American Fly Fishing

By Garrison Underwood

In capitalism, supply and demand is the law of the land. The more common the commodity, the less its value; the less common something is, the more valuable. So how do you value a spectacular fishing experience that only occurs at intervals of 17 years?

Cicadas_Photo by USDA

Brood X cicadas hatch this spring over a wide swath of the eastern United States. These incessantly noisy, robust bugs emerge every 17 years, hence common names such as 17-year cicada and periodic cicada. Photo courtesy of US Department of Agriculture

I can almost guarantee you will meet with success during this phenomenon, but again, only at 17-year intervals—when the largest species of periodic cicadas come out. I’m talking about cicadas that fill the air, with so many of the huge insects filling the skies and trees and bushes that it is almost impossible to enjoy a day outside amid the constant buzzing of the robust bug-eyed bugs. Despite the maddening din, the triumph that can come from fishing a periodic cicada hatch is worth the 17-year wait. Cicada-palooza is on its way this spring, and you don’t want to miss it.

Entomologists refer to different populations of periodic cicadas as broods, and the 2021 hatch is Brood X, the most populous of 15 regularly occurring broods and the brood with the largest range. Around the eastern United States, they are most abundant from New York to Georgia and from Delaware to Illinois. The largest Brood X populations are found in Maryland, southwestern Pennsylvania, northern Virginia, western North Carolina, eastern Tennessee, northern Georgia, Indiana, and western Ohio. Brood X comprises three species and last appeared in 2004. As an evolved survival strategy, massive congregations of slow-growing cicada nymphs hatch en masse within a short time frame. Such profusion assures that predators—including fish—don’t put a dent in the population. The bugs will be back in another 17 years, but you don’t want to wait that long to get in on the fun: trout and bass love cicadas, setting up a springtime of explosive dry-fly action throughout the region.

Brood X cicadas deposit their eggs on tree branches and the eggs hatch within six to nine weeks; the newly hatched larvae fall to the ground and burrow in—to remain subterranean for the next 17 years.

Cicadas_20190629_075000-01_Brandon Bailes

Cicadas are big mouthfuls of protein for fish, including trout and smallmouth bass, such as this specimen that fell to a pattern designed by Brandon Bailes. Photo by Brandon Bailes

Finally, the mature nymphs tunnel to the surface beginning in early May, attach themselves to trees, and hatch in late May—by the billions—into winged adults. By the beginning of June, all the nymphs will have hatched and the adults will begin anew the reproductive cycle. By late June, the cicadas will die off and, in many places, end up in the water in uncountable numbers; live adults often fall into the water as well. For anglers, that means big, eager fish rising for hefty cicada imitations.

Fish may not be selective about cicada patterns, but anglers tend to be fastidious about matching hatches. Brood X cicadas average smaller than the common cicadas that hatch annually in small numbers. Annual cicadas, which are green, range from 1 to 2 inches long; the 17-year cicadas range from less than 1 inch to about 1.5 inches, and are predominantly black, with orange in the wings and eyes. The best patterns are built robust, like the real bugs, using foam, orange eyes, and short rubber legs. Pay attention to those legs: picky fish may reject a pattern with legs tied
too long.

A Google search will turn up myriad cicada patterns; search for “best cicada fly patterns” and you will discover flies such as the Project Cicada and Sickada by Curtis Fry, Card’s Cicada by Charlie Card, and the Cicada Bomb by Pat Cohen. The Project Cicada, Sickada, and Card’s Cicada have foam bodies and orange/yellow barred rubber legs. Remember to keep those legs short! The Cicada Bomb is constructed with spun deer hair, including a Muddler-style head. The natural buoyancy of the deer hair helps the fly bounce around, lifelike, on the water. Those three flies provide great templates for devising your own flies, but they are the tip of the iceberg: fly dressers have devoted considerable creativity to developing cicada imitations.

Project Cicada photo by Curtis Fry

The Project Cicada, by Curtis Fry, is an excellent pattern to imitate the Brood X Cicada. See the “In the Vise” story about this fly, with tying instructions, in the July/August 2018 edition of American Fly Fishing, available in the American Fly Fishing digital archive. Photo by Curtis Fry

As is often the case in fly angling, presentation is generally even more important than the cicada pattern you choose. When a cicada lands on the water, more likely than not it is stuck there for the rest of its life; whether it is eaten by a predacious fish or drowns is up to Mother Nature. A cicada that ends up in the river often floats along, motionless, for quite some time, just going with the flow, before suddenly frantically flapping its wings and trying to lift itself from the water. After the futile effort to escape the watery trap, the cicada will then rest, motionless, apparently rebuilding energy for yet another attempt at freedom. The best way to reenact this crazy cicada dance is to simply cast and do nothing. Cast your cicada fly so it plops forcefully onto the water like the real bug, then let the river do everything else; this motionless presentation mimics that of a live cicada. The simple dead drift usually does the trick, but if not, try twitching the fly to imitate the erratic wing-flapping, skittering dance of a cicada trying to free itself from the surface of the water. Trout and smallmouth bass are the obvious targets for cicada patterns, but these flies and tactics also tempt panfish, largemouth bass, carp, and even Esox species—pike, muskies, and pickerel.

Waiting the better part of two decades for a major hatch may seem grueling, but Brood X brings widespread opportunities to experience cicada action at its best. Cicadas are protein-packed superfoods that entice large fish to abandon caution, leading to epic feeding frenzies. This Brood X hatch will be an
angling experience for the ages—or at least for another 17 years.