Bill May: Fishing the cicada catch, maybe one final time | OUTDOORS COMMENTARY

The hatch of cicadas (17-year locusts) is a once-in-a-17-year opportunity for 4-6 weeks of surface fishing action. I’ve taken bass, carp, and bluegills reservoir fishing in 1987 and 2004.

At age 80, I expect this will be my last cicada hatch; I plan to make the best of it.


This year I plan expand to taking Gunpowder trout and, at Eastern Shore ponds and rivers, hope to take pickerel, snakeheads, crappie, channel cats and probably white and yellow perch and other opportunistic feeders.

This is all sight fishing for cruising, feeding fish, similar to redfishing in Louisiana. Fly tackle is ideal but spin fishing works and may be the choice for shore fishing.


When, Where and How

Any body of water in Maryland, Delaware, and beyond with fish and overhanging trees and shrubbery can produce. The hatch is expected to run all of May with perhaps a week or two before and after. It seems to take about a week or so for fish to lock onto the hatch.

In my mind I picture a The Far Side cartoon with a fish standing on his tail holding up a cicada in a fin while telling his buddies, “Hey, you know you can eat these things?” But once they do, it’s “Game on.”

I was awaiting my buddy, the late Harry Pippin, to arrive at the ramp of Prettyboy Reservoir with his boat during the height of the 2004 hatch and watching carp cruising the bank under nearby overhanging trees taking cicadas. So I began taking fish steadily with a spin rod and Tiny Torpedo. Then there was a brief pause in cicada activity.

Within 20 feet from me I saw a carp cruise over, grab a branch hanging into the clear water and shake it. Cicadas rained down and a feeding frenzy ensued.


More typically, you’ll see fish cruising the bank and drop a cast about a foot in front of one. Watch the fish engulf the bug and turn or drop down then set the hook. Then try to horse the fish into clear water.

I took this carp on a Tiny Torpedo and spinning tackle from the Prettyboy launch ramp in 2004.
I took this carp on a Tiny Torpedo and spinning tackle from the Prettyboy launch ramp in 2004. (Bill May Photo)


I recommend a 7- or 8-weight fly rod, floating line and a leader than can turn over the wind-resistant cicada flies as you drive the cast under overhanging shrubbery.

I like Joe Bruce’s basic leader: 4 feet of 50-pound mono, 2 feet of 40-pound, 1 foot of 30-pound culminating in a loop knot. A 2- to 4-foot tippet is attached via a loop-to-loop knot. In waters with pickerel or other toothy fish, obstructions, or big fish, 20-pounds or higher may be the choice. For trout streams or clear waters with minimal obstructions, I may go as light as 3X to 12 pounds.

You can purchase Joe Bruce’s cicada flies at joebruce.net. For fly-tyers the materials are listed in the sidebar. Tying instructions are the same as for a Gartside Gurgler, and can be found on several online sites. This fly would be the clear choice, but, in my experience, close is good enough. I’ve taken fish on dark hair bugs and short-tailed Gartside Gurglers, and I expect a number of dark bugs will work. Bluegills attack cicadas, tear them apart like piranhas, then eat the pieces, so smaller dark bugs can take them.

Spin fishing is really basic: A medium weight 6- to 7-foot rod, 12-pound mono and bite leader as necessary. A dark Tiny Torpedo is the only lure you’ll need. Just drop it in front of the fish, close enough to be noticed, far enough away so as not to spook them and work it with an occasional small twitch; the prop gets their attention.

For this fishing I remove the belly hook and replace the tail hook with a light split ring and larger, light treble or single hook.

A veteran fisherman friend of mine, who ought to know better, complained he lost a bunch of Tiny Torpedoes when carp and big bass dragged the into the brush. The trick is to find a clear spot on shore, like the lip of the launch ramp in the above incident, and pull the fish toward that. Don’t cast from a brushy or tree-lined spot and try to lead a hooked fish through the cover.

This is a typical carp I took flyfishing the 2004 cicada hatch on Prettyboy Reservoir.
This is a typical carp I took flyfishing the 2004 cicada hatch on Prettyboy Reservoir. (Bill May Photo)


There are lots of choices: reservoir boats (basically dedicated battery barges that can only be used on the three Baltimore City reservoirs), boats, canoes, kayaks, float tubes or other inflatables (can’t wait to try this) or just wade or shore fish. For kayaks, canoes and small boats, use two good anchors with enough rope to prevent fish from dragging you into structure. Inflatables could be an adventure; try anchoring.

There was one odd note to fishing the 2004 hatch on the reservoirs: My friends and I caught only carp in the 5 to 9-pound range and bluegills, no bass. In previous hatches, we caught plenty of bass and would often see bass and carp rushing to compete for the same bug. Maybe we should have avoided actively feeding fish?

There will be plenty of action in 2021, but will this pattern be repeated?

Joe Bruce’s 17-year cicada

Thread: Flat-waxed 3/0 nylon, fire-orange or pink

Hook: Mustad 3366, size 1/0

Tail: The back portion of an orange deer tail

Body: Medium orange chenille

Hackle: Black saddle hackle, Palmer wound

Back: Black 1/8-inch closed cell foam

Legs: 4 orange round rubber or silicon legs

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