Massachusetts Mayhem

Stalking Deep in Cape Cod Marshes

Gene Bourque June 10, 2009

If the breeze is just right, I can tell what’s on the menu at my favorite restaurant a mile or so from a marsh I love to fish on Cape Cod. My stomach tells me it’s almost dinnertime but my ears tell me there are stripers – big ones – feeding in the seam on the other side of the outflow. The conditions are perfect with just a hint of wind to disguise the plop of my soft plastic as it gently lands up-current from the fish. A crank or two of the reel handle to make sure I’m in contact with the bait is all that’s needed. If everything’s right I can almost sense the moment when a curious bass is about to open its gaping maw and inhale my offering. Then there’s that maddening moment when every fishing instinct I have tells me to heave back and set the hook, but I must wait until the line is tight. All I can do is hold on and hope the knot I tied in the weak beam of my flashlight holds. Dinner will wait.

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Photo: Gene Bourque

In the summer, Cape Cod is all about lazy days at the beach, traffic jams on Route 28, overpriced seafood (most of which comes from somewhere else) and for many anglers, fishing the Big Beach at the Cape Cod National Seashore or trying to fool savvy stripers on the flats of Monomoy or Brewster. There’s no question that trophy striped bass can be had in those classic surfcasting arenas from Nauset to Provincetown and in the world-famous rips off Martha’s Vineyard and the deepwater on the bay side. I, on the other hand, prefer a more solitary experience, and fishing the estuaries and salt ponds on the Upper Cape offers just that. In fact, it’s rare to run into another angler in most of the places I fish, whether by kayak or on foot.

Remember the Cape Cod shore fisherman’s rule number one. Never, ever draw attention to yourself!

Although you’ll find quite a variation in the amount of water that enters and flows out of various estuaries on the Cape, what draws the stripers to these places is forage and plenty of it. The estuaries and salt ponds of Cape Cod are nurseries for a wide variety of critters from tiny silversides, killifish and grass shrimp to bigger morsels like immature flounder and herring. In most cases our herring runs host two sub-species, alewives and bluebacks. If you’re lucky enough to be here when the young of the year make their journey to the sea, the fishing can be epic as ravenous stripers of all sizes converge on the bounty.

These places have a beauty all their own, a mystery even. Fortunately for me, most of these spots just don’t jibe with the image most anglers have of Cape Cod, which has to be the reason they don’t get fished much. The stripers don’t seem to care, and neither do I. In this arena planning figures into your success, big time. Maybe not for the reasons you might expect, however. It’s vital to scout out the estuary or salt pond you’ve decided to fish, not only to locate potential holding areas where your target may be waiting in ambush, but to find access points and places where the local constabulary are unlikely to leave a love note on your windshield. Remember the Cape Cod shore fisherman’s rule number one. Never, ever draw attention to yourself!

The sad reality is that as waterfront property values rise into the stratosphere, many new owners are far from angler-friendly. However, Massachusetts state law ensures access to the inter-tidal zone along the entire coastline (the area between the high and low tide mark) is open to anyone who is actively engaged in fishing. You cannot cross private property to access the inter-tidal zone but if you’re willing to walk some distance or better yet, have a kayak you can legally fish anywhere you want.

Strategy and Tools of the Trade
Stripers can tolerate a fairly wide range of water temperature, but in the summer both the warmest water of the year and a lack of cover make the fish extremely wary and difficult to entice during mid-day heat. At dusk, everything changes but it’s a gradual process. I usually try to arrive at the estuary I’m going to fish a couple of hours before nightfall. I take note of things like the presence and size of bait, but also whether or not the water is “clean” – that is, how much weed is floating by. The most consistent action usually occurs just before or after a full or new moon due to the more robust flow of water associated with those times, but higher than normal tides pick up all manner of weed along the shoreline. Stripers are not vegetarians and even a wisp of grass on your hook can make a savvy bass refuse your succulent offering. If I find the water too dirty I’ll use a small soft plastic lure with a single offset worm hook rigged Texas-style, which reduces the number of times I’ll have to stop fishing to clean off the bait.

