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Notes at Hex time.
But darkness holds it all:
the shape and the flame,
the animal and myself,
how it holds them,
all powers, all sight —
and it is possible: its great strength
is breaking into my body.
I have faith in nights.
— Rainer Maria Rilke
Illustration by J. Leslie Booth
Now is the time of great agrarian beasts stalking the fields at dusk. Of lightning bugs pulsing in the thick, blue nights. Mosquitoes, working in shifts, lobby the ear’s dark chambers. And a fine pale haze muzzles each streetlight and lighted window. It’s early summer in central Wisconsin. Time for farming. Time for Hex.
With caddis, Hendricksons and brown drakes behind us, the trout of my home waters are deep-chested, fin-cocked and strong. All the skinny specimens of early spring have grown into brutish, swaggering barrels of bug, stately, plump vessels for whom all food was made, will be made, forever and ever ’til autumn, amen. On the line, they launch themselves into the air not only to throw my hook but to proclaim to all denizens of the earth: Here leaps not a trout, but a Trout.
It’s around this time that my own predatory aspirations become bigger, deeper, darker. Once a delicate hand at the tying bench, one who carefully formed CDC-loop wings for his blue-wing olive emergers and painstakingly engineered the thoraxes of midges with a single strand of peacock herl oh so delicately wrapped, I now become ogre. I tie with large animals or not at all, with pelts of deer and elk, thick swatches of moose, capes of goliath roosters. I shun the sunlight streaming through the windows—the day no longer piques my interest. No, my heart has become a nocturnal organ, loping along slowly by day. But it’s up to a trot by sundown, and skipping and singing by stars.
Soon the Hex will come.
It happens one night in early June, when a tipping point of heat and moisture is reached, and morning finds summer come tumbling lush: Wasps bop the windows, ants prowl the kitchen, mayfly molts chitter on the swinging screen door. On the morning news the weathergirl points to a great entymological presence over the Mississippi Valley to the west, a tremulous green mass blotting out portions of Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin on the radar screen behind her. “Fishflies,” she calls them, and I realize by the flutter and swoon in my chest that an epoch has passed, that the time has come for the first goodbyes of the fishing season: Farewell to the chuckle and purl of my headwater haunts, with their pumpkin-size pools and perfect brook trout. Farewell to my languorous fiberglass two-weight, my much remittent three-weight, for where I’m bound—the downstream hinterland, the brooding bogland, the bullfrogged swamp—thou cannot follow.
Heading out in the early afternoon, I see everywhere the thud and splat of summer. In a refurbished outhouse on the side of the road, the county’s foremost honeymonger has opened his yearly shop. “Honor System,” the paper taped to a coffee can reads, and I feed it a few bills for a heavy amber jar, a thick puck of comb jammed in the sweetness. Down the road a ways, still but for the work of jaw and whip of tail, a herd of cows grazes in the afternoon sun, all of them fat with this first flush of true summer. And as I cross the county line—where the grass is greener, of course, and the fishing better—I see a few strong children hulking homeward from the strawberry fields, tin buckets straining from their bright red hands.
I arrive at my Hex hole early and tuck my car into a grove of trees. It will be a while before the next early bird arrives, some two hours yet before the light begins to change, so I spend some time beating the bounds of the old haunt. This stretch of river is black as Irish breakfast tea, and deep, a slow-flowing bog whose current in its fastest reaches barely manages to curl round a stump. It is where coldwater gives way to cool, where pike and big browns compete for dace and sculpins together by day, but come darkness there is only one river king. It is his dominion that I enter.
I wade upstream and down—little, I am pleased to note, has changed—before taking a bankside seat just a few yards downstream from one of the best lies in the land. Here a logjam and outsize boulder compress the main current into a narrow, efficient, bug-pumping vein. In an hour’s time it will infuse the deep, dark pool below it with a steady drip of Hex. A fat, lazy brown trout need only rise up a few feet from his daytime lie to gulp the meaty bugs conveyed to him—it is his birthright. I need only rise up and inch forward to cast—it my hard-won boon. When everything goes correctly I can spend the entire evening without moving my feet, save to chase something large, angry and hell-bent on destruction downriver. But for now I wait—as birds chatter, as pulses of hot pine-scented sun and cool riverine shadow alternate in the breeze—and before long the sunlight is falling like a fine, soft powder on the stream. The glare of midday is gone. Slowly at first, then much too quickly, evening falls.
The Russian fishing writer Aksakov held that the original myth makers of the human race were hunters and fishermen, since they often worked alone, at dawn and at dusk, when the light was low and the sounds unknown and the thickets full of danger. The Hex angler knows this to be quite correct. I watch as the trees churn out shadow, thicker and thicker, and I can almost believe that night does not derive from a fleeing sun but a darkness creeping out from ash and alder, cedar and pine. The barriers between all things dissolve, and strange shapes emerge. I see dogmen and devils, gargoyles and Grendels, and almost have a heart attack when one starts to groan—but it’s just a pickup coming down the lane, another angler pulling into the secret grove.
