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Here They Come: Cicadas Arrive to the Delight of Gamefish, Anglers

After years of anticipation, two hatches of periodical cicadas has fish looking up as fly anglers hit the water.

Here They Come: Cicadas Arrive to the Delight of Gamefish, Anglers
As cicadas (inset) are emerging this month, Rob Woodruff tries his luck on the Norfolk River in Arkansas. Photos by Lynn Burkhead (main) and Rob Woodruff (inset)

Arkansas fly angler and fly tyer Rob Woodruff is a quiet, studious and hard-working individual who happens to know a lot about bugs.

And not just because he's got scores of fly boxes filled with buggy patterns that have turned his garage into a veritable fly shop. No, Woodruff is a real life bug guy, having earned an Entomology degree from Texas A&M University in 1987.

But after a brief career stint working for one of the national pest control companies, Woodruff saw the bugs buzzing in the lights, so to speak, and opted for a career change, ditching the lab coat and becoming a full-time fly-fishing guide on Lake Fork, the East Texas lunker factory, and the Lower Mountain Fork River, Oklahoma's tailwater trout stream.

Cicada on a tree leaf
This cicada was seen this past week in Northern Arkansas. (Photo courtesy of Rob Woodruff)

As an Orvis-endorsed fly guide for nearly a quarter-century in those locations, as well as several years of managing  fly-fishing lodges in Montana and Belize with his wife Jenny, Woodruff has added years of field experience to his already impressive educational credentials.

That might help explain a couple of late-night messages the other day. In short, the messages were a Code Red for Woodruff’s fly-angling friends with one message reading “They’re here!” and the other reading “At night, the woods are full of ghosts!”

Both messages were accompanied by photos of big, strange-looking insects that almost looked otherworldly.

Here Come the Cicadas

cicada emerging
The ghostly moment when a cicada emerges with pale-white coloration and crumpled up wings. (Photo courtesy of Rob Woodruff)

Woodruff’s messages heralded the much-anticipated arrival of the 2024 periodical cicada hatches in parts of the Mid-Atlantic, Deep South and soon in the Midwest. This year, not one, but two periodical cicada hatches are happening, one being the 13-year interval Brood XIX, or Great Southern Brood, hatching from the Mid-Atlantic’s Carolinas, Georgia, Virginia and Maryland on through to the southern states of Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee and Louisiana, as well as Kentucky and Missouri.

The last Brood XIX hatch happened in 2011.

You may have heard about this emergence in the news or on social media over the past several days and weeks. It's a curious phenomenon for sure, and is charging the imaginations of fly anglers across much of the country. Our own Outdoor Sportsman Group sister publication Fly Fisherman Magazine has been following the story about these broods colliding with an excellent piece by Cicada Madness author Dave Zielinski and another one on actually fishing a periodical cicada hatch by fly guide, fly angler, and fly tying legend Blane Chocklett.

Of great interest to entomologists and fly anglers like Woodruff is the fact that the Brood XIX hatch this spring and early summer is overlapping with the 17-year interval Brood XIII periodical cicada hatch, which will take place in portions of southern Michigan and Wisconsin, northern Indiana and Illinois, and eastern Iowa. 

Some headlines have suggested that an overlap of the two broods as they hatch is something of a cicada-like apocalypse. But it isn't quite so apocalyptic, according to the University of Connecticut website for this year's periodical cicada hatches, which notes that while co-emergences are rare, they do happen from time to time. That includes this spring's co-emergence, as well as in 2037 when Brood XIX will overlap again, this time with Brood IX. Other co-emergences will take place in 2041 (Brood XXIII and XIII) and in 2050 (Brood XIX and Brood V).

smallmouth bass and cicada
As the two periodical cicada hatches of 2024 spread across portions of the country this month, trout, carp, catfish, sunfish and largemouth and smallmouth bass are hitting cicada fly patterns fished on the surface. Arkansas fly angler and fly tyer Rob Woodruff is finding that even a simple Double Barrell topwater popper tied with orange legs will get a smashing take from game fish like this Crooked Creek smallmouth bass caught this week in the Ozarks of northern Arkansas. (Photo courtesy of Rob Woodruff)

