October 09, 2020
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This story was originally titled “Cicada Mania: Big Bass, Trout, Carp, and Even Muskies Can’t Refuse 'Mother’s Milk.'" It appeared in the August-September 2020 issue of Fly Fisherman.
It’s a typical summer day: hot, humid, and sunny, and you’re on your favorite bass pond, lake, or river. The bright sun creates shade lines along the tree-lined shore, and that familiar loud buzzing sound coming from the trees tells you it’s the dog days of summer. You make a cast into a good-looking spot with your favorite popper and turn your eyes away from your fly just for a few seconds to tame your fly line, and when you look back you find that the fly has disappeared. You instinctively set the hook and find yourself in a tug-of-war with the biggest bass of your life.
This scenario has played out countless times for many fly fishers across this country and beyond. What caused this timeless occurrence? You didn’t pop the fly to make noise, or slide it to make it look like a struggling meal. It was just sitting on the surface during the hottest, sunniest part of the day when the fish are supposed to be skulking. Why does this happen so frequently? And why is it always a giant that eats it that way?
After many years of guiding and fishing for trout, bass, and other species, I’ve found that many of my largest largemouth, smallmouth, and carp come during the warm summer months in the brightest, hottest parts of the day.
The season is the reason—it’s cicada season. Every day those cicadas are buzzing in the trees, we have shots at trophy bass on topwater flies that imitate these bugs. Cicadas are staples in many fishes diets, and since trophy bass have been around so many years, they have learned to appreciate these large, helpless insects.
Larry Dahlberg once told me that big fish will always eat insects—even though they are large and can eat much bigger prey items such as other fish. He says it’s “mother’s milk” to them. All juvenile fish start out eating micro foods such as aquatic and terrestrial insects, and they remain conditioned to this behavior as adults. I have witnessed many different species of predatory fish, including channel catfish, largemouth and smallmouth bass, striped bass, carp, giant trout, and even muskies eating cicadas. For some people, 13- and 17-year periodic cicada hatches are an annoyance, but for fly fishers it’s a dream come true.
Annual cicadas hatch every year and in every state, yet are widely overlooked and underappreciated. Most states have at least four different species, and some states, such as California, have as many as 80 species. Most annual cicadas have olive or black-and-olive markings, but coloration can vary depending on the species. Cicadas are all over the world and are important to many animals. Squirrels, chipmunks, birds, and snakes also eat them.
As temperatures climb in the late spring and early summer, more and more cicada nymphs emerge from the ground, climb into the trees, molt, and begin singing to attract potential mates. They can also fly from tree to tree, although not very well.
Cicada season usually lasts three or four months, and peaks in mid-August to September. Even though you may not see many cicadas on the water, they are very important to the fish, as they are big meals and pack a bunch of protein. Cicadas are not great fliers and can be seen flying from tree to tree, rapidly dropping in altitude the longer they are airborne. If they venture too far away from the trees, they find themselves crash landing into rivers and lakes, where they become vulnerable prey.
As the season progresses and the cicadas finish mating in late summer and early fall, the cold nights make the cicadas more lethargic. They start dying from the cold and from old age, and drop from overhanging branches right into the water.
You may not see cicadas on the water, but they are there and they are important. It is easy to miss them, as they sit really low. You don’t often notice them unless they attempt to fly off the water. Once cicadas hit the water, they are stranded. They float motionless for long periods of time before resuming their frantic wing-flapping, struggling to break free from the surface and gain flight. They never do. These clumsy beasts need to start high in a tree to become airborne. Once they hit the water, they are there for good.
I often catch my biggest bass of the year on cicada imitations, and my biggest with a client came in September 2019. But it’s not only bass that enjoy gobbling cicadas. Larry Dahlberg’s “mother’s milk” comment rang true recently when I was fishing a local smallmouth bass river with a client. We were fishing a shade line when my client made a cast toward the bank and under overhanging trees. A massive head came up through the dark shadows and gently sipped the bug. When my client set the hook, I immediately thought “this is the biggest bass ever,” but to my astonishment it was a mid-40 inches muskie that sipped that bug as gently as a trout sipping mayflies. The battle ended prematurely due to the teeth, but it reaffirmed how important cicadas are to all fish species.
Periodic cicada hatches happen somewhere every year, and it’s the best fly fishing that can be had on planet earth. Periodic cicadas are the ones that live underground for 13 or 17 years in specific regions and then emerge en masse. There are many people who follow cicada emergences every year and plan trips to capitalize on this amazing phenomenon. There is a website for cicada lovers that helps you follow the periodic emergences across the country, and track when they may come to your part of the world. For instance, periodical cicada Brood IX will emerge in the spring of 2020 in North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia. The last time this brood emerged was in 2003. You can find on cicadamania.com a specific list of counties where these insects will emerge, and get up-to-date reports of cicada sightings.
The emergence usually starts in May or early June, when ground temperatures 8 inches below the surface reach 64 degrees F. The insects emerge and climb trees to molt and become sexually mature. The bugs have a short life lasting only around four to six weeks. They are very active during this time to make sure to reproduce and carry on the circle of life. What makes this hatch so special is the enormity of the biomass.
Periodic cicadas vary in size but are always black-bodied with orange highlights on the body and wings. This hatch becomes locally important to animals and fish, and they gorge themselves on these insects as long as they are around. It usually takes about 10 to 14 days before the fish get keyed in on them, so don’t expect to head to your local hot spot and think it will be on fire when they first emerge.
