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Fishing Cap Cod Canal

Behold, the Cape Cod Canal, a place known to all who pursue the elusive striped bass. Sure, you have your Montauk, and your Cuttyhunk, and there are all those fabulous surf spots at the Outer Banks, not to mention the action along the Cape’s outer beaches that stretch from Chatham to Provincetown, but The Canal is unique. Consider its history—

For nearly 300 years, sailing vessels operating off the coast of Cape Cod struggled to stay clear of the sandbars and heavy surf that lurked around the outside beaches. When fierce winter storms pounded ships with strong northeast winds. The Cape became a treacherous shore lee and wreck after wreck stacked up, like so much cordwood, along the beaches. A conservative estimate of the toll says that the skeletons of more than 3000 vessels line the ocean bottom eastward of The Cape. No wonder many skippers yearned for a shorter, safer route to sail into the sheltered waters of Vineyard Sound. The Cape Cod Canal eventually turned out to be the solution, but, for a time, it appeared that this “Big Ditch” might never become a reality.

During the late 1800s, a series of false starts turned into fiascoes, as both financing and competent engineering plans proved elusive. Finally, in 1909, a New York financier named August Belmont turned over the project’s symbolic first spade of dirt, using a small, mahogany handled, sterling silver shovel from Tiffany’s. But, it wouldn’t be until 1914 that The Canal officially opened to boat traffic.

Belmont’s company planned to operate the Cape Cod Canal as a private enterprise, charging a toll for boats to pass. But operating expenses soared, and boat traffic dropped off as a result of vessel groundings in the sand-choked waterway. Belmont’s group desperately tried to unload The Canal on the federal government. The feds, however, wanted no part of what they recognized as a high-maintenance money pit with little or no upside.

The government’s reluctance vanished on July 18, 1918, when a German submarine, the U-156, shelled a string of barges under tow off the coast near Orleans. Suddenly, the idea of a safe passageway linking coastal trade between Boston and New York seemed like a very good idea, and the government took over operation. Over the years, excavating projects increased the depth to 32 feet, two four-lane highway bridges were built along with a vertical lift railway bridge, and The Canal evolved into a 7-mile long route, connecting Cape Cod Bay with Buzzards Bay.

By the time World War II rolled around, thousands of vessels were routinely passing through The Canal.

Fish had discovered the short cut as well, and fishermen followed the fish.

I first visited Cape Cod Canal, rod in hand and brand new to The Cape, in 1972. It was early April and chilly. As a transplanted freshwater angler from upstate New York, I was clueless about fishing the salt, and guessed that a clam neck on a 4/0 Siwash hook might be about as good a bait as any. I may have tied on a 1-ounce pyramid sinker, figuring that I’d better go heavy because there appeared to be a pretty lively current running. I lobbed the whole mess into the current, wedged a sand spike between a couple of rocks in the rip rap lining the bank, and settled back to take in the view.

A few minutes or so later, I noticed the line creeping sideways against the current, so I slipped the rod out of the holder and gave it a little twitch. Feeling resistance, I set hard and started reeling in. I had no idea what I’d hooked, because it felt like I was hauling in a small tire or a garbage can cover. I was pretty certain I’d snagged something down on the bottom, and I was completely flummoxed when the “something” turned out to be a 2-pound lobster that seized the clam neck for brunch and swallowed it along with the 4/0 Siwash. The lobster lost his brunch, but provided me a fine dinner. I decided that day that Cape Cod was definitely home for me.

I’ve put in plenty of hours since then and, while there were some days I ate the bear, most days the bear dined on me. I’ve snagged enough jigs on the rocks, lobster trap lines, shopping carts, and mussel beds that litter the bottom of the “Big Ditch” to stock a small tackle shop. That’s not even to count the Rebels, Yo-Zuris and various Gibbs plugs that sailed out to who-knows-where when the bail snapped shut as I was strained for that little bit of extra distance when stripers were breaking just out of reach. I know I’ve done my share, and then some, of feeding the hungry among the finned population, because nobody’s donated more worms, eels (live and rigged), and herring than I have over the years. Some nights I swear I can hear the fish laughing at me, smacking their lips and waiting for my first cast, like so many hungry mouths around the dining room table.

Over the years I learned much while fishing “The Ditch,” but I am still a babe-in-the-woods compared to some of the folks who specialize in working their magic along this 7-mile stretch of fast-flowing water, chock full of tidal currents, rips, and eddies.

Running nearly the length of The Canal on both sides are access roads. The corps of engineers occasionally runs a vehicle along them to perform some needed maintenance. Otherwise, the paths are used by joggers, in-line skaters, walkers, birdwatchers, and fishermen. Real specialists cruise the roads on custom bike rigs equipped with everything from rod holder tubes to tackle-laden saddlebags and small wagons hitched up behind with a full, complement of gear. Some operate modified, balloon-tired, three wheelers equipped with everything but a battery-operated microwave, and I wouldn’t be too surprised come the day I see one of those, as well.

