A trout river at night is different from the same trout river during the day. The water turns from tea-stained translucence to dark-roasted opaqueness. Currents that had previously caressed begin to push and pull. What was familiar in daylight becomes less predictable at nightfall; even the water seems to deepen. In response, anglers become more cautious, more vulnerable.
A nocturnal Hexagenia hatch is different from any other mayfly hatch at any other time of day. In Fly Fishing the Grand River, Ian Martin and Jane E. Rutherford describe the Hex as ‘the Boeing 747s of the mayfly world’ that make ‘fools’ of both ‘full-grown anglers and full-grown trout.’ The convergence of these two natural phenomena—darkness and hatching insects—makes for a strange, exciting, slightly spooky experience.
I know this thanks to Ken Robins, a lifetime member of KW Flyfishers who invited me to a beloved piece of headwater he has cared for lovingly and respectfully for more than four decades. (It will remain nameless to protect the privacy of Ken and his family.) It is where he, his late wife, current partner, twin daughters and, predictably, grandchildren fish for trout on the fly. Their wilderness sanctuary revolves around a trifecta of trout—brook, brown and rainbow.
I made two trips to Ken’s secluded slice of piscatorial paradise over a single summer which turned out to be mirror images of one another. I arrived in the afternoon and fished for a couple of hours (with meagre results), enjoyed an outdoor supper with Ken and Lilianna and, on the cusp of eventide, set my sights on a monstrous brown trout—I will call him Ol’ Man Brown—that inhabited a dark seam tucked between a half-submerged log and a shingled limestone outcropping over which Ken’s modest off-grid trailer—his third since 1979—stands vigil.
It was August and the Hex were hatching. Not the ones that comprise the Bacchanalian Bug Bash celebrated annually on Michigan’s legendary trout rivers, but the smaller Hex (H. autocaudata) that grace select stretches of select rivers across southwestern Ontario. Ken is on familiar terms with both species, having visited the Au Sable regularly from about the time he purchased his headwater property.
A few kilometres east of Grayling, Michigan, past Burton’s Landing, is the start of the regulated fly fishing only, catch-and-release section of the Au Sable which is known as the Holy Water. The term applies more solemnly to the section of headwater meandering through Ken’s property—it is where the ashes of his late wife, Sue—a fellow fly angler who was dedicated to introducing women to fly fishing—were scattered.
Looking back on my introduction to the Hex hatch, and writing this essay in response a few months later, my mind detours as I reflect on time in relation to fly fishing and aquatic life including fish and insects. Here are a few tentative observations:
• Time is linear, but not unidirectional. Like the river in Margaret Laurence’s final novel, The Diviners, it is fluid, flowing back and forth between present and past, present and future. When I fish a river the experience is enriched by memories of previous outings and by the promise of the joy that is yet to come.
• Time is elastic. It stretches when I am impatiently awaiting the opening of trout season or my next outing with a fellowship of companions. It contracts when I am fishing during a hatch when fish are voracious and manic. It stops momentarily when a fish honours me by selecting my fly for its next meal.
• Time is vertical and horizontal. When standing waving a fly rod (vertical) in a river (horizontal) I am reminded of Wallace Stegner’s Wolf Willow when he describes a person standing on the flat prairie as ‘a challenging upright thing, as sudden as an exclamation mark, as enigmatic as a question mark.’ Seems to me this great writer’s words are an evocative definition of a fly angler. Nor is it surprising that he enjoyed fishing and wrote about it with insight and eloquence.
• Time is chronological and geological. Rivers were symbols of the passage of time long before tools for measuring it were invented. As such, they are an enduring literary trope. I witness the remnants of geological time in the compressed layers of limestone cliffs that adjoin many rivers in southwestern Ontario. I am amazed by the fact that my Winston fly rod and Orvis reel, made with the technology and materials that put a man on the moon and landed a robotic rover on Mars, connect me directly to the Devonian Period—the Age of Fishes—more than 400 million years ago. (More significant to fly anglers, trout and grayling populations were distributed throughout North America during the Pleistocene Epoch which began about 2.6 million years ago and lasted until about 11,700 years ago.)
