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The fish of one cast

Jun 11, 2023Jun 11, 2023

by Tom Davis - Thursday, Aug 3rd, 2023

My route to the river takes me south and then west, and about halfway through the southern leg I noticed that the sky on the southwestern horizon—where my destination lay, generally—had an ominously dark cast to it. I resisted jumping to any conclusions but a few miles later, after I’d turned due west and the flatlands of central Wisconsin unfurled expansively ahead, that oily smear in the distance resolved into a ragged curtain of rain, a curtain torn at irregular intervals by pale slashes of lightning.

This was an unwelcome development on any number of levels, not the least of which was the chilling effect it was bound to have on the Hex hatch—the nighttime emergence of giant mayflies that, based on the early returns, was still ramping up. This hatch gives you a fighting chance to tangle with browns of a size you’re otherwise very unlikely to see, and on a dry fly to boot. While getting a “visual” is about a 50-50 proposition, when you know what to listen for just hearing the eat will blow every fuse in your box.

There’s this about the Hex hatch, too: It’s a short-lived phenomenon, a couple of weeks at the most, so the exercise of fishing it is suffused with a galvanizing sense of urgency. Stir in the added complication that it’s a 70-mile drive for me to get to the river, and you begin to understand why, instantly processing what the rain portended for my fishing prospects, I said some bad words.

Truth to tell, I was a little grumpy anyway. I’d fished two of the previous three nights, with disappointing results, and the drive was beginning to wear on me. Few things in my sporting life, as it’s currently composed, get me as juiced as fishing the Hex hatch—but damn, I’m not as young as I used to be. I’m reminded of this every month when the Social Security payment gets deposited.

Plus, I’d had a dispiriting encounter the night before with the annoyingly chipper 30-something I’ve come to think of as Parallel Universe Guy. I seem to run into him once every year after we’ve both fished the same general stretch of the river, either walking out to the DNR parking area by the light of our headlamps or in the parking area itself, and the conversation always takes the same borderline surreal form.

Him: “Wow, what a great night!”

Me: “Hmmm. Slow where I was.”

Him: “Seriously? I had tons of bugs and rising fish all over the place. I could still hear fish rising when I left but I have to be up early tomorrow.”

Me: “I had nothing like that. A handful of duns and a few sporadic rises. Caught a couple, nothing big.”

Him: “I caught a 19, two 17s, and three or four in the 14-16 range. Like I said, it was a great night!”

Me (struggling mightily to remain pleasant): “Good for you….”

I decided to press on—in for a penny, in for a pound—and as I did I saw a stripe of clear sky, the deep azure blue of summer evenings, emerge behind the squall line. I felt a tingle of optimism at that; it looked as if the rain would pass by the time I got to the river, and from where I sat it didn’t strike me as the kind of event that’d significantly raise the water level or lower its temperature.

Read: Potentially screw up the hatch, which is notoriously fickle under the best of circumstances.

When I arrived at the spot I’d chosen to fish, a relatively open area I call Pete’s Pool that lies just upstream of a deep, wood-littered bend, the rain had indeed passed, although so much was still dripping from the roadside pines that it was a little hard to tell. I found the faint trail that leads in from the road, crab-walked down the rain-slickened slope, slogged across the zone of knee-deep muck there’s no good way to get around, brushed through the tall grass, and came to the river. The level and clarity were ideal, and even through my waders I could tell that the temperature was fine (meaning not too cold). I’d already tied on a Nealy’s Hex, a rubber-legged pattern that’s so quiveringly effective when the trout are gobbling duns—almost automatic, in fact, provided you get a good drift—that it grinds on me to think of all the refusals I got with the patterns I used in my pre-Nealy’s days.

Fishing the Hex hatch has more in common with big game hunting, really, than it does with fishing as most people understand the term. There’s a lot of waiting, watching, and, most importantly, listening; only when a fish rises, thereby revealing its location, do you ease into position and cast to it. The closest thing in my experience I can compare it to is turkey hunting: Just as you can’t “set up” on a tom until you see him or hear him gobble, you can’t go to work on a Hex-feeding trout until it actually feeds on a Hex. You don’t randomly fire your shotgun into the woods hoping to hit a turkey, and you don’t randomly cast a Hex imitation onto the water hoping to hook a trout. Or at least I don’t.

This can be hard for the uninitiated to grasp, but it explains why there are nights when I don’t make a single cast. And, 45 minutes after I’d stepped into Pete’s Pool, this was shaping up to be one of those nights. I’d seen a handful, no more than four or five, of those big, creamy duns battering along like cargo helicopters struggling to stay airborne; I’d seen a similar number float past on the water, ghost ships emerging briefly from the darkness only to melt into it again.

But there were no takers, and when it became obvious that the dribble of a hatch had petered out completely the “Should I stay or should I go?” tug-of-war began. I like to think I’m a pretty patient guy but after a point patience morphs into sheer cussed stubbornness. I was also feeling the back pressure of the 70-mile drive that lay ahead of me.

Then, just as I was about to pull the plug, what I dimly perceived as a Hex floated wanly out of the gloom. I was stationed with the river flowing from my right to my left, and when the natural was directly cross-stream from me, no more than seven or eight feet away, it vanished in the most casual, matter-of-fact, undramatic way you can imagine. One moment it was there, the next it wasn’t. There was hardly a sound, and the rise—which I could have touched with my rod tip from where I was standing—barely tickled the water.

It seemed like a “small fish” rise—the rise of a fish trying not to attract attention to itself—but there was only one way to find out. The Nealy’s was hooked into the foot of the stripping guide with the leader around the reel and a couple feet of line extending beyond the tip-top—all the length I needed, once I’d unhooked the fly, to flip it a little upstream of the rise. It floated down, only to disappear with no more commotion than if it had fallen through a crack. I tightened up and met unyielding resistance.

It was not a small fish.

It was a very big fish, in fact, so big—22”, the second-biggest brown I’ve ever caught on a fly—that when I finally got the upper hand (3X tippet allowed me to play rough) it took me three stabs with the net to squeeze her into it. There was no reason to hang around after the release so I scrambled back the way I’d come and hit the road. Thanks to the cocktail of feel-good chemicals now fizzing through my bloodstream, I was cracklingly wide-awake and not a bit grumpy. The carrot of a celebratory bourbon once I got home was dangling, too.

You fumble around in the dark; stand in the water like a stump; witness a single, solitary rise; make a cast, as in only one, that a child could make….and your reward is the kind of fish you dream about. I’ve been trying to discern a Larger Meaning in that, to tease out an enduringly valuable lesson—philosophical, practical, or some of both—that I can embrace going forward. But nothing’s occurred to me, or at least nothing original has. There’s the old “right place, right time” saw, the equally hoary “preparation meeting opportunity” chestnut…Round up the usual bromides.

Maybe the best one is from a friend, also a stalker of the Hex, who can trot out a sports allegory for every occasion. “You win some, you lose some, and some get rained out,” he likes to say, “but you gotta suit up for them all.”