On those first hot summer nights, when fireflies float like will-o-the-wisps and bright elder blossoms can be seen by moonlight, a magical event unfolds. For about a week out of every year, for millions of years, a mysterious and ephemeral insect has crawled from the primordial ooze beneath the dark water to break free from its aquatic form, grow into another being with wings and dance in the nightsky before death. This dramatic display is the courtship and final moments of the Giant Mayfly, Hexagenia limbata, most commonly called the “Hex.” I’m told this name is nothing more that a shortened version of the Latin, but it is clear there is something more to it: just go eavesdrop in any flyshop in mid-June and the spellbinding nature of this hatch will be obvious. The obsession of many flyfishers with this one insect can easily be described as a curse, or hex, especially by those who work the nightshift and the hundreds who don’t live near the prime haunts of this mayfly and must travel to the cool clean rivers of Northern Michigan.
As anglers it is into their world we must wade, precariously navigating the swift rivers in pitch blackness and cast to a sound that lies somewhere between hope and humility.
The Life of the Hex Mayfly
Hexagenia limbata spends most of its life underwater in its nymphal form, creates burrows into mud bottoms and feeds on detritus.
After a couple years it undergoes a molt where it will swim to the surface, shed its skin and emerge as a fully winged mayfly, or “dun.” Duns float on the surface until their wings dry and they are able to fly. This is the hatch. It can be so dramatic and immense, words can’t describe it. Check out this picture of the hatch around the Mississippi!
Duns are not, however, mayfly adults, they have yet to sexually mature. After spending a day or two in trees, bushes, and even storefronts around here, they undergo their final molt, shed their skins and grow into sexually mature mayflies called “spinners.” You can tell a dun from a spinner in that the spinner’s wings are clear. Below is a Hex dun on a cedar strip kayak at the East Jordan Boat Show. The maker of the kayak was clearly upset that I was more interested in the bugs plaguing his booth than his handmade works of art. Had it been any other time of year, I wouldn’t have been so one-track-minded and really drooled over those canoes and kayaks.
Once the final molt into spinner flies has commenced it is time for their dance. They congregate by the millions to court above their former homes, the rivers and lakes, and mate in the night sky. Within minutes of mating, the female repeatedly dips to the surface of the water to lay her eggs. Both males and females then fall to the surface and die. This is the spinner fall and has been called “one of the more beautiful and tragic events in the natural world.”
I have lived amongst the Hex’s all my life and have been fascinated by them since I began flyfishing as a teenager. I studied their habits in books and magazines and would look at full page color photographs the way my peers stared at centerfolds. I remember a girl I was seeing once peered over my shoulder at a picture of a newly emerged Hex dun on a leaf covered with dew droplets and said “Eeeeew!” I was shocked; surely she wasn’t looking at the same picture. Even the caption read, “The grace and beauty of the mayfly is obvious to anyone.” Our relationship did not last much longer after that. But I confess, of the twelve years I’ve been reading about Hex’s and collecting hand-tied variations of these flies, I hadn’t cast a single one. I’ve had enough trouble casting in rivers overhung by cedars during the day, how was I supposed to do this at night? A flashlight will spook the fish and the rivers hide some deep pools.
I’ve tried talking to flyshop proprietors to get me more excited to get out there because I knew what they’d say. I’m crazy for not fishing the hatch, living within walking distance from one of the best Hex rivers on the planet. But I wasn’t confident until this year when I opened an old flybox and found four Hex patterns, two duns and two spinners that I must have had for a decade or more. That put my Hexfly collection at around twelve and now I had no excuse. I still had no faith in catching anything but snags, but I now had confidence only in that I wouldn’t be torn up about losing too many flies.
We got to the river with leaky waders and cheap beer stuffed in various pockets. In our haste we had forgotten the bug spray and resorted to briar pipes and tobacco smoke as a feeble attempt to keep the hoards of mosquitoes at bay.
The spinners began to fall before it was very dark and I waited, trying to let the fish get into their rhythm and pinpoint where the deep, crashing rises were in between all the small slurps. While sneaking along the bank I saw two men anchored in a cedar riverboat outfitted in the latest high-end Orvis apparel, smoking Cuban cigars and casting their Hexflies downstream to be slowly stripped in like panfish poppers. These guys may know their way around online catalogs but had no knowledge of trout intelligence or the movements of mayflies, and despite their thousands of dollars spent to impress each other, it clearly was not going to work on a trout. I stared; amazed at both their complete incompetence and the dawning realization that I actually knew what I was doing. I asked if they were having any luck, partly to be polite, but mostly because I’m a smart-ass and knew the answer. I was certain then that I was going to catch a fish.
“The craft of angling is the catching of fish. But the art of angling is a receptiveness to these connections, the art of letting one thing lead to another until, if only locally and momentarily, you realize some small completeness.”
The Habit of Rivers
Clouds of mayflies began to flutter above the river; they were in my ears, running into my eyes and spattering my clothes with eggs. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. Mesmerized by the thickness of bugs and the flutter of millions of wings, I forgot to even fish until one slurped a spent fly off the surface only a rods length away. I didn’t even need to cast…
The gentleness of the take was deceiving. I set the hook in anticipation of a tiny fish, but a flush of excitement hit when the rod bent and the reel sang. The fish shook her head and cruised upstream and then quickly down in order to use the full weight of the current to her advantage. But the hook was set too strong. After her final throes, I beached her under the cedars and said a few words before taking her life. I dried my fly and got back in the river.
The few trout that I caught were not trophies by any sport angler’s standards. But I am not a sport angler. I was fishing to complete the circle of water, mayfly, fish and man. In other words, I was fishing to fill the creel. Every one I kept was a beauty, both in the river and in the skillet. And I’m never going to miss another Hex hatch. I’ve caught the bug.
Pan Fried Brown Trout with Watercress and Pickled Fiddleheads
For me, the flavor of freshly caught trout can easily be lost in complex dishes that call for things like sauces or an overload of batter and lemon juice. Simplicity is the secret.
1 dressed trout
1 Tbsp organic butter
pinch of salt and pepper
pinch of rosemary
2 handfuls fresh watercress
handful of pickled fiddleheads (asparagus can be substituted)
Gently heat up a large skillet and add butter. Once the butter is evenly spread and the skillet is hot, add the fish whole. Add ½ the salt, pepper and rosemary and leave untouched for about 5 minutes. Flip the fish, adding the remaining salt, pepper and rosemary and allow it to fry for another 5 minutes. Test the flesh with a fork; the larger the fish the more cooking will be required. Once cooked completely through, serve on a bed of watercress and pickled fiddlehead ferns.