Northeast Big Bugs – Hunting Hexagenias

Jesse Robbins

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For me, Maine is synonymous with small, remote ponds and beautiful, wild brook trout. The fact that the latter resides in the former is fitting. The deep greens of the spruce, fir and pine trees that line these ponds perfectly complement the bold reds of a brook trout's belly, fins, and tail.

These ponds offer three seasons of opportunities for anglers in the Northeast. It begins in the spring as soon as the ice thaws and water temperatures start to rise and continues through to fall when the brookies bulk up in preparation for their annual spawn. And in between are two short months when bug hatches peak. There are plenty of hatches to chase to keep busy—blue wings, hendricksons, caddis, red quills, to name a few—but for dry fly aficionados, summer isn't complete without a few nights on the water during the hexagenia hatch.

The annual hexagenia hatch is truly a spectacle—if you're there to witness it. Like other prolific mayfly hatches, the timing from one year to the next may differ by a single day or week. What makes the Northeast hexagenia hatch even more elusive is the window in which these bugs show themselves is very brief and can only be seen at the very end of daylight. Finding oneself amidst a blanket hex hatch requires impeccable timing in terms of the actual day, along with great patience on any particular day. The hatch may only happen during the final 20 minutes of daylight, so one must be willing to wait it out until the very end—aka after dark.

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With a bit of wintertime foresight and planning, my family and friends were able to reserve a few rustic cabins on the shore of a classic northern Maine pond. The most extensive debate on the rental came down to timing. We speculated over the seasons and the weather for several days before finally making our decision. Eventually, we set our plans, but the rest was out of our control. We would be there—but one question remained—would the bugs?

Anticipation was thick upon arrival, almost as thick as the mosquitos. After getting settled into our cabins and an early dinner, we launched the canoes. The pond was still, but we knew it was too early for the hatch. As our canoes silently glided across the glassy pond, we waited and watched.

Scanning the far end of the pond, I saw what resembled a leaf on the water, but when I looked back a moment later, it was gone. I pointed the canoe in that direction and then saw another 'leaf' ahead. As we approached closer and closer, the beautiful mayfly came into focus. Seconds later, the calm broke as a violent rise removed the bug from the surface, leaving dissipating rings in its place.

We followed a similar routine every evening that week, having early dinners so we could spend the final hour-and-a-half of daylight on the water. Though we never saw the countless quantities of bugs we dreamed about, hexagenias hatched every night, and we had plenty of rising fish to keep us busy.

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Because the hexes are so big, observing their behavior on the water takes minimal effort. They're usually making a little bit of a disturbance on the water, either wriggling their legs, flapping or moving their wings to dry them, skittering a little way, or even flying a few feet before falling back into the water. I like to put a little 'action' on my flies when I'm fishing to try and give the sense of life in my artificial fly. Tiny twitches or light drags of the fly that provide just the slightest ring in the waters film can effectively steal a fish’s attention.

I think it's wise to have a handful of different patterns to try.  I've found that fish turn off and turn on to varying patterns throughout a hatch, and having several at the ready can prove effective. At the beginning of the hatch, when there are only a few bugs on the water, I start with a Hexagenia Paradrake. The reason being that as the hatch begins, it's the big duns that bring the fish to the surface, and they're looking for those especially.
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As the hatch progresses and increases in intensity, I change my strategy to help separate my fly from all the others on the water. I'll switch to a Crystal Tail Hex Cripple. I like this pattern because it has features that imitate both an emerging bug and a hatched one. The rear of the fly hangs under the surface for an emergence-effect, but the upright wings still have a dun-like appearance. And if the water is blanketed in bugs, I'll try a Hex-X Cripple. I'm trying to imitate a crippled bug that couldn't emerge with this fly, which becomes easy pickings for a trout on the feed. This fly is different from the duns and seems to garner attention. 
Additional patterns worth trying are RIO's Dry Humper in gold (at a size 12, this is on the small side, but it can still be effective), Parachute Madam X in yellow, and Rubber Leg Stimulator in yellow.