GRAYLING — The fish was feeding about three or four rod lengths away off the port side of the drift boat Chris Lessway had anchored in the middle of the Au Sable River. I gave it a cast, drifted, picked up, cast it again, a couple of inches further, drifted, and then cast it again.
Third time’s a charm. I heard the fish slurp, gave the line a quick strip, and shot the rod tip skyward. Gotcha.
It was a good fish. I held the rod tip high, picked up the slack, and got the line on the reel. It was only a matter of time before I brought it upside the boat and Lessway netted it. It was a nice brown, about 19 inches, the best I’ve caught so far this season.
It was our second fish of the night, Barney Wong, one of Lessway’s fishing buddies, put an 18-incher into the boat just a short while earlier. That fish had started feeding just before dark and Wong fished to it for a while with an Isonychia pattern — we could see Isos flying upstream in the dusk — before with no success. But once it was dark, he switched to a Hex pattern and got the fish to go on his second cast with the bigger fly.
Ah, the Hex hatch. When everything’s right with the world, eh?
“It’s a zoo sometimes,” said Lessway, who works out of Fuller’s North Branch Outing Club on the North Branch of this famed river a lot, but switches over the main stream when the Hex hatch is happening. “It’s big bugs and it brings out big fish. And it brings out the hard-core, die-hard anglers.
“Hex fishing is one of the best opportunities to get your trophy brown for the year. Those big fish seem to let down their guard after dark. “
It was the second time I’d fished with Lessway this year. In May, we floated below Mio on a cold rainy day and threw streamers, with no success, until the Hendricksons started coming off that afternoon. It was a tough day; I hooked one fish — a giant that had been rhythmically slurping the hennies that I cast to about 50 times before he finally took my fly — but it pulled off. Sigh. It was the best brown I’d ever hooked on a dry fly during daylight hours, but it wasn’t meant to be.
Still, a 19-inch brown is not a fish to sneer at in my mind. Anytime I can catch a fish that size on a fly — especially a dry — I’m happy as a gopher in loose dirt. But then I am not an accomplished Hex fisherman, when you fish by radar under the cover of darkness. I’m thankful for every trout I catch.
We were about 50 yards upstream from where Lessway really wanted to be, but there was another boat anchored just downstream from there and Lessway didn’t want to crowd him. As it was, there were a few fish feeding between us and later, when the other boat pulled anchor, we got down to them.
Wong nailed a 16-inch fish — but as fat as a 20 — a short while later. Things were looking good.
A decent fish started feeding just downstream and Wong and I took turns casting to it. It ignored us. Lessway — theorizing that the fish was feeding on hatching bugs instead of dying ones — switched me over to a dun. Didn’t matter. Then he changed that out to a clear-wing spinner pattern. I cast and the fish took; I felt it, but it was gone before I really connected.
“Sometimes they can be selective,” Lessway said. “They’ll take one pattern over another.”
Hex fishing is about a three-week jamboree around here. The big bugs — Hexagenia limbata, the giant Michigan mayfly — start hatching in mid to late June in the stretches above Mio pond and the hatch progresses upstream and Lessway says he sees the same anglers that he saw above Mio pond moving upstream with the hatch.
“The Manistee gets started a little bit later than the Au Sable,” Lessway said. “You see the same guys there, too; it’s kind of an obsession with people sometimes.”
Barney nicked another fish around midnight and what had been a fairly good night suddenly died. We heard an occasional fish feeding occasionally, but we spent the last couple of hours drifting and listening, but never getting anything going.
“Sometimes just a blind cast by a spot will get them to come up,” Lessway said.
Lessway, whose best Hex fish so far this year was a 24-inch brown —“so fat, he couldn’t get his hands around it” characterized our night as “decent.”
“We missed some fish that might have been good fish,” he said.
True. But I maintain any time you can catch trout like we did on dry flies, it’s better than decent. It’s good.
But maybe that’s just me.
You can reach Lessway at (231) 564-2099.