By: Adam Spence
The sun had begun to descend slowly as he walked the trail, rod in hand .There were still a few hours of light left, and thus, a few hours before some of the most exciting fishing of the year, but Jackson knew if he wanted to get to his favorite spot, he’d need to get there early. It was mid-June, and while still not uncomfortably hot in northern Michigan, Jackson had his waders down around his waist and just a short sleeve t-shirt on while he hiked. He had been sure to pack a long sleeve in his backpack, knowing full well how much the air could cool when the sun went down.
It was a bit of a hike to get to where he was going, but Jacks didn’t mind; it was beautiful country running alongside a beautiful river. While the trail had its twists and turns, the river was never out of sight. He had been walking for half an hour when he reached a slow, steady incline. Once he reached the top, Jacks was embarrassed at his heavy breathing and the bit of perspiration on his brow. He realized that he was out of shape compared to a year ago.
Jackson slid his arms out of the straps of his backpack and sat down against a tree. A year older and a few pounds heavier, he thought to himself. The river and the woods were a year older too, he thought, but they seemed as fresh as they ever had. Jackson unzipped his pack and took out his water. His bag had everything he would need that night: his extra shirt, a headlamp, his slingpack that he would wear on the water, and a small soft cooler with snacks and a few beers. He took another sip of water, slung his bag onto his back and set off.
He still had about 30 minutes of hiking, and the bubbling of the river kept calling to him, tempting him to get a few casts in. Jacks ignored this, knowing if he could get to his spot and was patient, he could be in for a great night. So he pressed on, picking up his pace a little as he thought about the prospects of a 20” trout gracing his net tonight.
The path began to narrow and the underbrush thickened around him. He was forced to slow down and pick his way a little more carefully, watching his rod tip and avoiding walking through the thickest brush in his waders. Jackson liked this stretch of the hike. It let him know he was getting close and he imagined it as a sort of barrier to other anglers. He knew if he came across someone who had made it through this then he had found someone like him.
Eventually, he made it to the large, downed oak tree that let him know he had arrived. The tree had been down for years. If it had fallen further up the path, someone would have undoubtedly cleaned it up. Jacks liked that it was here. It was a reminder of where he was and where most others didn’t go.
He had yet to see anyone, which made him think that he was going to have this stretch of water to himself. Jackson grinned as he thought about it. It was fairly open here, so he didn’t need to be as cautious with his backcast. The opposite side of the river had a dark silty bottom, perfect for where the famed Hexagenia limbata would hatch.
Jackson looked at the sun, which had dropped ever so slightly, and then his watch to determine that he had maybe two hours or so before dark. It was a pleasant evening and he looked forward to sitting on the bank, eating and drinking a beer while watching an occasional trout rise to sip an emerger. He was so entranced by the thought of his evening that he nearly tripped over the person sitting on the bank, doing exactly what he had been envisioning for himself.
“Whoa! Hey now!”
“Geeze, I’m sorry man, you alright?”
Jackson looked quickly to make sure a clumsy foot hadn’t landed on the stranger’s fishing rod.
“No no, I’m good. Scared me, I musta dozed off, didn’t hear you coming.”
The stranger climbed to his feet, stuck his hand out and grinned.
“Mike,” he said.
Jackson immediately appreciated Mike’s seemingly good nature. He gripped the outstretched hand.
“Jackson. Sorry about that, I was kind of daydreaming and didn’t watch where I was going.”
“Nah, no worries. Nothing’s broke, looks like the only casualty is what was probably a warm beer.”
Jacks looked down and saw a can knocked over.
“Well here,” he said as he pulled his backpack off. “Let me replace that with a cold one.”
“Never say no to a free one! Thanks!”
Jackson passed him the can and started to zip his bag back up.
“Wait a minute, is this the only one you have?”
“No, I have a couple others in here.”
“Well, aren’t you gonna sit here and have one with me?”
“I was gonna get up on the path and head back a little way. There’s another nice mucky stretch downstream from here.”
