Bad Bug, Good Bug

Guest Blogger: Mary S. Kuss, Life-long avid angler, licensed PA fishing guide, founder of the Delaware Valley Women’s Fly Fishing Association

There really are no bad bugs, just bad humans. Infestations of Japanese Beetles, Gypsy Moths, Emerald Ash Borers, and a host of other alien invaders are all the result of humans introducing insects to places far removed from their natural range, whether by accident or intent. In the absence of the predators and diseases that normally keep their numbers in check, they can run amok and reproduce explosively.

We humans then run around with our hair on fire, trying to think of what we might do to control the current “bug-pocalypse.” We have to do something! Sometimes the cure is worse than the affliction. The most common reaction is to spew toxic chemicals around. This may knock back the invaders but also wreaks heavy collateral damage upon a wide variety of beneficial insects, some of which may otherwise have helped control the alien species, given time. Nature will always clean up our messes but on her timetable, not ours. And lest I be pilloried for being insensitive, I realize that orchard owners and other agricultural interests don’t have the luxury of being as casual about this issue as I am.

The bad bug de jour is the Spotted Lanternfly. I first saw them last summer. There were reports of pockets of heavy infestation in southeastern Pennsylvania, but I saw none in my yard just west of Philadelphia. This year they have been far more abundant. I’ve squished dozens of them at all life stages, from the tiny black early-stage nymphs with white polka dots all the way up to fully-formed adults. I’ve become quite adept at catching them by hand and dispatching them with a quick pinch to the head–not that this makes any meaningful impact on their numbers.

I’ve talked with many people who are caught up in the usual “bad bug” freak-out over the Lanternflies. I try to quietly explain that like the Japanese Beetles and Gypsy Moths before them, they will eventually merge into the local ecosystem at much lower numbers or possibly die out entirely. Anything humans try to do to get rid of them is largely what I refer to as feel-good-bullpuckey. I don’t think I have a very good track record of convincing anyone of this.

One of the first fly fishing books I owned was A Modern Dry Fly Code, by Vince Marinaro, first published in 1950. By the time I got my copy in 1970 it was in its sixth printing. There is an entire chapter devoted to the Japanese Beetle, including a fly pattern made by gluing a coffee bean to a hook. Japanese Beetles were the scourge of my rose bushes for many years. In the summer I’d go out every morning with a coffee can half full of water and dish soap, pick them like berries and drop them in. Their grubs ravaged my lawn. Gradually their numbers diminished, and it’s been years since I’ve seen a single one.

When I first started fly fishing in the late 1960’s, trees in my home state of New Jersey were being denuded by Gypsy Moth caterpillars. You could walk through wooded areas on a sunny day and hear what sounded like raindrops hitting the ground. It was “frass,” fecal droppings falling down from the tree canopy as the caterpillars munched away. Hundreds of acres of woodland were completely bare of leaves. The summer woods looked like it was winter.

It was around this time that I caught my first trout ever on a fly. I was a rookie teenage fly fisher, the ink still wet on my driver’s license. I was fishing the Manasquan River in central New Jersey, a short drive from my home in Point Pleasant. The Gypsy Moth adults had emerged, and they were finding their way onto the water. The dry fly I had was not a good match for the naturals, nor was my presentation. But it was good enough. A 13-inch Rainbow Trout that had held over from the spring stockings, and who was not very discriminating, darted out from a stump along the bank and grabbed my dragging fly. As with the Japanese Beetles, the Gypsy Moths eventually dropped off our radar.  How much of this was due to human intervention and how much to natural processes is debatable.

The 2020 fishing season has, of course, been heavily impacted by the effects of Covid-19 on us humans. The sickness, misery, and loss of life that has ensued are undeniable tragedies. In the midst of all that, however, I have used my fly fishing as a sort of sanity fix. When absorbed by one’s fishing, other worries and concerns drop away. They may return on the walk back to the car but the respite, brief though it may be, is priceless.

