It's 80 degrees at 9:15 PM on a Saturday night in mid July. The humidity soaked my hat with sweat before I even had my waders pulled up. I am now standing waist deep in water and crotch deep in mud. I'm being assaulted by the Luftwaffe of Wisconsin biting insects. I think I'm down a quart by now but the wooziness could just be heatstroke. I startled three deer about two feet away from me when I walked in, and I had to concentrate on not filling my Fruit of the Looms. My mind keeps drifting to the idea that I am at the perfect level for a muskrat to finally take his revenge for Trout Unlimited "improving" his river or for a randy pine snake to swim over the top of my waders. I shake my head as I check my watch. I have been standing in this one spot for almost an hour as the pitch black closed in. Waiting. Wishing. Wondering. Hoping for a bug that may or may not come down from the treetops depending on whether or not it feels "in the mood". I question my sanity and whether or not I am a closet masochist. I am fishing the Hex.
The Hexagenia Limbata or "Hex" is a Midwestern super bug. Across the country, there are a few regional hatches of super bugs. The Salmon and Golden Stone Fly hatches out west, the Green Drake and the Hex hatch in the Midwest and East. These bugs are measured in inches, not hook size. Their hatches make sounds, show up on Doppler radar, and require snow plows to clear off bridges (none of those are embellishments). They are oftentimes a fly fisherman's best chance to hook his biggest trout of the year.
The Hex is more difficult to fish than other super bug hatch. Let's start with the obvious; the hatch comes off in the dead of night. I am not talking about dusk like the Green Drake. I mean the best fishing STARTS at 9:00 PM. This wouldn't be an issue on any freestone river with nice wide, gravel, and rocky stream bottoms. Unfortunately, the Hex nymph lives and hatches out of muck and mud. Soft, black bottom, boot sucking muck. The Hex is anything but reliable. It can come off anywhere between May and August depending on seasonal temperatures. It takes place on hot and humid evenings when it feels like the dead of summer. While it is a hatch, the best fishing is actually the spinner fall. The emergence will take place in the late evening with the bugs hanging out in treetops above the river waiting to mate. Once night closes in, the bugs mate, the females descend to the water, lay their eggs, and die. Fish literally line up to slurp from the spinner buffet drifting down river.
Just like with anything else, the key to fishing the Hex is location, location, location. Locate the deepest hole full of log jams you can find and settle in close to it. You're going to be after the largest trout that you didn't even know existed in these rivers. Usually, these fish are feasting on 12" trout and rising on baby ducklings, but for this stretch of time, they will be sipping giant mayflies in the dead of night. Considering they live in the darkest, nastiest, most log jammed pools in the river, they are going to want to get back there when hooked. You better have the hardware to turn them. Leave your three weight and 7X at home. Bring out the 6 or 7 weight streamer rod and 2X or 3X tippets. After finding a good hole, set up about midway through the pool so you can attack the head and the tail. It's best if you scout your location in the day light so you know approximately how far you'll need to cast and to get a feel of the drift. I close my eyes when scouting to try and "feel" my way through the cast and drifts. You'll have some ability to see as your eyes adjust to the darkness and perhaps some moonlight to aid, but it will be minimal, so you'll have to feel your way through your casts. Use big flies with large parachute wings so they are easily visible. I like to fish a size larger than the natural so my fly sticks out to the trout and I can see it. I also like to use foam or deer hair bodied flies so I never have to worry my fly isn't floating. Now isn't the time to get fancy with flies. Fish with something that matches the shape, floats like a cork, and silhouettes well to you and the fish.
Locating fish at night isn't difficult. The sounds of their rises will be easy to hear. Locating the biggest fish takes some practice though. Little fish make splashy, loud rises with their fins and bodies. Big fish slurp with just their mouths. The two sounds are distinctly different. The slurps and the sounds of big mouths popping closed will key you into the biggest fish's location. Despite it being dark, the fish still will spook so make sure you are starting your drifts well ahead of the feeding fish and pulling your fly off the water to recast well after the line has passed them. There are likely thousands of bugs drifting down the river so be patient as it may take several drifts to hook up. Make the most of these drifts as once you hook a few fish, its likely the whole pool will be put down for awhile.
This hatch presents one of the best opportunities to take the biggest fish out of your local river. You likely will only have a handful of chances at fish of this size each year. Take advantage when you can and fish the Hex. It is an experience all its' own with exceptional possibilities.