• Time is cyclical as enacted in the life-and-death ritual of insects that aerially copulate like crazy before laying eggs on water and dying in a spinner fall, their flesh becoming aquatic nourishment. Water evaporates and becomes clouds, which drops as rain on streams, rivers and lakes, closing the circle of renewal and regeneration.
• Time is transformative, a record of mutability and mortality. While the Book of Genesis says, for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return, for mayflies it is for water thou art, and unto water shalt thou return.
• Time is literary, simultaneously literal and metaphorical, actual and metaphysical. Like a fly angler casting forward and backward from the stationary present, a writer describes the past and the future contemporaneously with the present, in the Eternal Now. I do my best to inhabit both spaces/places with grace, imagination and humility.
Mayflies (order Ephemeroptera) extend from an ancient lineage of aquatic insect extending back more than 300 million years, predating the dinosaurs of the Mesozoic Era. Yet their lifespan is infinitesimally brief. While these living fossils survive as nymphs from four months to two years, adults live from a couple of hours to ten days, depending on species.
The Hexagenia is one of the most widespread genera throughout North America, reaching its greatest density around the Great Lakes. Significantly, for anglers and non-anglers alike, it is a natural indicator of ecosystem health and water quality because of its low tolerance for pollution. Anglers revere it as a major food source for large ravenous trout that dine after dark.
The Hex are more plentiful than they once were on the headwater, offering reassurance for Ken, who observed, ‘it is the only hatch that lasts in good numbers for four weeks.’ In addition to his firsthand anecdotal knowledge of the insect, he wrote a renowned three-part series about Ontario mayflies in 1984 for Ontario Fisherman Magazine. This is how he explained to me the difference between the insects in southwestern Ontario headwaters from those found elsewhere:
They are different species. Michigan’s Hexagenia limbata was miss-named for many years as the Michigan Caddis Hatch. You still hear that name but the error has been pretty much corrected. The H. limbata is the biggest species and is the one you hear so much about with cottagers complaining about them. They have been known as shad flies or Erie flies. My dad said that when the shad fly hatch was on in Lake Erie, everyone quit fishing for bass and walleye because they couldn’t be caught then on bait or lures.
In Michigan, tackle shops sell live Hex nymphs for bait, they are that big. I have been immersed in their spinner falls way up north on the Albany River watershed (flowing into James Bay) where I caught my largest walleye on a dry fly. On Michigan rivers, they hatch soon after dark in late June and early July. Their spinner falls start around midnight, which gives rise to all the stories of the biggest browns coming up for them.
On the piece of headwater we fish the Hex is a smaller species, but not by much. It hatches in August, a few during a dull, cloudy day but most at night. The spinner fall happens in the last hour or so before dark—much better than waiting until midnight.
I had witnessed thin sporadic H. autocaudata hatches occasionally on other rivers, including the Grand, but nothing like I did on this flourishing headwater. The stretch that snakes through Ken’s property is pristine, save for subtle restoration features he has constructed such as gravel redd beds, artificial weirs and protective fish shelters based on designs he encountered on the Au Sable. A retired high school math teacher with the mind of a biologist, he is a devoted riverkeeper. Wearing snorkel gear, he has even explored the headwater’s piscine secrets in its deepest pools.
On this night of high anxiety I sat bankside waiting on the magic spell between waning light and approaching darkness which my Celtic ancestors exulted as the gloaming. Then, as if by magic, a thick blizzard of fluttering insects suddenly arose.
Shortly thereafter Ol’ Man Brown began rising with bold impatient swirls, splashes and slurps from his aquatic lair. Etiquette be damned; this guy had an insatiable feedbag on that defied polite table manners.
The trout’s ritualized gluttony—there is no other term for it—was both indecent and scintillating. For some reason, it reminded me of the old epic tales—Beowulf or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, perhaps—when the hero returns from his quest to boast of his adventures while gorging the night away. The pool was transformed into a great feast in a great hall. Even stranger, I was a troubadour poet, my fly rod my pen. I was writing my own epic story.
