FISH FUN­NEL

WITH STRONG CUR­RENTS AND ABUN­DANT BAIT, THE CAPE COD CANAL IS A UNIQUE AND PRO­DUC­TIVE SPOT FOR STRIPED BASS

Anglers Journal - - CONTENTS - BY DAVE AN­DER­SON PHO­TOS BY JOHN DOBLE

It takes a tricked-out bi­cy­cle and some se­ri­ous fish savvy to get in on the striper ac­tion at the Cape Cod Canal, where break­ing tides can pro­duce big fish. By DAVE AN­DER­SON

TYears of fish­ing the Cape Cod Canal have equipped me with a strange abil­ity. I can set the alarm for any time — 2:37, 3:11, 1:55 — and wake up one to five min­utes be­fore it goes off, al­most with­out fail. This is a de­fense mech­a­nism that comes from sleep­ing next to a very un­der­stand­ing wife. I think my sub­con­scious knows that her un­der­stand­ing hinges largely upon the fact that I rarely wake her. Whether I’m com­ing home from the surf or leav­ing for the canal, the un­godly hours I keep are ig­nored, so long as they don’t af­fect her. The Cape Cod Canal is a 7-mile, man-made short­cut be­tween Buz­zards Bay and Cape Cod Bay in Mas­sachusetts. The dif­fer­ences in tide tim­ing and height be­tween the two bays send wa­ter rush­ing through the canal at speeds as fast as 6 knots, but with ex­tended slack pe­ri­ods that last about 30 min­utes, when the two wa­ter bod­ies equal­ize be­fore the cur­rent slowly creeps in the other di­rec­tion. It’s the great power of th­ese cur­rents that draws bait­fish into the “Big Ditch,” and huge num­bers of striped bass fol­low them into what is the largest fish fun­nel on the East Coast.

As I drive down the home­stretch of MA-25, the un­known prom­ise of the com­ing tide evokes boil­ing an­tic­i­pa­tion. It’s funny how easy it is to con­vince my­self that things are lined up just right. Speed­ing down the dark high­way, I have al­ready ar­rived (in my mind) more than an hour ago. The images of the day to come are minced with images of the past. The sun ris­ing be­hind a cur­tain of gray clouds, the col­ors of night melt­ing away, the morn­ing sun­light blend­ing to re­veal a full spec­trum of fa­mil­iar­ity and hope, wait­ing for the first signs of life.

The rest of the game plays out on its own. Mack­erel V-wak­ing through the shal­low wa­ter near the bank. The sun il­lu­mi­nat­ing the world around me to the point that I know, in­stinc­tively, that it’s time to switch to a top-wa­ter plug. A long cast up­cur­rent, the large Guppy Pen­cil Popper splash­ing down and work­ing slowly, ush­ered by the slow­ing tide. It steps tightly through an un­du­lat­ing rip and glides into the slick wa­ter on the in­side of the seam. A small boil mounds be­hind the plug, and then the hit comes. Like a creak­ing stair in the mid­dle of the night, the ex­plo­sion shat­ters the quiet and rocks the an­tic­i­pa­tion of the 30 guys within earshot who have been wait­ing for some­one else to show them that it’s time to fish. The line hisses as it comes tight. A large tail smashes the sur­face as the fish strug­gles to dive into the cur­rent.

I’m snapped back to re­al­ity as de­ci­sion time comes: Should I cross the Bourne Bridge and fish the Cape side, or should I veer off the ap­proach­ing exit and stay on the main­land side? I take the exit.

Pulling into the lot at the Her­ring Run — a cen­trally lo­cated land­mark on the main­land side of the canal from which a large per­cent­age of ev­ery­day an­glers

shove off — I see dozens of other fish­er­men hur­riedly mov­ing gear from their ve­hi­cles into the bas­kets of their bi­cy­cles. If you were al­lowed to see what the dark­ness hides, you’d find an en­vi­ous arse­nal of plugs, two to four rods wait­ing for their call in mod­i­fied PVC pipe hold­ers at­tached to the bike with pipe clamps, var­i­ous jigs and shads, a Ga­torade, a cof­fee, maybe a dough­nut. The at­ti­tude is al­ways the same. The faces are just sil­hou­ettes, dark and emo­tion­less. Ev­ery­one is “New Eng­land quiet” — al­most prickly. It’s a guy thing, I guess.