Woodruff agrees and says that aside from the rare occurrence itself, it won’t be nearly as dramatic as some writers and headlines might have suggested in the build-up to this phenomenon. That's because despite a Biblical number of cicadas when they're all added together across the country, the actual overlap area between the two hatches this spring is somewhat small, with a few counties in central Illinois and southeastern Iowa comprising the spots on the map where Brood XIX will introduce itself to Brood XIII.


Last Time Was During Jefferson's Presidency

Even so, he does admit that as a certified bug guy, it’s very interesting that the last time these two broods had an emergence that coincided was in was in 1803, when Thomas Jefferson's Presidency and the Louisiana Purchase were making U.S. headlines. That happy occurrence of Brood XIX and Brood XIII cicadas took place 221 years ago and the next overlapping hatch of these two broods will take place another 221 years from now, in 2245.

Woodruff won't be around then, but he is very glad he’s around in 2024 and now lives on a bluff overlooking the Norfork River tailwater stream as it flows into the White River. He hopes that the Brood XIX appearance this spring and early summer is nothing less than magic for fly anglers in the Ozarks.

With a front-row ticket punched to this spring’s Brood XIX hatch in the trout and smallmouth waters of northern Arkansas, Woodruff remembers very well the two previous times the same hatch visited the Lower Mountain Fork River that he once guided on just north of Broken Bow, Okla., back in 1998 and 2011, respectively.

striped shiner
On a fly fishing trip this week to renowned Arkansas smallmouth stream Crooked Creek, Woodruff and his fly angling neighbor landed six different fish species on cicada imitations, including this striped shiner that couldn’t resist the artificial “cheeseburger” that fell from the sky. (Photo courtesy of Rob Woodruff)

"Growing up in North Texas and fishing in East Texas, I had read and heard about these hatches and how exciting they could be, but I had never experienced them," said Woodruff. "But that changed when I was guiding in southeastern Oklahoma back in 1998 and I suddenly understood why everyone got so excited about this emergence. We were catching 16- to 18-inch brown trout on the Lower Mountain Fork in the morning, eating lunch, turning north and driving to the upper Mountain Fork above Broken Bow Reservoir in the afternoon where we could catch 14- to 16-inch smallmouths. We would also catch carp, channel catfish, big green sunfish, spotted bass, largemouth bass, buffalo, you name it, on the same fly rods with the same flies we had used that morning."

If the sheer variety of potential species willing to strike a cicada pattern was exciting—with the unusual occurrence of catching carp and catfish on dry flies—so were the splashy takes and hard fights.

cicada trout
This trout struck a cicada-pattern fly this week in Arkansas. (Photo by Lynn Burkhead)

"They are going to slam them, trout don’t sip these bugs," he said. "In fact, almost all of the coldwater and warmwater fish species in a lake or river will feed on them and slam them pretty hard. It's a big bug floating on the water and there are plenty of aggressive takes. Trout won’t expend a lot of energy to get a bug floating by, and certainly not if it’s going to require more energy to chase it down than the fish will get in return. But with periodical cicadas, this is a big bite of protein for them, a cheeseburger hatch as you said."

All That Noise, Noise, Noise

The other thing Woodruff says he remembers about his two previous experiences—the periodical cicadas hatch for four to six weeks in each emergence—is the noise they make. 

"In 1998 and 2011, I would hear them ringing in my ears late at night as I was trying to go to sleep before another day of guiding," he said. "Once they've been emerging for a few days, the sound becomes constant noise. Although I don't think that it ever gets to the level of being at an unsafe noise level, it is something that can drive locals indoors until the hatch is over. Right now, just down the bluff from me, I can hear them constantly when I walk outside right now. And they're a good distance away from me." 