I listen as a single door opens and closes. Some minutes later, footsteps come through the brush from upstream, and I clear my throat gently to indicate my presence. The footsteps pause, then retreat. I tip my hat in his direction, in case he can see me. Good hatches make good neighbors.
I now turn my full attention to the river, which is coming alive with smaller fish rising to Cahills and caddis. But I never cast to them, not at hex time, and it is an act of restraint that has proven quite fruitful. The energy each riseform generates in me is not discharged into the cast but is rather stored, compounding continuously with each subsequent sip, so that sitting still and unmoving in the night I become a mass of seething energy, calm—as is the river, I know—only on the surface. When night finally falls and I hear that first Hexy rise (not a tidbitty sip but a full-mawed mash, somewhere in the darkness ahead of me where the mosquitoes form a ghostly band above the water) it nearly blows my heart out. I take a few deep breaths to calm my hands, unsling my fly, and wade into position. Stripping out a few lengths of line, I cast forward into the night, standing, it would seem, on the very edge of a strange and ancient world.
I cast again.
My riser shatters the film but misses the fly. Another fish explodes so close to me I feel his tail clip my waders. Another miss. I bring my fly out of the water—the only safe place—to shakily reapply flotant and compose myself. Breathe in. Breathe out. It never ceases to amaze me how this fish I have been pursuing for months now, this creature of acute wariness and profound circumspection, one that in all other circumstances is seduced by absence—the drag-free drift, the sparsely hackled fly, the shadowless, soundless angler with an invisible tippet—how this speckled shadow can be transformed into a belligerent missile, one that torpedoes my kneecaps and slams the sky.
Calm and collected, I cast again.
This time is different: There comes a slow, hard churn in the blackness ahead of me, and I lean the rod back into a heavy, swollen, arrogant weight. The tip of my five-weight nose-dives. A good fish.
It gains line and makes for the far bank.
A very, very good fish.
At what exact moment should we say the Hex hatch begins? When you see your first lone bug clutching to the brick of the local gas station? When you hear your first violent rise? I offer this: When you crash through black water in pursuit of a fish hell-bent on running you aground, atree and amok all at once; when you wrestle his fatback shoulders into the oversize net you otherwise use only for steelhead; when you remove the blasted boutonniere of deer hair from his maw, return him to his dark home, and find your body so stiffly clogged with adrenaline you need a full minute to return to standing—then has Hex season begun.
I dry off my fly and wait for the next riser, but to my surprise it is over. The bugs have dissipated, the rises are gone, and after some waiting I accept the fact that this first emergence of the season will go down in the books as a sparse one. I am walking the river trail back to my car when I hear a staccato splash up ahead. Then another, and another, louder each time. I quicken my step and, because the world has officially entered that time of year when the only enough is too much, I unsling my fly and creep back down to the river. I am studying the riser from a distance when I hear a wet swishing from upstream and there, appearing as nothing more than a deep blood-red glow of headlamp, is my neighbor. As unhesitatingly as he did for me, but twice as quietly, I cede him this stretch of river, watching from a distance as he hooks and plays the night’s last riser. It’s a small brown, silver with moonlight, that sputters in the film like a busted propeller. He releases the fish, pauses in the river. I hear the flick of a lighter and breathe in a few whiffs of a good cigar as the threshed moonlight pools back together, as the river goes glittering with restive river-sleep. Then I break down my gear and drive the lonely roads home.
I do not turn on a single light in my home, nor do I take a shower. Instead I bed down pleasantly crusted with sweat and river. I close my eyes. In a way, I decide, as my own rivers and rivulets of blood slow to a sleepy murmur, the beginning of Hex time, that enchanted world, is better than the full flush of it, since you can both fish it and still dream of fish to come. And so much is yet to come. The possibilities appear to me luminously, half-thoughts and dusky fragments coptering downstream, so far away, to bounds unbidden and unbeaten, where the bottom falls out, the bank gives way and impossible monsters wait.
The Robert Traver Fly-Fishing Writing Award, sponsored by the John D. Voelker Foundation and presented by Fly Rod & Reel, each year recognizes “distinguished original essays or works of short fiction that embody an implicit love of fly-fishing, respect for the sport and the natural world in which it takes place, and high literary values.”
I grew up in the southwest suburbs of Chicago, where my brothers and I chased fish wherever they were found, from farm ponds to shipping canals and everywhere in between. When I was 10 my parents started taking the family north to Wisconsin’s Wolf River country, where we pursued white bass, pike and walleye. It was there that I developed a deep and abiding love for the water.
I learned to fly-fish while studying my other life passion, literature, at Knox College, in Galesburg, Illinois. Weekends and “sick” days would find me fishing an old flooded strip mine in remote farm country with a Cortland kit combo, trying, and largely failing, to teach myself to cast. I thank my first fish on a fly, a largemouth bass of great pity and generosity, for hitting the popper that plopped down one rod’s length from my canoe.
In 2005 I moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan for graduate school and began exploring the fabled rivers of the northern Lower Peninsula. I immediately fell in love with trout fishing and over the past seven years have spent almost (but not quite) too much time knee-deep in cold, flowing water. I still live in Ann Arbor, where I teach at the University of Michigan and keep a blog, mylifeasatrout.com.