The river valley is clogged with fog in the dawn and early-morning hours, casting a gray light over warm, clear water that carries foamy bubbles and the occasional rings of a rise downriver. It’s remarkably quiet, save for the quiet rush of water as it tumbles over ledges and falls. The sky is hidden—the weather it brings, anybody’s guess. It’s summertime on a Virginia smallmouth river.
When the fog burns off and the lights come on, the water lights up. The aquatic life—channel catfish, smallmouth bass, sunfish, suckers, and waving strands of stargrass—that was hidden by the reflection of a dark sky is betrayed, and gets increasingly active with prodding from warming, skinny water, cooled overnight by the sun’s absence and the day’s lowest air temperature. Then comes the singing.
It starts soft and timid—a groggy morning in the woodshop—and ramps up quickly to a chorus of Skil-sawing in the trees, sans the metallic twang. The bugs are stirring.
A quick survey of the river’s surface—the wood snags and water willow beds on its banks—reveals the awakening of damselflies and dragonflies. They’re quiet as can be, and I suppose they have to be—flying so low, resting on blades of grass rooted in the riverbottom, and hiding en masse on drifting sycamore leaves and twigs. Stealth curtails their demise, but doesn’t prevent it. In the shallow, Justicia-framed riffles, juvenile, surface-oriented smallmouth rocket several feet into the air, intercepting the flying morsels with enough consistency to keep trying.
The sources of the ringing in the trees are safe, for now—for the most part. The dog-day cicadas (genus Neotibicen), so-named because their sawing song acts as a soundtrack to the height of summer, when the star Sirius, of the big-dog constellation, Canis Major, is prominent in the night sky, spend most of their adult lives in the trees. Still, they occasionally do slip up, and end up helpless, stuck in the surface film—an easy meal for what fins below.
Unlike the periodical cicadas (genus Magicicada) that emerge every 13 or 17 years in late-spring, dog-day, or annual, cicadas, emerge every year, and live for two to five years. The nymphs live underground, feeding on nutrients sapped from tree roots, and molting through several growth stages. Fully-developed nymphs, which resemble wingless adult cicadas, emerge in the summer, under the cover of darkness, and cling to tree trunks and low-growing vegetation. It is there that the adult emerges from its nymphal shuck, and begins its short, five- to six-week life in the trees.
The ringing in the trees evidences the male cicadas, as they neglect sustenance and throw their whole existence into finding a mate and reproducing. The females are silent.
After the female’s eggs have been fertilized, she deposits them into small twigs and branches of trees using a small, saw-like anatomical feature called an ovipositor. In six to seven weeks, the eggs hatch. Nymphs emerge and fall to the ground, where they burrow downward and start their life cycle all over again.
The adults, having completed the sole task of their mature form, die. This is where they officially, and most significantly enter the world of the smallmouth and smallmouth angler.
It’s late-August, and the summer sun is beating down on a low, clear river. Water temperatures are high—80, 85 degrees, maybe warmer—during the day. Heavy fogs have become regular occurrences, recently. Air temps are dipping overnight, and the occasional cool-ish day hints at an impending fall, and then, ultimately, winter.
The smallmouth know winter is coming, and they are spurred to feed, but their daytime activities are still restricted by warm, metabolism-supercharging water temperatures. A big fish must consume the easiest (and biggest) meal it can find to avoid a significant net-negative caloric expenditure.
The ringing has ceased. The cicadas are done. And those that were perched in the canopy over the river follow death by toppling to the river’s surface and lying there in the surface film, motionless, incapable of escape—a big smallmouth’s perfect feeding opportunity.
Whether it’s the threat of winter; the recognition of a perfect feeding opportunity; the yearning caused by the sound of healthy, plump cicadas temporarily out of the reach of a hungry smallmouth that has lived through, and benefitted from, a cicada death or two; or all of the above, such a scenario simply doesn’t transpire within the range of detection of a smallmouth without the morsel getting eaten.
If the splat was a dead cicada, a smallmouth is successful and gains an inch against winter. If it’s a carefully-crafted and -presented popping bug, a battle ensues, and likely an unforgettable memory is forged, of the kind that’s been native to our river valleys for generations.
*Originally published in The Rural Virginian