WALHALLA — We’d started out about a dozen miles upstream right after supper time, hoping we could get something going on an attractor pattern as we waiting for the evening hatch. I was floating a Chubby Chernobyl (a large, white pattern) along the bubble lines and near the deadfalls as Kyle Hartman rowed the drift boat.
There was not much going on though there were some bugs hatching. Occasionally a small fish — likely a salmon fry — would surface on something tiny, but the trout seemed to be assiduously avoiding it. The water had a dark color to it; I mentioned to Hartman that I felt like I ought to be bouncing a jig and minnow on the bottom.
“Looks like the Saginaw River to you?” Hartman asked. “It looks like trout water to me. It’s all a matter of perspective. It can happen at any moment.”
After a couple of hours, a fish came up on my fly at the precise time I was untangling the fly line that was bunched up around my legs. Missed it clean as a computer chip laboratory.
“Like I said,” Hartman said. “Any moment.”
I never got any other chance until the sun had set and Hartman told me to look up. The dark sky was abuzz with gray drake spinners. Hartman lowered the anchor, tied on a drake, and we listened. After a few minutes he rowed back upstream about 50 yards to where he’d heard a fish feed and lowered the anchor.
I watched and listened. A small fish fed, just a tad downstream, and then a slightly better fish fed. I tried it a couple of times and then a fish fed and Hartman yelled “hit it,” and I did and connected. It was a much better fish than I thought. It went downstream, putting a nice bend in the five-weight rod. Hartman pulled the anchor and rowed out into the middle of the stream to help me keep it out of the snags.
“That’s the original fish I heard,” he said.
I gradually brought the fish upside the boat. Hartman netted it. It was dandy.
“That’s real nice drake fish,” Hartman said. “High teens. A very decent drake fish.”
He held it for a photo, let it go and suggested we find another.
It was a moonless night with the kind of stars that must have inspired van Gogh. We floated quietly downstream, the fireflies illuminating the tall grass on the banks, with river gurgling around the sweepers. We passed a cabin nestled in the trees, glowing reddish from the gas lights, like a Terry Redlin print — except it was real — its inhabitants obviously having a good time yucking it up, but missing what was happening on the river. I mentioned that some folks just don’t get it. Hartman agreed. It would have been a beautiful float even if the fish weren’t cooperating.
Hartman told me that the main event — the Hex spinner fall — was due to commence directly. They were in the sky. In good numbers. Hartman again rowed back upstream to where he’d heard a fish feed. When he anchored, there were three trout feeding, all in a row near the far bank. I tried the furthest upstream a couple of times, moved on the next feeder without success, then tried the most downstream fish.
I just felt the line sort of tighten so I strip set with my left hand and shot the rod tip skyward.
“I got him,” I said.
“You got him?”
The trout had taken it silently — not even a sip. It shot out into the river like a freight train. And Hartman started coaching me like it was fourth and goal, time was running out, and we needed a touchdown to win. The championship.
“Let him take line. Just keep a little pressure on him. Keep him out that log. That’s it.”
The fish took drag. I gained some line and brought it toward the boat. It took line again, several times, then charged upstream.
“Keep him coming. Don’t let him get under the boat.”
I got it to the leader — three times, and each time it took line again — until finally, it felt like time to land it. Hartman flipped on his headlamp.
“It’s a giant,” he said.
I raised the rod tip over Hartman’s shoulder and hauled it toward the net. Hartman got it.
“It’s a two-footer!” he said, more excited than I even was. “That may be the biggest brown trout I’ve ever had in my boat.”
It was a beauty, long and tall and fat. Gorgeous. Hartman removed the hook and held it for a photo, handed her to me for a photo, then lowered her into the water and held her, facing upstream, giving the fish a chance to gain its equilibrium.
The fish stayed still for a few moments — it had been a long tug-of-war — and then it took off. We flapped five.
That was it. We heard a few more fish feed — I insisted that Hartman try them — but we couldn’t get them to go. When we reached the take-out, there were a couple of boats in front of us. The conversation among them was that the Hexes had won again.
Not entirely. I didn’t say anything.
It was the only night I got out during the Hex hatch on the Pere Marquette, which I believe is the most underappreciated trout stream in Michigan. I’d caught my Hex fish of the season — maybe of my career.
You’ve got to love Michigan.
You can reach Hartman at 586-854-5725 or through Pere Marquette River Lodge.