Photo of the Month: Backcountry Brook Trout

Photo of the Month: Backcountry Brook Trout
Showing posts with label Cicada. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Cicada. Show all posts

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Hatch of Hatches

Most fly anglers who spend any time fishing cold water fisheries have stories of the best hatch ever. If you fish somewhere like the Smokies, then you might not have as many of those stories as someone who, say, fishes Yellowstone National Park. There are destinations across the country famous for various hatches. Most of these revolve around aquatic insects like mayflies, caddisflies, stoneflies, and midges along with many others. Then again, some land based insects create phenomenal hatches of their own.

Here in the Great Smoky Mountains, we always look forward to the excellent summer terrestrial opportunities. Inch worms can descend out of the trees of a trout stream in mass just about anytime during the warm months. Of course, ants and beetles are often around as well although not in concentrated numbers most of the time. We do have some excellent hatches of aquatic insects as well, but you don't encounter those in big numbers very often. Head out west, and terrestrials also produce some of the most exciting fishing of the year. Hopper fishing in particular is a sight to behold when it is really on fire. 

On the other hand, our tailwaters are renowned for their great hatches. The Clinch River and South Holston Rivers both feature an impressive emergence of sulphur mayflies. The Hiwassee, Holston, and Watauga are all known for their excellent caddis hatches. Warm water fisheries such as Fort Loudon, Watts Bar and Chickamauga lakes are known for the summer hexagenia mayfly hatch. These hexes are huge, looking like hummingbirds flying around. 

Still, I don't think any of these compares with the cicada hatch, if you hit it right that is. One time I did, and it was incredible. Several other times I've hit it well if not perfectly, including a couple of times in the last couple of weeks or so. The downside of these cicada hatches is that the best ones are periodic, meaning they only happen every once in a while. To be precise, there are both 13 and 17 year cicada broods. The good thing is that they are easy to predict. The bad thing? Well, if you happen to live right where they emerge, the constant roar while they're around can get annoying if you aren't a fly angler. However, to fly anglers, they are one of the best sounds in the world, at least for anyone who has fished this hatch.

This hatch, like many others, has days that are better than others. Cicadas are just the opposite of mayflies in that the cicadas love hot dry days. Rainy or otherwise cooler days will slow things down just a little below the usual dull roar. Still, even on those days, there will be enough happening to catch a few fish. 

Two weeks ago, I had an opportunity to fish this hatch once more. I knew this would probably be the last chance I had for this year's hatch, so I had to get things right. Some intel from one of the Trout Zone Anglers guides, Travis Williams, helped locate the bugs and a plan was hatched. We agreed to meet around 9:30 am, late enough in the morning that things would hopefully warm up and get the bugs going. 

When I pulled up to the boat ramp, a distant hum suggested that the bugs were indeed around. Now it was just a matter of finding the fish. We rigged rods and the boat, then put the boat in the water. Before long, we were flinging those big foam bugs that vaguely resemble a periodic cicada, or in the case of what Travis was fishing, look pretty much just like them. The realism with flies nowadays is quite impressive. The day started off slow at first, but once we started covering water, the fish came. 



Bass were the first to appear. Well, other than that bluegill of course. Some of the bluegill weren't much larger than the bugs they were trying to eat, but that's a bluegill for you. The first bass was a nice one and slammed the cicada Travis was casting almost as soon as it hit the water. 



I was mildly interested in bass, but much more interested in carp myself. For anyone who has ever had the pleasure of sight fishing for carp with big foam bugs, you know how addicting that can be. 

The first sighting was in a narrow spot between two small islands. The fish was cruising directly towards us only 15 feet out. I screwed the cast up and the fish sunk out of sight. As we progressed back into a sheltered bay, the bugs got a little louder and things were looking up. Structure can be important with carp, but doesn't always seem to be. This was one of those times that the structure seemed to help. 

I was working a shoreline as we drifted up towards a private wooden boat dock. My first cast was about 6 feet to the right of the boat dock. Suddenly, I saw a dark shadow slide out from the dock and make a beeline towards my cicada imitation. The carp slowed down, but only in that deliberate way that they like to eat. It was fully committed from the moment I first saw it move towards the fly. That is the beauty of this hatch. Fish tend to lose most of their natural caution, with wary fish becoming gullible in the face of an extraordinary bounty. 

