Don Quixote de la Michigan

Don Quixote de la Michigan

Chasing giant mayflies on the Rogue and Muskegon rivers

  • By: Chad Mason
Making a date to fish the Hexagenia hatch can feel like arranging to swap contraband. "Take a nap in the afternoon," Glen said. "Then eat a good supper and meet me in the asphalt lot behind the warehouse, ready to fish, at 8:45." Glen Blackwood operates Great Lakes Fly Fishing Company, a fine little fly shop near the Rogue River in Rockford, Michigan. We had met only a few minutes earlier, when I walked into Glen's shop for the first time. I had been in Michigan for less than 24 hours and my first order of business was locating a first-rate fly shop.I found what I was looking for at GLFFC. Shortly before 9 pm we left our cars in a vacant parking lot, crossed a bike trail and descended a steep slippery slope to the Rogue. It was early June and we found the river swollen and nearly opaque from recent rain. The conditions were less than auspicious, but hope springs eternal in the angler's heart. We waded into the upper end of a shallow riffle and stood there with our hands in the chest pockets of our waders, and our rods tucked under our arms. "Hurry up and wait," said Glen. We watched the sky for bugs while we talked sporadically about our families, bird dogs, and the things we used to do for gainful employment. There in the hospitable space that opens wherever men stand in a river without fishing, we discovered that we had a few mutual friends and learned something of each other's ways. Then a long companionable silence enveloped us until Glen finally raised a finger to the sky and broke it. "There's a drake," he said. It was 9:20 pm, and the first brown drake spinner had left the hardwood boughs to search for a mate above the Rogue. This single insect was soon joined by a few others, and then their numbers became like the leaves on the trees. They descended with darkness on the river, a veritable storm of mayflies so numerous we could actually hear them over the sounds of the Rogue, and the most obvious thing about the world was not the water below but the wings above. "Still no Hexes," Glen said. "And no rises," I replied. Our rods were tucked into our armpits, partly from lack of rising trout, but partly from awe of the sheer immensity of the spinner fall. Up and down the river not another human soul was visible. Fishing drakes and Hexes is often lonelier than you might expect, when you consider that the density of these hatches very often lives up to the legends about them. This kind of thing should draw a crowd. Perhaps it is the darkness that keeps people away. "A few weeks ago I saw a big sow bear and her cub right here," said Glen. Whatever the reason, very few people--even among fly fishers--have ever witnessed this bug event that so defies belief. It gives you a feeling at once pleasurable and sad to stand there in the river knowing that you are but one of a few people in the world who know or care about what is happening. Amid so fecund a swarm of doomed creatures, it strikes me that the universality of death and the profligacy of life are not easily disentangled, and that most of our tribe is oblivious to the thoughts inspired by such a spectacle. Sometimes the trout are oblivious, too. With the Rogue showing less than a foot of visibility, I imagined the fish lying lazily on the bottom, no more aware of the buzzing drakes than people watching television in their homes in Grand Rapids. Then I heard a splash and turned around to see Glen fighting a small trout. All color had drained from the river, and his red jacket looked gray. I worked out some line myself, blindly feeling the rod loading and unloading. When it seemed that enough line was off the rod tip, I let it lie on the river. I heard a small splash out there and raised the rod into a fish that felt none too large for the few seconds that it was on. Then the night became very dark, and I had no more strikes for a long while. "The Hexes are on," Glen said. He was shining his flashlight onto the river, and in its beam uncountable bugs flopped and fluttered on the water. Many were the same Brown Drakes we had been watching for an hour, but some were absurdly large and meaty Hexagenia spinners, often called "The Giant Michigan Mayfly." The river's surface was alive with dying things, a rich conveyance of entomological triple cheeseburgers. But nowhere did a trout rise. We watched the bugs and listened to them for another hour, breathing carefully to avoid inhaling them, and never caught another fish. When we left the river at midnight, Glen apologized for the lack of trout. He said the catching had been brisk until the recent rains discolored the river. Perhaps here is another reason why so many people ignore the Hex hatch: A big hatch does not necessarily equal a big catch. Late May and early June are ripe for rain, which can throw the whole thing off. But if you want to chase Hexes, you can't be the kind of person who pursues only those things in life that are easily obtainable. This hatch, like few others, calls for the spirit of a windmill chaser, a Don Quixote de la Michigan. I told Glen there was no need to be sorry, and thanked him for the great bug-watching safari. The hatch had become an end to itself and not a means to an end. "There's always the Muskegon," he said. The next afternoon I returned to Glen's shop to meet up with Don Graham, a guide who books clients through GLFFC. Don worked more than 30 years as a sales rep for a food company before "retiring" to guide anglers on the Muskegon. Don showed me numerous jaw-dropping photos of his clients with steelhead and salmon caught during the spring and fall runs. Anadromous fish are all well and good if that's what you like, but I would rather catch a 14-inch