Of all the “hatches” on Fish in a Barrel Pond, perhaps no other is anticipated by so many yet fished by so few as that of the “Hex”. Hexagenia mayflies are among the largest and most widespread in North America and in some places they emerge in such numbers that their mating swarms show up on weather radar. Gathering by the millions stacks the odds in their favor that another generation will carry on, even though they themselves are doomed to die within a day or so, but around here the numbers are nowhere near that and most that emerge before dark are doomed to die within a matter of seconds, snatched up by birds taking advantage of what to them is surely a boon. Still, enough escape the fish below and the birds above to mate and lay eggs to ensure at least a steady trickle of flies again next year when the time is just right.
That time comes after the yellow drakes and the solstice, when the light for fishing doesn’t fade until nearly 10:00, but before the heat and summer conditions set in and catching a trout takes work. From shortly before dark through the wee hours, for at least a week, maybe two, the Hexes emerge and the trout feed with abandon, gorging on this suddenly plentiful food source.
There are those who consider the fishing around here to be more recreation than sport, what with all the genteel tradition among pleasant surroundings, and it can feel that way in the long, languorous gloaming of a late June day, but while Fish in a Barrel Pond may appear to be frozen in time it is not sealed in a bubble and the chance for another evening of “working the Hexes” can involve more than just drifting around in the twilight.
It was a dark and stormy night. Rods had been rigged and two boats sat at the dock while two anglers waited and hoped for the weather to break. Eventually abandoning all such hope, they donned their rain gear and took to the water. Between bouts of lightning and sheets of rain, a quick sprint to the far end of Exile Island provided access to known Hex emergence water with shelter available in a nearby old boathouse, if needed, but for two anglers with small electric trolling motors for propulsion, “quick sprint” could have been more appropriately categorized as “excitingly slow”.
Everyone is a winner fishing the Hex hatch and that may be one of its main attractions. The fish throw caution to the wind and swarm the shallows, slashing and splashing at anything in or on the water that remotely resembles a Hex. If your fly is out there, it’s hard to not hook a fish and chances are it will be a real corker, as the Hex hatch draws even the biggest fish in the lake from the depths and dark lairs to feed.
Artificial flies are available with as much color and detail as the real thing but they are expensive to buy and probably tedious to tie. Besides, in the fading light of a summer evening, trout are unable to discern much more than general shade and shape as they look up at a fly from below and most Hex flies, like so many others, are tied more with anglers in mind than fish. Flies that are rustic but functional, like a variation of the good old comparadun, with its deer hair wing, work just fine.
They look a little ratty after a few fish, and they can be wicked tippet twisters when tied on too long or too thin a leader, but they are catching flies. The bit of Antron yarn tied at the tail is meant to resemble the nymphal shuck from which the adult emerges but does not always shed, working on the theory that a mayfly stuck in its shuck would be especially attractive to a hungry trout.
Of course, to be really effective, a fly must be in or on the water. The photo above was taken on one of those dreamy evenings anglers are so fond of around here but this was not one of them. Smoking cigars in the boathouse while the rain came down and lightning crackled across the sky certainly beat some of the alternatives but it was not fishing. Eventually, though, after flinching at flashes for a while it seemed that perhaps the storm would subside with enough light left for at least a few casts.
It’s not easy, waiting for a certain interval of time between lightning bolts, especially with darkness closing in, but at last the flashing paused and the anglers pushed off, into the cove. Tall trees and a large hill pulled the horizon high and tight so the wall of rain was not seen coming, but it was heard, as millions of drops drummed on millions of leaves with a hiss that grew into a roar as it swept down the slope, leaving just enough time for two guys to shrug and pull up the hoods on their rain coats before getting pummeled.
The first Hex popped up as the first drops crashed down. Its flimsy new wings took a beating and it flexed feebly in an effort to free itself from the water but it disappeared in a swirl, as did three more in succession nearby. The first cast, close to shore, aimed for the expanding silvery rings of a rise and the fly was taken immediately by a nice rainbow, full of bugs and fight.
Splashes to the right indicated a fish on for the other boat but visibility was too poor by now to locate it. A sound like static filled the air as rain splashed onto the lake while it roared across the hillside in great waves, but there was no lightning, so the fishing continued.
Swamped by the storm, big mayflies capsized and struggled in the water while trout plowed through the surface, taking them one after another, bloop, bloop, bloop. Another fish was hooked. Its jeweled beauty glinted as a purple jag of lightning sailed overhead into the trees, and it sparkled real nice as it skipped across the water toward the boat, proper reeling having been chucked in favor of frantic stripping, hand over hand with line piling up in the boat, which by this time was in serious need of bailing.
Two and a half hours of waiting for four minutes of fishing, that’s the Hex hatch. As fleeting and uncertain as the lives of the mayflies themselves, it’s (almost) as much fun to anticipate as it is to fish, which is just the sort of thing you’d expect waterlogged anglers to tell each other, walking home through the wet woods, having beached their boats, abandoning the lake to the storm.