Nature Notebook: Fishing the Cicada Invasion

Cicada fishing

By Dylan Cooper, columnist

The thought of missing a fishing opportunity that comes only once every 17 years has kept me busy the past few weeks. The Brood X cicada emergence is happening right now and it’s not all that far from our neck of the woods. I’ve spotted them in parts of Warren, Clarke and Shenandoah counties and the Brood X map shows them stretching out the length of the I-66 corridor and many points north. The Brood I and II cicadas are the ones we primarily see here around Page County, which we will have to wait until 2029 and 2030, respectively. But if you’re like me, you can’t sit around waiting while a prime opportunity happens next door! 

At hatch rates of up to 1.4 million per acre, there is a lot of biomass currently being unearthed. This means for the local birds, reptiles, mammals, and of course fish, there is an all-you-can-eat buffet… for a limited time only! The emergence only lasts about six weeks. The adults live for only two to four weeks above ground, and with the few cold spurts we had this season, the emergence has been drawn out a little longer. This week may be the peak for the emergence with the flying activity becoming so heavy that it has been showing up on the National Weather Service radar images.

I’ll admit I’ve been nerding out a little bit during this cicada emergence, even going as far as using the app “Cicada Safari”. The app was developed by cicada expert Gene Kritsky and Mount St. Joseph University for a crowd-sourcing effort to track the extent of the cicada emergence. “Cicada Safari” has received over 250,000 downloads as of June 3rd. I have used it whenever I spot a cicada to take a picture or video of it that is geo-tagged, uploaded for approval by the researchers, and then displayed on a map with the other 40,000 most recent photo submissions. The map has been a great tool for seeing where they are emerging recently. The most I have seen at one spot this year has been at the Antietam National Cemetery, which is ground that has gone undisturbed for decades, likely making it prime for the cicada nymphs to survive to complete their life cycle for many generations. There I saw thousands of empty shells around the base of one tree.

My earliest memory of periodical cicadas was the last Brood X hatch in 2004. I was at a youth conservation camp in Strasburg and one of our activities was a cicada shell contest to see who could pick up the most at the park there. I remember filling up a grocery bag full. I also had one memory of fishing the Shenandoah during that time. I had spotted a smallmouth and a largemouth hanging in the shade of a tree limb along the riverbank when a cicada fell into the water. To my surprise, neither of the bass reacted. I’m guessing they were just plum full of them by then. 

A cicada struggling on the water just occasionally flutters in place, drifting along with the current, and makes an enticing meal for all kinds of fish. One of the most effective imitations in fishing is a cicada fly. I have never fly-fished before this year, but I was sure not going to miss the opportunity to fish this rare emergence. So I picked up my first fly rod this spring and started practicing. Usually, a cicada fly is tied with black foam with some orange thread and a set of translucent wings and red eyes. Another popular cicada fly is the Excalibur that Chuck Kraft invented which is a similar style but made of cork that floats a little more realistically compared to a foam fly. Although I wasn’t able to get my hands on the cork ones, I have torn through several of the foam type in my recent river outings.

Common lures that you can use on spinning gear to imitate a cicada include jitterbugs, poppers, and tiny torpedoes all in a black color. A few companies make cicada lures now, which look pretty life-like but still rely on a back-and-forth wobble like a jitterbug to give it action. 

Of course no bait compares to using the real thing. Near the end of May, I was trout fishing on Passage Creek during the very early stages of the emergence. It was hot and in the middle of the day, so the trout weren’t reacting to much I had to offer. I had snagged a cicada off of the nearby vegetation and put them on a size 14 treble hook by hooking through where the legs join the body. I had to use a small split shot about 18 inches up the line in order to have enough weight to cast using the spinning rod. Those stocked trout may have never seen such a creature before but they sure were interested. With every cast, I would have two or three trout swarm it and tear it apart. I caught the brown trout in the title photo using this method. A little while later, my fishing buddy spotted a big copperhead up in a bush about 10 feet behind where I had just caught that trout. Evidently the snake was out looking for a cicada snack as well.

In order to float fish during the emergence, I have been picking floats on the Shenandoah within the Brood X zone, so this means the entire mainstem and about the last 10 to 20 miles of the South and North Forks. On a float two weeks ago, the cicadas had just started singing but weren’t really flying around much. We didn’t see any on the water and there was no real topwater action happening either. Fast-forward to this past weekend on the same stretch of river, and it was like a lightswitch had flipped. We floated from about 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and it wasn’t long into our float when we noticed the cicadas were flying around trying to cross the river to find a mate only to fall short. The main species we saw crushing them were carp. We would float into a deeper pool and there would be about a dozen carp cruising around “bumping” any small object floating along, testing to see if it was a tasty cicada. We also witnessed a few other blow-ups that were likely smallmouth or sunfish.

As the carp were sorting through the floating leaf litter and finding a few cicadas, I presented the foam fly to them on my 8-weight fly rod with a 0x leader (15 lb strength). I had many hair-raising bumps, refusals, and close-calls but I struggled to hook up with one. I finally found a particularly large carp in the 20-25 pound range out in the middle of the river. This would be the perfect one to hook up with because we would be well away from the logs along the bank that the line could tangle in. I made a cast about 10 feet upstream of the direction it was going and waited with anticipation for what felt like ages. It was really only a few seconds while watching that carp slowly rise up and inspect my offering. Then in an instant, his donut-shaped mouth came out of the water, slurped the fly, and did a 180 with such force and speed away from me that it snapped the leader clean off and sent it ricocheting back to me.

As with a lot of my fishing tales, the big one got away again.

Dylan Cooper is a Page County native and graduate of Luray High School and Virginia Tech. He is a stream restoration specialist for a local non-profit and a registered professional engineer in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Avid outdoorsman and ardent environmentalist, he resides in Luray with his wife and dogs.  

Email: [email protected]

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