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Fly Fishing 2024's Cicadapacolypse: When Broods Collide

The when, where, and how of fishing this massive overlapping emergence which will never again happen in our lifetimes.

Fly Fishing 2024's Cicadapacolypse: When Broods Collide

This is the first time in our lifetimes that the Northern Illinois Brood and the Great Southern Brood will emerge during the same summer. These cicadas will hatch across a massive area of the United States that includes 17 different states. (Dave Zielinski photo)

This article appears in the June-July 2024 issue of Fly Fisherman, available at your local fly shop, magazine stand, Walmart, Barnes & Noble, or major book retailer.

In the year 1803, Ludwig van Beethoven was entering the peak of his popularity at the age of 33. He was still able to hear and he composed what is considered one his greatest works, “Symphony No. 3, The Heroic Symphony.” In France, Napoleon Bonaparte was on the verge of claiming the title of emperor while closing a deal with U.S. President Thomas Jefferson for the Louisiana Purchase. Right about the time that Ralph Waldo Emerson was born in the last week of May, two prolific periodical cicada broods were on the verge of performing their own final symphonies of sorts. This rare occurrence would happen again in the year 2024, a mere 221 years later.

Cicadas are part of the largest group of terrestrial insects, and belong to a family in excess of 3,000 species worldwide. They belong to the order Hemiptera, or “true bugs,” which means they possess mouthparts resembling long drinking straws. This enables them to extract sap from plants by piercing underground root structures.

In the insect world, cicadas are among the longest-lived, with a slow developmental period as underground burrowing nymphs, morphing into adult winged insects in the last several weeks of their lives. Most of the world’s cicadas are “annual” varieties, which means that, more or less every year, members of a specific cicada family emerge. Of particular interest in 2024 are the periodical species with 13- and 17-year lifecycles.

“Periodical cicada” refers to a single genus, Magicicada, whose members emerge on a predictable, regularly occurring interval of 13 or 17 years. This means all members of the genus will participate in a synchronized emergence in their designated year, resulting in apocalyptic numbers of bugs. This is not an exaggerated use of the word: Periodical emergences contain millions and in some cases, billions of almost 2-inch-long bugs assembling in the treetops like a plague of biblical proportions.

This is an incredible boost to local ecosystems, providing a bumper crop of food for birds, reptiles, mammals, and fish of all kinds. If you dare, try one yourself.

“Once you get past the wing texture, they aren’t that bad,” is a common statement after a newbie crunches on one. In a rite of passage during our cicada fishing adventures, my fishing buddies and I sample a few each time we encounter an emergence. We compare notes of “woodiness,” “nut-like,” and “salami” tastes on the palate, usually while assembled around a campfire telling stories of the day’s fishing.

Magicicada species occur from the Midwest to the Eastern Seaboard. Contained exclusively within U.S. borders, these are the only periodical cicadas known to exist. They have been heavily studied and documented since the late 1700s, and research continues to this day. It wasn’t until 1893 that Charles Lester Marlatt, an entomologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, developed a naming convention to classify the various predictable occurrences. Marlatt used Roman numerals to differentiate the broods, starting in 1893 with Brood I for 17-year species and proceeding to Brood XVIII for 13-year species. This naming convention is still used for the 12 17-year and three 13-year periodical cicada broods we know today.

The year 2024 brings back a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence when two broods—Brood XIX, a 13-year and Brood XIII, a 17-year periodical cicada—will emerge in the early summer across a vast area of the United States, from the Midwest across the South to the Mid-Atlantic. The next time these two broods emerge in the same year will be 2245. Fly fishers willing to do the homework and preparation will surely be rewarded with a fishing experience that can only be described as epic.

Those who have previously experienced fishing during periodical emergences have been anxiously fighting the ticks of time in anticipation of meeting them again. During a “cicada year,” I always reserve vacation time for cicadas, combating cabin fever by scouring the Internet for intel, and making a mess at the tying table with foam, deer hair, and rubber legs in preparation for the eagerly awaited main event.

Hunting the Hatch

To understand how, when, and where to find any periodical cicada emergence, you need to consider several factors, the first of which is the brood distribution. This gets you in the general area where the bugs live. The second and third are the lifecycle and behavior of the adult insects.

Two cicadas on a leafy branch.
Periodical cicadas emerge in 13-year or 17-year cycles. Every year a brood appears somewhere. In 2024, two of the geographically biggest broods will appear in the same summer. (Dave Zielinkski photo)

Brood distribution maps continue to be refined after each emergence of every periodical brood. These are accurate enough to get you where the bugs are. Using the brood distribution maps and online tools like Google Earth, overlay the brood locations and start to find waterways. You are looking for areas near bodies of water you can access for whatever species you intend to chase. This is, however, not a guarantee you will find fishable numbers of bugs, but it will get you within earshot of the cicadas’ mating calls.


Remember that cicadas are terrestrial insects—they wind up in the water where fish will find them only by accident.

