Cape Cod Canal ABCs
Written by Mike P   

photo by member 5/0

The Cape Cod Canal is one of the Northeast’s most productive striper fisheries. Few places, if any, allow an angler to fish 30-plus foot depths mere yards away from where they’re standing. The deep, fast moving waters lend themselves to daytime action that can often outpace the fishing at night. However, many beginners are intimidated by the rugged structure and fast moving currents. While there’s no substitute for putting in the hours and racking up experience, hopefully, the following paragraphs will serve to “de-mystify” the Ditch.

The Canal, including the sea approaches, is over 17 miles long, but only a little under 8 miles is fishable from shore. Bank fishermen have almost unlimited access to the land cut, which runs from the end of the eastern jetties to the state pier at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy in Buzzards Bay. The Canal is part of the Intracoastal Waterway, and is operated and maintained by the US Army Corps of Engineers. At present, no user fees or permits are required to fish. This has been the case since the Federal Government assumed ownership in the 1930s, and hopefully will continue indefinitely. The Canal runs in a general east/west direction, and both the north (mainland) and south (Capeside) banks have parking areas that allow frequent access. Some of these are lighted and paved parking areas equipped with restrooms, and some other are just dirt turn-outs along the highways. Some of the paved areas are gated after dark, but most remain open around the clock. In addition, a lighted and paved service road runs almost the entire length of the land cut along both banks. While non-government vehicles are prohibited, the roads offer 24-hour pedestrian and bicycle access. Many of the regulars have rigged up “Canal cruisers”, bicycles set up with rod holders and baskets. A bike is a big boost to mobility, as it allows you to park at one end, load up, and pedal off to your hearts content in search of fish.


Most fishermen are used to scheduling their fishing around the time of tidal height, or “high tide/low tide”. The stage of the tide can be important, as it affects the location of rips and backwashes in various places, but for a beginner, the best advice that can be given is to disregard tide and think current. The Canal has a fairly swift current, and it results from a 3-1/2 hour difference in the time of the tides in the bays at each end of the Ditch. Also, Cape Cod Bay, at the eastern end, has an 11 foot difference (called “tidal range”) in water levels at high and low, whereas Buzzards Bay has only a 4-6 foot range. These two factors account for the current. The current flow can be predicted with a great deal of accuracy. When the water level in one bay is higher than the other, the current will run in the direction of the lower water level. When the levels are equal, the current will be slack. Canal tide charts and the Eldridge Guide predict the time of current change. This is the key---plan your fishing around the direction of current. Some spots produce well on an east current, and some produce better on the west. Also, you have to tailor your methods according to the current flow. If you’re fond of fishing bait on the bottom with a sinker, with few exceptions, this is best done around slack tide, as the heaviest sinker you can throw won’t hold bottom on a raging current. If you doubt this, you’ll do little more than add to what is already one of Earth’s richest lead deposits. On a running current, the best methods are drift-chunking using light rubber-core or egg sinkers to help get a chunk down below the surface, drifting live eels, using sub-surface swimmers like a Gibbs bottle plug or a darter, or deep jigging with heavy bucktails, jig-heads and plastic, or an eel skin jig. At slack, productive methods include fishing bait on the bottom with a sinker, and plugging with lures like a Gibbs Polaris by day, or a big metal-lipped swimming plug by night.


The Canal has some of the most rugged bottom that I’ve ever fished. It is, in truth, a junkyard on the bottom. When you throw in a current that can exceed 5 knots on a moon tide, you can see why it’s no place for light tackle. Canal fishermen use rods from 8 to over 11 feet. In my opinion, the longer rods are really only a good idea at lower stages of the tide, when you can stand on an exposed mussel bed or other flat spot, and have room behind you to get off a good cast. I usually carry two rods with me—a 9-1/2 footer and a 10-1/2 foot one. The rod should be able to handle 4-6 ounces of weight and still load with two ounces at the low end. It should have a lot of backbone, in order to lift a jig off the bottom in 30+ feet of water, and to put the boots to a fish that’s trying to bury its nose in that junk on the bottom. All of my rods are custom models. There are many blanks that could serve as the guts of a Ditch stick. I’ll list a few—in 9 foot lengths, some good ones are the Batson 1089, the All Star (Breakaway) 1088, and the Lamiglas GSB 108 1M. In 10 foot models, I like the All Star 1208 or 1209, and the Lamiglas GSB 120 1M or the XRA 1205, as well as the old reliable fiberglass 121 3M. Going up the ladder, there’s the Lamiglas XRA 126 1MH at 10-1/2 feet, which in my opinion is the best Canal rod going for big plugs and heavy jigs, then the 11 foot XRA 1322 and the All Star 1418/2 for situations requiring the ultimate in casting performance.

