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Cicada Hatch 2024: A Guide to Biology, Finding Them, and Fly Patterns for Catching Fish

Updated: Mar 8

You are almost certainly familiar with cicadas. The cicada we are most familiar with are the annual cicadas. These are the cicadas you hear that high pitched buzz of for much of the summer. There are quite a number of different annual cicada species but for the fly angler in the Eastern US, they don't garner much attention from the trout because their numbers are not that great. They have a life cycle that takes several years but you see them each year because they do not synchronize like the periodical cicadas, which are the ones make the news quite regularly. Periodical cicadas hatch in massive numbers, over a limited geographic area, and over a relatively short period of time. There is talk about a trillion cicadas hatching in the US this summer. A trillion is a thousand billion, a number that is hard to fathom.

Cicadas are hemipterans or "true bugs". Hemipterans that you are familiar with are Boxelder Bugs, bed bugs, stink bugs, leafhoppers, aphids, and a host of other species. There are over 100,000 species of hemipterans - to put that in context, there are about 33,000 species of fishes and about 6,400 living species of mammals. There are over 3,000 species of cicadas and cicadas are found around the world. However, the periodical cicadas are unique to North America.

Cicadas have an interesting life history where most of their time - for some species over 99.9% - is spent underground. This becomes really important when considering where you can expect to find cicadas. They need undisturbed ground so you find them in cities, forests, and other places that allow them to develop for a few years for so called annual cicadas or 13 or 17 years for periodical cicadas. While living underground, they feed by sucking water and sugars from the conductive tissues of the roots of trees. To hatch, they crawl out of the ground, attach themselves to a tree or some other hard structure, molt their nymphal exoskeleton, and become adults. This is not too dissimilar from how mayflies, caddisflies, stoneflies, and midges spend most of their time in the stream before becoming an aerial adult. Well, except for that 13 or 17 years between hatches part.

Periodical cicadas, of which there are seven species, get their name from the fact that they hatch periodically. There are 13 and 17 year hatches and holy hell breaks loose when there is an overlap of hatches - or at least that is what they are telling us about what Illinois is to expect this summer. Why 13 and 17 years? It is tempting to think that the prime numbers are meaningful but most evidence suggest it is just a coincidence. But the long time between emergences has evolved to overwhelm predators. Essentially, so many periodical cicadas hatch at one time that predators can barely make a dent on their populations. Because the emergences are so far apart, predator populations can't "catch up" to these emergences or time their populations to synchronize with the cicadas.

Periodical Cicada Broods of the United States. Image: USDA Forest Service map; Wikipedia.

I can say from first hand experience, the emergence of a brood is a sight to behold. Brood V hatched in 1999 when I was conducting my Master's research on the Ohio River and was living in Morgantown, West Virginia. Their shucks were everywhere, as were the cicadas themselves. The noise was nearly deafening. It was so cool! And on the fly rod, I've never caught so many different species. A cicada fly tossed out into the Ohio River might bring in just about anything. I caught a number of panfish species, bass, hybrid striped bass, carp, and I'm sure a number of other species I can no longer recall. And, of course, I caught trout - just not in the Ohio River. Everything eats cicadas!

Here in the northernmost part of their range, we should expect them to emerge in the second half of May and first half of June, maybe through the end of June this far north. Though the timing of their emergence is a little weather / soil temperature dependent. They have waited 13 or 17 years, what's another day or two? Or even a week or two? I expect that once the cicadas start hatching, word will travel fast this summer.

Biology of Cicadas

Tying and Fishing Cicada Patterns

While the annual cicadas occur every year, they are not much known nor are their imitations often used by anglers here in the Midwest. There are a few places where there are exceptions - they're more popular in New Zealand, on Utah's Green River, and I am sure a number of other locations. In the Eastern United States, the periodical cicadas are very important but the annual cicadas draw little attention.

Cicadas are big, clumsy bugs that are extremely poor flyers and run into things quite regularly. "Other things", of course, includes the water's surface. There is not a hell of a lot of finesse in fishing cicada patterns. Most of the time, your flies should "plop" on the water pretty noticeably and be dead drifted or twitched. I like the twitch and wait approach as cicadas give at least a few "last gasps" after they hit the water. Think about it as fishing a bass bug - create some ripples and wait. It is not your typical dead-drift dry fly fishing.

Probably the best piece of advice about fishing the cicada hatch is that the where matters a lot. With their long nymphal life stage - 13 or 17 years - periodical cicadas are found in undisturbed places. Maybe this is a bit counterintuitive but fishing the backyards of houses and around cities are among the best places. Probably the single best place would to fish around large, forested areas. I assume that when I was fishing the Ohio River, they were emerging from the river's extensive forested riparian zone. There were literally tons of cicadas. I found them along many of West Virginia's trout and bass rivers as well. Agricultural areas are generally devoid of cicadas and they'll only be found where there are trees left undisturbed.