The lower stages of the tide are usually less productive but if you’re fishing a channel that features even a few feet of depth at low tide, the funneling effect of the channel can be a real fish magnet. Given a choice though, work an estuary or salt pond at the higher stages of the tide, and don’t be surprised if the action dies when the tide is fully high and goes slack. Don’t worry – those fish you were catching will reposition themselves to face the flow as it reverses and will begin feeding again before long.

Many marshy estuaries on Cape Cod have steep, muddy banks that must be approached quietly and carefully. Quietly because stripers cruise along these banks searching for small crabs, baitfish and grass shrimp and they are constantly on guard. Heavy footfalls will send them racing for cover. Carefully because those banks may have slippery mud along the edges and from time to time sections of bank will break off when any significant weight is put on them.

There’s a wide variety of substrate around the Cape, from muddy, dark bottoms that may be treacherous to wade, to clean, clear sand bottoms that appear featureless. The sandy bottoms often have depressions where stripers hang out and rise up to intercept baitfish being flushed out of the estuary. Make note of these depressions at low tide, and pay special attention to anywhere a small spur of the estuary enters the main flow. A shallow sand or gravel bar can usually be found at the confluence of these flows and you can almost count on stripers sitting along the down current side of these bars.

Sometimes you’re lucky. You arrive and find the party’s already started. That’s when you should try to target individual fish, casting up current of their position, allowing the bait to drift down with very little imparted action. With the light spinning gear I use for this fishery in combination with the soft plastics that I’ve found so productive, just a little twitch with the rod tip is all it takes.

Regardless of the type of lure or fly you throw, the slower the retrieve the better. We’re not talking about opportunistic feeders here. These stripers are keyed in on something of a certain size, moving in a predictable way.

In the days when I exclusively fly-fished the estuaries, my fly boxes were filled with the most basic patterns in sizes 3/0 down to size 4, with size 1 and 1/0 seeing the most use. Clousers and deceivers were productive, but it was size (small) and presentation (slow) that were most important.

In recent years I’ve come to love my light tackle spinning gear. I use a 7 ½-foot medium action rod and a Shimano Stradic reel spooled with 12lb. test Yo-Zuri Hybrid. Small jigs in the ¼ to ½-ounce range will work just fine as will most small stick baits, but I prefer thin-bodied soft plastics. Rigged Texas-style on a 5/0 Owner worm hook, the Hogy 6-inch Skinny is perfect for this fishery. If there are bigger baits around I’ll step up to the 7-inch Hogy also rigged Texas-style with the 7/0 version of the Owner hook. I’ve taken stripers up to 25-pounds on this bait in estuaries that were so shallow the fish’s dorsal fin was literally out of the water when it picked up the bait. I feel very strongly that any lure with treble hooks is not only unnecessary from a fish-catching perspective, but also much too damaging to the stripers I love.

Let me leave you with this. Take a break from the Florida heat this summer and head north. I give you my word that the Cape Cod scenery and stripers won’t disappoint you.

Location… Location… Location…

A chart of Cape Cod will reveal dozens of estuaries and salt ponds but the ones listed below offer both very good fishing and reasonable access. A few dollars spent at one of the many local tackle shops, followed by a few pointed questions will reveal many more.

Upper Cape

  • Falmouth: Great Pond, Green Pond, Waquoit Bay, West Falmouth Harbor, Quissett Harbor
  • Sandwich: Old Harbor, Scorton Creek
  • Mid Cape
  • Barnstable: Popponesset Bay, East Bay/Centerville River, Cotuit Harbor/North Bay,
  • Upper Barnstable Harbor
  • Yarmouth: Chase Garden Creek, Bass River
  • Brewster: Paine’s Creek, Quivett Creek
  • Orleans: Pleasant Bay, Little Pleasant Bay, Nauset Harbor, Town Cove

Pesky Locals

The Cape Cod “no-see-um” gnats are legendary for their ferocity and abundance. They usually diminish in numbers in August, only to be replaced by their allies, the stealthy Cape Cod mosquito. Their buddies, green head flies, will be active right up until dark and will take the morning shift as soon as there is a hint of light. Douse yourself and your clothes with bug spray but avoid contact with your fishing gear at all costs!

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