The rhythm feels like work or war, but it’s all in prepa­ra­tion for the hope­ful prom­ise of adren­a­line, a prom­ise that is ev­ery bit as un­jus­ti­fied as it is un­de­ni­able. The truth sur­round­ing the whole rit­ual is that only the other soul­less shapes in that lot truly un­der­stand it. “For me,” says canal an­gler Joe Paiva, “it’s a sim­ple love for the ul­ti­mate chal­lenge that keeps me com­ing back. Ev­ery­thing is a chal­lenge here, from pre­sent­ing your lures in the cur­rent to land­ing big fish — and, you know, your chances of hook­ing a truly big fish from shore at the canal are bet­ter than al­most any­where else.”

With ac­cess roads trac­ing each bank and no mo­tor­ized ve­hi­cles per­mit­ted, bikes are the ac­cepted mode of trans­porta­tion, mak­ing this fish­ery even more unique. Canal bikes, as they’re com­monly called, are me­chan­i­cal ex­pres­sions of the peo­ple who ride them. Each ve­hi­cle in the lot, dome light glow­ing, has one lean­ing on a kick­stand. Most have sad­dle­bag-style bas­kets on the back; some have a bas­ket mounted on the han­dle­bars, too. I’ve even seen one with large, plas­tic food-stor­age “garbage cans” af­fixed with wood fur­ring strips. It’s the sub­tle touches that make each one unique. There’s a grouchy old codger who rides with a 5-gal­lon bucket with plugs lin­ing the rim rest­ing in a seat meant for a child. You’ll see some bikes with bells and horns, some with funny li­cense plates or bumper stick­ers, and some that look as if they could win a low-rider con­test. The standby canal bike is a moun­tain bike — girls’ bikes are fa­vored be­cause of their low cross­bar, which is eas­ier for wader-clad (or just old and tired) feet to clear when get­ting on and off. A pa­per­boy-style wire bas­ket strad­dles the rear wheel, with PVC rod hold­ers af­fixed to both cor­ners.

The canal bike is one of the last re­main­ing fin­ger­prints of surf-cast­ing in­ge­nu­ity. Seem­ingly ev­ery­thing else has made the rapid tran­si­tion to com­mer­cial­iza­tion. Canal bikes are 100 per­cent base­ment-en­gi­neered, and the mod­i­fi­ca­tions are passed from an­gler to an­gler. The kick­stand sys­tems are a par­tic­u­lar mar­vel of an­gler in­ge­nu­ity. Ev­ery bike has a main kick­stand and a backup — some even have a third. The main kick­stand is the same one you’re pic­tur­ing, a piece of bent rod threaded through a col­lar and fit­ted onto the bot­tom of the frame. But the ex­tra weight of the rods and gear makes the bike sus­cep­ti­ble to tip­ping over in a stiff wind.

The first line of de­fense is a golf ball drilled out and epox­ied onto the end of the wire kick­stand. This mod­i­fi­ca­tion keeps the kick­stand from dig­ging into the soft grass that grows along the banks. And most of us have learned the hard way that fur­ther mod­i­fi­ca­tion is re­quired. The fall­back is a length of shovel or hockey stick han­dle, with an an­gled cut at one end and a notch in the other. The notch sup­ports the bas­ket, and the an­gled end pro­vides max­i­mum grip, dig­ging in when the wind blows. An­other com­mon ad­di­tion is a length of pool noo­dle sliced and fit­ted over the bas­ket’s rim, used as fast-ac­cess stor­age for fa­vorite lures, the hooks jabbed into the foam. And there are dozens of other tweaks and so­lu­tions, too. I could write a whole story about the meth­ods I’ve seen for tot­ing a hot cof­fee.

One by one, the doors slam, and bikes with rods splayed out like the herls of a strut­ting pea­cock glide, rat­tling qui­etly, to­ward the ac­cess road. Leav­ing the lot in dark­ness turns the ride into a prayer: that the spot you have in mind is not al­ready oc­cu­pied, that be­ing late for work will be worth it. Later in the morn­ing, the ride be­comes a mis­sion. If the bite was good, you’re speed­ing with the cur­rent to get back in front of the fish. If the bite was off, your mis­sion is to find out if you were in the wrong place.

The ge­og­ra­phy of the area is what makes it such an amaz­ing place to fish, par­tic­u­larly dur­ing the spring striper mi­gra­tion (see the side­bar on this sum­mer’s fish­ery). When a body of fish en­ters Buz­zards Bay, it is es­sen­tially fun­neled through the canal. (Choke points are el­e­men­tary in so many styles of fish­ing, and the canal has to be one of the world’s largest.) Fish­er­men come from all over the coun­try each year be­cause of an as­tro­nom­i­cal anom­aly known as the break­ing tides. Th­ese tides oc­cur when the cur­rent turns east (com­ing from Buz­zards Bay) within an hour or so of first light. Ev­ery set of tides is dif­fer­ent, but when you hit one right, you’ll see scores of fish, some 40 pounds or bet­ter, drift­ing through with the tide, smash­ing mack­erel, her­ring, whit­ing, but­ter­fish and other baits on the sur­face. This nat­u­ral oc­cur­rence sets up an ag­gres­sive feed­ing sce­nario that makes th­ese fish sus­cep­ti­ble to be­ing caught on sur­face plugs in large num­bers.

