There are nights in the month of June when I think I would rather enjoy being a trout.
I’m thinking of the big trout, ones that pass the daylight hours hidden under cutbanks and sunken, shadowy logs. Slab-size river fish as big as the blade of a canoe paddle; elusive, ornery old hooked-jawed buggers that live ghost lives.
These are the trout of legend: the kind hardly ever seen by fisherman and rarely taken on a fly. Why? Because the tiny midges and mayflies that fly fishermen are so fond of aren’t even a mouthful. Grandaddy trout like large bait, and lots of it. Meaty morsels like minnows, frogs, salamanders, worms. Further, big trout prefer to hide out in the depths by day and almost never feed off the river’s surface—unless, of course, something big happens by. Very big. Like the sudden hatching of millions of mayflies on a sultry June night. For a brief moment, the shadowy giants are drawn to the surface to feed in a nighttime frenzy of bugs.
We call it the Hex hatch, for short. The emergence of Hexagenia limbata. It is the largest mayfly in North America, with a 2-inch body, a long hairlike forked tail and pale, translucent wings. I once read a figure that on some streams Hex flies in their various forms—nymph, adult, and spinner—constitute as much as 70 percent of the annual trout food intake. For the Hex fly, most of life is passed as a nymph down on the river bottom. But then a transformation happens. During a brief stretch of summer nights, the nymphs morph and take wing by the millions.
The phenomenon is unique to the Upper Midwest, and specifically Northern Michigan. On our legendary Northern Michigan trout streams, the peak of the Hex hatch happens around the middle of June, typically between 9 and 10 o’clock at night, along virtually any stretch of river where the bottom consists of soft silt or marl. While normal right-thinking fishermen are home watching Leno, real bruiser trout slip from their holes into the current to gorge themselves on emerging flies and spinners. It’s the kind of fishing where everything for a few precious hours is excess: big flies, big fish, and hardcore anglers who would rather fish than sleep.
It’s a common practice to arrive on the river before the sun sets, while there is still enough light to see and claim a spot for the night. Then you wait. Even when dark falls and the flies lift from the water, you tend to stay put. Practiced anglers, if they suspect a big fish lies in a particular pool, might revisit the same pool night after night, each time waiting for hours until that specific fish rises—if it ever rises—and in all that time never making a cast until it does.
When the hatch peaks on a good night, the air becomes choked with flies. This cloud of insects can get as thick as fog. That means flies in your hair, in your mouth, and crawling in your nose. False casting during this, what anglers call a “blanket hatch,” is like swinging a scythe through the numbers. The looping line and the long rod cutting forward and back may strike the bodies of a couple dozen Hex flies at a pass. The noise is a rapid staccato of ticks—tick-tick-tick-tick-tick—with the ones you’ve cut down falling dead on the water, where they’re quickly gobbled up by rising trout.
Shine your light skyward and tell me the Hex flies buzzing about don’t look like little winged fairies. That’s what I see, anyway. The trout, however, is a pragmatist to whom the Hex flies are mere insectile sustenance, the fishy equivalent of an all-you-can-eat buffet on oven-roaster chickens. Trout feed on them so voraciously that catching the fish can seem easy at times—provided you get the hang of fly fishing in the dark.
Night fishing during a hatch is done best by your wits and senses. Though everybody on the river at night carries a bright headlamp or a flashlight, you learn to use it sparingly, since to do otherwise is to make your presence known to the fish. And any good cast at night is one made totally by feel: same for the drift and the mend of the line. Since you can’t see a thing, you must envision the entire process with the confidence in knowing everything is playing out in the murkiness as you feel it through the rod.
It isn’t for everyone. I have a friend who quit night fishing altogether after the singularly traumatic experience of snagging a low-flying bat. Ask him about it today, and he gives this response: “It wasn’t good. Not good at all.”
Another friend once hooked a beaver that suddenly surfaced under his drifting fly. My buddy went reeling backward, stumbled and fell over a rock midstream as all 60 pounds of rodent felt the cranial pinch of a #6 Mustad and soaked my buddy proper with one splash of its tail.
The dark can make everyday acts seem heroic. I’m thinking about the time my flashlight went dead sometime around midnight, right when the hatch was peaking and the fishing was just taking off. I lost a fly to a fish and actually managed to tie on another, threading the monofilament through the hook eye and everything, all by feel. Then, a half dozen fish later, I had to feel my way two miles back to the car through total blackness with the distinct impression that something was following me.
Everything grows in proportion out here in the dazed frenzy of a nighttime hatch. The most memorable brown trout I ever caught was during the Hex hatch. I had been out in the dark for hours, caught a couple small trout for dinner, and was stalking along the bank listening for the rising sounds distinct to giant fish. I had been roving around in the dark for so long, following trails close behind the footsteps of deer up ahead, that I felt as if I had entered into some kind of middle zone, a place where my thoughts became as skewed as they often are after waking in the morning from a dream.
Sometime after midnight along a black bend in the upper Boardman, I heard a big fish. There were other fish around, dozens of small ones, slashing at the Hex flies helplessly adrift on the water. Little fish splash and leap about like, well, little fish do, taking flies willy-nilly over here, over there. But when a big fish rises it’s purposefully executed. The noise is a full-fisted glunk. The rises of a big trout seem at first random, but not after you listen for a while and discern the rhythm. Cast too late or too soon, and a big fish will refuse your fly no matter how flawless the cast.
In the long silences between the behemoth’s regular rises, I’d spent the better part of an hour standing in the dark, listening and looking upward at the cloud of Hex against the stars and lamenting all the names of constellations I didn’t know.
The feeble light of a new moon left the river—and the fish’s exact location—in blackness. But when the trout rose again, I envisioned it, raised the rod, and became all at once connected to something big and alive out there on the other side. The fish led me up river into the dark, around a bend or two. I gained line and lost line and regained it again. Once, the fish jumped, which I know only because I felt the line go slack followed by the noise of a splash.
Only when I finally had the trout in hand did I dare turn on the offensive white light of the headlamp. My eyes took a moment to adjust. The fish lay still on its back, disoriented, while I slipped the hook from the corner of its wicked mouth feeling at the same time with my fingers the savaging furrows on his back. Given the fish’s size, I can only imagine that an eagle had tried to kill it.
The trout did not have the sleek lines or slim figure of a river fish but instead the hefty round belly and shoulders, the football shape of trout born in a lake. But the nearest lake was miles downstream. I began to think this trout had been carried here by a great bird—surely an eagle—that lost its grip on the fish on this very stretch of river, where it fell as if deposited here from the heavens.
The trout was as long as my arm. The scars were fresh, but the fish was fine. And if my outlandish theory about the eagle were true, it was probably the fish’s size and girth that had saved him, made him too heavy for the eagle to hold. Many anglers I know would have thought such fish as having the perfect character for a mount.
It was partly that size that saved him from my claws. Or maybe I just suddenly identified with this beat-up old glutton. In perhaps the ultimate madness that evening, I let him go. I watched the light shining on the water until the ripples of where he had been disappeared. I then gazed upward, the headlamp illuminating the last of the Hex flies swirling down like glitter dust. The hatch was nearly over. I turned off the light, releasing myself back into the darkness again.
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