By Blake Sherburne
Hex season is High Church in my family. Our year is almost scheduled around the event. For instance, when my wife and I were planning our wedding she suggested late June or early July. I jokingly suggested that would be fine, but I might not be able to make it. Luckily for me, I married a woman who understands my family obsession.
I practically learned to fly fish in the dark. There were training runs on bluegills and smallmouth bass but it was all really aimed at Hex season. Early on my jobs were simple. My first responsibility was to be (relatively) quiet. Hex fishing is as much listening as anything else. Secondly, I was to listen and learn. I paid attention to what a feeding fish sounded like, different from current burbling around limbs and stones, also different from the occasional beaver splash that dad always tried to get me to fish. I also paid attention to how dad maneuvered the boat in the dark. It was a good thing, too, because after I reached the age of 13 or 14, dad never piloted a boat again. We’ve now owned two different boats of which he has never been at the helm. Job number three was, when checking the water for bugs, to keep the bright flashlight pointed outside of the boat to preserve our valuable night vision. Even today, when the beam gets a little too low, I can hear him in my head, “Out of the boat, Blakie.”
Sherburne displays one of the many 20-plus-inch browns he has caught hex fishing after dark. Hexing in the Sherburne family is a religion. Year after year, the Sherburnes spend two(ish) weeks fishing big browns well into the night.
My dad can tell the story of his first trout. He grew up in a non-fishing family, not really sure how he caught the bug himself. He can remember digging worms out of the garden and riding his bike down to the culvert adjacent to their farm. This is where it happened. A small brookie that got shoved to the bottom of his worm can, and looked a little worse for wear when he proudly gave it to his mother to cook for dinner, led to a lifelong obsession with fishing generally, and trout specifically (also to brook trout even more specifically).
Thanks to my dad’s obsession, I do not remember my first fish. I don’t remember if it was a trout or anything else. My dad started me too young for me to recall that memory. I do, however, remember my first quality brown trout, I couldn’t have been older than eight or nine. It came, not on the Hex, but just before. Our stretch of river has good hatches besides the Hex, but they do not bring fish up to the surface except on evenings before the Hex hatch has begun. It sort of seems that the trout use them to “limber up” before the big bugs hit the water after dark. We get a good gray drake hatch that starts a week or so before the Hex hatch and lasts until well after it is finished.
My brown came on a Wulff pattern, out of a hole my dad named Lanny’s Hole, after his uncle Lanny, who used to fish there from the bank. I hooked and landed it on a short 4-weight rod that Dad tied using a Fenwick blank. We still fish that spot regularly but I don’t think we’ve caught a trout out of that exact lane since, but I can recall that one with clarity.
I also do not remember my first Hex fish. I know it must have been shortly thereafter, but there have been too many browns caught in the dark since then. Dad made me wait until I was at least a proficient caster and I remember being, and sometimes still am, amazed that with familiarity with a rod and line and good technique, you could land a fly in a fish’s feeding lane with accuracy in complete darkness.
All this is to say that, at least in Michigan, if you want to be a successful fly fisherman, you have to at least be comfortable, if not enjoy, fishing in the dark. Some hatches do bring trout to the surface in the daylight in some places in Michigan, but the bulk of our best dry fly fishing comes on hatches that do not keep banker’s hours. Also, our big, piscivorous browns move best after the sun goes down.
Fortunately, this schedule works well for those of us who have day jobs. These hatches happen after work. In my case, pruning Christmas trees during the day and chasing Hex-eating browns at night leads to an effect that looks like the de-evolution of man in the hero shots we take night after night.
Erika Sherburne, Blake’s wife, poses with her first hex fish — a 24-inch brown trout she caught feet from the boat. The Sherburnes are careful with who they invite, though. “Some things should stay close to the vest,” Blake’s dad, Wade, says.
Streamer fishing is best after work, too. I often meet my fishing buddy at the ramp on his way home from work where we can get in a couple hours of ripping streamers.
All of this practice in the dark has led to our new obsession, mousing. While not as easy as stripping a streamer in the dusk or setting up on a fish feeding on hexes, those disciplines have lent themselves well to drifting, stripping and swinging mouse patterns in water we know well.
Steely nerves are sometimes required. A beaver crashing next to our boat one night almost sent the editor of this magazine packing. We were rowing a small, local river. Nick was roll-casting mice in the bow. This was one of his first nights fly fishing in the dark. We rounded a bend and a beaver blew up the surface of the river just to the right of our little raft. “What the (expletive deleted) was that?” he asked me with more than a little tremor in his voice. We laugh about it now, and I laughed long about it then, but that event just about ended Nick Green’s night fishing career.
Dad and I used to do a lot of walleye fishing after dark, too. We would cast stickbaits near where the DNR had planted their fingerlings in the spring. Those little, confused trout would bring the walleyes in after dark. Every once in a while, a walleye would follow a bait right to the tip of the rod, then try to inhale it just as it broke the surface. I can still just about get my knees to knock just thinking about that hollow, strange sound. It was worth it, though, because those nights resulted in stringers of walleye sandwiches.
One’s night time fishing education never ends either. Last season, my fishing buddy Kenny and I, were floating a relatively new-to-us piece of water, trying to find a brown willing to roll on a mouse. It was well after midnight when we could hear loud voices upstream of us and the competition was closing fast. We were approaching our take-out point but neither of us wanted to be hurried so we decided to pull over the inside of a bend to let them go by. Surprisingly, it was a couple out for a midnight kayak trip. Now, neither Kenny nor I are particularly loud talkers and our raft doesn’t make much noise, but I thought the couple had seen us. So, as the couple pulled alongside us, I politely said, “hello.” Turns out, they had not seen us. We learned some new words that night, words that might actually help us on future nighttime fishing expeditions. It was a bucket list trip for the woman. She told us loudly that she had always wanted to float the river in the night but was afraid of the dark. I don’t think we helped. We could hear her cursing and shrieking, and him laughing, for several minutes after they passed us.
I dearly love to explore new water in the dark. However, a new piece of water in the dark is not a new piece of water for us. We always scout our stretches in the daylight until we become familiar with them before we float or wade them in the dark. The best part of fishing in the dark is learning, be it catching a fish in a new spot, floating a new piece of water or learning new words to describe our foibles after work.