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

Who are they?  Why, Brood X of the 17-year Periodical Cicadas of course.  This is the big one, the Great Eastern Brood. Last seen in 2004 (do the math), this brood is scattered across 15 states. Of greatest interest to me, however, is the dense cluster around my home near Philadelphia. It takes in southeastern Pennsylvania, central New Jersey, and parts of Maryland and Delaware. The Periodicals typically start emerging in mid-May, and by the end of June they are gone. So if you want to experience this hatch there’s a very limited window of opportunity.

These insects are not to be confused with Annual Cicadas, also know as Dog Day Cidadas, which are present almost everywhere, every summer. Annual Cicadas have green wing veins, and their eyes are unremarkable. They are most abundant in August, which gives them their nickname. Periodical Cicadas emerge earlier in the year, are a tad smaller, and have orange wing veins and prominent, bright red eyes. They emerge in much greater densities than Annual Cicadas do.

I first learned about Periodical Cicadas in 2004, when I read an article in Fly Fisherman Magazine focused on the impending emergence of Brood X.  I was quite intrigued. They were supposed to be present in southeastern Pennsylvania, so I tied up a few flies and waited for them to show up in my yard. But they didn’t.  I heard no loud Cicada chorus, and didn’t see a single one of them in my neighborhood. Later, too late, I found out that they had been so thick in a nearby town that people were crunching them under their feet on the sidewalks.

I knew so little then. I didn’t understand that although the Cicadas were expected to be present in my area in 2004, there was no guarantee that they would be uniformly distributed. Nor that places where the emergence was happening would necessarily coincide with public access to fishable water.

I gave no further thought to Cicada emergences until 2008, when my good friend Ann McIntosh invited me out to her cottage in Spruce Creek, PA to stay and fish. We compared schedules and settled on dates in mid-June. A week or so before the trip I called Ann to touch base. “What’s hatching?” I asked.

Ann had a one-word answer for me: “Cicadas.” This time it was Brood XIV.

I drove out to Spruce Creek and made my way to Ann’s cottage. I stepped out of the car, and my ears were assaulted by a steady, loud, high-pitched din. It sounded like a fleet of alien spacecraft coming in for a landing. Nearby trees were festooned with cicada shucks. Around the base of the trees were holes where the insects had come up out of the ground after 17 years spent growing and sipping sap from tree roots. Cicadas were flying around, perched on every tree and bush, sometimes crawling on me. You don’t know what creepy is until you’ve felt a Cicada crawling on the back of your neck. Thank heaven they don’t bite or sting. Some of them flew out over the stream and fell in.  Any Cicada that hit the water didn’t drift far before being eaten.

We fished Spruce Creek and the nearby Little Juniata for the next few days. Large, wary fish that would have otherwise been nocturnal were out and feeding on the surface all day long. I had heard and read stories over the years about rises that sounded “like a toilet flushing.” I had always dismissed this as hyperbole, until I heard that noise numerous times during this trip.  Casts I made to such rises were often ignored, sometimes drew a heart-stopping explosion, but never resulted in a hook-up. Still, I caught more big trout, more consistently, than I ever had before.

My most vivid and persistent memory from the trip was of a huge Brown Trout that drifted out from his hiding place under a streamside willow to intercept my fly, and delicately sipped it in scarcely a rod’s length away from me. Spruce Creek hosts a number of such fish which I’d taken to calling “torpedoes.”  I’d always assumed they were impossible to catch. The trout immediately tore off upstream and deftly wrapped my leader around a large, waterlogged stick that was precariously perched atop a submerged rock. When I saw what had happened, I began a very careful stalk toward the fish in hopes of untangling my leader. The trout dangled downstream from the stick.  I was so close I could see his eye move as he watched me approach. He shook his head occasionally. Finally I felt that I was as close as I could get.  With painfully deliberate slowness I started to reach out toward the stick. As soon as my arm moved the fish violently jerked his head and snapped off my leader—not the 3X tippet but the much heavier material above it. So maybe I was right all along about torpedoes being uncatchable.

My second encounter with the Periodicals involved Brood II, in 2013. Understandably, anglers who know the current, precise location of a fishable emergence tend to keep their lips tightly zipped. But while doing a fly tying demonstration at the Pennsylvania Fly Fishing Museum’s annual Heritage Day in mid-June I engaged in conversation with a tyer at an adjacent table. The subject of Periodical Cicadas came up and he spilled the beans. At that very time they were emerging along a nearby stream which must remain nameless. There was no doubt how I would spend the following day.

Arriving at the stream in question, I pulled off the road and stepped out of the car. There was that unmistakable din. Luck was with me once again, my hot tip had panned out. I drove a short distance further to an access point I’d used in the past. While gearing up, a Cicada landed on me. Oh baby, game on!

