Lanternflies: Squash ‘Em, Report ‘Em, and Fish ‘Em!

The good and the bad of the Spotted Lanternfly invasion.

Spotted Lanternfly fly pattern
Lanternflies are a tasty morsel for the hungry fish and a relatively easy tie! A fly pattern (left) next to the real deal spotted lanternfly (right)

As quickly as spring mayfly hatches come, they disappear just as fast, leaving us thinking about summer fishing with terrestrials. As a seasoned fly angler, I’ve thrown this term around in the past, thinking that it is just another common word. In reality, most people don’t know that terrestrial refers to an animal that lives on land as opposed to living in the water. Think of land insects instead of mayflies (and actually mice, fall into this category as a fun aside). If you are located out west, this is an exciting time filled with jumping grasshoppers. On the east coast, we do not have an endless, dependable hopper hatch and we think more about flying ants, beetles, and cicadas than grasshoppers. But in the past few years, a new invasive species has appeared that has offered an interesting new fly option during the dog days of summer; enter the spotted lanternfly (SLF) invasion.

A Lantern What?

Adult lanternflies sporting grey overwings with black dots. Photo courtesy of @fishingwithaphd

While the spotted lanternfly was first detected in Berks County, Pennsylvania in 2014, I’ve realized over the years that most fly anglers, even those on the east coast, still have no idea what a spotted lanternfly is. The most common question is about the name. Spotted lanternflies are very different than lightning bugs. Even though they have “lantern” in the name, they do not produce any light. Their name comes from two, bright, red/crimson colored hindwings that lie underneath grey forewings with large black spots. When they fly, the red underwing produces a lantern-like appearance. If the bug itself was not so horrific, its beauty would probably be treasured. They are also 100% harmless to humans lacking the ability to bite.

But, do not let its harmlessness and beauty fool you. Lanternflies are bad news in terms of the environment and economy. Lanternflies eat everything in sight and they have their siphons set on the east coast. They love grapevines, fruit trees, soybeans, and many hardwood trees. Adults sport a large siphon that they use to suck the sap and life out of any tree they call home. So, say goodbye to your fine wine made from grapes or lumber made from hardwoods. In its wake, lanternflies leave behind a clear, sticky sugary waste (referred to as honeydew) that fosters the growth of a black fungus called sooty mold. For humans, this is just an annoyance as it blackens siding and patio furniture. But for plants, it is a future death sentence by blocking photosynthesis.

Just like the coronavirus, stopping the spread of lanternflies is crucial. Promotional campaigns are littered all throughout the east coast urging people to check for hitchhiking flies or egg masses, and literally “stomp them out.” You are urged to kill any lanternfly you come across. These lanternflies are clumsy fliers and resort to hopping to get around most places. It is quite satisfying to eradicate these flies but, in some valleys, or places, like the city of Philadelphia, it is nearly plague levels. Taking these promotions seriously would leave a person stomping for hours if not days.

To stomp the spread, briefly understanding the life cycle of lanternflies is key. The life cycle itself is no surprise to the astute fly fisherman. They begin as a nearly invisible egg mass that resembles a pale grey lichen seen on the sides of trees. Come winter, these sacks present the largest possibility of spread. The egg masses have been found on stones, trees, firewood, and even cars. In some places, travel quarantines have occurred due to infestations of egg masses and lanternflies. After hatching, lanternflies proceed through four immature nymph stages called instars. All these stages are wingless and the bugs hop around. These instars occur from May through July with each stage getting bigger and bigger. Come July, adult forms are reached and mating rituals begin.

Lanternfly trap captures hundreds of immature instars
A Lanternfly trap has captured hundreds of immature instars that have infested this tree. Photo courtesy of Jason Pitarresi.

The Silver Lining? Fish eat them!

As said previously, lanternflies are clumsy fliers, similar to stoneflies. With a stiff wind and their gliding abilities, it is no wonder that they end up in waterways. It is even more amazing, how quickly fish can zero in on new prey. We have seen this several times with spruce moth populations in the western Rockies, and the boom of Japanese beetles here in the east.  It did not take a rocket scientist to realize what would happen as lanternflies spread throughout the east coast and find themselves stuck in some fishy water. This is indeed the silver lining for us fishermen and while I wish they never came to the USA, we may as well try to eradicate the problem whilst taking advantage of the situation.

A wild brown that clobbered a lanternfly pattern tied by Rob Gentry
A brown trout that clobbered a lanternfly pattern tied by Rob Gentry. Photo courtesy of @fishingwithaphd

I do not think that matching the hatch is all that important in regard to lanternflies. A large black foam body with a red underwing should suffice. However, if you wanted to get intricate there are a few patterns that are just as eye-catching to the fisherman and the fish. Pennsylvania local Jayson Mumma’s pattern uses JS realistic nymph legs, a foam body, a red hen saddle hackle for the underwing, and some rooster neck feathers as over wings. If you want to get even swankier, use great argus spotted back feathers as the over wings. Last year, we had the incredible (or subpar depending on who you ask) Brood X cicada hatch with a black and red body, a similar palate to lanternflies. I would not be surprised if a trout mistook a lanternfly pattern for a cicada pattern or vice versa.

Adult lanternfly (left) next to a skillfully tied rendition (right) sold at Holsinger’s Fly Shop in Pennsylvania. Photo courtesy of @shawn_holsinger

Dry fly fishing is usually a subtle art form. However, lanternflies, cicadas or stoneflies for that matter, are not only incompetent fliers, they are large bugs. Most are upwards around an inch long. And that means, with a big gust of wind, these bugs fall from the trees and land in the water with a substantial splash. Therefore, forget the finesses of trying to set that dry fly down without disturbing the water, and cast these large flies with a fat splat. This is the best part about fishing these flies and the touchdown is typically met with an explosive eat!

They are Here to Stay

I wish I could give some scientific evidence that lanternflies are going away. But just like COVID, it comes in waves. 2020 was a wild year for lanternflies with them littering the streets all over the tri-state area. 2021 was a bit milder. Still, they are spreading all over the east coast and these SLFs have been found in New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Connecticut, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, and West Virginia. Time will tell what 2022 will bring.

But for now, we can do our part, and stomp out any lanternflies that come in our path. Please kill any lanternfly you come across. And please report lanternflies if they are in an area that has unreported cases. And lastly, revel in the fact that lanternflies do not bite us or spread disease. They may not be good news but they certainly open up the possibilities for some dry fly fun!

Feature photo courtesy of John Fallon.

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