Chirp, Chirp… Slurp!

Andrew Harding anticipates cicada season in the lower North Island of New Zealand

I have fairly steady hands… until I attempt to tie on a cicada. That’s usually when the trembles start. Commonly it’s the arms first; the fingers then lose all ability to thread the tippet through the hook eye, then come the turns on the clinch knot. That part is fairly simple, it’s the threading of the tippet end back through the clinch-knot eye when the troubles set in. All the while, glancing back to check if the large brown sitting mid-column under the foam-line in the sunlit pool is still holding station… There’s nothing more heart pumping in fly fishing than a sighted brown; a huge mouth breaking the surface to engulf a large terrestrial fly. It’s a unique experience and commonly encountered throughout New Zealand during the summer months. I can draw similarities to ‘chucking meat’ in the form of large streamers — the visual aspect of seeing a large fly get eaten makes the hairs on my neck stand up every time. Cicadas are certainly a familiar sound-of-summer in the Kiwi back country and most lowland fisheries, and herald the start of a fantastic two to three months of fishing ahead. The male cicadas make their unique sound by expanding and contracting a membrane called a tymbal. The sound they make serving a purpose much like a ‘wolf whistle’ from a building site. It’s a ‘Hey you, I’m interested!’ The female in response, makes a clicking sound to signal her acceptance — or rejection — the rest is history. The hotter the day, the louder the males will chirp, especially following rain. The ground having been softened is when they really go to town, emerging from their 17 years or so under the dirt, and the urge to find a mate is understandably high! I can remember my first ever cicada-caught trout as though it were yesterday. The Whakateiki is a tiny tributary of the Hutt River in Wellington. The stream has very low numbers of trout, so just spotting one was quite an experience for a 15-year-old budding fly angler at the time. I knew bugger-all about fly fishing, other than what I had gleaned from American fly-fishing magazines in the foyer of the local dental surgery. I had a single shop-bought deer-hair cicada in my ‘film cannister’ fly box — actually, it was the only dry fly I owned at the time. Hastily tying it on to the anchor-rope 20 lb tippet, I spent the next 60 seconds trying to cast the bloody thing — watching the line flail around in a mess of loops and whipping sounds. I duffed the cast, with the cicada flinging forward and smashing the surface of the pool like a sumo wrestler doing a belly flop. What happened next caught me by surprise. The five-pound brown lazily moved over a whole two metres to the waywardly cast cicada, angled up, his hook-jawed snout breaking the surface in a most leisurely fashion. I froze. He turned down again, and I struck with such force I’m still amazed I didn’t send his detached head flying into the scrub behind me. Winched in, whacked over the head with the biggest rock I could find, and taken home to Mum. I had cracked it! Pfft… cicada fish are easy! Well, they actually kinda are! PRIME TIME January through March is simply my favourite time of year on the local fishing calendar. Wellington has an abundance of scrubby, regenerating bush, mixed with planted radiata pine. These pines are a tree that cicadas absolutely LOVE! Typically, the earliest chirps start around October, reaching a deafening crescendo around mid-February, and waning somewhat into early April. However, it is not uncommon to catch fish on them right up until the end of the main New Zealand season on April 30th, but only in the lower North Island. The South Island does not enjoy anywhere near the longevity of the cicada season in the North Island. Strangely, and going against the norms of fly fishing, the brightest, hottest part of the day is usually best for fishing them, and this is not just limited to moving water either — lakes too can enjoy sensational hatches of wind-blown cicada. Naturally the windward shores are the best locations to fish them — a strong offshore wind will blow them from the scrub and vegetation onto the lake’s surface. Being clumsy flyers, they tend to find it quite difficult to break the surface tension of the water, and will simply spin around in circles making trout- attracting ripples. Fishing cicadas is the perfect method for beginners. When guiding, it was the time of year that had me rubbing my hands together upon client pick-up. It was often a ‘simply can’t miss today’ internal monologue. You don’t need much casting ability to get good fish on a cicada either, and the fact is most clients flat-out lied that they could actually cast at all! Usually a wayward cast slapped down hard onto the surface of a pool was enough to get a trout’s attention and have it wander over and snaffle the fly out of the foam line. A stark contrast to when they were predominantly on nymphs just a few months earlier, and such a cast would send them packing. PROSPECTING Cicadas are an excellent prospecting pattern too, and the ONLY reliable method to pull fish from the bottom of very deep, backcountry pools during the warmer months with relative ease. Fish that you’d normally struggle to tempt with any other method, outside of flinging a heavily weighted streamer on a 5-weight rod, which is never fun, nor easy, especially in wind. Cicadas are an excellent choice for blind prospecting broken, fast water too. Water that is near impossible to see trout in unless you’re right on top of them, but long casts against rock walls and run through swirly foam- lines will bring results. Cicadas are an easy meal, why bother roaming round the pool picking off 500 tiny midges when you can get all