it near the water unless you want to put the fish down. Headlamps are stylish and smart. A small red or green light for tying a tippet or fly, with your back to the fish, is a good choice. It won’t ruin your all-important night vision and is less likely to spook fish.
With burly fish on the agenda finesse tackle should left at camp. A stout 6weight rod is the minimum in my opinion. A short-ish 8 foot leader ending in 10-12 lb test is ok. Tie your hex flies on heavy wire hooks so your first “lunker” won’t straighten the hook. Use lots of hackle, moose-hair for the tail, and spun or bundled deer hair, or even foam for the body, and you’ll have no problem floating the heavy wire hook.. Dab some fly float paste on, preferably on all your hex flies, back at camp before you venture out, and you should be well prepared to horse big fish out of log jams that they’ll undoubtedly head for upon feeling the sting of your hook-set. Fly color isn’t always so important…because it’s pitch black out, but size and shape are. It’s rare, but sometimes the best opportunities are right at the start of the hatch and only emergers will fool a wary fish. Other times it’ll take a perfect, splayed-wing spinner. It pays to have some variety. If you tie your own, you might as well have some that are color-correct because once in a while the hatch will kick off early and in the North woods, at the end of June, there’s still a bit of daylight at 10:00pm. Many times nothing will happen until 2:00 am. You’ve got to put in your time. I tie some of my Hex patterns in solid white with glow-in the dark poly wings for the inkiest nights, so I have at least a slim chance of seeing my fly, though one should really be prepared to use their ears to identify a “gulper’s” location and when it takes your fly. A moon-lit night is a godsend in that you might be able to see a bit of reflection on the water to aid navigation.
At least half of our trout fishing is done from a drift-boat as opposed to wade fishing. Rowing a drift boat through a black cedar swamp river has all of the challenges of wading times 10. You’d better know your river well if you’re to row it at night. Crashing a boat into rocks or logjams will put the fish down for good, and for a long distance. Where as rocks, logs and shallow riffles can be seen and prepared for, from a long way off, in the day light, in a brisk current, in the dark, they come at you fast with very little room for error. I’ve fished all over and Michigan drift boat oarsmen are the best in the biz due in large part to our habit of “night-rowing” fast twisty rivers…in my humble opinion, and as an offending member of that motley crew.
There are no guarantees with the hex hatch. It wouldn’t be fun if there were. Some nights a chill can shut it right down. Some nights the heat and humidity is so severe, and the mosquitoes are so bad that you’ll want to flee. Often the fishing is only good for the first 10-15 minutes, before the hatch gets too heavy. I’ve seen it where there were so many flies on the water that you couldn’t see any water….in a huge flat stretch of water 50 yards wide and 150 yards long… Bugs on top of bugs, 3 or 4 deep. No exaggeration! Two or three big gulps and a big fish will stuff it’s stomach so full that it’s done eating for the night. I’ve seen fish, mouth agape, swim with head and shoulders out of the water, engulfing fist sized wads of flies before submerging, never to be seen again. I’ve written before how some communities near rivers have to use snowplows to clears roads of hex flies. This really happens!! If you’ve ever attended the “Fish-fly” festival in Anchor Bay Michigan, or been on the AuSable river just above Mio, Michigan around the first of July, you know what I’m talking about.
Most long-time Hex fisherman will pull a few tricks out of their hats when the fishing gets tricky. The really big fish got big by being cautious AND by eating big meals. sometimes, when the hatch is at a steady rate but the really big fish are tough to hook, a mouse pattern, or a huge streamer is the best bet. the hatch will always stir activity and big fish will always get active whether or not they’ll take your hex imitation. Often, swinging a big 6″ long streamer under log jams will be just what the Dr. ordered. Strikes are viscous and tension is immediate. Adrenaline tends to gush through your veins too! Take into account everything mentioned above but know that it’s all worth it. For those in the know, it’s the “can’t miss it” hatch of the year.
Brandon Vaughan has over 40 years of personal and professional experience in a broad array of hunting and fishing disciplines, from Alaska to Belize. Past professional experience includes working as a professional guide in Alaska and around the Great Lakes region. In addition to hunting and fishing throughout the lower 48, Canada and Central America, Brandon has been an Orvis Endorsed Fly-fishing guide, a fly-fishing and fly-tying instructor, a hunting guide and shooting instructor.