How to Fish a Hex Hatch

The first time I caught a Hexagenia the hatching of the mayfly was entirely accidental. My brother Sam and I had pushed our boat up a small tributary that emptied into a large lake in upstate New York looking for smallmouth bass after spawning. We figured we could swim up the creek for a few hours and then slowly drift out to the lake, fishing as we went. However, the creek was shallow so we couldn’t use the motor, and it was strewn with fallen trees and snags all along its length. It took much longer than expected to paddle, perch and head up the river to the bridge where we had planned to turn around and head back downstream.

By the time we started fishing it was getting dark, but with a full moon and clear night sky we could still see quite well. It was only after a few hours of fruitless fishing that I started seeing the bugs. Great hordes of giant mayflies drifted past us in the current and up from the surface of the water, landing on the boat, the trees, and the brims of our hats. Then I heard the first splash.

What is a hex hatch?
The name might sound like some sort of witch’s curse, but the Hex Trap is actually one of the most anticipated events in the angling world. Each year in late spring, the nymphs of North America’s largest mayfly, Hexagenia limbata, crawling and swimming from the muddy bottoms of the lakes and rivers where they live and crawling over rocks and banks at the water’s edge. The insects then scrape off their skin, dry their wings, and prepare for one of the most wondrous shows in the animal kingdom. As the sun sets, literally thousands of 2-inch-long mayflies will take flight, converging above the surface of the water to spawn and eventually die in a kaleidoscope of swirling wings and dancing, bouncing bodies. .

“It’s like the night has suddenly come alive during a hex hatch,” said former Orvis fly-fishing instructor and guide Nathan Mackey, who fishes the hex hatch around the waters of Lake Champlain. every year. “When it’s good, it’s like coming out of a dream. Bugs will simply materialize in the dark, dancing in the beam of your headlamp as far as the eye can see, crashing into the end of your rod tip and completely covering your car and boat. It’s completely insane! Definitely an event you have to see to believe, and definitely an event you have to hit the water and fish.

Each year, anglers flock to rivers and lakes across the country to experience the hatch, which typically occurs from late May to mid-June, depending on the weather. The insects need the water temperature to reach around 60 degrees to hatch. They can appear in almost any body of water that has a muddy bottom in which the nymphs can burrow and grow. Hexagenia are the most common mayflies in the country and a hatch can occur almost anywhere, from as far west as Washington State to the east coast of Maine, but the best and most Consistent hatching generally occurs in waters between northern Wisconsin and eastern New York. These hatches can be sparse in places with only a few insects floating or casually drifting by a fisherman, or they can be so thick and intense that swarms of insects are sometimes picked up on Doppler radar.

Sometimes they even threaten human security. I remember after a hex trap I fished on the Connecticut River, the city had to hire snow plows to clear the bugs from the road along the river. There were so many dead mayflies on the street that they were dragging cars off the road.

Clearly, these huge hatches offer plenty of fishing opportunities for fly and spin anglers, as long as you fish in the right spot, hit the water at the right time, and use the right gear.

Equipment for fishing a hexagonal hatch
One of the most unique things about the hex hatch is that it usually occurs in the late evening and the best fishing takes place at night. This vampiric habit of these insects means that the delicate presentations and light lines that you would normally use in other dry fly fishing situations can be put aside. Instead, you should fish for the hex hatch with the same heavy gear you would use when fishing a stone fly or cicada hatch, as the low light and large size of the mayflies make the fish that escape from it feed difficult to scare.

Another reason you will want to use heavier gear when trapping a hex is that the number of bugs on the water makes the fish competitive and aggressive and in some waters. Almost every species of fish in the ecosystem will move to enjoy the banquet the insects provide.

“It’s not just trout that come to the surface to eat hexes,” Mackey told MeatEater. “I’ve caught bass, trout, perch and even weird things that don’t normally feed on the surface like walleye, pike, catfish and even gar, all on hex legs for hatching. So every time I go out to fish it, I will be using a much heavier rod and leader than I would normally use when fishing dry flies. It’s like Forrest Gump saying: “You never know what you’re going to get.”

Even if the river or lake you are fishing only contains trout, the standard 5 weight fly rod you normally use may not be enough. Raising to a weight of 6 or even a weight of 7 during the hex hatch is a good idea as these large nocturnal insects can bring trout to the surface of a size you may not see at any other time of the year.

