The Cape Cod Canal is world renowned as a major shipping route for barges and ships traveling along the East Coast of the US. Yet recently the Cape Cod Canal has transformed into a striped bass fishing Mecca of sorts; attracting fishermen from far and wide. These people come to fish the Canal for one reason – big striped bass.
Each spring and fall striped bass up to and above the 50 pound mark migrate through the 7 mile long “Big Ditch,” as it is referred to by locals, that divides Cape Cod from the rest of New England. During the spring biomasses of stripers swim north through Buzzard’s Bay, into the Canal en route to Cape Cod Bay and beyond. In the fall the pattern repeats itself, except in the opposite direction as bass migrate south again.
The Canal however is not only a conduit for migration. The Canal itself is a marine ecosystem of its own, perhaps the most unique marine ecosystem in all of New England. Depths up to 80 feet exist within just a few yards from shore. The varying depths, coupled with the Canal’s relentlessly powerful current, make the Cape Cod Canal a magnet for life of all shapes and forms.
Critically endangered Right whales, ocean sunfish, sharks and 500 pound giant Bluefin tuna are seen “frolicking” in the Canal each season. Add in the chance for a striper of a lifetime and you have yourself one of the most interesting and challenging places to wet a line anywhere along the striper coast.
Timing is everything at the Cape Cod Canal
Because Cape Cod Canal fishing is so tide dependent, the timing of your Canal excursion is a pivotal component to success. For fly fishermen, the best option will be to fish the Canal during times of low water. The Canal’s steep banks and tricky footing make casting very difficult during any other stage of the tide.
The end of the ebb tide, slack and the beginning of the flood is the ideal time to target big bass as they move through. In addition to increased casting ease, it will be possible to find a rocky outcropping or mussel bed to set up shop on. Finding a good casting platform cannot be overemphasized, because the majority of bass always seem to hang towards the middle of the Canal.
In addition, low water in the Canal also means that bait fish literally have less water to use in their efforts to escape the jaws of predators. I believe this is why most top water feeding frenzies occur during periods of low water. With less water in the Canal, big bass have an easier time corralling prey and subsequently drive the hapless bait fish towards the surface.
Best Cape Cod Canal Fishing Techniques
Upon reaching the banks of the Canal you will most likely be greeted by fishermen using spinning and conventional setups. It is hard to beat the effectiveness of such a setup at the Canal. Without a doubt these guys more often than not out produce fly fishermen. Yet for the fly fishermen it is all about the challenge – not pure numbers of big fish caught.
Throughout the season bass will feed on a variety of prey items in the Big Ditch. Atlantic mackerel, herring and menhaden are at the top of the bass’ favorite food list. Lobster, squid and of course the almighty sand eel are also routinely found in the bellies of stripers caught at the Canal. Of course bass are opportunistic feeders, so it is not unusual at all to find stripers feeding on a variety of baits – sometimes all at the same time.
More often than not big baits and big flies result in big stripers, while smaller sand eel imitations work well on juvenile fish. Depending on the day the bass may be working prey on the surface, on the bottom or suspended somewhere in the middle. Being versatile and willing to change tactics usually pay offs in the long run.
The Infamous Cape Cod Canal Fishing Learning Curve
The Canal is chock full of rips, holes, the occasional ship wreck and other random pieces of structure. In some areas the bottom plummets from 35 to 60 feet – often times deeper. In other areas large rock piles covered with kelp litter the bottom. Said another way there is plenty of stuff to get hung up on.
Big stripers seem to understand that if they can overpower a fisherman, and rub the leader on the rocks they will go free. Who knows if the bass comprehend what they are doing, yet no one denies that many 50 plus pound fish have been lost to the “Canal Gods.”
For the newbie Canal fly fisher there is a lot to learn. Battling and landing a big bass in a 4 knot current, and correctly timing your trip around the tides requires practice.
Yet one thing is for sure. If you log your time in, you may just land the next 50 plus pound striper at the Big Ditch – in arguably the most challenging fly fishing environment of them all.