Carp on a cicada fly fishing


That carp wouldn't be the first one of the day. However, we had a storm looming on the horizon that was making a rapid approach. Before we would find more fish, we first had to deal with some wind and hard rain. Another bay nearby seemed like as good a place as any to ride out the inclement weather and we made our way there. The storm caught us as we drifted into that area. Within seconds, we were both so wet that there wasn't really any reason to worry about finding shelter. Thankfully there was no lightning, just wind and rain. Travis waited for the worst of the wind to ease, then started casting again. 



Soon, the storm blew through leaving behind gray skies and choppy water. Then, we noticed it. The change in weather had brought a lot of fish up to feed. They had moved up on the banks and were sucking down debris knocked out of the trees by the wind and rain. Regardless of whether they were eating cicadas or some other bugs, they were there and they were hungry. Soon, we saw more and more carp along with some really nice bass. I hooked, played, and eventually lost a big carp. Travis also got in on the action with some more bass and finally his first carp of the day. There would be a lot more of those before we finished. 

fly fishing for carp


About the time that the skies were getting brighter, the wind mostly laid down and we were left with a perfect day for cicada fishing: hot, humid, with just enough breeze to blow some bugs around. The afternoon was pretty much what you dream about when you think of the cicada hatch. I could go on and on describing each catch in detail, but let's just say that we found more fish than any of us deserved. 



One fish in particular does stand out. By this time, another Trout Zone Anglers guide, Pat Tully, had joined us. We were working around a particularly large bay with Travis on the oars. I was in the back of the boat when I saw a carp sucking bugs off the surface and moving directly away from me. Immediately this fish had me shaking. It was easily the largest fish I had seen all day. The length was impressive enough, but the real size of this fish was obvious by the distance between its eyes. In other words, this was a really heavy carp that might or might not be a good idea on the 6 weight I was fishing.

I made a solid cast out ahead of the carp, perfectly in line with the direction it was traveling. This was a mistake. Because the fish was traveling directly away from me, I should have set the fly a couple of feet to the side and let the fish come to get it. As the carp rose to take my fly, moving directly away from me, its snout bumped the heavy tippet before inhaling the fly. Immediately the carp freaked out. These are notoriously intelligent fish, and this one was the perfect example. It disappeared faster than any other fish we saw all day. 

So, in the end, we caught some more bass and another carp or three. Yet, it was the fish that got away that provided the most poignant memory. Next time, I'll be more careful where I cast. There were much better memories of the day as well, such as two carp simultaneously racing each other to get to Travis' cicada pattern. In the end, it is the sum of those memories that has me looking ahead to our next semi local cicada hatch in 2024. If you haven't fished a cicada hatch yet, make plans to do so now in mid May through mid June. You'll be glad you did...





Friday, May 28, 2021

Searching For Cicadas

The current "big thing" in fly fishing is cicadas. I can't remember another periodic cicada hatch year being hyped as much as this one has. Brood X has been making an appearance slower than expected, mostly due to cooler than normal spring temperatures, but where they are emerging, the chorus is deafening. Driving around East Tennessee, it is easy to find the cicadas. Just roll your window down and listen. The other day, they were raining out of the sky on me as I drove down the interstate. That's a sure sign there are plenty of bugs around. 

Finding the bugs close to water can be tricky. While we would prefer to fish this hatch with some trout involved, the real action is mostly on warm water streams and rivers. Going into the hatch season, I scrounged up as many old emergence maps as I could find for the Brood X cicadas. The research suggested that the Clinch River probably wouldn't have any, at least not on the trout portions. The same can't be said for some of the upper East Tennessee tailwaters, but that is a long drive when you are tired. We have a new baby in the house, so sleepless nights mean shorter drives are best for right now. 

Part of the search for cicadas involves quizzing all of your non fishing friends as often as possible if they've seen any cicadas where they live or out and about. Most of them probably think I'm a little crazy, but if I strike gold in the form of a bunch of cicadas, it will all be worth it. Three more years from now is a cicada emergence that I do know something about. Brood XIX last hatched in 2011 and produced truly epic fishing around the area. At least I won't have to be calling all my friends looking for bugs then. 

