“Chad told me you are a fly fisherman. One of my favorite songs is about fly fishing and the camaraderie that people find outdoors.” My friend Chad had just introduced me to Chris Buhalis at the Green River Schoolhouse Hootenanny, and shortly after Chris said that, he picked up his guitar and sang.
Will the whippoorwill call by the river tonight,
the big trout rise for the fly?
Will bank beavers gather in the fire’s dim light,
as they have in years gone by?
The song—written by the Michigan folk legend Jay Stielstra—is a haunting tribute to fishing and friends, and as Chris sang on I recognized something eerily familiar about the words.
And will we talk small as we always have done,
and pretend to change not a thing?
Will one of us there, strum the guitar,
and pick out a song and sing?
When Chris launched into the chorus, I remembered a time about ten years earlier when I fished the Hex hatch on the Manistee River with my friend Jim Baker.
There is nothing subtle about fishing for trout during the Hex hatch. “Cut your leader back to the point where the line is roughly twelve-pound test,” Jim told me. “Then tie on a foot or two of ten-pound monofilament for the tippet, and if you can’t fit that through the eye of your hook, get a bigger fly.”
Many overworked and under-recreated folks in Michigan travel north to fly fish one time per season, and they hope and pray that their trip will coincide with the hatch of the Hexagenia limbata fly. With a 2-inch body and the silhouette of a big moth, this is the largest mayfly in North America. Its hatch typically happens around dusk, and its spinner fall usually happens after the sky is completely dark. Words like typically and usually are essential for any discussion about these flies. If the bugs hatch or fall when you are on the river, and if you are near a trout that decides to eat them, and if you figure out where the feeding trout is in the darkness, and if you make a blind cast in the general vicinity of the trout, and if you keep your cool and apply a reasonable hook set when you hear the startling GULP of the fish eating your fly, well then maybe—and only maybe—you just might hook one of the largest trout you’ll ever hook on a dry fly. Landing it though, even with your ten-pound tippet, will depend on your ability to keep the fish from boring into a tangled mess of branches while, at the same time, avoiding a misstep that fills your waders with water and sends your hat floating downstream where an even bigger trout might mistake it for a fly and eat it. That’s my take on Hex fishing, anyway, and Jay Stielstra seems to agree:
Will the weather be as unpredictable,
and the fishing as well the same?
Will we carry on, as we’ve always done,
and scarcely mention his name?
The year that Jim introduced me to the Hex hatch, he and I camped on the outside of a nice bend on the Manistee river somewhere between Deward and Sharon. We stopped fishing around 2 a.m., went to sleep around 4 a.m., and sometime around 11 a.m. I stood on top of my truck and tried to get a better cell signal so that I could restore at least a little domestic tranquility with Roxanne. She was unimpressed when I told her about how I hooked—but didn’t catch—a large trout the night before, and even less impressed when I told her how Jim rescued my hat after I stepped into a deep hole while fighting that fish that I didn’t catch. Her state of impress bottomed out when I said “Oh my gosh, there’s an enormous trout swimming on the inside of the river bend. That fish must be two feet long.”
All the progress I’d made during my earlier negotiations was rapidly evaporating, so I promised to stop talking about trout. My trout would likely swim on to the next bend by the time I finished the call, but I sometimes have a reasonable sense of priority, and I was almost at peace with the idea. Then Jim made his move.
Jim heard me announce the trout to my wife, as, I suppose, did everyone within a mile of our camp. Jim later described it—from his perspective—in a story he wrote for the local Trout Unlimited newsletter, “Since Tim was occupied talking to his wife, I grabbed a rod and headed to the river. I still had a big ugly fly on from the previous night and thought about changing it but was feeling lazy . . . So I went into the river with the short heavy leader and the big ugly fly, and gave it a shot. To my amazement, the fish took the fly on the second cast, and before her release, she measured to 23 inches, my biggest Manistee Brown.”
Roxanne and I had finished our call by the time Jim hooked My Damn Trout, so I jumped off the truck and said something like “Great job, Jim. Do you need help landing that fish?” Or maybe it was “What the hell do you think you’re doing catching my fish?” It was so long ago that I can’t be sure. Either way, I took a few pictures of Jim with My Damn Trout, and when he released the trout I noticed that he seemed almost sad. I asked what was up, and he said that his dad’s ashes were buried below the tree behind me, and that this was such a fitting place and way for him to catch the biggest trout he had ever caught on the Manistee.
Will the Manistee River give us a nod,
to tell us that she really knows?
We’re weaker and fewer, this year by one,
and trying hard to not let it show.
Jay Stielstra’s song that Chris sang is a tribute to Jim’s father. When Jim was young, his dad taught him to fish the Hex hatch in this stretch of river, and Jim still wears a fishing vest with a logo for the Bank Beavers—a group of fishermen who shared many years and memories with Jim’s dad on the river.
You often hear advice like “don’t be so quick to judge when you don’t know the story of another person’s life,” and I suppose that is great advice for life in general. But it also applies to those times when someone catches a fish that you believe is your damn trout.
For the Manistee River, she runs through Deward,
the Manistee runs through Sharon.
She flows, I know, when we’re thinking out loud,
and she flows when nobody’s care’n.