But, for those who haven’t visited The Canal before, a few words of caution are in order. Five- and six-knot currents put a strain on gear, and most of the regulars who fish “The Ditch” work with 10-foot or longer rods capable of throwing plugs for distance, as well as providing enough backbone to corral stripers upwards of 40 pounds. Now that the new braids have shrunk the diameter of 50-pound-test line, anglers load up with a lot heavier line and still get plenty of distance on their casts. Whatever the line, though, the crucial factor is abrasion resistance. The Canal is loaded with rocks, boulders, and other debris, and most everything beneath the surface is coated with barnacles that will quickly part a line. A heavy mono leader can help a lot.

The locals who fish here will tell you that you’re not fishing properly if you don’t snag, and lose, a half dozen jigs during a night’s fishing. That may sound like an exaggeration, but it’s actually pretty close to the truth. When Belmont started digging The Canal, his engineers found huge boulders and rock ledge instead of the soft, sandy material that they expected. They solved the problem by setting dynamite charges and blasting their way through, leaving the resulting rubble in place on the bottom. Later, when the waterway opened, vessels began to run aground on a near-weekly basis, and divers planted dynamite charges, blasting the hulls to pieces to clear the channel. Those pieces and parts also line the bottom of “The Ditch.”

Besides chewing up a lot of lines and lures over the years, these holes among the rocks have become natural lurking places for big stripers, waiting for the tide to serve up their next meal. Anglers who have fished these spots for years have a kind of virtual topographical map image in their heads, can stand on a certain rock along the bank during just the right stage of the tide, make their cast by lining up on an object across the canal, count down their jig and call, “Now!” just before a 20- or 30-pound bass grabs their jigs, and then do it again, and again.

For those not on intimate terms with The Canal, the best way to start is by picking out one of the places that has delivered fish on a fairly consistent basis. Places such as “The Cribbin,” “The Jungle,” “Portagee Hole,” the hole by the Railroad Bridge, and “Herring Run,” are good spots for a visiting angler to begin unraveling the secrets of The Canal. Local bait and tackle shops have detailed maps of The Canal that indicate where these spots are located, and poles with number markers make it easy to find them.

A word about the “Herring Run” — In early May, the herring emerge from the streams heading for saltwater, and the run near The Canal Visitor’s Center off Route 6 becomes a Mecca for every striper angler within 100 miles. Pick up a license at Town Hall in Buzzards Bay, show up at “The Run” with a 5-gallon plastic pail, and the warden will dip you out your share. Carry them across the road — Watch out for traffic when you’re crossing — and find a spot along the canal bank to live-line your herring. This will likely be the best chance you will ever have to hook up with a large striper.

The bass are waiting just below the stream, waiting for herring to show up. It’s like a bass buffet, all they can eat. Be ready when you feel the pickup. If you’re using circle hooks, retrieve slow and steady until the hook sets itself. With traditional hooks, let the fish run a little, and when it stops, set hard. Either way, hang on and be prepared to do battle with the jumbo stripers lying in wait.

Later in the season, live-lining an eel becomes the preferred method. The same approach applies as with herring, except you can buy your eels at the local bait shops in Buzzard’s Bay or Sagamore. Working a live eel in the Cape Cod Canal requires a sensitive touch, You want the eel near the bottom, but, at the same time, you must keep it from getting into the rocks and hanging up. I do a modified countdown until I have a feel for how long it takes for the eel to get down and I lift and reel, lift and reel, slowly — just enough to keep it swimming, not enough to let it dig in down there. From June through October, live eels are arguably the best striper bait available.

For those who love to throw plugs, those in the 5- to 7-inch range seems to work best. Rebels, Mambo Minnows, Danny Plugs, Atom poppers, Yo-Zuris, Gibbs (Gibbs designed and tested his original lures in The Canal near the Railroad Bridge), and other big swimming plugs can be very effective, especially at night. Pre-dawn action usually finds the local lads tossing needle plugs and pencil poppers with good results. A “walk-the-dog” action with a 7-inch needle is a killer when there are breaking fish about.

Bear in mind, too, that striped bass is not the only species in The Canal. Bluefish, mackerel, pollock, bluefin tuna, bonito, false albacore, and tautog use The Canal as a convenient shortcut and can be had at different times during the season. Last year, one tenacious angler managed to land a 70-pound bluefin tuna from the beach a little north of The Canal.

Check with the local bait shops for tide charts and specific tidal information. More than any other place around The Cape, fishing the Cape Cod Canal is a tide-driven activity. For bait anglers in particular, there’s a narrow window of opportunity when it comes to holding bottom without needing a sashweight to keep you in the zone. You’re looking at maybe twenty minutes on either side of slack tide, because, once that tide gets running full bore, it becomes just about impossible to manage. There are some knowledgeable folks working at the local bait and tackle emporiums, and it’s more than worth your while to stop by and pick their brains a bit. A visit can save you a lot of grief. Besides, some of those guys have a lifetime of stories and don’t mind sharing them when business is a little slow. The old timer behind the counter probably has decades of Canal experience under his belt. Check it out.

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