Tips for the Hex hatch
By Steven Heuser
You’ve been fishing for a few hours now, waiting until dark to see if that legendary hatch they talk about will come off. It’s starting to get dark now, and the mosquitoes are starting to bite. Where in your vest did you stick the bug dope? And where did that flashlight go? You’ll need it to find your way out after the hatch is over.
Then out of the corner of your eye you see a flash of brown and hear a big splash right next to you your heart skips a beat because your imagination yells “swap creature, ” but after a moment of clear thought, you know that it was just a muskrat. God, you must be nuts to be fishing so late.
Then you see more splashes upstream, and you see them — mayflies the size of hummingbirds. Now you know that it’s all worth the effort because so many fish are rising that the water seems like it is boiling.
If you have been fly-fishing for any amount of time, you probably have heard of the Hexagenia hatch or as the Hex. This hatch is intimidating to some and mystical to others. But those who are nuts enough to fish this hatch know the challenges and rewards that the Hex hatch holds. Well, I have to say that I’m a Hex nut, so if you’ve ever wanted to give it a try, here are a few tips.
Where to fish The Hex is a burrowing nymph and can be found on the mud banks and muck deposits in rivers and lakes. In rivers, this type of bottom is usually found in the slower sections. Most of the trout streams in Wisconsin have a Hex hatch to some degree, but the rivers in Central Wisconsin can have great Hex hatches. And there are many streams in Northern Wisconsin that have great Hex hatches a little later in the season, giving Hex nuts a chance to chase the hatch northwards. When to fish The hatch typically starts in mid-June and runs through early July. Although the weather will influence the hatch, the Hex seems to like hot, muggy nights. In years past I have see the Hex come of in May when we had an early heat wave, and I have also seen them not start until late June because we had a cold spring. Typically the hatch will start shortly after dark. On my favorite Hex stream, it starts at 9:20 p.m. I can just about set my watch to it.
The flies The first things I normally see are emergers, followed by duns. When I start out for the evening, I start with an emerger or a dun. You can start casting with these flies before that hatch starts, and you will pick up some fish. After the hatch has been going for 10-20 minutes, I start to see spinners, and then I’ll switch my fly to a spinner. After the hatch has been going on for a week or so, I’ll see the spinners flying overhead just before it gets dark. On my favorite Hex stream, the trout key in on the spinners after the first week and fishing with a dun can be futile. Other streams I have been on the fish are keyed in on duns. So it’s a good idea to watch what they are taking and be prepared to change flies. It also pays to turn on the flashlight to see what stage the hatch is at, but be sure to point the flashlight away from where you are fishing.
The take When to set your hook is one that hardest things about Hex fishing. You just imagine where your fly is drifting and set the hook whenever there is a rise nearby. Yes, you will sometimes be setting the hook when a fish hasn’t taken your fly, but you will most likely not spook the fish. After a while, you’ll get the hang of it.
Big fish The Hex hatch is known for bringing out the biggest fish in the stream, and I have learned to listen for that sipping sound that the big fish make. It’s just something one has to learn over the years, just like you learn to detect a strike when you’re nymphing. A general rule is “The smaller the fish, the louder the rise.”
Flashlights I have tried the trick of taping red acetate around my flashlight to keep from spooking fish, but I found it didn’t make much difference. But I always carry two flashlights! The chances of dropping one into the water are high, so having a backup is a must. I have had to rescue friends because they either dropped their lone flashlight into the water or had their flashlight’s batteries go dead.
Mosquitoes Hex time is also mosquito time, so you need good bug dope. I just read an article in Consumer Reports that said 100% DEET is still the best, but the down side of that is it will eat your line! I don’t put DEET on my hands, just on my head and arms. But I do put Skin-So-Soft on my hands, reapplying it about every half-hour. I’ve found it helps to wear a pair of latex gloves. I cut off the fingers so I can handle the line, but the mosquitoes can’t get to the back of my hands. The tradeoff here is that the latex makes fish ten times more slippery, so use a net to handle the fish. One other thing I do to keep mosquitoes from biting is to wear a face/head net. I pull it up over the back of my neck and face, but I don’t cover my eyes with it. With all those measures I can fish without the mosquitoes biting me. There’s nothing worse that having a big fish take your fly while you’re busy swatting mosquitoes.
Wading in the dark It can be very hard to wade the water in the dark, so it’s a good idea to wade the area you are going to fish before it gets dark. Make plans ahead of time on where you are going and where you will get out of the water when done fishing. The idea of going with a buddy is also a good one. Besides, it’s more fun to share the experience with someone.
Over-line your rod Hex casting is short line casting. You’ll be able to do this better if you put, a 5 wt. line on your 4 wt. rod. You don’t need or want to make long casts in the dark, anyway. Another trick is to put a piece of tape on your fly line where you feel comfortable making shorts casts. That way you can feel the tape in the dark.
Tippets There is also no need for a 6x or 5x tippet in the dark. I typically use 3x or 2x. Heavier tippets are not only easier to tie in the dark, but you can pull your fly out of trees without breaking them off. Besides, you may need the heavy tippet if you get lucky and hook a big fish.
Hazards Besides getting lost in the dark or going in over your waders, there is a chance of you catching something you do not want to touch, and that would be a bat! Yes, it has happened to others and me. The best thing to do is just cut your leader and let it go.
One other hazard is to not step in any bogs or sinkholes when on shore. An easy rule is to not step on any swampy ground unless there is something growing there. I have one friend in particular that I have had to pull out of a sinkhole twice in one season! The Hex hatch is a different kind of fly fishing, but that makes it all the more special when you meet the special challenges it presents.