GRAYLING — We were sitting Steve Sendek's Au Sable boat on the Manistee River, listening in the darkness for fish, when a trout fed about four rods links and a little downstream off the port side.
"Catch that fish," said Sendek, a Derpartment of Natural Resources fisheries biologist and long-time angling pal.
I let out what I thought was an appropriate length of line, false cast once, dropped the fly about six feet above where I thought the trout had fed, and let it drift. Nothing. I picked it up, cast it about a foot further, let in drift and, sploosh.
Strip set, raise the rod tip. Got him.
It was a small fish, around 12 inches. Still I was pleased about it because it was the first fish I've caught on a Hex in a couple of years.
Fishing the Hex (short for Hexagenia limbata, the giant Michigan mayfly) hatch is one of those consummate Michigan angling experiences. Fly fishermen look forward to it all season, plan their calendars around it, and talk about it (and little else) before, during and after.
For me, Hex fishing has been a study in frustration. I have never pretended to be Lefty Kreh — fly fishing is not my forte — but I've had enough success with fly rods over the years to think I know something about it. When it comes to Hexes, however, I'm just hexed.
So maybe, catching the first fish I tried that night meant something?
It was my second night of chasing Hexes this season. The first, a week earlier on the Au Sable, had been typical. I met up with a buddy on a stretch of river that produced a couple of nice fish for him the evening before. We got on the water to stake out a beat several hours before dark and though I made a few casts with a small sulphur — caught one brook trout, about the size of my longest finger — I mostly sat and watched and listened. Just before dark, a nice Isonychia hatch occurred. A few fish fed. I tied on a bug and started fishing. Nada.
I watched the sky. No Hexes. I studied the water. Didn't see any Hexes on the surface, either. I stayed with the Isonychia to no good end. My partner, who was fishing downstream, showed up around midnight, saying he'd caught one 11-inch brown. The Hexes never showed.
And that's often the way it is for me. Like I said. Hexed.
Sendek poled us slowly downstream. We had bugs. A good fish fed, nose tight to a log lying perpendicular the bank. Sendek told me to try him. I dropped the fly exactly where I thought wanted it, heard a slurp, then set the hook. On the log.
The temperature started dropping like the Dow in 2008. We had bugs for 20 minutes, then they quit. The rest of the night there were few fish feeding and those that were we in the kind of places a magician couldn't put a fly. That was it.
The next night, I met up with DNR fisheries biologist Tom Goneia a little further upstream on the Manistee. Conditions were good — it was hot — but when we got where we were going, someone had already staked out the hole. We went further downstream, found appropriate water, and hunkered down. The Isos started. I caught a couple of small trout. At dark there were a few Hexes but the trout apparently either weren't there or weren't interested.
It's not like I've never had any success. But in more than 20 years of Hex fishing I can count the good fish I've caught on one hand. And, really, I've only had one truly memorable experience.
A half dozen year ago, on the Pere Marquette, I hooked into a monster. Had it on for, oh, five seconds, then in came unbuttoned for no apparent reason. Frustrated, I waded upstream until I heard a fish sipping flies on the far bank.
As I worked my way toward the fish, I found a two-trunked tree, crown facing downstream in the water. That fish was feeding right in the crotch.
I listed to the rhythm of its feeding pattern, timed it, dropped the fly right where it needed to go, heard the sip, set hook and the fish came out of the water like a missile fired from a submarine. It took off like a sprinter, my reel screaming like a three-year-old in high tantrum.
But this where clean living pays off: The fish took the only route out of that deadfall that it could without tangling me up, peeling off all my fly rod. I tried to run after it — Ever tried to run in thigh-deep water? — and by the time I cleared the tree branches, I was well into the backing on my reel. But the water was remarkably snag-free in that stretch, I leaned into it, gained ground, and ultimately, conquered a not-quite 27-inch rainbow trout.
It remains, to this day, the largest trout I've ever caught on a dry fly. So I do know what the Hex hatch has to offer.
But back to the present; I met up with Goneia the next night and we went to an access site I know about further downstream. You'd have thought they were giving away free beer; every fly fisherman from two states was there. So we hiked through the woods to get away from the crowd, found some very nice looking water and waited until dark.
The bugs started as expected, but it didn't last long, maybe 20 minutes. I never heard anything much bigger than a minnow feed. No spinner fall. No fish coming up. Nothing.
By now, it's mostly over. And I'm not driving to the U.P. in hopes of finding some Hexes.
So in the end, nothing's really changed.
I'm still hexed.