There are two types of dry fly trout fishing. First, you have the standard style in which the angler casts a miniscule and carefully selected offering in a graceful loop out over a feeding trout. The fish rises and sips the fly gently, leaving barely a dimple on the placid surface of the river.
Then there’s the other kind—where the angler smacks a chunk of foam and deer hair the size of cigar butt onto the water, holding on for dear life as trout like nuclear submarines torpedo the giant meal. It’s the kind of fishing that pumps you full of adrenaline like an oncoming bar fight. Each crash and drag scream has your head banging like you’re at a Metallica concert.
If that second type of dry fly fishing sounds like fun, then you’re in luck. A Biblical event 17 years in the making is about to hit the eastern half of the United States, with promise to provide plenty of fist-pumping fishing action: The Brood X Cicada Hatch.
The Cicada Cometh One of 12 cicada broods with a 17-year life cycle, the Brood X, primarily Magicicada septendecim, insects were conceived in 2004 and have spent their lives living underground, growing steadily from eggs to nymphs. From mid-May to late June of 2021, these gigantic, red-eyed insects will burrow upward emerge from the earth as adults, taking to the skies in swarms of thousands. They will splatter on car windshields, clog airways, cause accidents, feed birds and all other manner of wildlife, and, of course, fall in the water.
Anglers in the know have been looking forward to the approach of these periodical cicadas with great anticipation. This once-in-a-generation hatch means that gigantic fish normally caught only by streamer fisherman or through sheer luck will rise with reckless abandon to capitalize on the buggy bounty. While trout anglers are the biggest beneficiaries of the cicada surplus, every fish—from bass and bluegills to catfish and carp—love chowing down on these fat, floating locusts.
Where to Fish the Cicada Hatch The Brood X hatch is solely a Mid-Western and Eastern event. The 2004 emergence saw isolated swarms of the insects singing annoyingly from trees in Illinois and Michigan and all the way to eastern New York. Some Southern states like Virginia and North Carolina will see fishable numbers of bugs as well.
Unlike other insects that fish crave, such as the mayflies and stoneflies that only emerge from certain types of rivers and streams with proper temperatures and aquatic terrain, these terrestrial cicadas will offer excellent dry fly fishing opportunities on almost any body of water near their emergence. The only thing that’s truly required for these fisheries are trees. After emerging from the ground, cicadas spend most of their time fluttering in tree branches looking for a mate. So, the more trees, the more cicadas.
My ideal fishing spots are tree-lined rivers with a bit of current and good populations of fish. Here, the river’s current will send cicadas over fish’s heads quickly, giving them less time to look over your fly or lure and eliciting reaction strikes. Competition from other fish will also make them opportunistic and less hesitant to strike. However, lakes, reservoirs, ponds, sloughs, and anywhere else where there are trees, fish, and cicadas, you can likely make it happen with the right presentation.
Fishing Gear to Use for the Cicada Hatch The fly rod you choose for your assault on the Brood X Hatch depends entirely on what species you are targeting. For trout anglers, the typical 5-weight rod will work but can be difficult to cast with larger, heavier cicada fly patterns. A 6-weight or even a 7-weight may be a better option. Bass anglers will want to use a 6-weight as a minimum and be open to boosting up to an 8-weight or larger depending on the size of the bass they’re after. If hunting anything larger such as stripers or carp, stick with the 8.
The delicate 5X and 6X leaders and tippet you would use in most trout fishing situations should be tossed out the window (no not literally). Lighter tippets can break off a big cicada fly pattern on a back cast, not to mention when a mammoth brown trout or smallmouth smashes into it. Fish feeding on cicada patterns aren’t going to be very shy, so don’t be afraid to use heavier leader material in the 3X to even 0X range.
Spin anglers can also cash in on the topwater action of the hatch. They will do well with a medium- to medium-heavy action rod strung with 6- to 10-pound-test line, which is light enough to throw small topwater lures, yet heavy enough to handle big fish. The combination should be more than sufficient for almost any species you’re after.
The Best Flies and Lures for the Cicada Hatch The Brood X Cicada is a large insect, with most adults well over an inch long. They have black bodies accented with yellowish-orange legs and wing casings. It’s a very particular color pattern, but one that a surprising amount of Western stonefly fly patterns imitate surprisingly well. Additionally, during these 17 years of anticipation, dozens of Brood X cicada patterns have been created by both fly shops and private tyers. So, while having access to patterns isn’t necessarily an issue, having the right types of patterns and fishing them properly is vital for success.
When cicadas fall into the water, they generally thrash and flap their wings trying to get airborne again or they sink partly below the surface to slowly struggle and drown. A fly angler wishing to capitalize on the Brood X Hatch should have several different patterns that can work for whatever scenario is presented to them.
Fluttering cicadas are the most common bugs you’ll see and the most entertaining fly patterns to fish. Large, heavy-winged fly patterns such as Paulson’s Flutter Bug or the Chubby Chernobyl in size 6 to size 2 are great imitations for these bugs. When you fish them, be sure to add a lot of small jerks and gentle twitches to the fly line, making the fly wiggle like a cicada struggling to take off. More realistic cicada pattern such as an Ultimate Cicada or the Fat Albert in black and orange are great for when fish are targeting less active bugs. These flies can be left to drift or sit on the surface of the water with the only necessary action being an occasional gentle twitching of the rod tip, making the fly vibrate slightly.
Drowned cicada patterns will work best later in the hatch, after the fish have seen a few days of heavy fishing. They can be imitated with patterns such as the Project Cicada, or even by tipping the previously mentioned realistic patterns with a tiny split shot or a bit of sink putty, making the flies sink below the surface.
Lures for the Cicada Hatch While fly anglers likely get the most excited about the Brood X hatch, spin gear anglers can still have a hell of a good time when fishing the right lures.
Though the behavior varies with species, when most fish are aggressively feeding on cicadas they’ll strike almost any moving thing with the right profile on the surface that looks alive—often as soon as it hits the water. While there are several different cicada lures out there, classic topwater lures such as Hula Poppers , Super Spooks, and Jitterbugs will also work incredibly well. When the fish are hungry during the cicada hatch, matching the hatch is really a matter of having a lure that imitates the basic shape, color, and movement of a cicada to entice a strike.
When it comes down to it, whether you have been tying flies in anticipation for the last 17 years or are just now hearing about it, be sure to get out and experience the Brood X Cicada Hatch if you’re nearby. Watching hummingbird-sized bugs flutter like over the water then seeing the surface explode is to witness a true miracle of nature. It’s like witnessing rare comet streaking across the heavens; an opportunity that comes only once or twice in a lifetime.
Feature image via Katja Schulz.