“Nonsense!” Mike exclaimed. “I’m assuming you know this is one of the best little spots for hex that you can wade right?”
“Stay here and fish then!”
“I wouldn’t want to crowd up on someone who got here first.”
“Listen, this spot is plenty big enough for two guys. I’m here by myself. You meeting up with somebody?”
Jackson shook his head no.
“Sit down then and have a beer. As it were, I need someone to watch my back so I don’t get stomped to death when I fall asleep.”
So Jackson sat down and pulled out a beer for himself. He cracked it open and saw Mike holding his for a cheers.
“To the unofficial state bird.”
“To the hex!”
They touched cans and both took a long drink. Mike was a big, burly man with dark hair. He looked to be a little older than Jacks. His face was scruffy with an unkept beard and he had brown eyes that added to his kind demeanor. His waders weren’t fancy; Jackson could clearly see where they had been patched, and he wasn’t wearing anything with a logo that some anglers cherished. Mike was wearing a plain grey t-shirt and a Detroit Tigers hat that had a unique off color, assumingly from equal parts sun bleaching and old sweat rings.
“Jackson,” he said. “Tell me about your latest fishing adventures.”
“Unfortunately, I haven’t been out much lately. Work…”
Mike nodded knowingly.
“That’s too bad,” he said. “The fishing has been great lately. I’ve been out 3-4 times a week for the last month and can pretty much catch fish all day long.”
“I need your job,” Jacks mused.
“Well,” Mike said with a hint of uncomfortability. “I don’t exactly have a regular job.”
“Oh… um… well-”
“No, no, nothing like that!” Mike let out a big belly laugh. “I got out of the Marines recently. Haven’t found my next career yet. If I’m not fishing I usually spend time at the VA, talking with the guys.”
“Is that where your tattoo is from?” Jacks pointed at the anchor and globe on Mike’s forearm.
“This?” Mike laughed again. “Yeah I try to forget about this. This is what happens when you go out on the town after a few months on an aircraft carrier.”
They talked for awhile about Mike’s service. Places he’d been, pranks in the barracks, guys who talked tough when they found out he was a Marine. Jackson offered another beer and they toasted again. Mike was a good storyteller. There was the time his brother hooked the neighbors cat while they learning how to fly cast. Then there was the day when he mixed up his prom date with her twin sister. Sometimes one of them would stop to point out a riseform in the water.
The sun was getting lower and the two men began talking excitedly about great hex nights they’d had. Mike took off his hat and dislodged a fly from the bill. He passed it over to Jackson.
“That one there, I don’t fish with that one anymore; it’s just for luck.”
Jacks held it close to his face to examine it. By all means, it looked like a pretty poorly tied hex imitation.
“It was probably five, maybe six years ago, home on leave and I went out fishing every night. I had timed my leave up so that I would be home during peak hex time. Well, it was a really weird weather system we were having, and the nights just weren’t stay warm enough or we’d have a really windy night and the hex just weren’t happening.
“So it gets to be my last night home. I fly out at like, 7 a.m. the next morning, but I said screw it, I’m fishing. At the time, I lived about an hour away and when I got here, I realized I forgot my damn hex box! So now I’m searching all my boxes and lo and behold, here’s this crap hex pattern that I had picked up from God knows where. I mean, it looks like your blind cousin tied it.
“Anyways, I tie this ugly SOB on and had the best night of hex fishing I’ve ever had. Landed an 18” and a 21” and at least a dozen that were 12”-16”, all on this fly. It was unreal.”
“Sounds like it was a great night,” Jackson agreed. “Better hold onto that one.”
The sun was no longer in sight, and the dark purple of the night sky was beating the last remaining orange glows beneath the horizon. All the sounds of a northern Michigan night were present: the occasional hoot of a barred owl, crickets playing their scratchy violins, and what both men came here for- the splash of a hungry brown trout eating an enormous mayfly.
“Well Jackson,” Mike said. “I’d say it’s about time we go try to make a new fishing story.”