(This article originally appeared in Fly Rod & Reel magazine)
By Capt. Tony Petrella
America’s most phenomenal fishing happens in Michigan during late June and early July.
Without question, the best way to hook a lot of trout more than 20 inches long is by fishing the world-famous Hexagenia limbata hatch. The Hex is the largest mayfly in the world, and it sends enormous brown trout into a total feeding frenzy.
To clearly define the term “a lot,” you must understand that it’s entirely possible to catch a half-dozen brown trout between 20 and 28 inches in a couple of hours without moving a hundred feet.
Quite a few more fish in the 14-inch to 19-inch class also will be feeding voraciously within casting distance at the same time, creating an absurd level of situational-overload!
Or, to paraphrase that wonderful line from the movie Top Gun: “Goose, what we have here is a target-rich environment.”
Providing, of course, you’re on the right stretch of the right river, hit the hatch or spinnerfall, the weather cooperates, you have the right bug, and you don’t get so rattled that you forget how to cast.
Plenty of anglers who thought they were pretty hot rods “Out West” or on the Battenkill or Letort have stumbled out of Michigan Hex waters at one in the morning bowed and beaten and yearning for a large tumbler of Scotland’s finest.
Having said that, let’s cut to the chase.
First is the matter of where to fish. Not all Michigan trout streams, or even stretches of those streams, have conditions suitable for Hex.
These nymphs burrow down in deep muck to settle in for a two-year incubation period. But if the water’s year-round temperature is too cold (such as the uppermost stretches of the Manistee River) even the muckiest streambanks will be devoid of H. limbata.
Typically, the Big Sable River, near the village of Freesoil in Mason County, gets the first Hex hatch of the year. That usually happens between June 12 and 15.
Soon after, between the 15th and 17th, the hatch starts on the Pere Marquette River, near Baldwin, and on Bear Creek and the Little Manistee River near Wellston. The lower Pine River, also near Wellston, usually is the last in that area to produce Hex, often lasting until July 9.
A bit further to the northeast, near the town of Grayling, the Hex are prolific on the Manistee River downstream of route M-72, and on the Mainstream and South Branch of the AuSable River beginning around June 15 and lasting through July 4.
Best bets on the Mainstream are between Wakeley Bridge downstream past McMasters Bridge to Parmalee Bridge.
The South Branch is excellent throughout its long run from Chase Bridge past the Canoe Harbor Campground downstream to Smith Bridge. The areas around Daisy Bend and The Mason Chapel historically have produced prolific hatches and spinnerfalls. And big browns.
Remember, though, that the hatch moves upstream. “You shudda been here last week” is never more appropriate than during the Hex hatch. Call or e-mail local fly shops for the latest report or you could spend a lonely night sitting on the riverbank with no finny playmates.
Also keep in mind Michigan’s trespass laws. Much of the best Hex water flows through private property. You can wade the river and have the legal right to leave the water to avoid dangerous situations, but only to the high-water mark.
While there are some access spots for wade fishermen on all of the rivers that have a Hex hatch, floating in a Mackenzie-style or one of the classic Au Sable Longboats can be extremely productive.
The beautiful thing about floating is covering an awful lot of water in a short period of time. Plus, getting away from the madding crowd. Which can be as prolific as the spinners during the Hex Hatch!
Next in importance obviously is hitting the hatch and/or spinner-fall. That directly ties into the weather portion of this scenario because both water AND air temps have to be in sync.
Which means a thermometer is absolutely the most critical part of your fishing tackle. The hex nymph is dependant upon the heat of the sun to bake its little mud-house to 68 degrees. Once that happens, the duns start popping to the surface between dusk (about 9pm in mid-June) and approximately 11pm.
You might also encounter a secondary hatch between 2am and 4am if you’re young enough, hardy enough, and willing enough to pull an all-nighter.
But—and this is a huge qualifier—air temperature dictates what happens after the initial hatch. If cold night air causes water temps to drop, the hatch is finished for that night.
It also means there won’t be a spinner-fall because the duns will stay in the streamside vegetation rather than venturing out into the cold air.
There have been all-too-many occasions when eager anticipation of a blizzard-like spinner-fall has been wrecked because the air temp dropped below 60 degrees.
Probably the easiest aspect to fishing the Hex is selecting the proper bug. Put simply, you tie on either a dun or a spentwing as conditions dictate.
The only trick is when you simultaneously have hatchers and spinners on the water. Then it’s just a matter of trial-and-error to find out which stage the fish are eating.
There seem to be an infinite number of dun and spinner patterns in every fly shop you visit. Buy a several different styles. They can range in color from pure white to butter yellow, with plenty of variations, and it’s wise to have plenty of ammunition.
Which brings us to the “Buck Fever” part of the equation.
It’s easy for even an experienced angler to get rattled when a dozen or more fish are feeding and some of them sound like bowling balls being heaved into the river.
“Geeeeeezzz-O-Pete!” Ray Poirer yelled one dark and humid night on the Manistee River above Yellowtrees Landing. “What was THAT?”
“A very large fish,” Frank Janka replied calmly in the still night air. “And I intend to catch him.”
It’s really not difficult to sight-fish for these huge browns. There’s actually more ambient light than you might imagine, and the riseform when they feed is extremely obvious.
What IS difficult is not shooting at the entire covey.
The key is to pick a fish and make a drag-free downstream cast to that target. Once these big hunks come out from hiding under the logjams and establish a holding spot in the feeding lane, they’re very intent on getting a bellyful of bugs as quickly as possible and then scooting back to safety.
A 6-weight rod is most commonly used, but a 7-weight is okay, too. Make sure you have a high-quality disc-drag reel, because you’ll need it. Then tie on a five-foot-section of fluorocarbon tapered to 4X.
If the fish refuses to eat after three or four good drifts over his head, change your cast’s aim-point a bit further upstream, then closer and/or farther away from where you’re standing.
Try different flies, and if he still won’t eat after showing him two or three new patterns, pick a different target. This isn’t the time to be stubborn—find a fish that WILL eat before the hatch ends.
Oh, yes. One last thing. “How enormous do these Michigan brown trout actually get?” you might wonder.
Well, Frank (Paco) Janka did hook that “bowling ball” that threw water all over the Manistee River.
”Big fish,” he said quietly. I could hear the reel ziiiing. “Damn. Really big. Maybe the biggest I’ve ever hooked.” Which is saying a lot since Paco spends two months in New Zealand every winter and is accustomed to football-sized trout.
“I think I have him now. Get the net and I’ll lead him over.”
I did. He did. One agonizing second before the soft mesh engulfed him, the hook fell out of that brown trout’s mouth. He slowly sank into the dark water, but in that brief moonlit moment it was evident that fish was 30 inches long.
The river got quiet then. Real quiet. “Helluva a fish,” was all Paco said. I just grunted.
Capt. Tony Petrella is a Coast Guard-licensed guide in Michigan and Florida. He can be reached at 231-585-7131, firstname.lastname@example.org, or www.tightloopsflyfishing.com