No showers. No cooking. When the mayflies hatch in Northern Michigan, it’s all about the trout. Experience the magic of the Hex hatch.
Featured in the June 2020 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Subscribe.
“I haven’t hexed in five years.” Last fall I started mumbling this compulsively to anyone in my vicinity, like the ancient mariner who tells his tale to one in three. I told my barber, my colleagues, my students—the latter of whom exchanged knowing glances with each other, their suspicions of madness finally confirmed.
While it’s anyone’s guess how non-anglers understood my moaning—perhaps bewailing a hiatus from devilcraft?—my fishing friends appreciated the depth and direness of the situation. To the midwestern trout angler, the mayfly known as Hexagenia limbata is the universe’s one clear compensation for our region’s missing mountains, our absent ocean, the danger of moving through life knowing that, one day, you may be called upon to drive through Indiana. To miss Hex limbata, the great redeemer, five years in a row points to an existential crisis that asks, “What, oh angler, are you doing with your life?”
The problem lay in the fact that every year, I seemed to get a juicy writing assignment that coincided with the Hex hatch. There was the June I spent surrounded by thousands of puckering grayling in a Polish mountain valley smeared with wildflowers. The June I spent in Alaska swinging through tiny remote tributaries looking for early run king salmon. The June I spent hammered by black flies while hammering landlocked Atlantic salmon in Labrador. But no matter how good the day had been, when I went to bed each night in one of these distant rivers, I was haunted by what I was missing out on back home in Michigan: Gigantic, demon-eyed trout with spots as big as your fist, and moonlit mudflats that went from calm to boiling in the blink of an eye. “Next year, I fish Hex,” I would whisper to myself in the darkness after the camp generator was killed, or the northern lights glittered forth above a horizon of spruce. But then winter would come again and some exotic opportunity would drift into view, and like a spring brook trout, I’d rise to it. And then, last year, I snapped. “No more,” I thought. And just to show the universe how serious I was, I bought a trout camp.
It isn’t fancy and it isn’t huge, just 10 acres at the end of a Kalkaska County two-track, undeveloped but for one rotted-out late ’60s camper and a busted Jenga tower of a deer stand. But it’s just a few hundred yards from a stretch of river where the swift current slows, the cobble peters out to sand and silt and the white pine forest yields to farmland. In short, 10 river miles of the most perfect Hex water you could imagine.
A fawn sloshing through a shallow riffle. A file of baby raccoons winding through the alders. All the sets of eyes, large and small, high and low, watching you from the woods. I’d forgotten how strange and beautiful it is to row a boat through the darkness with freshly greased oarlocks, silent as a drifting log, straining your ears in the darkness for the sound of a good fish feeding. June had finally arrived, and after a long spring of daytime fishing Hendricksons, sulfurs and mahoganies from my new trout camp, I was finally plumbing the darker side of things. The idea was to spend a week or so learning a few beats of river in the dark and waiting on the first big bugs of the season to make their appearance. Once they arrived, I’d blow a loud bugle to friends all across the Midwest with whom I hadn’t Hexed in years.
At the time of this particular outing, I had already been there four nights and felt my familiar nocturnal form returning. Like a snowshoe hare adapts to its winter surroundings by turning pale as a ghost, I commenced a series of physiological changes. My night vision improved to the point where starlight provided more than enough light to navigate the boat, and a full moon had me wanting sunglasses. My hearing had become so honed I could tell the locations of logjams by the tinkling sounds they made in the current. The song of the whip-poor-will, which for weeks had signaled the end of the fishing day, now portended the beginning.
But I hadn’t seen a single Hexagenia mayfly yet—naturally. Suffering through a fair amount of nothing is necessary for anyone interested in the beginning of anything. There’s nothing like a slab of pork belly the moment it emerges from the smoker, or watching the first deer of the season pass within bowshot of your deer stand, and there’s nothing like fishing Hex on the first night the bugs appear and the trout eat your most outlandish creations—all the exploded hummingbirds and busted boutonnieres in your fly box.
I turned a bend and glided into a long calm straightaway where the trees opened up and the moon glazed the river in a silver trim. That’s when I heard it: down in the distance, where the river narrowed into darkness and curved to the left, the baritone rise and fall of a large trout’s head. My heart stumbled. My ears rang. I quietly drew anchor and strained my eyes at the black water flowing past me. And indeed there was a trickle of mayflies—glowing pale yellow in the moonlight, their erect wings looking like tiny sailboats. After several years of waiting it was finally happening: Hex season was here.
I exited the boat and waded slowly along the shallow bank, aurally triangulating the fish—it rose about once a minute—until it was rising no more than 20 feet away from me, deep in moon shadow. It rose again and I counted to 40 before making my first cast. And then I waited. With my peripheral vision I could just barely detect the white wings of my fly as it oozed downstream.
And then I heard a gulp.
