Eastern Fly Fishing

By Bob Linsenman

Some considerable number of years ago, I was driving eastward through Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and listening to a local outdoor radio host review the fishing prospects for Lake Gogebic and the surrounding area. Gogebic is a big lake, popular with anglers for its walleye and smallmouth bass fishing, but the radio host was depressed and his forecast was grim.
   “Those darned Fish Flies are on the water now,” he said, “and the bass won’t eat anything else. I guess we’re done for
a while.”
   I was about 5 miles from the north tip of Gogebic and ahead of my schedule. And I knew that “Fish Flies” meant Hexagenia—the giant yellowish mayflies of great renown, especially among Midwestern fly fishers. I booked a room at a motel and waded the north shoreline that evening. Emergers and duns were followed by a strong spinner fall around 10:30. Bass to 18 inches—lots of them—pounced on my imitations, and I was the only person fishing. While putting my rod and waders back in my car trunk, I was approached by a man who had been watching from the parking area. He wondered what I had been using, all the while complaining about poor luck the past few days with his favorite Rapala. I showed him a couple of Hex patterns and he
just grunted.
   “Why don’t you take these and try them tomorrow?” I suggested.
   “No, a Rapala is a perfectly good lure. If the fish won’t eat it, the hell with ’em,” he said.
   The so-called Hex Vex is an annual summer extravaganza in many areas across the United States and southern Canada. Street sweepers and plows remove slippery spent bugs from highways and bridges, while open boats require daily spraying and flushing. This hatch may be a fly angler’s best opportunity to catch a monster trout on a dry fly. At 2 inches long, Hexagenia are the continent’s largest mayflies. To a big, wizened trout, this is not a delectable morsel in a gourmet restaurant: it’s a glutton’s-cut porterhouse in a Fort Worth steakhouse.
   Hexagenia limbata and its closely related species (H. atrocaudata, H. rigida, and H. recurvata, the largest of the bunch) vary a bit in color, size, and population density, but H. limbata is the most widely distributed east to west and is the most important to anglers. Whether the local name is Fish Fly, Olive Drake, Canadian Soldier, Giant Mayfly, Caddis, or Hex, the bug spurs the same wild enthusiasm in both fish and anglers from Maine to California. 
   The nymphs are burrowers and need a silt or soft mud bottom to prosper. The slower sections of rivers, along with lakes and ponds, particularly backwater ponds behind dams, generally provide the best habitat for growth over a two-year life cycle. Hex nymphs have three tails, a creamy, yellowish brown body, gray and feathery gills, a brownish wing case, and olive or amber legs. Duns have two tails, a yellow to tannish underbody, gray wings with an olive tinge, and yellowish legs. The spinners show two tails, a yellow body, and clear wings with prominent veins. Artificial flies representing all life stages can fool fish during the hatch, but making adjustments to catch a specific, super-selective trophy is often necessary. You can expect hatches on warm, muggy, heavily overcast late afternoons and evenings, often well into dark, which makes spotting rises problematic. To locate a riser, even if it’s fully dark, listen to the feeding fish and bend over to look at the surface from a different angle. Ambient light from the moon or stars might show just enough of the rise form to help.
   To determine which form of the bug a fish is eating, listen carefully. If you hear a heavy crunching slurp, that fish is probably eating an emerger or dun. A soft, quiet, slurping sound almost always signals a rise to a spinner or
a cripple. 
   You need to judge distance accurately in the dark. Most people tend to cast too far at first and “line” the fish. If you think the monster is 25 feet away, try the following: add the rod length (9 feet) to the leader length (6 feet is plenty in the dark) to get 15. Now you need 10 more feet for distance and 5 for slack to fend off drag. Pull a full arm’s length of line from the reel; this equals about 3 feet of line. Do this five times for a grand total of 30, and you are close enough for a trial cast and adjustment as necessary. 
   If everything seems right but the fish rejects your fly, try to confirm that you’re fishing either a dun emergence or a spinner fall, and then consider this: most Hexes, duns or spinners, will be in one of the two positions: wings up or very slightly angled on duns, or wings splayed out, snow-angel style, on spinners. But roughly 10 percent of either duns or spinners end up flipped over on their sides. When this happens, a feeding trout sees a different profile, the side view of the Hex—a curved body and a single wing. The snootiest trout often focus on only these flies, repeatedly rejecting otherwise good drifts with proven dun and spinner patterns. Carry some of these “cripple” patterns, or customize an old favorite on the fly by bending the hook and clipping off
one wing. 
   Weather patterns have changed the past few seasons. Where I fish, the hatch cycle has started and concluded as much as 10 days earlier than was considered normal just a few years ago. Warmer winters and springs seem to have accelerated the cycle, and folks who continue to schedule Hex trips based on earlier experience are frequently disappointed. Watch the weather or call a fly shop. Interestingly, wildflowers can help you out. They, like trout, run on nature’s calendar without caring whether it’s June 14 or July 8, and certain wildflowers in an area correspond with Hexagenia. On my home river, wild blue irises in full and glorious bloom mean that Hexes are dirty dancing over
the water.
   Hex patterns are beautiful and fascinating, ranging from classic ties with deer hair, moose mane, and grizzly hackle to those crafted with modern synthetics. Sizes range from 2 to 8. My favorite has an extended foam body that floats well and can be bent into a cripple shape without weakening the hook. Its tail features two added strands of Krystal Flash to pick up ambient light and draw a trout’s attention when there are lots of bugs on the water. The wings are poly synthetic and help float the bug. When you clip one wing off at the base and bend the extended body, you have a good cripple pattern with the desired one-wing profile. And you didn’t have to change flies in the dark.
   Also, don’t let buck fever impair good judgment. If you’re careful, you may be able to wade a little closer to those feeding sounds out there in the gloom.

 

The full version of this article is available in print, PDF, and through our free APP.