Ultimately, with the new baby at home, I'm mostly sitting this event out with a few exceptions. I do have a handful of clients that want in on the action. Thus, it is my solemn duty to go hunting for the bugs at least a little. I'm honing in on the carp fishing for now. In fact, after my experience fishing the cicada hatch in 2011, I believe the carp fishing is at least as exciting as the trout opportunities and quite possibly more so.

The other day, my friend and fellow guide Travis and friend Tim decided to do a scouting mission on an East Tennessee warm water stream. Travis has a new raft for doing guided float trips, and I hadn't been on it yet. We were hoping to find a few smallmouth and perhaps some carp getting on the cicadas.

Brood X Cicada in east Tennessee


When I arrived at the put-in, Travis and Tim were already getting the raft situation for the float. As soon as I opened my door, I was greeted with the buzz (whine, scream, whatever that sound is) of cicadas. Tim and Travis informed me they had already seen a few and had a picture or two to prove it. Things were looking up. I quickly put together a 6 weight rod, added some 3x tippet to my leader, and tied on my favorite cicada pattern. My boat bag was stashed in the raft, and I was all set. Travis and I ran the shuttle while Tim kept an eye on the boat and tried to catch some fish. Before long, Travis and I were back and we were pushing off from the gravel bar.

With all the cicadas flying around and rustling through the trees, it seemed like we should find fish right away. We did. Redhorse, lots of them, were thick through this section but not at all interested in cicadas. Not a problem, as we were willing to put in the work to find those smallmouth. It wasn't too long before we got some splashy rises to the cicada patterns, but definitely not the fish we were looking for. 

The river began to deepen some, with fewer shallow riffles and more nice runs and deeper buckets. That was where we would find the smallmouth. We started working to get the flies back in the shade under overhanging branches. The cicadas were still loud, so we were sure the fish had seen at least a few of them already. Then, by accident, I got things rolling. I had turned to look behind me before backcasting. When I turned around and lifted the line into the backcast, I was tight to a smallmouth. Seriously. The fish fought valiantly, working the 6 weight more than I expected, but eventually came to the waiting net. The skunk was off and we could get serious about catching some more fish. 

East Tennessee smallmouth bass on a cicada


Not far down the river, Tim got on the board with a big slab of a bluegill. I followed with another, then Tim got another. Things were just looking better and better. It was sometime around the bluegill catching that we noticed fewer voices in the cicada choir. At first it wasn't really noticeable, but eventually we realized the roar had died considerably. Before it was completely gone, we found a really good deep pot on the left bank. All kinds of fish were stacked up in there including a bunch of gar.

Tight to a fish


As this was a scouting trip for future guided floats, we were trying lots of different things. Travis had brought a spinning rod to figure some things out that way for non fly fishing clients. He worked several different lures and baits through the gar. They showed some interested, even nipping at his lure a few times, but hooking up with a gar is notoriously difficult and none of the hooks stuck. 

Since we were anchored and I had some time, I decided to switch to a favorite subsurface pattern that I gravitate towards with smallmouth. Drifting and twitching it through the deep hole sounded like a good possibility. Any bass that had moved into the depths at the approach of the boat would have a chance, at least, to eat my presentation. 

On one of the first few casts, a little smallmouth chased it but wouldn't quite eat. On another cast, a gar seemed to be following it. That got me thinking. I started casting over past the gar, then swimming the fly in front of them with short twitches. No reaction. I made several more casts and was almost to give up when things changed. 

A long cast over to the bank brought the fly past several of the gar yet again. This time, as I twitched it in the face of one of the fish, it turned. I paused, twitched again, and the fish moved forward. I saw the nibble and set hard. Somehow, the hook stuck and the fight started. At this point, I was wishing we had brought a larger net. The gar barely fit and we had to make a couple of tries to get it in. Still, it was good enough. I wanted a picture, forgetting how slimy a gar is. Travis took my picture, then I released the fish and switched to trying to clean my hands.

Longnose Gar in east Tennessee
Photo Courtesy of guide Travis Williams ©2021


About the time my hands were getting cleaned off, Tim came tight to something well ahead of the boat on his cicada pattern. He had already had several blowups that didn't quite connect. Based on the fight, we all assumed it was a smallmouth and we were correct. Eventually, the fish came boat side and Travis scooped yet another fish with the net. Things were moving along at a good pace!