Woodruff says he doesn't think he'll have a lot of periodical cicadas on his property where he and Jenny live—she was the Orvis-endorsed Freshwater Guide of the Year in 2018 and Rob has been a finalist for that award three times—and regularly fish in semi-retirement these days. The reason for that is that there has been a lot of earth moving and plant disturbance on his property, something that he thinks may have attributed to the Norfork River being better than the White River in 2011 and the 1998 hatch and fishing exceeding what happened on the Lower Mountain Fork River in 2011.

In both cases, Woodruff suspects that development, building and land clearing and alteration contributed to lesser fishing, although things often rebound the very next emergence since these bugs hatch out by the bazillions. Still, heavy development on timbered lands can certainly bring a noticeable effect during the following cicada emergence.

"Flooding, development, fire, death of a particular tree, all of that can wipe them out (as a localized group) for that next hatch," Woodruff explained. 

That's because the life cycle of periodical cicadas is completely tree-dependent. With each emergence, larvae that has lived underground and fed on tree sap for more than a decade, climb upwards from their soil-based home for the last 13 or 17 years as the soil temp hits 64 degrees. 

Once they tunnel to the surface from depths of 8 to 11 inches, Woodruff says they will climb up the trunk of host trees (or something else like a nearby plant or stick near the root radius of their nursery tree), begin the transformation from larvae to flying adult, and lock onto wood or vegetation with their feet to complete their metamorphosis.

That leads to the ghostly moment when the cicada's nymphal shuck splits during the night and they gradually emerge a very pale white coloration with crumpled up wings. As time continues, they change from their initial ghostly appearance as they pump their blood into the wings, a biological process that straightens the wings out, allows their body's exoskeleton to harden, and also allows them to darken for the remainder of their short above-ground lives.

After that, their numbers grow and grow and grow, with the shucks often falling to the ground or water below in great, crunchy windrows that signify that the hatch is fully underway. While the mating call noise they make is scarce at first, according to Woodruff, it builds as the hatch goes on and they go about moving around to mate and start the biological clock all over again with the alarm bell set some 13 or 17 years down the road.

In between the initial stages of the emergence and the hatch's last gasp, each cycle usually provides some very memorable fishing.

Heavenly Fishing

"Some of those days on the water in 1998, it was what everyone was hoping for when they go fly fishing anywhere in the world," said Woodruff. "You're fishing dry flies, or topwater imitations, and it often results in aggressive, visual, splashy takes, even by normally selective trout."

When you're in the right spot at the right time, it's heavenly fishing that you'll dream about for years to come. Because when periodical cicadas are emerging, all sorts of predators—birds, mammals and reptiles like copperheads—are keying in on this sudden blitz of natural groceries. And that includes just about every sizable game fish in the region where a hatch is occurring.

"It can be so good that as soon as it’s over, you start marking the calendar to count down to the next one," said Woodruff. "But you don't have to wait for 13 or 17 years, because as some of the guys I guided back in 1998 and 2011 learned, there are 15 different periodical cicada broods and there's some emergence happening somewhere every few years. 

“The fishing is often so good during one of these emergences that they started looking elsewhere for another periodical cicada hatch to fish, almost immediately. And when you combine that with the annual cicada hatches in the West, they are fishing cicada hatches somewhere almost every year,” Woodruff continued. 

“These clients and friends are especially keyed in on the periodical cicada hatches, because the fishing can be so incredibly memorable. Once they experienced it at its best, it has dictated where they go on future trips. You've got to remember that these are veteran fly anglers who travel annually to fish well known spots and epic hatches found in other places like Colorado's Dream Stream, the trout rich waters of Montana, famous trout streams in Wyoming, etc."

Be in the Right Place at the Right Time

The group of angling friends is inbound to Woodruff's home streams now, a place where they hope to repeat a famous periodical cicada hatch catch in 2011 when Dally's Ozark Fly Fisher fly shop owner Jim Dugan and renowned Ozarks region fly guide Steve Dally of Steve Dally Outfitters had a magical experience with a cicada pattern, a fly rod, and a legendary White River brown trout.

