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BILLY BAKER

To catch a giant striper, I tried to become a Canal Rat

So many large striped bass have been caught taking the shortcut through the Cape Cod Canal that it has become world famous for its fishing. And its territorial locals.

Fisherman Ed Kelley used binoculars to scan the water for activity on the Cape Cod Canal near Buzzards Bay.
Fisherman Ed Kelley used binoculars to scan the water for activity on the Cape Cod Canal near Buzzards Bay.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

SANDWICH — This was supposed to be a story about my greatest moment as a striped bass fisherman, the day when the moon and the stars aligned and there was glory on the end of my line. Instead, this is the story of the second-biggest mistake I’ve made as an angler.

The biggest mistake, of course, was deciding to become a striped bass fisherman in the first place.

The disaster we are here to dissect occurred just minutes after I’d begun pedaling my “canal bike” on its maiden journey along the Cape Cod Canal on the day of the fabled “June moon,” following months of preparation that concluded that very morning as, in a pool of sweat in my backyard, I attached a kickstand and a Hood milk crate with three fishing rod holders to a rusty old bicycle, all while fending off two frothing children who kept asking when we were leaving. I’d been studying photos of canal bikes and knew it had to be just right if I had any chance of fitting in with the famously territorial “Canal Rats.” And I must say I had nailed it; this bike looked like absolute crap.

The Canal Rats are the locals who stalk the bike path on either side of the 7-mile canal, from the moment the first stripers arrive in the spring until they migrate south in the fall, and they have a reputation for landing giant fish, as well as the occasional right hook if a tourist gets in their way.

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An egret (right) joined fishermen on the Cape Cod Canal in Buzzards Bay. Many fishermen use bikes to navigate the canal while looking for activity.
An egret (right) joined fishermen on the Cape Cod Canal in Buzzards Bay. Many fishermen use bikes to navigate the canal while looking for activity.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

So many huge striped bass have been caught taking the narrow shortcut through “the ditch,” as the locals call it, that the canal has become the most famous striped bass fishing spot on planet Earth. It offers perhaps the best chance in the Northeast to catch the fish of a lifetime unless you have a boat, and who has that kind of money?

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I must pause here to inform you that I was not born a fisherman, as you will soon see for yourself. But for some suspicious reason I should probably discuss with my wife and our pediatrician, my sons are. They are 8 and 11; they are absolutely obsessed with fishing; and, against my better judgment, they infected me with this regional affliction that is striper fever.

For years now, we’ve chased them all over the coast of Cape Ann, where we live, landing just a handful of smaller “schoolies,” but no “keepers” — stripers must slot in between 28 and 35 inches to be harvested — and certainly no giant “cows” or “slobs.”

And so this winter, as they practiced their knots and re-read old issues of “On the Water” magazine, the whispers began. “The canal,” they’d say in a plaintive tone that asked Don’t you love us? “We need to go to the canal.”

Fisherman Matt Bryant cast his line into the Cape Cod Canal.
Fisherman Matt Bryant cast his line into the Cape Cod Canal.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

This felt like a dad trap, for I knew that one does not simply waltz to the canal and walk away with a giant fish. It requires expensive, specialized tackle; it requires a hotel room on the Cape at summer rates; it requires a crappy bike with a kickstand and a stolen milk crate. Above all, it requires insider knowledge.

We had none of that, so I looked at them with caring, fatherly eyes and said: “Let me figure out how I can turn this into an article so I can expense it.”

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Thankfully, a friend of a friend connected me with Matt Bryant, who is 50 now and has been fishing the ditch since he was 5, back when his grandfather owned Cape Cod Charlie’s bait shop under the Bourne Bridge. Charlie Bryant was a legend at the ditch and in 1973 published a famous hand-drawn map detailing how to fish the canal, down to which light pole to stand by.

Matt offered to be my guide, gave me a list of all the expensive gear I needed, and arranged to meet me at dawn on the day of the “June moon.” That is when, as legend has it, the baitfish get sucked into the canal by the enormous full moon tides; giant stripers come chasing the baitfish; and elbow-to-elbow fishermen come chasing stripers, so plentiful that the anglers often form casting assembly lines.

Fisherman Matt Bryant lifted his bike into his truck after fishing on the Cape Cod Canal. Bryant has been fishing since he was 5.
Fisherman Matt Bryant lifted his bike into his truck after fishing on the Cape Cod Canal. Bryant has been fishing since he was 5.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

And so, on the eve of the June moon, I rammed four bikes into the back of a minivan, battled three hours of traffic, and arrived at a lot next to the Sandwich Marina.

Finally! The canal! The June moon! This was it!

Sure enough, we had been on our bikes for just a minute or two when my older son shouted “Look!” and we saw what all the fuss was about. In a small pocket along the shoreline, a dozen large herring were darting back and forth in a panic, like they were trying to find the corner of a round room.

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“Quick, let’s fish!” my 11-year-old shouted, dumping his bike in the grass. “There must be huge stripers hunting them!” the little one yelled.

And that’s when Dad screwed everything up.

“Guys, we just got out of the car, and we’re going to see plenty of this. This is why we came for the June moon. And today is just a test run for tomorrow morning. Let’s just ride for a bit and stretch our legs and get our bearings.”

Cut to dawn the following morning, as my children, who had never been up that early before, were recounting this story to Matt Bryant, their eyes full of emotion as they told him how we rode and rode and never saw any signs of baitfish again.

“That’s what we live to see,” Matt consoled my children.

“I can’t believe you didn’t try to fish,” added his father, Jim, who was kind enough to come down with Matt to help the moron from the Globe. Or at least his kids.

Fisherman Sebastian Smith cast his line into the Cape Cod Canal from the shore at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy in Buzzards Bay.
Fisherman Sebastian Smith cast his line into the Cape Cod Canal from the shore at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy in Buzzards Bay.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Matt had told me that his dad loved to teach kids how to fish, but at 71 doesn’t do the bike thing anymore, so we came up with a plan for my wife and kids to fish with Jim at the mouth of the canal where it meets Cape Cod Bay, and Matt and I would go looking for exactly what I had pedaled past the day before.

“I have to warn you,” Matt said as we set out. “Fishing the canal can either be the most exciting day of your life, or the most boringly frustrating day of your life.”

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Take a wild guess which one I got.

Matt and I rode all the way to Buzzards Bay and back, exchanging chin-up wassups with hundreds of fishermen along the way, but didn’t see a darn thing except for crappy bikes. No panicked baitfish. No flocks of birds dive-bombing the water. The only thing we saw were bored fishermen, and not a one had a fish on the line or on the banks.

Fourteen miles later, we returned to Jim and the boys, who’d had the same luck, though my kids clearly loved Jim, who had given them a whole history of the canal and his family’s role in fishing it, showing them the maps and special lures that had been created by his late father, “Cape Cod Charlie.” My wife even pulled me aside to tell me how touching it was to listen to Jim talk glowingly of his dad. I had to wonder what my kids would say about me in that moment, as I loaded them and their bikes back into the minivan.

So I did what a true fisherman would do. I lied.

“The really big fish don’t come through until the fall run, after they’ve spent the summer fattening up,” I said with the confidence of vague plausibility. “It’s too hot out right now.”

We’ll come back in the fall, I promised. After all the tourists have left and it’s just us real Canal Rats.


Billy Baker can be reached at billy.baker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.