This summer (2024) is unique because two broods - Brood XIII on a 17 year cycle and Brood XIX on a 13 year cycle will match up for the first time in 221 years. Illinois is the core range of these two broods with the 17 year emergence in the northern part of the state and the 13 year emergence covering the southern half of the state. There is a small bit of the middle of the state where the two emergences should overlap. The 13 year Brood XIX covers most of Missouri, northern Arkansas, and a scattering around the southeastern United States. It should be a great year for fishing cicadas over much of the middle of the country.

Here in Wisconsin, we are at the northern edge of the periodical cicadas range. The 17 year Brood XIII will be the one that will interests Wisconsin anglers. We are expecting the hatch in the lower three tiers of counties . Here in the Driftless Area, we are expecting them in Green, Rock, Dane, Iowa, and Grant Counties south of the Wisconsin River (why Lafayette County does not show a hatch, I do not know, I suspect we'll see them in Lafayette County) and Crawford, Richland, and Sauk north of the river. I suspect that the hatch could be quite entertaining on the Lower Wisconsin River this summer. Like the Ohio River, a large, forested riparian area should allow them the stability they need to survive between adult hatches. I have seen a map or two that have some outlying potential hatches in Vernon, Monroe, and La Crosse Counties but we are certainly outside where the hatch is expected to be most concentrated and dependable.

Fishing Cicada Patterns

Tying Cicada Fly Patterns

There are about as many fly patterns to imitate cicadas as there are hatching cicadas. Well, maybe not that many but they are a favorite of many tyers. They are big, colorful bugs (yeah, I don't mind using "bugs" in this context as they are "true bugs") that allow tyers to get creative with their imitations. By far, the two most common body materials are foam followed by deer hair. I honestly don't think fly pattern matters that much to the fish, they just want something big and black with some orange in it. More than anything, fish will probably respond to the "splat" they make when they hit the water. Save the subtlety for your other dry flies.

Fellow Mountaineer Jason Martina - Bass Pop Fly Shop - carved balsa cicadas are as classy and beautiful of an option as you will find. These will make a great "splat", are durable, and gorgeous. There are tons of options for cicada imitations but I will make a journey to be sure to be able to fish these flies this summer.

The tyer can get as creative or stay as simple as they would like. An over-large Hippie Stomper with an orange - or an orange and black belly, if you really wanted to get fancy - would probably be a fine pattern. Last time I fished a periodical cicada hatch, quite a number of years ago, Grillos' Hippie Stomper didn't exist.

The fly above is about as simple of a cicada as you can tie - A Chernobyl Cicada, of sorts - and it probably works great.

Another interesting pattern with a unique foam wrapping technique.

Yet another cicada pattern. This one uses Fettuccine Foam. Some anglers argue that all foam flies float too high and patterns like this with some more absorbent materials on the underside of the fly help sink it a little lower in the water which is more natural and draws more strikes. Of course, if you are tying your own flies, a heavier hook can help solve that issue as well.

Yet one more cicada fly pattern - this one using a commercially-available popper body. Cicada patterns are limited by your creativity, patience, and the materials you have on hand. These have all been periodical cicadas. In places where cicadas are an annual thing, many of their cicada species are duller in color. Periodical cicadas are not trying to hide from predators, they have evolved to hatch in numbers that overwhelm their predators.

OK, how about one more? This is basically a deer hair bass bug cicada. The options are nearly endless.

My advice would be to tie (or buy) a few different patterns, being mindful of tying some flies that sit lower in the water. I would also tie a few that are quick and simple to tie and I would tie a few others that are more fun and interesting. There are no shortage of patterns online and in books (Cicada Madness; listen to a podcast with the author, Dave Zielinski). I would stay away from fancy plastic wings that are likely to turn your tippet into a tangled mess. Yeah, they look really cool but I find that quite often, simpler is better. My order from Jason Martina is in hand and I will certainly find a way to give his balsa bugs a try this summer. Why fish with ugly flies when you could fish with gorgeous ones? And, yeah, of course, I ordered from him before I published this post to be sure I got a mom didn't raise an idiot.

Cicadas and pencil poppers
Well, of course I had to order more than just a few Bass Pop Fly Shop cicadas.

Here is something I don't say every day - it should be a really fun year to fish in Illinois and Iowa. We'll see some here in Wisconsin too but we will not see the numbers that they'll see further south. If you hit it right, it will be an incredibly memorable experience. If you're fishing warmwater, there is the fun of having no idea what species you might hook on your next cast. I have great memories of the last time I experienced a periodical brood, I can't wait to see what this summer brings.

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