Trout Fishing Christmas

Hex season is a special time of year on a trout stream. Nothing else in angling compares to the feeling you get when you’re standing on a riverbank waiting on darkness with the hope that the fading light brings forth a surge of Hexagenia mayflies. The anticipation is enough to weaken your knees. Maybe it’s just the setting sun, but I swear you can see a vibrating cloud of excitement surrounding your fellow anglers. It’s like a child on Christmas morning coming downstairs to see if Santa has delivered gifts. On this Christmas, however, you’re hoping for a snowstorm of giant mayflies and wrapped presents topped with the bows of rising trout. It’s no secret that the Hex hatch can bring even the largest trout out of their safe havens to feed. Their rises betray their locations and give savvy anglers a chance at the biggest trout of their life. That’s how I landed my personal best, thrice.


The Hex hatch happens at night. Not just dusk, but proper darkness. The duns start coming off around dusk but will continue to emerge well into darkness. Spinner falls may also start at dusk but again will continue into the inky black of night. Especially heavy spinner falls may lay down enough spinners to keep fish feeding well past midnight. That’s part of why we brave the night to fish this hatch. In our part of the trout fishing world, no other hatch can send forth an army in such numbers. We’ve all heard about Hex hatches on the Mississippi River so thick they show up on weather radar. Hatches thick enough to clear the road with snowplows so vehicles don’t careen into the river on the greasy corpses of mayflies. We may not experience hatches in such biblical plague-like numbers, but one common thread is sewn into every Hex hatch. That is the darkness.


As frustrating as it can be, part of the allure of fishing a Hex hatch is the darkness. You can’t really see anything, and you must intuit the finer details of the night. Where is my fly? Am I getting a clean drift at this fish?  Did the fish eat my fly or was it a natural just inches away?  Was that just a muskrat or an alligator closing in for the kill?  Sure, the nearest gators are states away, but the mind tends to jump to irrational conclusions in the dead of night. I hate the feeling of vulnerability I get when I’m standing in a trout stream in the dark, but few things match the rush that accompanies that vulnerability, and with that vulnerability comes opportunity. Your chances at the fish of a lifetime are never as high as they are during Hex season.




The day began as any June day might. It was warm and sunny and the talk at work was about last night’s Hex fishing and the plans for fishing that night. I should mention that I work for the Wisconsin DNR doing trout habitat restoration, so when I say everyone at work was talking Hex fishing I really do mean everyone at work was talking Hex fishing. Anyway, the afternoon is where the normal routine was interrupted. An afternoon thunderstorm blew through and with it came strong winds and an inch or two of rain. The whole ordeal lasted less than an hour, and the cloak of storm clouds passed to reveal the same old June sunshine that had just so easily disappeared earlier. My Hex fishing mood was less than optimistic leaving work that day, but you only get so many nights of Hex fishing each year and I was going out regardless.


My plan was a long hike through the woods to get on some bends I hadn’t fished in a while. With the day’s rain on my mind, I left the house earlier than usual so I had time to adjust my plans if I found the river blown out when I got there. I was hopeful that my plan would work out; cautiously optimistic I should say. These bends were farther upstream than I normally fished and the couple of times I had fished them in daylight they looked very promising for Hex fishing. I was not prepared for what was about to unfold.


As I drove over the bridge on my way to the section I had planned to fish, I glanced upstream and happened to see a rise. The rain had washed Hex flies out of the trees and into the stream or dislodged Hex carcasses from instream vegetation, and the fish were feeding. I checked the time. It was just after 7 o’clock. I had plenty of time to resume my earlier plans even if I let the bridge fish derail them for a moment. I strung up the rod and hustled into my waders. I picked a nice fresh fly out of the box and tied it to my leader. Fishing 20 yards from the truck I didn’t bother to bring my chest pack or my net. It was just my rod, my fly and the fish.


