Big flies, big fish

A recent article about fishing the Hexagenia hatch for trout revealed the particular allure of these over-sized mayflies, the big fish that chase them, and the strange experiences of fly-fishing after dark.

A quiet trout stream at dusk.
The only photograph from my single Hex foray.

In this month’s Minnesota Conservation Volunteer, the Department of Natural Resources treasured by many in the state, a story by Michael Kallok covered the allure of trout fishing during the Hexagenia mayfly hatch. While to most trout anglers, mayflies mean Blue-winged olives, Hendricksons, Sulfurs and so on, to the non-trout angling world, mayflies are Hexes, the giant flies that hatch on damp June nights, sometimes making roads and bridges impassable due to their sheer number.

But that’s not to say that the Hex is ignored by trout anglers. Anything but. There is a mysterious quality to the hatch; the big bugs and the fish that eat them only become active after sunset, and Hex hunters return with stories of fishing by ear—casting toward the sound of a rising fish and striking blindly at the hungry splash when one’s fly should be in the right place.

As with all fishing, it is about more than the catching. Hex aficionados also boast of stumbling along river banks in pitch black, and of the strange encounters only experienced after dark on lonely trout streams.

Kallok’s article focuses on the Straight River (PDF), which is not much discussed in Minnesota’s trout fishing community. Perhaps it is better known than I assume, and perhaps it has been quietly–secretively–fished by otherwise extroverted anglers. In any case, the secret is out now, and I’d be interested in a follow-up article to cover what this year’s fishing experience is like. I bet the Straight devotees, some of whose decades of dedication to the river and its Hex hatch was apparent in the article, won’t be so lonely this summer.

As the sun creeps toward the western horizon, swallows feeding high in the air offer hope for a spinner fall. At 9 p.m. Bill and Edie paddle downstream to settle in to other promising spots and wait for the bugs to arrive. Up above, a loose swarm of Hexagenia appears like specs of static in the darkening sky.

The river has taken on the tint and texture of a blued gun barrel. On the otherwise silky water, I focus on a small dimple, and it suddenly transforms into a pair of upright wings. Soon, graceful sailboat-shaped forms are popping up everywhere, lingering briefly before taking flight.

Hex are emerging!

I clip the spinner pattern from my leader and select a pattern to imitate an emerging Hexagenia. As I struggle in the dark to tie a new knot, a pod of trout begins to feed enthusiastically. One leaps clear out of the water, as if paying tribute to this time of plenty with an elegant waste of energy.

A commotion downstream, sounding like a nervous puppy’s first swim, precedes Bill’s exclamation: “Fish on!”

Moving into the 21st-century, the DNR provided a YouTube video to accompany the article featuring some photos and short video clips. Looks like great paddling, if nothing else!

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