The lifecycle of the cicada plays an important role to our ability to find them as they leave us clues to their presence and stages of emergence. Cicadas spend most of their lives underground as nymphs, and the 13-year and 17-year periodical cicadas will spend all those years—except the last four to six weeks of life—burrowing beneath the earth, sucking on tree roots, and molting as they grow to adulthood. Cicada nymphs often stay within a square meter of soil their entire lives with their many brothers and sisters, doing their underground cicada thing and waiting to emerge.

The trigger to emerge happens sometime in early summer, when the soil temperature reaches around 64 degrees F. at an average depth of about 8 inches. Across the Midwest and East this is sometime from mid-May to early June. Beneath mature trees, the nymphs crawl to the surface, leaving behind perfect holes about ⅜ inch in diameter. You start to see these holes a few at a time, and when the peak emergence occurs you see thousands in the ground beneath the canopy of mature trees where the last generation of cicadas left behind their eggs.

By the time the summer solstice rolls around, all the cicadas slated to emerge that year have done so. Once the cicadas emerge from their earthen lairs, they find the nearest vertical surface—trees, shrubs, fence posts, or telephone poles—and begin to climb. This occurs at night to help safeguard them in their most vulnerable stage. They climb anywhere from a few feet off the ground to high in the canopy of a tree and begin to morph into their final adult form.

The adults emerge from their nymphal shucks much like Golden Stoneflies when they crawl out of a river onto a rock or streamside vegetation. The back of the case splits, and the new creatures pull themselves away from their exoskeletons. Their wings begin to unfold, and the blood pumping through their veins fills their bodies.

They are initially bone white with red eyes until the effects of air and temperature begin to harden their bodies and color them black with orange highlights. They rest overnight and begin to crawl around on trees and leaves, getting accustomed to their new environment. Over the next several days, thousands of cicadas across the region begin to emerge until critical mass is reached. This is typically eight to ten days following first signs of emergence.

The entire purpose of the final, brief adult stage is to procreate the species. Males have morphed into their final form with tymbals—anatomy that enables them to sing their mating songs and attract females. Females possess ovipositors, which enable them to deposit their fertilized eggs to set the next generation in motion. Both have wings that give them flight, allowing huge congregations of bugs to collect in trees and commence the mating process. It is this newfound but awkward ability to fly that results in many crash landings on water. This places them squarely on the dinner table for fish to gorge themselves.

Trout feed heavily on cicadas where their habitats intersect, but fly fishing with cicada patterns extends far outside the trout world. Largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, sunfish, catfish, carp, and many other fish become fly rod targets during cicada years. Carp in particular become very vulnerable during cicada events, and become much more surface oriented. (Bob Bell photo)

On hot, sunny days, the males begin to sing by rapidly flexing the tymbals on their abdomens. This is enabled by ambient temperatures—cicadas are cold-blooded insects, and they require warmth for movement and metabolic function. You will notice that it’s quiet on cool mornings. You don’t hear screaming cicadas. By afternoon, the insects are warm enough to start doing business. Keep this in mind when scouting. If you go too early, or on cooler days, you are not likely to hear the bugs that may actually present by the millions.

Temperature also affects the cicadas’ ability to fly. Singing cicadas equate to flying cicadas. As the males sing, the females are attracted to the specific frequency of the males’ songs. They fly toward the sounds to locate prospective mates. This results in males competing to sing the loudest and females flying to meet them, resulting in heavy concentrations of bugs—thousands to millions in a single grove of trees—and if we are lucky, these trees are close enough to a shoreline where fish are ready to capitalize on the massive numbers of cicadas falling out of the sky.

Once the female cicadas find suitable mates, the mating process commences. Females immediately find a suitable tree limb, usually the new, leafy twigs from early spring. They use their ovipositors to slice into the fresh bark, deposit 10 to 20 eggs, and repeat the process along the limb until all of their 500 to 600 eggs are placed. The lifecycle is then complete for both the males and females. They cling to life for days or weeks, waning in their ability to sing and fly, and eventually die. The carcasses fall to the ground to be eaten by birds and other animals, or decompose to nourish the environment as the next generation begins.

The key to scouting for fishable cicada emergences is to pay attention. Once the bugs are singing and flying, they will end up in the water. At  times you may find bugs but no flying, and no fish eating them. This means the fish haven’t seen enough of them yet. Go back in a week, or better yet, check every day until you find cicadas in the water. It will happen. You’re going to want to be there when it does.

When enough bugs end up in the water, the fish begin to realize that there is a recurring source of food and will begin to hunt the cicadas. Be mobile and return to areas where you have seen or heard cicadas throughout the two to six weeks since the first emergence. You will find them. Once you find cicadas near water, and meet them on a hot sunny afternoon when you see lots of bugs flying and hear the nearly deafening mating calls of the males, take it all in, because it will be more than a decade before the next emergence happens in this place.

Magical Appearance

A map showing the locations of the two 2024 broods and the overlap.

Brood XIII 2024 last emerged in 2007. This is a 17-year species known as the Northern Illinois Brood, occurring in parts of southern Michigan, southern Wisconsin, northern Indiana, northern Illinois, and eastern Iowa.