This particular bridge fish was a tricky bugger. He was rising in a tight little spot of slack water along the opposite bank. A small overhanging dogwood upstream and a larger dogwood downstream meant the window I was shooting for was around a foot-and-a-half long. Cast after cast failed to induce a take. My fly was landing where it needed to, but the swift current between us pulled my fly out of the zone before the fish had a chance to react. The rain had dirtied up the water plenty so I couldn’t see the fish and the fish never spooked.  It occurred to me, after more time than I’d like to admit, that I needed to change something about my presentation. I remembered a conversation I had at work just hours earlier about bringing the rod across your body and casting over your opposite shoulder to lay down a curve cast. That was exactly what I needed. Thanks Steve. It might have even been my first cast, but my fly landed right where it needed to in the bankside slack. My line and leader hit the water well upstream of the fly. This all bought enough time for the fish to come up and eat my fly with all the confidence in the world.


A split second after the hookset I realized I was outmatched. Leaving the net in the truck was a mistake. The fish made a run towards the bushes and logs down and across, but I was able to stop him just before the point of no return. Runs upstream and down did not free the fish from its tether and in under a minute we were deadlocked. The fish held its position midstream, and I let it. Neither one of us gained any ground, but neither surrendered.


Now I was playing the waiting game. Fishing right at the bridge I knew it wouldn’t be long before a car drove by. My hope was that someone would see my rod arched over and stop to investigate. From there I could ask them to toss my net to me. The first minute or two was busy with traffic, but the three or four cars that passed never even looked my way. Finally, a car stopped and rolled a window down.


“Got a fish?” the man asked.


“I do. Its big,” I replied.


In short order he was out of his vehicle to witness the spectacle. My request for him to fetch my net was granted. By this time a second vehicle had stopped and another man was set to play witness to my ordeal. I waded my way downstream toward the bridge and the man with my net threw it to me. A couple steps back upstream and a flex of the fly rod had the fish in the net. I grabbed the net with two hands and held it close to me chest to prevent this magnificent beast from slithering his way out as I made three steps to shallower, calmer waters.


When I first started casting to this fish I knew it wasn’t small. I expected something in the mid-teens. A fish most anglers would be pleased with. I did not expect the fish to be the gem it turned out to be. Measuring roughly 23 inches against my net with a big blunt nose and a hooked lower jaw, this brown trout was what dreams are made of. The electric blue of its gill plates seemed to exist nowhere else on this planet except on this individual fish. The perfect “V” of spots behind his eye defied the precision of even the most skilled artist. The fish overall was darker, but a vibrant kind of dark. Everything about it was crisp and clean. This fish was by far the largest trout I had ever caught, but also the most visually stunning.


The fight with this fish felt like it lasted an hour, but in reality was under five minutes. Once the fish was in the net, bystander number two retrieved my phone from my truck and snapped a couple photos. During our whole encounter the fish only left the water for a couple seconds after the net job and for one quick grip-and-grin, water-dripping snapshot. Bystander number one must have been a Hex fisherman because as soon as the fish was landed, he was back in the car and on down the road to his own fishing spot. Bystander number two witnessed the healthy release and hung around for a while afterward and chatted while I had a couple beers and calmed my nerves.


What made this fish so incredible was that fact that I caught it in daylight. Around here, fish like that just aren’t caught in daylight. The day’s storm provided the perfect conditions to make it all possible. The water was dirty enough for the fish to feel safe feeding, and the rain and rise in water level provided the fish with enough bugs to make feeding worthwhile. Also, what were the chances of me driving by at the exact moment the fish rose?  Had I been as little as a couple seconds sooner, or a couple seconds later, I wouldn’t have seen the rise so I wouldn’t have stopped to fish. What if nobody had stopped to help me?  I almost certainly would have lost the fish trying to hand land him. If you didn’t know any better, you might think John Gierach’s 2020 book “Dumb Luck and the Kindness of Strangers” was written about my encounter with this fish.