I have noticed that fishing in lakes is much better than streams and rivers during periodic cicada hatches. Early in the summer, the rivers are usually flowing high, and the bugs that fall into the rivers and streams are quickly washed away. Lake shorelines, on the other hand, become buffet lines for feeding fish. I have observed everything in a lake feeding with reckless abandon during periodic cicadas, including carp, stripers, and catfish of all kinds. You don’t often think of these stripers and catfish as bug eaters, but remember what Larry Dahlberg said about mother’s milk.
Carp can be the toughest gamefish to fool on fly, and they normally require lots of skill and patience to deceive. But when the cicada hatch is in full swing, normally shy carp become the exact opposites of their normal selves, and start eating like it’s their last meal. In 2017 the gluttony was so frantic I called my friend and filmmaker Paul Bourq to come and capture some of the action.
Gear & Strategies
I learned early in my guiding career how important cicadas are in my local smallmouth bass waters. I fished popping bugs and sliders in the summer during low, clear water, and many of the larger fish shied away from the movement of the fly. They came up to the fly and inspected the offering much like a trout inspects a mayfly. Sometimes they ate it, other times they refused the fly—especially if you moved it too much. I also learned that as the season progressed, and the water got lower and clearer (as it usually does in the summer), they refused the fly more and more. As summer progresses, it becomes critically important to move the fly as little as possible. I also noticed that some of the bigger fish we caught had cicadas in their mouths when we released them.
During this time, I started playing with patterns and created an arsenal. I also created a strategy to increase our success on the water. As the sun gets higher in the sky on summer days, many traditional bass anglers call it quits until evening. For cicada fly fishers, this is prime time, as it gets the bugs moving and creates shade lines along the riverbanks. This puts the fish in direct contact with falling cicadas, and also provides relief and shelter from the bright sun.
To take advantage of this, I target parts of the river with rocky, tree-lined banks. As we drift past these areas, I direct my clients to make longer casts ahead of the boat 2 to 5 feet off the bank, and allow the imitation to float on the water for at least 10 to 20 seconds before moving the fly, or recasting 20 feet farther downstream. I like a 20-foot separation in each presentation, as fish will move 10 feet on either side of the fly to eat it. Many rivers have grass beds that act as shelter for bass during the bright days of summer, the open lanes between the grasses are also hot spots.
I use 7- or 8-weight rods with a medium to fast action like the TFO Axiom II-X with a line like the Scientific Anglers Amplitude Tropical Titan or Mastery Bass Bug. These aggressive tapers turn over the large, air-resistant bugs easily. My leader setup is simple. I use a 9-foot leader with a heavy butt section tapered down to 14-, 16- or 20-pound-test tippet.
Matching The Hatch
Water clarity and fishing pressure determine my approach to fly selection. I use poppers and sliders early in the season, and move toward more impressionistic and then more realistic flies as the season goes on. I have had really big smallmouths come up to my fly and inspect it like they were reading the label of ingredients. Then they nudge the fly with their mouths to taste it or see if it moves. After seeing this scenario repeated many times, I started thinking that my flies didn’t have the correct profile/silhouette. Designing flies to match cicadas became critical in my evolution as a guide and fly designer. I’ve learned through time on the water and observation, and that helped me design some effective flies.
Chocklett’s Cicada is one example of problem solving based on fish reactions and refusals. I wanted this fly to look just like the real thing, and it’s very durable and fairly quick to tie. I’ll show you how to tie Chocklett’s Cicada pattern through a live fly-tying demonstration on Fly Fisherman magazine’s Instagram account @flyfishermanmagazine. You can also ask questions while I’m tying.
There are many other great choices for cicada imitations, and an early-season fly I like is the Flymen Fishing Company Surface Seaducer Double Barrel Bass Bug popper in black, chartreuse, blue, and white. Even though they don’t have the super-realistic look of a cicada, these flies do have a profile on the water close enough to match the bugs early in the season before the fish are pressured, and when the water isn’t as low and clear.
Another good pattern is Chuck Kraft’s classic Cicada made from cork. These flies have caught countless trophy fish over the years, and many fly tiers (myself included) were greatly influenced by him, as Kraft was the original pioneer fly guide here in Virginia. His cork bugs are meticulously made by sanding, prepping, and shaping, then painting with several coats to match the profile of the bugs. These flies are works of art, and very durable. Unfortunately, Kraft passed away in March this year at the age of 77. If you own some of his handmade flies, you should count yourself lucky.
Another really good one is Dave Whitlock’s Cicada. Whitlock needs no introduction, as he is one of the pioneers in tying flies for bass and sunfish. There are many other fly tiers out there who make incredible cicada imitations. Harrison Steeves’s Cicada, Daniel Seaman’s Deer Hair Cicada, Steve Yewchuck’s Cicada, Chris Adams’s Cicada, Dron Lee’s X Cicada are all realistic flies to match this awesome insect, and it shows how important this hatch is when so many great fly tiers are using their creative skills to match it.
Seeing is Believing
I will never forget watching a school of stripers cruise the shoreline of a lake, sipping cicadas like brown trout. I’m talking stripers from 5 to 25 pounds! I never would have believed it if I didn’t see it with my own eyes.
I have clients who ask me every year to set up a periodic cicada week for them, no matter where it may be happening in the country. Wherever the cicadas are, that’s where they want to be. This hatch rivals the fabled Salmonfly hatch in the Rockies and the palolo worm hatches in the Florida Keys. Your next dream trip is only a Google click away. “Cicada mania” is real, folks, and it’s happening right now.
Blane Chocklett guides for trout, smallmouths, muskies, and stripers year-round. You can find his previous articles at flyfisherman.com by searching for the author’s name. His new book, Game Changer: Tying Flies that Look & Swim like the Real Thing (Headwater Books, 2020), is now available.