There are many the­o­ries as to why th­ese tides are so pro­duc­tive, but I’m not sure any­one knows the de­fin­i­tive rea­son. “Be­cause those tides oc­cur dur­ing the moons,” says Wayne Hess, maker of Guppy Lures and a hard-core canal an­gler, “that cur­rent packs the canal full of bait,

and the bait can’t fight through the cur­rent to get out. When the wa­ter slacks and the bait tries to make a run for it, it’s a free-for-all.”

The thirst for a spec­tac­u­lar top-wa­ter hit from a big bass brings the crowds. “I love it be­cause 90 per­cent of the time the fish are go­ing to be there,” Hess says, “and I know that odds are it will be a pen­cil-popper bite. There’s noth­ing like get­ting them on top.”

There re­ally aren’t any se­cret spots in the canal, at least if plug­ging is your game. Cer­tain rips and ed­dies hold fish longer, and there are likely ar­eas where stripers might cor­ral bait when the tide comes up to full speed. But the ba­sic makeup of a canal bite is that a per­cent­age of the fish en­ter the canal in the dark and hold on the bot­tom un­til the tide slows. When sun­light be­gins to pen­e­trate the wa­ter, the fish push bait up through the wa­ter col­umn, and packs of bass be­gin show­ing on the sur­face, pun­ish­ing bait as they drift through the lazy cur­rent. On the best morn­ings, more bass en­ter the canal from the west, and waves of bass move through, tak­ing down any­thing that moves as they go. The hits are vi­cious, and the bat­tles with big bass are epic, as the fish have the up­per hand with depths of 36 to 50 feet, stepped ledges, riprap and cur­rent to use to their ad­van­tage.

The at­ti­tude that hangs in the lots dur­ing the dark ar­rival fluc­tu­ates with the in­ten­sity of the bite when ev­ery­one re­turns. “It’s funny how peo­ple are,” says Dave Daluz, a hard-core sur­f­caster and canal fish­er­man from Dart­mouth, Mas­sachusetts. “When the bite is on, they’re prac­ti­cally high-fiv­ing, chest bump­ing and ass-slap­ping ev­ery­one that walks by. But when the bite is off, good luck even mak­ing eye con­tact.”

When the fish­ing has been good, many an­glers stay long after the bite has sub­sided to trade war sto­ries from that morn­ing. It’s al­most a party at­mos­phere on the best days. It’s just as easy to un­der­stand why the same peo­ple turn frosty when the fish don’t show. Sac­ri­fices are made, re­la­tion­ships are strained, sleep is lost be­cause, un­like fish­ing in most other places, you can’t not go and not know what hap­pened. The canal gets more so­cial me­dia cov­er­age than Trump, Hil­lary and Bernie com­bined when it’s on. And miss­ing out feels like a kick in the co­jones.

As the sun reaches the 9 o’clock po­si­tion and the dust of a great bite

set­tles into the quick­en­ing tide, a buzz hangs in the air. After a few last prayer casts, I climb the steep em­bank­ment to join the other bikes on the path, hur­ry­ing back to the nor­mal peo­ple in their nor­mal day. Many bikes plod along, dis­play­ing wide tails draped over the sides of their bas­kets. Back at the lot, wide-eyed an­glers are bark­ing blow-by­blow ac­counts back and forth. Their con­ver­sa­tions snap at a pace that only co­caine could keep up with — this is the adren­a­line, what we wake for. This is why so many an­glers travel great dis­tances to be here.

New Jersey an­gler John “J.M.” Basile fishes the canal sev­eral times a year. “Even though I live 100 yards from the At­lantic Ocean back home, I don’t think twice about the 300-mile drive to the canal,” he says. “The canal is its own en­vi­ron­ment, with its own tech­niques and its own unique group of guys who fish it; some stretches al­most look like a wild river in Wy­oming. But se­ri­ously, where else in the world can you ride your bike on a paved road, look at beau­ti­ful scenery and catch big stripers along the way? Nowhere.”

It’s pretty hard to ar­gue with that.

Sun­rise finds the faith­ful out in force. The bike brigade takes stock of con­di­tions.

Big striped bass are the main at­trac­tion of canal an­glers. Bobby El­li­nas slides a 54-pounder over the wrack weed and up the riprap.

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