resident trout rising to a mayfly than a 14-pound steelhead after deep-drifting an egg pattern 50 times through the same run with frozen fingers. Thankfully, you can do either on the Muskegon. This broad, deep and muscular river has few Hexes, since it lacks the soft, mucky-bottomed areas needed by the burrowing Hex nymph. But the Muskegon boasts a wonderful hatch of Gray Drakes, another large mayfly that dances at dusk. After launching the boat from a steep concrete ramp, Don and I motored a few miles up the Muskegon. It was about 4:00 pm, and we passed the evening hours ripping streamers cross-current on medium-density shooting heads. We connected with a few fish that way, but we were only killing time until the drakes appeared. Flowing at almost 2,400 cfs (about 30 percent above normal) the Muskegon looked like the sort of river you don't want to fall into. Though high and fast, the water was gin-clear. We could easily see our blue-and-white streamers racing through the depths. Infiltration by zebra mussels has clarified the Muskegon considerably, allowing sunlight to penetrate the depths and energize a number of abundant insect hatches that previously had barely existed. To an already rich Muskegon River forage base of baitfish--imitated by our streamers--the usually pernicious mollusk has added large numbers of Sulfurs, caddisflies, Mahogany Duns, Blue-Wing Olives, Light Cahills, midges and Gray Drakes. It's hard to know what to think when an ecological disaster turns out so well. The first Gray Drake duns lifted from the water shortly after 8:00 pm, and spinners were on the water an hour later. We found a pod of eager risers in a swift midstream run, just downstream from a dark pool at the base of a cliff. While Don anchored the boat within casting distance of the fish, I began to cast. In addition to Gray Drakes, tan caddis and Sulfurs were coming off in considerable numbers. I managed to land a couple of smaller fish on a size 14 Elkhair Caddis before a large fish rose almost directly downstream from the boat. After watching a couple more rises from the same fish, we decided two facts were certain: it was a hell of a fish, and it was taking the drake duns. Don handed me a simple dun pattern in size 10. I dropped it a few inches upstream from the fish's presumed location, and it promptly disappeared as the fish rose dolphin-like and engulfed it. I could not tell exactly how big the fish was, but Don--who spends 130 days a year on the Muskegon--said "Oh my God" when he saw it, and I remember thinking that I'd need both hands to hold it for a picture. The reel screamed and Don hurriedly pulled anchor to follow the fish. But this trout was broad and long and deep and full of the kind of brawn that fish everywhere gain from living in strong rivers, and I couldn't do anything with it. The fish played me for several minutes, never showing itself, and then the rod finally went straight and still. Dejected, I pulled in the line to find the tattered dun pattern still hanging at the end of my 5X tippet. I looked wistfully downriver after the windmill that I had glimpsed for only a moment. Minutes later, I landed a husky brown of 17 inches as dusk fell on the river. This one also took the Gray Drake dun pattern, and fought with all the fury of a much larger fish. It wasn't quite the trout I had come for, but that's just as well. If you ever land the fish that you came for, the quest is over. Recipes Hairwing Hex HOOK: Mustad 94831, size 6 THREAD: 6/0 brown TAIL: Moose body hairs RIBBING: Furnace saddle hackle, tied in by the tip at rear of shank and wound forward over body. BODY: Yellow deer hair, tied reverse at front of body, folded back along shank, and held down with ribbing. Measure to ensure tips extend slightly behind bend of shank. WING: White calf tail, upright and divided HACKLE: Brown saddle hackle; heavily hackled for good floatation Brown Para-Drake HOOK: Mustad 94840, size 10 THREAD: 6/0 brown TAIL: Pheasant tail fibers or Moose body hairs BODY: Yellow deer hair, tied reverse at front of body, folded back along shank, and held down with ribbing. Measure to ensure tips extend slightly behind bend of shank. RIB: Tying thread WING: Gray poly yarn HACKLE: Brown saddle hackle, parachute-style Gray Drake HOOK: Mustad 94849, size 10 THREAD: 8/0 gray TAIL: Moose body hairs BODY: Gray muskrat fur, guard hairs removed WING: Mallard flank, upright and divided (Cahill style) HACKLE: Grizzly saddle hackle; heavily hackled for good floatation Trip Tips Location: Rogue and Muskegon rivers, western Michigan. Species: Brown and rainbow trout Hatches: Hexagenia, Brown Drakes, Gray Drakes Travel and Accommodations: Rockford itself is a quaint and welcoming town with quality lodging and dining. Grand Rapids, which is less than 20 minutes' driving distance south of Rockford, is much larger and has a regional airport. The Muskegon River is about an hour's drive north of Rockford. Time: Late May and early June. Equipment: An 8-foot 4- or 5-weight rod is ideal for night-fishing on the Rogue. Select a rod that loads easily at relatively short distance, so you can cast it by feel in the dark. For the Muskegon, bring a fast-action 9-foot 6-weight and a reel with a good drag. Two spools are useful: one with a medium-density shooting head for streamer fishing, and another with a weight-forward floater for dryfly fishing. Dryfly leaders should be 9 to 10 feet in length, including a tippet of 4X or 5X. GLFFC can provide such equipment for guided clients, if you wish to avoid the hassle of bringing your own rods. Access: Chest waders are useful on the Rogue, which is a relatively small river with good public access. On the Muskegon I recommend float-fishing with a guide. Local Contact: Great Lakes Fly Fishing Company, 616-866-6060