Tim with a nice smallmouth


Then, we left the cicadas behind for a long time. When you are searching for cicadas, it is important to remember that specific emergences can be quite localized. On water that you are fishing, you might find plenty of bugs, just a few bugs, or none at all. We would go long stretches were the only sounds were cars on nearby roads, then the dull roar would begin again just ahead and we would soon find more bugs. Once we left the first bugs behind, however, we wouldn't find many fish seriously looking for cicadas the rest of the float. 


As we continued on, we began to experiment a little. If the fish weren't looking for cicadas, surely they would be eating something else, right? Yes, and no. We were floating on the full moon, and I'm always skeptical of fishing on a full moon. I've had some epic fishing days, but probably many more slow days on a full moon. Lots of theories abound, including that fish are feeding at night, but the fact remains that fishing on the full moon can be hit or miss to say the least. It was a bright sunny day and the water warmed quickly. I think sometimes that rapidly warming water can put fish off also, and this fits well with the pattern of fish feeding well early but slowing down as the day went on. Bright skies can also be tough, but this in and of itself doesn't explain everything.

Still, the day had a highlight or two left. I stuck with my subsurface offering after catching that gar. It is a high confidence fly for me when I'm looking for smallmouth bass. The fading cicadas encouraged me to keep trying different options instead of the topwater bite. Tim was still catching them from the front of the boat with his cicada, so it was increasingly difficult to stick to my plan. I'm glad I did though. 

We were moving through a section of deeper water when Travis said, "Is that a fish?" The dark smudge was swaying just enough in the current to confirm that it was indeed a fish. I quickly turned around to fish to this deeper holding fish, still not sure what it was. A carp maybe or a buffalo? It seemed too dark to be a carp, but the shape was right which definitely suggested a smallmouth buffalo. I didn't have much faith that it would eat as buffalo tend to stick to vegetation. Still, you never know.

I got a good cast up above and beyond the fish to allow time for the fly to sink into the strike zone. As it came across in front of the fish, I started a slow twitch or jig. You can imagine my surprise when the fish turned and started tracking the fly. It continued following until it was just below the boat. I had to do something or the fish would come off of the fly if I kept stripping it upstream unnaturally against the current. Dropping the rod tip, I let the fly drift free back to the shadow's waiting mouth. When the fly disappeared, I set hard.

Immediately, I suspected it wasn't a buffalo. This fish took off strongly and there was nothing I could do to turn it. Travis was back on the oars again and started chasing the fish around the pool. Initially it headed downstream, but then turned and went back up as the bottom started to come shallow near the next riffle and left the fish feeling exposed. When it headed back up, it changed tactics and tried to make it to a bankside log. Straining the 3x as hard as I dared, I put a ton of side pressure to turn the fish away from the log. Once, twice, the fish almost made it to safety, but the tippet and knots held and the hook stayed firmly attached. After several more runs, the fish started to finally tire a bit. I told Travis to float back down towards the riffle so I could jump out of the boat to finish the fight. 

As soon as I could, I jumped out and grabbed the net. It took a couple of tries, but finally the big fish hit the bottom of the net. As it turned out, this was my new personal best freshwater drum or at least close to it. The last time I had caught one this large was well over 10 years ago, so I don't know for sure, but it was definitely one of the better ones I've caught. Travis and Tim took a few pictures for me, and then I released the fish. Such an inspired fight deserved as much, and then I don't ever keep fish anyway. 

East Tennessee freshwater drum caught on the fly
Photo Courtesy of guide Travis Williams ©2021


The rest of the day was a bit anticlimactic, at least for me. After the drum, I really wanted to find a carp willing to eat my fly. It wasn't meant to be on this day apparently. We found another couple pockets of cicadas, but still couldn't find fish looking for them. Finally, as the afternoon got hotter and hotter, we decided to wrap things up and make a big move downstream to the takeout. 

It had been a good float. We had caught enough fish to keep us interested, had some good conversation, and had a nice relaxing day on the water. Much thanks to Travis for bringing his new raft and rowing a lot of the time. Also thanks to Tim for joining us and taking some pictures. It was a great day guys!