Most Canal regulars use conventional reels. They offer big advantages in casting, and in controlling a big fish in heavy current. I’ve retired most of my older reels, and use Abu Garcia Ambassadeurs almost exclusively. The smaller 6500 size reels, as well as similar sized Calcutta 400s and Penn 965s, can be used if spooled with thin braided line. My preference has always been the larger 7000 size Ambassadeurs. Many old timers still prefer to use non level-wind reels. Some still use the old Penn Squidders, but most now use more modern reels like the Newell 229 and 235, and the Daiwa Sealine 30s.

If you’re more comfortable with spinning reels, I would suggest that you invest in a model with strong gears. Fortunately, they are available. The spinning reels I have the most confidence in are the older Penn Z-series models 704 and 706, the newer Mitchell Nautil 7500, and of course the Lexus of spinning reels, the Van Staal.

Some holdouts still do all of their Canal fishing with mono. I’ve switched over to the new thin braids for almost all of my Ditch fishing. They offer many advantages. They are incredibly thin for their strength. The thin diameter means it penetrates the water better and isn’t as wind resistant, which allows you to get a jig down to the bottom better. They allow you to use a lighter jig, which is less prone to hanging up. And, their sensitivity is unbelievable. You can feel the bottom better, you can detect when your jig is hanging up sooner which allows you a better shot at rescuing it, and you can almost feel the fish breathing on your lure before it hits. There are a few drawbacks to braid, and lack of stretch can be a two-edged sword. It’s easier to tear hooks loose from poorly hooked fish, especially with a stiff rod, and it’s easier to put too much pressure on treble hooks causing them to straighten. Also, when using surface plugs like Polarises and pencil poppers, it’s easy to catch “buck fever” by yanking the lure away from a fish before it has a chance to get the hooks in its mouth---so mono still has its place in my tackle bag. I suggest 25# or 30# mono, 30# Fireline, or minimum of 50# spun braid for the Canal.


In my opinion, too many guys get hung up on “spots”. Whenever the talk turns to the Canal, you’ll hear the same spots getting thrown around—the Cribbin, Portagee Hole, the Radar Towers, the Jungle and so on. The traditional spots earned their lore, but they also attract crowds. There are thousands of spots where you might find the fish. I watched someone from New Jersey, who had never seen the Canal in his life, pull out a 40# bass on his second cast in a spot that doesn’t have a name. What I suggest is riding the Canal on a bike by daytime, and scoping out the structure. Look for points and mussel beds that jut out from the bank. Look for places where there are rips, backwashes, and seams between the main current and a backwash. Make some casts with a 3-4 ounce bank sinker, to get a feel for the bottom. Feel the sinker bouncing and take note of places where the bottom suddenly drops down a few feet. Carry a notebook and jot places down. You can find almost any spot easily—every pole that holds a navigation light has a placard displaying a station number on it. They start at “pole 10” at the east end and run all the way up to “pole 385” near the railroad bridge. If you find a spot that you think might hold fish, jot down, for example, “ledge 30 yards west of pole xxx” in your notebook, and try it out that evening. If you want to try the traditional spots, get the pole numbers from a local tackle shop, or obtain a Canal map from the Corps of Engineers. They’re also available in certain tackle shops.


Often you’ll hear the regulars talk of “the breaking tides”. They’re referring to the twice a month low slack current, where it falls around the time of first light. For most of the Canal fishing season, these tides occur for 4-5 days around the new and full moons. Some old timers also call them “minus tides”, as they are marked by one or two asterisks in the official Canal tide chart. What it means, basically, is that bottom clearance at dead low tide is less than normal because the tide ebbs more on the new and full moon. Often, on these early morning slack tides, fish will be seen thrashing on the surface chasing bait. These are the times you want to have your big surface poppers with you, and be able to cast accurately. Yellow plugs work year-in, year out on these tides, and mackerel pattern plugs are also productive whenever the macks are present in quantity. Bait supplies vary from year to year, and some years, plugging is slow. In other years, you can find bass tearing up the surface from one end of the Ditch to the other.

Well, those are the basics. There’s no substitute for hands-on experience, so take these words as a starting point and put in the time. Good luck and hope to run into you in the dead of night this season.

Secrets of Surf Fishing at Night


Speaking of Winter Reading...

Re-released for 2010 - Secrets of Surf Fishing at Night

Available at Saltwater Edge, SRI, and River's End

Sponsored Links

Moon Phase