“Getting into a bunch of 18, 19 or 20 inch fish every night is pretty standard during hex hatching and that’s great,” said fly fishing guide Westley Allen of Pere Marquette River Lodge. “But what really makes it special is the ability to hook onto something 30 inches or more.

“I’ve had times when I went out on the river during the hatch and didn’t cast on a fish that was coming up early because the splash was so big I thought it was a beaver. I’m talking about those giant trout you know are out there because you’ve rolled them over a mouse or streamer once or twice, suddenly coming in to inhale your fly during the hex hatch. It’s really exciting.”

As a result, your rig and rig also need to be heavier than you would normally use in most dry fly fishing situations so that you can handle all the fish you hook into. Heavy leaders in the 0x to 2x range are standard for hex fishing, with tippet sizes no smaller than 3x. Also, since you’ll be fishing in the dark, it might not be a bad idea to use a tip ring to tie knots a little easier and thread your reel with a bright fly line so make it easier to keep track of exactly where you cast and monitor your fly’s drift in the current.

The size of Hexagenia the short-livedness and aggressiveness of the feeding fish means that spinning anglers can also get in on the action with a light to medium action rod. Use a reel strung with 6-10 pound monofilament or braided line that is light enough to accurately cast small surface lures, but strong enough to handle a large fish.

Best Flies and Lures for the Hex Trap
The hex trap is such a well-known, widespread, and popular occurrence among fly anglers that almost every fly shop nationwide will have at least a few different hex patterns somewhere in their store. Also, even if they don’t have specific hexagonal patterns, the large size of the insect and the fact that you fish them at night when the fish can’t look at them well means that there will always be several large patterns. attractor flies. that will work too.

Standard hex models include the All Day Dun, Ausable Parachute, and Paradrake. If these are not available, you can also catch fish using basically any large yellow, tan, or white dry fly pattern. My favorites include the White Wulff and Light Cahill from size 10 to size 6, as well as the big yellow pacers and the little Chubby Chernobyls.

Although there are more complex ways to catch these flies, depending on whether the insects emerge, mate, or simply drift dead in the water, the general method of fishing remains the same. Simply cast your fly upstream or at least in the general direction of where you hear or see the fish feeding. Let it drift downstream at the same speed as the current. If the fly is not inhaled by a fish after a few seconds, give it a light shake as it floats in the water. Hexagenia are large mayflies and after hatching they often struggle for a few seconds on the surface before lifting off. Gently jerking the fly can cause an otherwise disinterested or aloof fish to move and crush it.

The spinning angler can do well using small floating lures with elongated profiles like the Fo5 Rapala and the Zara Spook. These lures can float on the surface of the water or be gently wiggled to mimic a struggling mayfly or they can be thrown and splashed hard among heavy feeding fish. Usually any active fish will hit the lure as soon as it lands on the water, requiring you to squeeze the hook so hard that you’ll send any small fish flying into the trees behind you (or maybe it’s just me).

The hex trap can be such an intense and rewarding fishing experience that many anglers who have fished it look forward to the arrival of the hexes more than at any other time of the year.

“If I had to put my fly rod down for most of the season and only be able to pick it up for one month out of the year, that would be when I think the hexagon might hatch,” Allen said. . “It’s just such a great time, sitting there in the dark waiting for the bugs to come and knowing that when they come, something fantastic is about to happen. It’s just a very special time. of the year.

Hexagon Night
The splash was massive. Then another strike occurred, and another, until it seemed to my feverish brain that the sky was raining coconuts into the water in front of us. Sam and I both shouted into the bow of the boat and started casting at every rising fish we saw, setting the hooks almost as soon as our flies and lures hit the water.

It was a night of rod bending, drag screaming, mayhem. It was a night most anglers only dream of, when nearly every one of us caught a struggling big littlemouth or tossed a monster speckled trout onto the deck – fish we didn’t even know existed in the creek before tonight. At the end, after we drifted across the lake and drove back to the dock, feeling the hatching mayflies hit us in the face and gazing around in awe as more fish splashed across the surface of the lake. water, I knew one thing was certain – we would be back.

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