Reflecting on these events after the season left me with mixed emotions. I felt incredibly fortunate to have emerged triumphant from a battle with the fish of a lifetime. A little sadness was also swirling around inside me because I felt as though I could never top my achievement. How realistic was it to expect to catch another bruiser like the one I just did?  The feeling quickly passed because there is nothing quite like Hex fishing, and fish are just plain fun to catch no matter what size they are.




The following Hex season was in full swing and I had already caught an unusual number of really good fish. I had also been spending more time on other streams trying to pin down some other good Hex fishing spots. A common theme among my exploratory expeditions was stopping at the bridge on my “home water” on the way back home. Most times, all the other anglers had already packed up and gone home so if there were still a few fish rising I would stalk them until the activity finally died for good. One such night was so surreal I still have to remind myself it wasn’t a dream.


Standing on the bridge with my headlamp shining down onto the water revealed quite a few Hex spinners coming down. I couldn’t hear any rising fish, but I knew the sheer number of spent bugs had to have the fish feeding. I walked down the embankment and got into the water, slowly working my way upstream straining to hear a rise. It wasn’t long before I located some rising fish. They were holding off a cluster of tag alders that hung in the water. The biggest sounding fish rose on a little current seam below, and that fish sounded considerably bigger than the others. I found the fish I was after. I would blindly cast into the darkness until I either caught the fish or it stopped rising.


The first take I had was an exciting fish somewhere in the 16-inch range. A beautiful, healthy fish. Releasing that first fish I could still hear the bigger one rising. A good handful of casts back at the big fish put it down so I started casting above the bush to another good sounding fish. In short order I landed that fish. A brown just a little bigger than the one before. Now the big fish was rising again, and with enthusiasm. Two and three rises at a time back-to-back-to-back. He was coming up in the main current, on the seam, in the slack water. Rising right off the tip of the alder, sometimes four feet downstream. This fish was what we sometimes call a pool owner. Nowhere in the river was off limits to this fish and he was using every inch of his domain to gorge on the bounty that Hex spinners provide. Time to buckle down and get serious.


Cast after cast, my fly drifted by uneaten while the fish continued to rise. I knew so long as I kept putting my fly in his apparently large feeding zone it was only a matter of time before my fly would fall victim to a gaping toothy maw. Finally, it happened. The hookset was firm and deliberate. The fish felt reminiscent of the big bridge troll from last season. It couldn’t be the same fish, right?


After a short but strong fight the fish found its way into my net. Arriving at the bank to unhook the fish I immediately recognized the clownish blunt nose and the distinguished, hooked jaw. After a few quick photos the fish was released to resume its reign over any pool or bend it chose. Feeling like I accomplished the impossible I reeled up and headed home.


Reviewing photos the next morning confirmed my suspicions. Last night’s fish was the same buck brown from the year before. The telltale “V” of spots behind the eye was a perfect match. The fish’s flank displayed a cluster of three red spots with their blue halos touching to form a triangle. Another perfect match. Seven more spots arranged in an “S” shape near the fish’s tail were identical in both photos. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Not only did I catch the fish of a lifetime, but I caught it twice. The same exact fish felt my hook and my net, my grip and my release, twice in its lifetime. Another interesting note is that this second capture wasn’t in the same spot as the first.


I had encountered this fish twice in the span of 356 days. Nine days shy of one full year. I had heard stories of a single fish being caught multiple times, but never by the same angler, or after so much time had passed. I should have bought a lottery ticket because winning felt like a sure thing after the angling feat that I had just accomplished. I was ecstatic and feeling very proud of myself at first, but I soon realized that I owed my experience to a whole lot of luck, a little bit of persistence, and an even smaller amount of skill. They say it’s better to be lucky than good. Who am I to argue with that?




Days passed since my incredible catch and the Hex were still hatching. I was still fishing every night. I had returned to some old haunts, as well as chased rumors on other sections of other rivers. I was catching some fish and having fun, relishing in every moment of the Hex hatch because it never lasts forever and soon those summer nights would be flyless.