Fishing has become a lot more complex this season. Changing weather patterns, the Pandemic, and the presence of the Lanternflies have all conspired to change many of the assumptions that have always underpinned my approach to fishing local streams. These factors, however, are all beyond my control. There’s nothing for it but to, as the Marines say, adapt and overcome.

I have unfortunately been slow to take the Lanternflies seriously as regards my fishing. I’ve seen plenty of them all season not only in my yard but around the stream and on the water. Thankfully I’m not a squeamish person, because every time I went fishing this past spring I had to pick a number of the nymphs off my person. My go-to fly pattern, the Green Weenie, worked just well enough to keep me using it. But I felt like the fishing wasn’t very good. Was there too much angling pressure, from people out of school or work and desperate to recreate outdoors? Or was it the disruption of the stream by heavy run-off from frequent storms? Either or both might have been factors. But maybe the fish were semi-selective to Lanternflies and I simply failed to pick up on it.

When I first saw the adult Lanternflies last year I was intrigued by their elaborate colors and markings. Despite their destructive behavior they really are quite beautiful. I thought it would be interesting to try to devise an artificial fly to imitate them. But there was no motivation to do so until recently. A couple of weeks ago I started noticing adult Lanternflies on the water—and the fish were definitely eating them. Now they had my attention. It was time to get to work at the tying bench.

I’ve taken a minimalist approach to fly design for many years. Even if I’d wanted to incorporate a high degree of realism, it was clear that that for the Lanternfly adult that would not be possible in a practical fishing fly. The problem was to identify and suggest a few key triggers. Although I am not prepared to say that my current design is final, it’s certainly very close. I’ve been fishing it quartering downstream, alternately skittering, dead-drifting, and twitching on each cast. Trout, Smallmouth Bass, Fallfish, and big Redbreast Sunfish are all smashing it on the take. That’s not how they take the naturals, which are sucked under with a quiet sip. The naturals also don’t actively skitter across the surface. But I really don’t care about why the fish take the fly, just that they do.  And fishing the fly actively is certainly more fun.  Here’s the dressing:

MK Spotted Lanternfly Adult

Hook:  #12 dry fly hook of your choice
Thread:  Danville 3/0 Monocord, black
Body:  Fur dubbing of your choice, a spot of bright red at the back end, the rest off-black (black with a bit of gray mixed in)
Wing:  Deer or yearling elk, dyed dun

Note: The total length of the fly, nose to wing tips, should be about 1-inch. This matches the naturals. I’ve downsized the hook by one size from what traditional proportions would indicate, in order to improve floatation.

I have also tied a slightly more elaborate version, with a black foam overbody and black Spandex legs. So far I’ve not noticed any difference in effectiveness between the two.

10 thoughts on “Bad Bug, Good Bug

  1. Michael J Vorhis

    I really like your “Nature has a way of adjusting and carrying on” attitude about sudden ecosystem changes (like lanternfly infestation), Mary. It’s true of most (perhaps all) kinds of natural pattern changes, but it takes having logged a few years and a few miles to realize that. Wisdom and patience come to replace outrage and overreaction, and the delicate yet complex ultimately invincible system forges elegantly on, century after century. I remember so-called “invasions” of killer bees and cicadas and grasshoppers…coldspells and mudflows and droughts…and they all came and went.

    I can’t even remember most of them…as a kid, each new critter found on a tree we’d just dub a “moth” and leave it at that. Most of the time something odd would never be spotted again. Yes, there were some changes that have lingered, but most of those were disappearances rather than invasions. As a small boy I remember running at night through lightning bug clouds so thick our progress would be impeded by the number of them that hit our t-shirt. It was like a living galaxy of magic, carpeting the pony field with a four-foot-thick blanket of light. Sadly, while a few remain, the clouds of light went the way of the dodo, courtesy probably of DDT…but invasions have never proven to amount to very much in the grand scheme.

