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Book Review: Fly Fishing the Hex Hatch

By Tom Richardson

Leighton Wass has done a lot of trout fishing over the past 80 years, so it comes as little surprise that he suffers from a chronic and recurring case of “hexitis”—the compulsion to put off all worldly responsibilities and drive several hours to a remote pond or lake to experience the annual hatch of Hexagenia mayflies and the incredible dry-fly fishing it produces.

For many similarly afflicted fishermen, especially those who seek wild brook trout in lovely North Woods settings, the “hex hatch” is the Mardi Gras of fly fishing—a days-long celebration of topwater angling that leaves the angler addled, and craving more. The relatively large insects, which spend most of their lives as nymphs buried in the mud bottom of lakes, ponds, and certain rivers, provide a high-protein food source for trout, salmon, and other fish when they swim to the surface and transform into mayflies, in numbers so large and concentrated they can blanket the surface of a pond, create hazardous road conditions, and even register on doppler radar.

The hatches are fleeting events, normally lasting a few days and occurring in the late afternoon or evening, so timing is critical to success. The event is triggered by water temperature, which varies widely between waterbodies in different parts of the region, although the prime window is typically from late June through mid-July. Naturally, it helps to have a friend who lives in hex country to give you the heads up on when the local hatch is “going off” (not to mention the flexibility to drop everything and go fishing), but in the meantime, we have Fly Fishing the Hex Hatch to help narrow the odds.

Hexagenia limbata

The book is a practical and thorough guide to understanding this pinnacle of New England trout-fishing events. A former high school teacher, Wass brings an educator’s sensibility to his writing, including a keen knowledge of coldwater ecosystems and the critters they support—all very important to understanding one’s piscatorial quarry, of course. Indeed, several chapters detailing the life cycle, habits, and habitat of Hexagenia limbata would well serve a budding entomologist. Insights from fisheries biologists, as well as illustrations and photos, enhance the book’s educational value.

But Wass also entertains through abundant anecdotes gleaned from his meticulous logbooks, kept over the decades. His numerous personal stories provide insight into the mind and emotions of a rabid trout angler, and not a few laughs along the way. Veteran fishermen will no doubt recognize the names of sporting camps Wass has visited and nod their heads over some of his pratfalls. Ever the humble sort, the writer is also quick to give credit to the many people who have aided and abetted him on his lifelong hex quest.

Writer Leighton Wass with a fine trout taken during a hex hatch. Note the fish rising in the background.

In terms of practical fishing knowledge, the book contains just about everything you need to know about how, where, and when to fish the hex hatch throughout Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine, and Wass isn’t tight-lipped when it comes to sharing the names of specific waterbodies where hex hatches are known to occur. In fact, he lists 160 of them.

Other chapters are devoted to proven and productive fly patterns for imitating both the nymphal and winged phases of the hexagenia’s life cycle, as well as boatloads of advice on how to fish them for the best results, including those times when the trout are proving maddeningly selective.

In the end, Fly Fishing the Hex Hatch will make you a wiser angler, and don’t be surprised if you find yourself searching maps of northern New England for the closest hex pond.

Fly Fishing the Hex Hatch can be ordered direct from the writer or through Amazon. For a signed copy, send $29 (postage included) to Leighton Wass, 1255 Adamant Road, Adamant, VT 05640.