My heart started beating faster, echoing against my ear drums. I grabbed my five-weight Winston with a big bushy dry fly already tied on to a tapered 4X leader. I carefully made my way to a large submerged boulder I had reconnoitered earlier to act as a stable casting platform.
I stood waist-deep in flowing water, my heart still pounding. It was enchanting, not to mention a little unnerving—at least for me. It was as if I had waded through a portal and entered a mysterious aquatic realm.
Immersed in a frenzy of synchronized mating–I swear I could hear them going at it–I was overwhelmed by a spell of the wondrous, the miraculous. I was hexed. There is a word for this experience in many spiritual traditions: awe. Josh Greenberg, a lodge owner who knows the Au Sable as well as any angler and writes brilliantly, describes this occurrence in his angling memoir Trout Water as the ‘hex fermata.’
Fly anglers equate big bugs with big fish. Ken is no stranger to large trout. He wrote a couple of articles on brook trout for The Fishing Book, a chronicle of sportfishing in Ontario, and for Fly Fishing Canada: From Coast to Coast to Coast, a compendium of essays by members of the Outdoor Writers of Canada. He also enjoys the distinction of having a painted silhouette of a trout he caught in 1978 mounted on the Wall of Fame in Dan Bailey’s fly shop in Livingston. ‘It was a good era to be fishing in Montana,’ Ken recalls with customary modesty.
Heeding Ken’s advice, I gave Ol’ Man Brown time to cruise away from the dark seam to a deep, black India-ink pool in the centre of the river. I did not have to worry about getting my backcast snagged in riverside cedars or grasping sweepers and deadfalls because I was positioned midstream and facing upriver at the tail of the pool.
Growing too dark to see clearly, I continued casting not so much by sight as by a combination of sound and memory of distance stored while I sat bankside watching the edge of darkness advance. I hastily stripped in line as my big gaudy fly was propelled towards me by a roiling current produced by a rocky ledge above the pool. It resembled a dead drift on roller skates.
The Hex hatch blizzard ended as suddenly as it had begun—magically. The exhilarating frenzy gave way to a stillness that grew in intensity as I bent back my head and gazed heavenward, through the cedar tops, into a dense canopy of distant dying stars. A warm bliss washed over me.
I did not catch Ol’ Man Brown, let alone land him. Yet I recalled at one point feeling something vague and unspecified, as if my fly had brushed a phantom that was more a whisper or a kiss than a shudder. Ken speculated afterwards that my fly likely grazed the monster’s hooked jaw, his prominent kype preventing him from chomping down on my feathered morsel.
Both Lilianna and Ken hooked and/or caught Ol’ Man Brown, which Ken measured at twenty-two inches, a giant in a headwater no more than ten or twelve metres wide. He estimated that the wily veteran was six or seven years old. Ken later photographed the fish after he had vacated his comfortable den to rest in ‘some glassy water above a rock weir’ on what might have been a final spawning run.
‘He looks long and thin because of the refraction of light at such a low angle of incidence, an effect that causes the object to appear thinner and at a shallower depth than he really is,’ Ken said. ‘He’s in just over a metre of water in the photo. I have never seen a brown trout with such a red belly, and half way up its sides’.
If Ken was correct about Ol’ Man Brown bussing my fly, and had I been able to land him, it would have been the largest trout I ever caught—the elusive fish of a lifetime—excluding lake trout bagged on spinning tackle on Saskatchewan’s Lac La Ronge, twenty years previously when I returned to fishing after an inexplicable absence of thirty-five years.
No matter. Whether my fly actually touched Ol’ Man Brown’s hook-billed jaw is not as important as holding out the possibility that it could have, might have. I take solace in the fact that fly fishing is more about pursuing a quarry than landing a trophy—a vow I pledge repeatedly and remain obliged to believe as an act of faith in a state of Hex hatch grace.