One night I had been fishing a different stream and again stopped at the bridge on the “home water” on the way home. My scan with the headlamp revealed Hex spinners coming down in the drift so I decided to spend a little time trying to catch a fish or two for a nightcap. I could hear a decent fish rising downstream, so I thought that was a good place to start.


I started down the embankment off the road and another angler quickly alerted me to his presence. No worries. I retreated upstream and began pestering the dinks I could hear rising along the far bank. Before I managed to land any of the small fish I was casting to I heard the angler downstream walk out and drive away, so I reeled up and headed in that direction.


I fought my way through the tangled shrubs of the streambank and stood at the water’s edge. The fish I had heard from the bridge was rising, and within range to boot. It sounded bigger now that I was up close. It wouldn’t be easy to catch. It rose below a cluster of alders that hung in the water and moved around in that area quite a bit. The feeding window on this fish was almost entirely slack water. Casting from down and across it would be hard to keep my fly in the zone long enough for the fish to cycle through and take it, but it was my only option. The banks were too thick with dogwoods and alders for any other approach. The river below the fish had too much overhanging alder to cast straight upstream. I had to make it work from where I stood.


I devised a plan to target the lower end of the feeding window so when the current caught my line and my fly was inevitably dragged away there was a reduced risk of spooking the fish. The fish continued to rise, and I continued my fishless casts and drifts. My mind wandered back to six days prior when I had to repeatedly make the same cast until I found success. That’s what I would have to do again. So, I resolved to stand alone in the darkness until either I or the fish prevailed.


There I was on the bank of the river making cast after cast. The fly was landing where I needed it to, or at least I think it was. The fish kept rising anyway so I knew I hadn’t spooked it. After an eternity of repeating the same cast with the same fishless result I knew I had to change something. I had to get aggressive. I was either going to hook this fish or blow the whole thing in the process. Either way I could make it to bed before the sun rose.


My new approach was to take a couple of stealthy steps upstream and across current. This would put me in a better position to get a drag free drift. I also decided to try placing the fly a little further upstream to give the fish more opportunity to find it and eat it. Reinvigorated and full of fresh optimism I began casting. Only a few casts into my revised strategy the fish rose where I thought my fly was. I set, and much to my surprise came up tight to a big fish. The fight wasn’t the stuff of legend, but this fish was no pushover. After a short tussle I clicked my headlamp on, slid the fish into my net, and nearly fell to my knees. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It was the same fish I had landed 6 days ago, and 362 days ago. I unhooked the fish, snapped a photo of its identifying features, and released it.


I hastily made my way back to the truck and headed home. I was physically exhausted and emotionally drained. I fell asleep as soon as I hit the pillow.


The next day, reflecting on the ridiculous events that occurred, I noticed some interesting things. First, all three times I caught this fish it was in a different spot. Those spots were not especially far away from one another, but they were different spots nonetheless. Second, this fish didn’t seem to have grown any longer in the year between first and second capture. Now, I didn’t have a legitimate tape measure to inspect things down to the quarter inch, but my net has been the same size its whole life and the fish was about two inches longer than the net every time I caught it. Third, comparing my photos from year one to year two did show an increase in girth, or weight. Without a scale I couldn’t say how much the fish weighed but the year two photos show a heavier fish without a doubt. Lastly, the fish in year one was much more brilliantly colored. Perhaps it was water clarity, or diet, or age. The fish was definitely old. How many wild 23-inch trout aren’t?  Whatever the cause of the cosmetic degradation, if I caught the fish again I would have asked him.


Some people, hell most people, fish their whole lives without ever catching a trout approaching two feet in length. The fact that I was able to catch the fish of a lifetime three times in a year, and it was the same fish all three times, still blows my mind. If not for the famed Hexagenia limbata I would still love to fly fish, and I would still fish the same rivers I do now, but I would never have landed the fish of a lifetime. Every Hex season brings with it excitement and optimism. The possibilities seem endless with the promise of mayflies in the air. Sleep deprived and with aching backs, we Hex anglers keep coming back night after night because after all, trout fishing Christmas only comes once a year.