    Very nice article; thanks. Note that if you ever care to write another article and call it, “Bugs: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” I can donate something for that last category from my vise.

    – Mike

    Reply
    1. Mary S. Kuss

      Thanks, Mike. I too remember lightning bugs being far more abundant than they are now. I was quite the little hunter as a child, it was great sport to catch them and collect my prey in a jar. Sorry to say there was undoubtedly a certain amount of unintentional mortality involved. I have to confess that to this day I sometimes chase down and catch one–if my aging eyes can see well enough in the twilight to let me do it. My failure rate is pretty high, and I’m sure if the neighbors see me doing this they are sure I’ve finally and completely lost my mind. At least my lightning bug catching is now strictly catch-and-release. I learned a long time ago that that if I position my hand fingers-up a well-mannered lightning bug will patiently climb up to the highest point, spread its wings and take flight. I get a big kick out of this. I guess I have a low threshold of thrill.

      Reply
      1. Michael J Vorhis

        Catch and release! I love it!! I no longer live where fireflies ever did…California (the name of which means “Hot Furnace,” lest we think the droughts and fires out here are a new thing) has air too dry and dirt even drier, and none of that is conducive to the firefly’s life strategy. But I feel privileged to have experienced, back in my Ohio youth, those clouds of light so thick they were just a glowing blanket over the field.

        Those days, sadly, are gone…although one day a million years from now it all might come back.

        I remember my cousin catching one and tossing it on the cement porch and then scraping his shoe across it, to smear its magical glow onto the concrete in a long comet-tail of greenish yellow. He grinned, but all I could think of was the horrific death that bug had been served…and for its beauty, too. I was not in the least squeamish about putting worms and grasshoppers on hooks, but that…it just warn’t right. So after a few minutes in a jar most of us would release them.

        Only very loosely related…I do also remember a guy in college who recounted a place he used to go as a small boy where there were thousands of tiny frogs in a patch of wet mud. Suddenly he asked me, “Now, how many frogs do you think will fit in a metal band-aid box??? Fifty eight!” And as his story went, he stored his box-o-frogs behind his head in the back seat of his dad’s car…under the window…in the sun…and…well, never mind.

        – Mike

        Reply
  2. Mike Cline

    Although your pattern appears more like a caddis than a leaf hopper, I never try to get into the mind of a fish. The term Jassid has become a catch all term to identify flies resembling beetles and leaf hoppers, although scientifically it applies to a specific group of small leaf hoppers. During my 2017 trip to Tasmania, we caught browns on a fly tied to resemble large black and red leaf hoppers which were very common in the eucalyptus trees. In the book Australia’s Best Trout Flies Revisited (2016), there are a significant number of patterns presented to resemble the leaf hoppers and beetles found down there. A few resemble your fly in the basics.

    Apart from the invasive nature of the Lantern Fly (a leaf hopper), it’s size certainly makes it a good meal for a hungry fish. Nice work and don’t you just love those Redbreast Sunfish—beauty and spunk.

    Reply
    1. Mary S. Kuss

      Thanks, Mike. I have to agree, my fly does not resemble the naturals much–to human eyes at least. My fly designs tend to be quite abstract. I try to select a few key “triggers,” as the late, great Gary LaFontaine called them. My next concern is function. How does the pattern behave on the water? Is it a practical fishing fly–durable, quick and easy to tie, easy to cast, and (in the case of a dry fly), easy to keep floating? And of course, most of all, does it work well? Frankly it’s not easy to get all of that into one fly, but IMHO I did it with this one. As for Redbreast Sunfish, I could not agree with you more. What they lack in size they more than make up for with sheer predatory aggressiveness and colors that rival those of any tropical reef fish.

      Reply
  3. John Leppert

    Mary appreciated your fly into and knowledge .just getting into tying..hope I can duplicate it.Thank you very much

    Reply

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