Night of the Hex

Night of the Hex

  • By: John Gierach
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PADDLING A CANOE INTO AN unfamiliar swamp at night in the company of two men you barely know is the kind of thing a fisherman does with only the slightest misgivings. After all, any of us who hire guides effectively put our safety in the hands of strangers and, if we’re honest, we admit our own judgment as none too reliable at times.

Still, I remembered what a friend once said about why he tries to stay out of cities. Every time a voice comes out of a dark alley saying, “Psst, hey, come here a minute,” he always goes. The point being that the line between having a little adventure and making a mistake can be a thin one.

I was fishing in northern Wisconsin with sporting artist Bob White and guides Larry Mann and Wendy Williamson. We were there to fly-fish for smallmouth bass and muskies, and although there was some really good trout fishing in the region, we’d planned to ignore it in favor of what I consider more exotic fish. But then we learned that the Hexagenia mayfly hatch might be on.

Now this wasn’t just another mayfly hatch that we could have resisted. This was a nighttime emergence of the biggest mayflies in North America, just a hair shorter nose-to-tail than a calliope hummingbird. Hexagenia are large, juicy prey that hatch in the dark when fish feel safe, so they can bring those enormous brown trout that no one ever sees, but everyone believes in, to the surface to feed. If everything goes right, those giant browns can be caught on dry flies. Or so the story goes.

I did understand the pitfalls of this temptation. When there’s too much to choose from, it’s only human to spread yourself thin and where you might have done one thing well, you end up doing two or three things poorly. I’ve succumbed to this tendency often enough to know how it can turn out and, frankly, fishing has been the least of it. So lately I’ve resolved to be one of those cool customers who diligently does what he came to do—or “dances with who brung ’em,” as we say out west—regardless of distractions. On the other hand, the happiest people I know are able to nicely split the difference between discipline and playfulness, so there’s something to be said for staying loose.

I also knew that fishing that’s supposed to be spectacular often isn’t, if only because it’s so rare to stumble into the ideal conditions it takes for the best to happen. Or maybe it does turn out to be spectacular, but in a way other than you’ve been led to believe. Many fishing stories are really about the beauty of the thing, but the language of the sport buries that theme in subplots about fish size and numbers that amount to poetic license.

Years ago, after I hit an unexpected salmonfly hatch in Canada (we were driving to one river and stopped to look at another out of curiosity) I decided it wasn’t what I’d expected, although at first I couldn’t put my finger on what I thought was missing. In hindsight, it was just that I’d heard so many fantastic stories from so many borderline fanatics over the years that the reality couldn’t possibly have lived up to the hype.

I’d actually heard this hatch described as “life-changing” and as we drove over the pass from Alberta to British Columbia I was almost disappointed to be the same old fisherman I’d been before, albeit one who’d just had a couple days of really fine dry-fly fishing. I suppose the lesson is that I’d chased this hatch off and on for decades through Colorado and Montana, only to stumble on it years after I’d given up, which must have something to do with the virtue of letting go of ambition.

Of course now, when I describe those two days to fishermen who’ve never hit a salmonfly hatch, I speak from the great height of one who has and cryptically say it has to be seen to be believed. But it might actually be the other way around: maybe it has to be believed to be seen.

By the time I got a shot at the Hexagenia mayflies, I was a few years older and had a firmer grip on expectations about legendary hatches. I figured if all went well, some fish would be caught, maybe even some big ones, but it was really more a matter of curiosity, like finally stopping at a tourist trap in Kansas to see “The World’s Largest Prairie Dog” after driving past the sign a dozen times in the last 10 years. Those days of fishing that make you smile on your death bed do happen, but so far I’ve never seen any of them coming on the way to the river and only a few have had anything to do with so-called “super hatches.” This was just an event I’d always wanted to see—if “see” is the right word for something that happens in the dark.

So we started asking around and learned that if we’d come in that same week anytime in the last 10 or 15 years, we’d have hit the three-week long hatch right in the middle. But that season the bugs came off early because of unseasonably warm weather, so the hatch was either over or very near the end, depending on who you asked. But then Larry hooked us up with Jim and Ken Harrold, two night-fishing brothers who thought the Hex hatch could be coming off on an unnamed river an hour and a half drive from where we were staying. They generously offered to take us there and were waiting at the fly shop the next evening when we got off the river.

I met Ken for the first time that night, but I’d talked to Jim briefly the year before. The only substantive thing we knew about each other was that we were both fishermen and that we shared a soft spot for bamboo fly rods. The bamboo angle was huge—it’s a sub-culture within a sub-culture that really should have it’s own secret handshake—but still, as you drive off into the evening to an undisclosed location, an internal voice says, Okay, really, who the hell are these guys?

An hour and a half later we parked at a two-lane bridge over a modest-sized slow- moving river, unloaded Jim and Ken’s two canoes and stashed our gear aboard. Then we stood around for half an hour talking quietly with a handful of mostly middle-aged men wearing headlamps, all of whom seemed to know each other. It was a warm June evening, a little humid, a little buggy, with a high overcast and not a breath of wind. There was no traffic on the two-lane road and the only electric light was a mercury vapor lamp in a barnyard a quarter mile away. From that same direction we heard a dog barking in a tone that suggested boredom.

The talk was what you’d expect: where everyone had recently fished, where they planned to fish next and how tonight’s stream flow, water clarity and weather might affect the hatch, as if we weren’t all about to find out. There was some anticipation, but no hurry. The hatch would either come off or not, but it was just dusk and nothing would happen until well after dark.

