Hexagenia, Western Michigan
By Dave Karczynski
To wit: despite elephant-sized quantum computers that operate at deep space temps or not at all, the game of chess—where the most powerful piece is essentially an angry woman with a longbow—remains unsolved.
Another: How will the cosmos end? Maybe by spinning off into nothing, maybe by a cosmic crunch—top physicists flip a coin.
And this: when it comes to figuring out western Michigan’s brown trout, the situation is dire—most people only fish the Hex limbata at night.
My Hex epiphany—or heresy—came about on the banks of Wisconsin’s Tomorrow River when I was in my 20s. At the time I was as unencumbered as I was unemployed—by which I mean I caught more inches of trout per week than I had dollars in my bank account, and bathed so infrequently I greased my leaders by running them back and forth across my forehead. My general modus at the time was to fish until 2 a.m., sleep until noon, and then gulp a can of warm soup or some Campbell’s gazpacho, depending on midday temps. After that I’d fish terrestrials or Cahills for a few hours before regrouping for the big bug main event. Until one afternoon.
I can’t say whether it was due to a meteorological downburst or localized tornado, but somewhere around 4 p.m. a heap of Hex spinners hit the water. Since the Tomorrow is a river of slow flows I was able to count the exact number of bugs—14—all of them twitching and batting their wings on the meniscus, like little crank-up bath tub toys. I was standing at a long, straight stretch of the river and had trained my eyes on the lead bug, curious to see how fish would respond to Hex spinners some six hours ahead of schedule. And though it took some time—about 150 yards of slow float—that first bug of the day got whacked. Hard.
The next afternoon I was back on the water ready to get experimental, to solve a mystery, to be—with apologies to Gandhi—the hatch I hoped to see in the world. I tied on an oversized Hex spinner, dropped it a few feet in front of me and started to feed line into my drift, alternating between stack mends and careful twitches as my fly drifted past log jam after log jam. Then, out of nowhere I was met with a sight I wouldn’t see again until a decade later while fishing dragonflies in Chile: a brown trout going three feet airborne after my bug.
That fish missed my offering—of course—but I did catch a nice brookie a few casts later, and more importantly discovered one of my favorite ways to fish the days of June and July every year—twitching mid-day, B-52-Bomber-style Hex spinners to the tune of at least one sharking attack per outing.
Fishing Hex by daylight—is it a trap? A deviously concocted misdirection meant to wear out competitors and grant me an empty river as night falls in early July? Far from it. It’s just me shouting as loud as I can that there are endless strange discoveries yet to be made in the dark arts of fly fishing the Midwest, and so, so many ways to skin a trout.
If you’re looking for a place to hone those skinning skills, get yourself to Minnesota, Wisconsin, or Michigan—the Holy Trinity of Hexdom—when the first real heat comes in mid-to-late June. While the most famous Hex rivers include Wisconsin’s Bois Brule and White, along with the Pere Marquette, Au Sable and Manistee rivers in Michigan, just about every north country Midwest trout stream has a resident population of big bugs (Wisconsin’s Driftless is the exception). That said, you won’t find Hex in the pebbled headwaters of these streams. In its nymphal form, the Hex is a burrowing mayfly and, furthermore, subsists on a diet of muck and silt—all the dark, stinky organic matter leftover from decayed trees and vegetation. Therefore, you should focus on slower, warmer water—the kind trout anglers often describe as “marginal” and that produces the occasional pike or smallmouth in addition to trout.
As said, Hex emergences occur at dusk, with spinners tending to fall best on humid nights when temperatures at nightfall are 70 degrees or higher at dark. Once the hatch gets underway, anglers can expect to encounter fish feeding on all three stages of the bug—emerger, dun, and spinner—at the same time. As such you should be prepared to cycle through a few patterns before you find one that works on the riser you’re targeting. And while imitative patterns fit the bill in most situations, on new moon nights be sure to pack along a “Death Hex” or two. These all-black patterns, which you’ll probably have to tie yourself, create a stark silhouette that make it easy for trout to key in on. Last but not least, when Hex fishing you’ll want to pack along your big net—the one you use for steelhead. You don’t want to be underguned on the brown trout of a lifetime.
Dave Karczynski is the author of Smallmouth and From Lure to Fly. He lives in Ann Arbor and teaches at the University of Michigan.