This stream is smaller than Spruce or the Little J, and so are its fish. The fishing was challenging. Although my imitation attracted plenty of attention from stocked trout and jumbo Fallfish, and I caught enough to be happy, there were a lot of refusals and short takes. The overall experience, however, was wonderful and very educational. One discovery, among many, was that the naturals are top-heavy and tend to float upside-down. Apparently the humped back of the insect shifts the center of balance so that they land on the water inverted.

Now, as I prepare for the 2021 emergence of Brood X, I feel much more confident about finding good fishing. Prime areas for the emergence are within easy day-trip distance from my home. I am quite familiar with the waters I plan to fish, and the best access points. It will simply be a matter of driving around to various locations and listening for the Cicada Chorus.

Here’s a link that will give you some background information and a good starting point for fishing over the Periodical Cicadas of Brood X. Do your detective work, and if you are fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time the experience and the fishing will be unforgettable. Good luck!

 

https://www.cicadamania.com/cicadas/periodical-cicada-brood-x-10-will-emerge-in-15-states-in-2021/

3 Comments

  1. Fascinating, Mary. Although I never tracked broods and such, I remember Ohio summers festooned — more like wallpapered — with one variety of cicada or another, throughout my childhood. I have never seen one in the American West.

    A few questions: Given that Nature always indulges its early arrivals and its stragglers, if you were to fish a cicada pattern in an off year, would fish know it’s an off-year? If you were to fish a cicada pattern at a stream in your region where no hatch seems to have occurred (yet), would fish know yours is the only one in the water vs. whether it might just be the first? If I were to fish a cicada pattern in a region that doesn’t get cicada hatches, would the shape and size still strike a “match” in the born-in recognition parts of a fish’s pea-sized brain?

    Do the answers depend on the selectivity of the fish species in question?

    I ask because cicadas give us an excellent opportunity to assess whether naturals must already be in the water before fish realize they’re food. Many people think that’s the case, but if so it would suggest recognition isn’t immediate and that some number of a given type of bug must float by before fish remember what they are. I’m not sure I ever fully bought that, but then I’ve also never gotten a strike on a hopper pattern in a non-hopper-infested stream, either. And then there’s the “suddenly the hatch turns off” aspect too…after which imitations are so often immediately ignored thereafter.

    It’s an interesting topic, even if it may be overthinking just a bit. Anyway what a great article…and I hope this year yields you enough stories to last…uh…17 years.

    – Mike

  2. Hi Mary,
    Great article. In Minnesota and western Wisconsin where I live, we do not get much activity from cicadas. However, my wife’s cousins live in Duluth (about 1.5 hr. drive) and they completely denude virtually every tree. For some reason, I have never thought about trying to get up there around that time. Thanks to your article it is now on my radar.
    My one run-in with cicadas was accidental. Several years ago a nice fish was sipping in midges tight to the shore near a deadfall in a 3-4 foot deep pool. It took 7-10 casts to get my midge to drift over the fish with no drag and the fish sipped in the fly so gently I almost forgot to set the hook. It turned out to be a 15″ brown that was as fat as any I had ever seen. I kept the fish for a friend who wanted a trout dinner. When I cleaned it I found a cicada. One of my early blogs talked about the occasional violation of the bigger flies catch bigger fish guide line for trout fishing. I posted a side-by-side picture of the cicada and the #20 midge the fish took (See Posted on AUGUST 12, 2016 Maybe Bigger Isn’t Always Better? in by blog collection). A rough calculation showed that the cicada was ~200 times bigger than the midge.
    I am going to keep my eyes and ears open to see whether the cicadas show up at the rivers near me. I have always managed to just miss famous big fly hatches by a week or so. It would be fun to hit something like this for sure.
    By the way, those big fish know every snag near them. I chased one around for 15 minutes as he worked through his list. He finally broke me off after getting me hung up on 4-5 different snags. Funny how these incidents are the strongest memories!
    Thanks again for a fun and inspiring article.
    All the best, Joe

  3. I take back what I said earlier about never having seen these things out west, Mary. I was looking up something wrt a side conversation with our own Joe Dellaria and discovered in my photo archives that in 2015, during a family camping trip, I’d photographed an “Okanagana bella,” aka “Mountain Cicada,” on a rock where I was fishing. It had orange-highlighted veins through its wings and on its legs, but black eyes. Naturally I was unprepared, so kept on flailing away with the flies I had on me.

    A little research shows the Mountain Cicada has a 9-year cycle and is common throughout the American West…which means in June and July of 2024 I’ll be out there chucking cicada puppets onto the water like a man possessed.

    And not to wait that long…the devilish-looking 17-year red-eyed invader that stars in your article is expected to be everywhere out here too! Time to quickly tie up something that will pass for both of these critters…maybe with one black eye and one red. : )

    So thanks for the nudge.

    – Mike

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