Brood XIX 2024 last emerged 2011. This is a 13-year periodical cicada known as the Great Southern Brood and is one of the largest and geographically most widely distributed broods of periodical cicadas. It covers two distinct bands of emergence from central to southern Illinois, Kansas, and Indiana and along the coastal plain, including Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Mississippi, Maryland, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia.

To have both these broods appear in the same year is far less frequent than Halley’s Comet, and will give cicadas a huge distribution across a wide swath of the United States. Some well-known fishing areas where these cicadas are likely to emerge in massive numbers include:

  • Arkansas: White River, Bull Shoals Lake, Little Red River
  • Missouri: Lake Taneycomo, Mississippi River, Missouri River, Lake of the Ozarks
  • Georgia: Chattahoochee River, Lake Lanier, Savannah River, Carters Lake
  • North Carolina: Nantahala Wilderness
  • South Carolina: Lake Keowee
  • Tennessee: Lake Barkley, Cumberland River, Kentucky Lake, Hiwassee River
  • Illinois: Carlyle Lake, Wabash River, Lake Shelbyville, Grass Lake, Coffeen Lake
  • Kentucky: Ohio River, Tennessee River

Of course the above includes just a small sample of some famous waters. Cicadas will also appear on thousands of other small streams and lakes in large areas of many states.

Click here for a detailed interactive map. 

Tackle Preferences

I typically fish cicada patterns with a 5- to 8-weight fly rod, with a heavy preference for a multipurpose 7-weight. Heavier rods make it easier to cast large patterns, use heavy tippet, and quickly get fish to the net. Cicadas emerge in early summer when water temperatures are warm. Do the right thing: Carry and use a water thermometer, and avoid fishing for trout when water temperature rises above 65 degrees F.

There is typically little to no finesse fishing when it comes to cicadas. The flies are size 4 and 6 patterns tied to 1X or “as heavy as you wanna go” tippet. There is no need to play a fish to exhaustion.

When you’re fishing for trout, a 9-foot rod and a leader of the same length will suffice. Early in the emergence, trout attack cicadas with reckless abandon. As time goes on, this changes as fish become sated and become aware that cicadas can bite back. Present your fly much as you would in general hopper or attractor fishing, but cover all the water.

Trout that are aware of the bugs are also aware that they arrive on the water at random. I once watched a brown trout race 20 feet across a pool to eat my fly, which had ended up in a nondescript piece of water after I pulled it from a tree. The best fish of the day ate my fly after a lousy cast. Go figure.

Part of the fun of chasing cicada emergences is to try to catch any fish that eats them. It is entirely possible to catch several species on a single waterway. Just about every fish that swims samples cicadas when they are available: bass, trout, bluegills, carp, bowfins, pike, walleyes, catfish, suckers, fallfish, and more. With the abundance of food that nature provides, it seems the entire ecosystem is turned on its head to focus on eating at least some cicadas.

The mouth of a carp with a cicada in it.
Heavier rods make it easier to cast large patterns, use heavy tippet, and quickly get fish to the net. (Dave Zielinkski photo)

Of all the fish I have encountered during cicada emergences, the common carp is the pinnacle of the sport. These wonderful fish often tip the scales at more than 10 pounds, swim just about anywhere, are tolerant of many different water types and temperatures, and are almost always attractive targets when a cicada year occurs. Carp can often be tricky and difficult to catch on flies, but when the cicadas are on the water, their character changes dramatically. It’s normally unusual to find them focused on surface flies.

You often find them swimming in schools or as singles along lake shorelines, usually where they have found food before. Carp are very aware and often hard to catch when they have the advantage of looking and feeding face down in the mud. But when carp do eat on the surface, they are blind as they tip up their heads to find the food. This often results in an eat that feels like an eternity as the fish hunts for the bug and finally slurps it in. You will likely miss the first few hook-sets until you get the hang of letting them sink the bug before setting the hook. It’s okay—you will likely have many targets to choose from.

Use the off season to plan your list of places to hit that might have cicadas, tie some patterns, and get ready to experience the cicada madness in 2024!

Dave’s 17-Year Itch Cicada Fly Recipe

A cicada fly in a vise.
  • HOOK: #2-6 Gamakatsu B10S.
  • THREAD: Fire orange UTC 140-denier.
  • UNDERBODY: Black craft foam (2mm).
  • TOP, HEAD, AND BACK: Black craft foam (2mm).
  • UNDERWING: Pearl Krystal Flash.
  • WING: Natural elk hair.
  • LEGS: Red craft foam (2mm).
  • INDICATOR: Orange craft foam (2mm).
  • ADHESIVE: Super Glue or Zap-A-Gap.

Dave Zielinski has been tracking down periodical cicada emergences for the last 20 years. His book Cicada Madness: Timing, Fishing Techniques, and Patterns for Cracking the Code of Epic Cicada Emergences (Stackpole Books, 2023) is the culmination of his experiences. Zielinski lives in rural western Pennsylvania with his wife, three daughters, and two German shorthaired pointers. He spends his spring and summer chasing fish, and in the fall chases birds over dogs. He also designs and builds custom wooden drift boats for fly fishing and river running as owner of Down Home Boatworks. | @down_home_boatworks

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