When I was a boy in the Midwest—not far from where I was standing, come to think of it, just a few hours drive to the west in Minnesota—common wisdom suggested that night fishing was sort of a shady business. It was perfectly legal, but there was still the suspicion that night fishers worked under the cover of darkness for the same reason burglars did, while God-fearing folk were at home watching The Ed Sullivan Show.

Later I fell in with some people who bore out that opinion and learned the hard way that stumbling around in the dark calls for prudence and sobriety rather than machismo and too much beer. It took a while, but my youthful motto of “catch fish or die trying” gradually matured into, as my guide friend Mark Bachmann says, “fish long and prosper.” My reasons for going night fishing also evolved from recklessness to competitiveness to romance and finally to the pure journalistic impulse to see what’s going on when nobody is looking.

There were only eight fishermen in four canoes with miles of river to spread out on and that may have accounted for a relaxed atmosphere at the put-in. (More than anything, we must have resembled a small group of men killing a few minutes before clocking in for the night shift.) Granted, the hatch was known to be winding down, but I’m told that even at its height it doesn’t draw what you could call big crowds, even though anyone who cares anything about fishing knows about it.

A few days earlier, at a convenience store in the town of Hayward, a pierced, orange-haired girl spotted me for a fisherman (it must have been the hat) and we got to talking. She told me the Hex hatch was fading, but it was still sputtering off here and there on nights when it didn’t rain. She also said she’d gotten a nice limit of big bluegills the previous afternoon at a secret spot, adding that it would have been more fun on a fly rod, but she’d promised a mess of fish for supper, so she played it safe and used a spinning rod and meal worms.
“Far out,” I said, dating myself to the 1960s.

In the last few minutes before we launched from the bridge, there was the briefest and courtliest conversation about where we were all going. There was no jockeying for position, just a comparison of notes so no one would get in anyone’s way. Everyone seemed to have a certain bend in the river in mind, but no one was adamant. In that flat, swampy landscape, the river is nothing but big, lazy bends and it’s possible that on any given night one could be as good as another.

Once you’re at your spot, you string up a rod and, while you can still see, tie on a big Hex dun. You leave the spent-wing flies in the box for now. If there’s a spinnerfall—which could turn out to be the main event—it will happen much later, say, around 2 a.m.

Then you slather yourself liberally with DEET because the mosquitoes are hellish and they’re at their worst right at dusk. (Jim says the mosquitoes go away shortly after dark and you hope he’s right.) You also look behind and try to memorize the location of anything that might snag a back cast. You’ll probably loose your bearings later, but you go through the motions anyway. Then you wait.

Full darkness comes on gradually enough that your eyes adjust to it. You’re wearing a headlamp, but the trick is not to use it because it scares the fish and also ruins your night vision. You’re not exactly standing at attention, but you don’t take a load off by sitting on the bank, either. It’s now maybe 11, you’re just getting started for the second time today and should be tired, but you’re not. Half an hour later you see a flashlight winking through the trees across the river and think it must be another night fisher hiking in. Then you see another and another and realize they’re not far away, but up close, and they’re lightning bugs.

The whining of mosquitoes still seemed deafening, but when the first trout rose I could hear it clearly, although it was less clear exactly where it was. It may not be too simplistic to say that the pertinent fact about night fishing is that you can’t see much.

It was a cloudy night with no moon or stars. Still, there was enough vague, diffuse light that, at the perfect angle, I could make out odd patches of dull silver that had to be the river, complete with scattered spots I took to be Hex duns and now and then the spreading rings of a rise. I’d done enough night fishing to know that you should look slightly to the side of whatever you want to see because peripheral vision is more acute in the dark. I had to remind myself of that because I hadn’t done enough night fishing for the sidelong glance to be second nature.

At one point a big dun blundered into the side of my neck and although I’m not normally creeped out by bugs and had expected something like that, I still swiped it away a little too quickly. When I felt the tickle of another fly landing on the back of my hand, I caught him in a cage made of a loose fist. I could feel him in there and he felt huge, but he was also nearly weightless and it was disorienting to have the same sense telling me he was there and also that he wasn’t.

I was casting in the dark and setting the hook by sound and hunch, so there’s no telling how many strikes I missed, but I know I nicked and lost three or four trout and landed two. I’ll say one was 14 inches long and the other more like 16, but I don’t guess fish size very accurately even when I can see them. Now and then I’d hear quiet splashing from where Jim, Ken and Bob were spread out downstream, but nothing that sounded like an anvil being dropped in the water and no yelling, so I guessed they were doing about the same. The mythology of night fishing always leaves one thing out: It is true that the biggest trout often feed at night and that some of the real monsters are entirely nocturnal, but normal sized trout feed at night, too, and they’re the ones you’re most likely to catch.

The hatch petered out about the time a foggy, misting rain started and not long after that I saw a headlamp bobbing toward me. It was Jim coming to say the hatch was over and the rain would cancel any spinnerfall there might have been, so we might as well head back. “We’ll try again tomorrow night after you guys get in from bass fishing,” he added.

I hesitated a single beat at the prospect of back-to-back 20-hour long fishing days. (I sometimes have to remind myself that I’m no longer a 24-year-old manual laborer with the stamina of a Farmall tractor.) Then I said, “You bet.”
On the trip upstream to the bridge, I was paddling from the bow and helpfully turned on my headlamp, but Jim asked me to shut it off. “Just paddle,” he said, “I’ll steer.” The mistake I’d made was to temporarily blind us, and when I turned off the light and was greeted by absolute darkness, I had a disjointed memory of a gag painting I’d seen somewhere. It was totally black canvas titled, “Night Fishing.”

John Gierach’s column appears in every issue of Fly Rod & Reel. His latest book is Fool’s Paradise and is available at the Books section of