that protein in one fell swoop with a single cicada? A cicada’s body is bulky and heavy, with imitations traditionally sporting tightly packed deer hair to emulate this heft, so naturally, strong wind is not your best friend when fishing them. Punching into a stiff breeze is hard work, one of their downsides, but it’s those windy, warm days that provide ideal conditions for fishing them. Far from being graceful flyers, they will bumble from tree to tree in search of a mate and will often hit the water in strong winds with such force that they will break a wing or two, rendering them unable to fly and basically becoming a large, floating, wriggling cheeseburger. This is when the magic happens. You know you’re in for a good day when they are ‘on the wing’. When walking riverside tracks with boots covered in dead cicada ooze, their spent bodies crunching under foot like broken eggshells, the anticipation is always high. CONSIDERATIONS Variants in body material range from deer hair, as mentioned, to foam and even hackled versions where the body is so tightly wound that the hackles represent the bulk, as commonly seen in Stimulator patterns. I have personally found foam cicadas to be a major hindrance. The ample amount of buoyancy, whilst rendering them excellent floaters, means that on slower water, when the fish rising to them is off by a slight margin (and they often are), the small bow-wave created by the rise can actually push the fly away from the trout’s mouth. I have seen this time and time again, hence my preference for a heavier deer-hair bodied imitation that sits lower in the surface film. Leaders for fishing cicadas don’t really need to be too long. Often 12 to 16 feet will suffice, and shorter leaders are often desirable in a stiff breeze. Once trout are locked in to feeding on them, tippet diameter seems to have little effect on hook-up rates. Nice stiff rods in the 5 and 6 weight range can help a lot in punching through wind, and don’t be afraid to up-line the rod to enable a faster off-the-mark deployment. One of my strong preferences when fishing cicadas is to use a good quality mono, not fluorocarbon tippet. The constant hinging while casting a large, air-resistant fly can wreak havoc on the latest crop of thin fluorocarbon tippets and result in stressed and busted knots. It’s far better to work off tippet diameter, rather than breaking strain when fishing them, and 0.20 mm is about bang-on from my experience. I love using old school 5 lb Maxima Ultragreen in this situation — its stretch gives a nice buffer on an over-zealous strike, and sometimes it’s simply hard to strike a cicada gently due to all that built-up anticipation! I’m constantly surprised by just how subtle rises to cicadas can be. Whilst a typical rise will have the entire jaw out of the water, they can be incredibly gentle at the other end of the spectrum, with barely a discernible ripple as they simply suck the fly down. Often this is how very large fish will rise to them, whilst smaller fish, under 3 lb, tend to smash and grab in one rapid movement. Then you get the circling fish… often late in the season, when a trout will hover under your cicada, about to engulf it, only to turn down again, circle round, and repeat the process. Usually by this stage your fly is dragging and it’s game over! As with any fly pattern, having a realistic imitation will generally result in less refusals. I’m a fan of simple flies, and if you pick up a real cicada, you’ll notice they have a few key features within that basic cigar-like profile. The body is very cylindrical, the legs are not really a prominent feature being quite short, but the eyes and wings are. Coloration and body segmentation also play a huge part in making the pattern look as realistic as possible. To avoid any form of line twist, the wings need to be extremely light and not rigid. And don’t think they need to be neat and matched — so often, as I mentioned, when a wing is broken, it will stick out 90 degrees from the body and this is an important trigger if tying your own. Go messy, it’s often desirable. But by far the most cicada-like thing you can bling up on a shop-bought pattern is the body. Shop tied imitations are usually a uniform green in colour. This is fine, but it’s not how the naturals look. Being time-poor these days I tend to buy my flies, however, I carry a medium sized, black permanent marker with me on the river, carefully adding horizontal stripes to the body. The difference is amazing in how realistic the fly will look. Time and time again it has proven to be more effective than a uniform body when fished side by side. Of course, it’s not just cicadas that benefit from this make-over. Small mayfly imitations too can also be given a darker body hue in seconds by carrying a black permanent marker. One important tip when fishing a cicada to a sighted fish is, don’t cast the fly directly in front of the fish. Aim to drop it a foot or two either side of the fish, because they are not keen on a cicada coming down onto their head, but will gladly swim a few feet either side to grab one. In fact, you can be many, many feet off with your cast and they will move for it, such is how substantial a meal cicadas are in the trout’s world. This experience draws similarities with fishing streamers to trout — they never like it pulled directly down onto them. I mean, what baitfish willingly swims into the business-end of a trout? As I write this, the cooler weather is settling in, rain is hammering down outside, the season is drawing to a close. However, it’s not too long at all until this amazingly visual and effective fishing method will soon be called into action again, and another summer of ‘Chirp, chirp, slurp’ begins.

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