I set the hook into great weight and immediately panicked. It was a better fish than I was mentally prepared for, and I had no idea what sunken wood lay out where it was trying to bury its oversized head. But I got lucky, and moments later I was releasing my first big trout of the night fishing season. It was a healthy, barrel-chested, 20-inch brown, the kind of fish you catch maybe once a month at best, except at Hex time, where odds are good you can get one every night.
Thus I opened up the revolving door of my trout camp, summoning friends from southern Michigan, Minnesota and Illinois. They arrived brandishing all the best accoutrements of long night floats: salmon jerky, venison backstrap, even wild turkey confit.
We passed a beautiful two weeks. There was the night we had a seething emergence, snouts poking skyward in every calm pool as if the trout were trying to darn the moon’s reflection to the water, during which time we caught fish on every cast. But then, suddenly, the bugs just disappeared, and for the next three hours we moved quietly over the water through glades of moonlight, listening to the current curl over wood, watching the eyes watching us in the woods. There was the night we almost stayed in our tents, a cool damp, drizzly night where you wish the beer was warm or that you had a dry winter parka handy. Ideally both. We didn’t suspect any action at all but it happened to be the very best night of the year—a long, slow, steady spinner fall where we all caught fish in impossible places: from deep within the overhangs of leaning cedars, to the crooks and crags of gnarly logjams. There was the night of the new moon when we fished black and purple “death hexes” and ran the boat aground six times, catching fish in spite of ourselves. And the night we found an old wooden paddle on the bank during a pit stop, on which we scribbled the night’s best scores: Dave K, 21 inches, Hex emerger. Rob R, 21.5 inches, Hex dun. Tom H, 22.75 inches, Hex spinner.
Friends came and went. Moons rose and set. Then one day close to the Fourth of July, after the last crew of visitors had bid their farewells, I awoke in my hammock to something jarring—heat like I hadn’t known since a fishing trip to India several years prior, so blazing hot it had gummed up the hands of my watch, stopping time. There had been some fairly warm days in June, but this was the first day that promised to be insufferable for someone living off the grid, and indeed, the thermometer hanging from the tree read 95. I opened a cardboard box of soup and ate it cold, suffered through a hot cup of coffee, then did my best to submerge my entire body in a small ice-cold creek that ran through the property. Time dragged on. Five hours before it was time to go to the river. Four hours. Three and a half. Three and a quarter. Three.
By this point in my Hex journey, I had accomplished each and every goal I’d started out with, along with a few new ones I’d invented along the way, and the sane reader is correct in wondering why it was that I didn’t break camp and return to civilian life. But the fact of the matter is, once Hex fishing has you in his talons, there’s not much you can do to free yourself. The same force that prevents you from leaving a large fish rising in the moonlight, even though it is in an impossible place and ignoring your flies, is the same that prevents you from packing the Jeep and heading back home. You can’t help but go out night after night. You can’t help but replay missed or lost fish in your head over and over, again and again. Rather than enjoying any sort of satiation, the endless conveyor belt of flies and fish turns the Hex angler’s desires ever more gluttonous. Instead of patting yourself on the back for having caught your best trout in years, you wring your hands and wonder: Is tonight the night that I catch the fish of a lifetime?
In time, the afternoon light started to soften, and without friends around I had begun my self-shuttle procedure, consisting of launching my boat at the put-in, parking the truck at the takeout and walking the dirt road back to the launch—a journey of roughly one hour. At the halfway point, I came across a turtle who’d met a particularly gruesome vehicular fate, its shell shattered in dozens of pieces. As I paused to consider the scene, it struck me that I was looking into a metaphysical mirror of sorts, that after three weeks of solid hexing I was also frazzled, fractured and spent. My sleep was poor, my diet worse, my hygiene only theoretical. For any newcomer looking to get in on Michigan nighttime bug action, heed this warning: Absolute hexing corrupts absolutely.
But the end was near. The bugs that night, for the first time since the Hex hatch first began, were very sparse. Only a few fish rose. The river, also, was getting dangerously warm for trout. The one good fish I caught was so exhausted from the ordeal that it took almost 10 minutes to revive him. And just like that, the Hex season was over.
At the take-out, I hooked up my boat and dragged it out of the inky black water one last time. My truck, which had barely seen pavement the last three weeks, was caked in a grime of dust so thick the taillights barely glowed. But before leaving the river, I cracked open a beer and toasted the end of the season. The sun was blooming nectarine above the treetops, and the morning birds were chasing each other from bough to bough. With Hex season over, life was about to get very different. I was going to bathe in something that wasn’t a creek and sleep in something that wasn’t slung between two trees. I’d eat my food hot. I’d put on comfortable shoes with clean socks and walk on pavement, looking straight ahead, no need to pick my steps of river rock and root wads. And I was OK with all that. Even more than OK.
As I packed up camp in the morning fog, I felt downright giddy. And that’s the thing about Hex fishing: The only way to know you’ve truly done it right is if you’re glad when it’s finally over.
Dave Karczynski teaches writing and photography at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.