"In May 2011, Dally’s opened just days before the magicicada emergence, and the highest flows seen on the White since the construction of Bull Shoals Dam," a Dally's Ozark Fly Fisher blog post records.

"In early June, Dally’s owner Jim Dugan would land the 30-inch beast on his own cicada pattern, and a bamboo 5-weight fly rod, fishing with Steve Dally, a fish that has sparked the imaginations of many fly fishers for the 2024 emergence."

That includes Woodruff, his wife, and his angling pals, who have their own hopes and imaginations readied for this year's emergence.

"That 30-inch brown was caught on the White River not far from my house during the 2011 emergence," said Woodruff. "How many 30-inch brown trout have been caught on a dry fly anywhere in the world in the past 30 years? I'd say that the answer to that question is not very many, and Steve Dally documented that one for Jim Dugan. It was an extraordinary catch, for sure."

angler holds smallmouth bass
Many fish species, such as smallmouth bass, will be striking cicada patterns this week in Arkansas. (Photo by Lynn Burkhead)

What to Throw

Interested in getting in on some of this periodical cicada madness this year in Arkansas’ Ozark trout country? Woodruff says that the fishing itself is actually pretty simple.

"In terms of fly rods, I'd say a fast action nine-foot seven or eight-weight Orvis Helios rod for the lakes where you might catch big striped bass, largemouths, carp, catfish, drum, etc.," he said. "On rivers and streams where it's rainbows, browns, smallmouth bass, and carp, a nine-foot five or six-weight rod will suffice. 

"To the fly rod, I'll add a large arbor fly reel, an Orvis Bank Shot Floating Line, and a 7-foot 3X mono leader with an extra foot of 3X tippet tied on," he added. 

"And for flies, there are plenty of good periodical cicada patterns out there, including a good cicada pattern that Rainy's makes. Others include just about anything that is black or dark coffee brown in color with wings and orange accents added in, things like the Umpqua foam cicada pattern, Dave Whitlock's periodical cicada pattern, some patterns myself and others have tied up on their own, and even things like Chernobyl ants, Fat Alberts, big hopper patterns, and even bullet-head salmon fly patterns."

The bottom line is that you want a big brownish-black bodied fly in sizes #2 through #8, something that floats well, can take a lot of abusive takes by striking fish, and one that has some orange rubber legs protruding to help mimic thse cicadas struggling on the water, movement that can trigger the dinner bell ringing for a big trout, bass, or carp waiting below.

"While the fish can get more selective as the cicada hatch goes on, that usually isn't the case until the end. In the meantime, you're going to want to get their attention, so a big, bulky pattern that splashes down good and hard is what you're looking for here."

With the periodical cicada hatch beginning in South Carolina in late April, and with the emergence already taking place in other southern waters and now in Arkansas, the window to fishing this emergence is open and the clock is ticking. Before it expires in the Midwest early this summer, Woodruff says do what you can do to get on the water with a cicada pattern tied onto the end of your leader's tippet because you aren't likely to regret it.

"It brings a smile to my face because it means that everything in my world is working like it's supposed to and not everything else does that in the world," said Woodruff. "Every 13 years in my part of the world, these cicada broods emerge, the fish find them and gorge themselves on them, and you start thinking about doing it all over again as soon as it ends. 

"It's where my three passions in life—fly fishing, insects, and fly tying—all merge into one."

As the Great Cicadaapocalypse happens over the next few weeks, a lake or a river indeed runs through those fishy areas and fuel's many angler's late night piscatorial dreams. And  a bug that is the stuff of legend is flying above it all, causing quite a ruckus down below, along with some winged music that is pure magic to the ears of fly anglers waiting for more than a decade to hear the periodical cicada’s symphony rise once again.

And that is now, as the smiles of many weary anglers confirm. So get out and experience it all while you can.

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