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Fisheries Article

"Summer Cicada Symphony,"
by Rory Aikens

This article was published in the July–August 2009 issue of Arizona Wildlife Views magazine. Support Arizona's award-winning wildlife magazine — order online.

The high-pitched buzz emanating from the shade trees surrounding the historic courthouse square in Prescott, Ariz., prompted my little boy to cover his ears. “Dad, what’s that terrible sound? It’s driving me nuts!”

I smiled, not because I enjoyed the horrible buzzing, but because I knew it was a siren call to summer adventures along our streams, rivers and lakes. “Yeah, it kinda sounds like a flying saucer from an old fifties-style sci-fi thriller, doesn’t it?” I said with a knowing smirk, an excited twinkle in my eyes.

We had been zipping a well-used Frisbee past the imposing bronzed countenance of Sheriff Bucky O’Neil on that hot summer’s day as monsoon thunder-bumpers stacked up over the Bradshaw Mountains. Jason nodded emphatically in agreement, still holding his ears. “But what the heck are they?” he grimaced.

“Cicadas, my son, cicadas,” I answered. “They are large insects that sing summer songs using their magical see-through wings. And you know what the cicadas are crooning about?”

“Uh-uh,” he responded. He looked doubtful that these obnoxious buzzing insects could really sing, much less “croon” about anything that would interest him.

“Well, son, they are singing about some great summer fishing awaiting us,” I said. He looked perplexed.

“Your job, my boy, is to go catch as many of those buzzing jar flies as you can. Then I’ll introduce you to their other magical powers — making greedy trout fight for the privilege of dancing on the ends of our fishing lines.”

I rubbed my hands in a show of anticipation. He sadly shook his head, thinking perhaps his poor, demented dad had gone stark raving nuts from too many late nights and long hours grinding out the local newspaper for nice folks to read.

“Aw, Dad, can’t you ever just give me a simple answer?” he lamented. I was crestfallen and slightly insulted — I thought I had!

Almost two decades have passed since that summer afternoon in the shady courthouse square. My oldest boy now has a young one of his own (to convince and cajole). But while the years have gone winging rhythmically by, time doesn’t change a basic natural phenomenon. Buzzing summer cicadas might make you hold your ears in annoyance, but they can drive fish nuts, in a good way; well, a good way if you are an angling addict and not a numb-brained video-game recluse self-exiled in a sensory prison.

In the real world of natural cause-and-effect, hungry fish will gorge on cicadas, these insects that buzz in summer like a high-power line gone berserk. Largemouth bass are not immune to their siren songs reverberating through the water. Cicadas can prompt smallmouth bass into feeding frenzies that make sharks seem tame in comparison. Knowledgeable trout anglers prowling high mountain lakes have come to revere the summer cicada cacophony.

It is match-the-hatch fishing magic for both spin and fly anglers, but it doesn’t excite and enchant
us every summer, and nobody has a definitive answer as to why. Some years, lots of these insects emerge from underground to fill the air with their buzzing song; other years, they don’t. When we do have a cicada hatch, it becomes something special that adds anticipatory spice to summer fishing. It’s a little like experiencing a sensory overload when the first summer rain unleashes the pungent power of the mountain pines while voracious trout of all persuasions rise around your waders to gobble insects washed out of the skies: The magic is in the moment. Experiencing such a fishing phenomenon firsthand is a requisite evolutionary process to beguile the angling soul.

In 2008, we were blessed with a decent cicada hatch, especially at Lees Ferry in northern Arizona. Outsiders who know about the cicada bite at Lees Ferry will pester locals, such as renowned fishing guide and mentor Terry Gunn at Lees Ferry Anglers, to find out if there is or is not a cicada bite starting. I start calling Gunn every year around July 1. It’s kind of like having to call the elves to see if we are going to have Christmas.

I always thought my annual questioning would make a great refrain for a fishing song, “Is it cicada time yet?” But you don’t have to call Gunn to find out whether a cicada bite is developing at Lees Ferry or anywhere else in a given year: Just subscribe to the Arizona Game and Fish Department’s free e-newsletter, the Weekly Fishing Report (, to get the latest information delivered to your inbox. And if the cicadas are singing near you — and you live near a good fishing hole — let us know so we can share the news.

Watching those big, crimson-sided wild trout at Lees Ferry flash through the clear rushing current to blast a struggling cicada will get your heart racing as you wait to set the hook. Experiencing the frantic fight of a hooked trout lunging into the air to throw the lure that causes your fly rod to bend in quivering resistance beneath towering pink sandstone cliffs is angling ecstasy that cannot be duplicated in cyberspace.

And then there are those extra-special years when the stars align, seasonal fishing blessings abound and we not only have a cicada bite at the Ferry but also a superb summer topwater bite for stripers and smallmouth bass at Lake Powell, just a dam jump upriver. Talk about overdosing on summer fishing fun! I don’t care who you are, that there’s the stuff of possible piscatorial legends worthy of Shakespeare, Plutarch or Lucas.

Add in some flashy Perseids meteor showers during July or early August to brighten up the star-studded night skies and you can catch even more memories to save for future calendars full of rainy days and Mondays.

So no matter where you live in Arizona, this summer or next when you hear the cicada symphony in the shade trees, turn off the TV, power down the computer, grab your fishing poles and whisk your family away to those magical places where you can reel in summer recollections for the ages.

This article was published in the July–August 2009 issue of Arizona Wildlife Views magazine. To subscribe or give a gift, order online.

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Fishing With Cicadas

Poke air holes in a jar or other sturdy container. Go climb a tree or send the youngsters shinnying up, warning them beforehand not to break their fool necks. To catch a good handful of jar flies, use a butterfly net or bare hands. Cicadas are hardy creatures, so it’s easy to keep them alive in the jar until you reach your favorite fishing hole. Getting them on the hook can be tricky, though: You want to hook the exoskeleton without taking the buzz away, because that’s what really draws the fish. A final word of advice: When fishing for trout, use the smaller cicadas, as the larger ones can be tough for a trout to bite on.

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