by Jerry Vovcsko
Although a lot fishing reports will cover Chatham thoroughly, you don't often hear much about the area around Dennis and Harwich. Which is odd because not only is there plenty of striper and bluefish action available but being at the eastern end of Nantucket Sound, this area will occasionally report catches of some really unusual species.
Back a couple of decades ago, one startled angler hooked up with a tarpon from the beach in Harwich. And some five years later another gent caught a forty pound tarpon from the beach in West Dennis.
More recently another angler tied into a 43-lb cubera snapper that provided all the action any striper fisherman could want. Those out-of-the-way catches are not all that surprising actually, as the Gulf Stream spins out plumes of relatively warm water into Nantucket sound and there's no telling what will show up in local waters. Harwich and Chatham being at the far eastern end of the Sound are likeliest beneficiaries of that proximity to the Gulf Stream.
But along with the occasional tropical visitor, the long arc of Sound-facing beaches that sweeps from Dennis to the tip of Monomoy Island plays home to large congregations of striped bass and bluefish in the spring and impressive blitzes of false albacore and bonito in late summer. Early on, Stage Harbor, Harding's Beach and a small shallow cove known locally as the Bathtub see plenty of action with schoolie stripers forming up in the warm, shallow waters. Used to be they'd stick around for the better part of the summer; not so much these days as they soon move on down around the flats and rips along Monomoy.
In Chatham, aka, the original fog factory, a ferry runs regular trips around Monomoy Island and it's not a bad idea to scout the area by signing on for one of the ninety-minute cruises.
In addition to scouting out some good places to fish, the vessel takes sight-seers over to check out the seal population and with a little luck viewers might even catch a glimpse of the dorsal fin of one of the great white sharks that have made this area a permanent feeding station on their pelagic travels around the oceans of the world. These apex predators show up during the summer ever more frequently thanks to the increasing numbers of choice, fatty seal communities that have taken up residence between Chatham and Orleans.
Pollock Rip at the southern tip of Monomoy Island is also one of the good striper spots but foggy conditions can make fishing there an exciting proposition. Although motor boats should have little trouble handling the current things can get a bit hairy rounding the tip of the island when visibility drops and marine traffic picks up. Last winter's storms broke through on the northern end of Monomoy Island and created a cut that will undoubtedly serve as an ambush point for big bass to lurk waiting for bait to be swept through when the tide runs strong. Small boats can find themselves battling a rugged chop with the current running against a southwesterly wind and need to take care. The Sound side of Monomoy holds striped bass in good numbers but sandbars all through these shallow waters are constantly shifting and even though it's more weather-protected on the Sound side, skippers still need to keep a sharp eye out.
On the Nantucket Sound side Harding's Beach and the Bathtub are places where for years early season striped bass could be caught from the beach on topwater lures but these days it's more hit and miss. For those who like to catch flounder, scup and black sea bass, the wreck of the SS Pendleton out a little ways from the beach near Monomoy holds a rich assortment of groundfish including tautog, scup, black sea bass and the occasional cusk. The Pendleton foundered and broke in half during a storm in 1952 and the stern section of the ship was dynamited later by the Coast Guard. The bow section sank in Pollock Rip but currents there make anchoring a small boat a dangerous proposition.
Where to fish the surf? That's easy…pretty much anywhere you can find access around this area will put you on fish. An old timer named Charlie DeAngelis used to work part time at a local bait and tackle shop. He started fishing the surf back around the end of World War II and ran the beaches in an old model A. One of his acquaintances in those days was Frank Woolner who traveled the surfline in an old "woody" station wagon. Charley never needed much encouragement to talk about those days.
"Frank was a helluva fisherman and a real gentleman," said Charlie. "We used to pass each other traveling on the beaches. One of us would get stuck and the other would stop to let some more air out of the tires and help shovel sand away…one eye on the digging and the other on what the tide was doing so's the vehicle didn't get a salt water bath."
In Chatham stop at any bait & tackle place and to ask directions to The Bathtub (great spot for schoolie stripers in the spring), and get directions to the small ferry that carries fishermen to Monomoy Island. It runs all day long and you can go down in the morning and get picked up and returned to the pier later that day. Fish the flats on the Sound side or try your luck in the Atlantic surf. Or do both; it's only a short walk across Monomoy. Morris Island is a good place to fish the surf, the only "island" that can be accessed by car. All of Pleasant Bay is fishable territory where stripers and blues can be caught; pick up a street map at the Chamber of Commerce to find the best access routes to the Bay.
Even with the crazy summer traffic to fight it's usually less than a half hour's drive from Chatham to Orleans. When you get there check in with the guys at Goose Hummock Sports emporium. There you can stock up on gear: spinning, conventional or fly…as well as information on what's hitting and where. Pick up a few live eels while you're at it because the places you're heading toward have been known to deliver striped bass upwards of fifty pounds to nocturnal anglers patrolling the surf with old Jake No-Shoulders on the end of their line.
There are almost as many theories about how to fish a live eel in the surf as there are fishermen doing it. Here's my contribution: Twenty pound test mono tied direct to a 6/0 circle hook (I like Gamakatsu but there are others that work just fine) and the eel hooked under the jaw and up and out an eye. I cast (more of a lob actually…no need to set any distance records) and retrieve, sloooowly, very slowly. All I want is to keep the eel moving so it doesn't dig in and hide. With the circle hook I don't have to count-and-set; when I feel a tap-tap-tap I keep reeling steadily and that generally results in a striped bass hooked in the corner of its mouth. I don't use swivels, snaps, shock leaders, teasers or anything else. I figure anything I add on is an unnecessary weak spot, just one more thing to go wrong. I've fished eels in the salt that way for thirty seven years and I'm satisfied that, for me, it's the best approach.
Heading north now, you'll come to a traffic light in Eastham and a sign that tells you the National Seashore starts here. Follow the arrows to Coast Guard Beach and find your way down the dunes to the surf. A word of warning: If you see signs asking you not to step on the beach grass take them seriously. Over the years the dunes have been steadily eroded by careless foot traffic…that grass is all that holds the sand in place and one of these days the signs might read: Beach Closed!, if we don't take a little more care where we walk nowadays.
Most surf fishermen head south along Nauset Beach looking for sand bars, small rips, vagrant currents and any holes that might show up at low tide. Fishing along these Atlantic side beaches is such a spiritual experience that it almost doesn't matter where you toss your line. Many a night I've roamed along casting here or there at random, mesmerized by the sound and sight and smell of the surf thundering in from the open sea. It's humbling to wander along the beach with the realization that in the vast scheme of things we humans are as grains of sand in the universe. Anyone who hasn't yet read The Outermost House ought to make it a point to do so; author Henry Beston had perfect pitch in his writings about life along the Atlantic shoreline.
Eels are great fished in the surf but for those who'd rather not fish with bait, this is big-plug territory. Here's where Frank Woolner and friends began chucking jointed, musky sized Creek Chubs. Later, Bob Pond came out with the atom and reverse atom plugs, Stan Gibbs contributed his poppers and swimmers and, of course, those who carried a danny or two squirreled away in their plug bags thrived. Later came the seven inch Rebels and Rapalas that subsequent surfers employed with great success and, as always, bucktail jigs could be counted on, especially when tipped with plastic tails, and rubber imitation eels have always been effective baits in the surf. These are Big Waters out here and they hold big fish.
Next blog will take a look at some spots between Orleans and Provincetown. Best thing about P'town is that even if you go fishless, the entertainment is free and all it takes is a walk down the streets.