BOURNE – With a mighty heave, Rick Smith cast a 4-ounce lure toward the middle of the Cape Cod Canal and watched the line quickly travel west with the current before he reeled the artificial bait back to the rocky bank.
“You want to fish the bottom,” Smith said. “That’s where the fish are.”
Again and again, the 61-year-old from Taunton cast out and reeled in, hoping for a bite from a striper or a bluefish. A couple years ago, he landed a 34-pound striped bass nearby. Today? Nothing.
Beneath the Bourne Bridge, Dave Karp had already loaded his gear back onto his pickup truck after a fishless morning. Three weeks earlier, he said, a “massive school” of baitfish had passed through the canal and out into Cape Cod Bay, drawing the bigger fish behind them.
“Today was an effort of futility,” said the 70-year-old Bourne native. “The fish are down in Provincetown where all the bait is.” Or, he guessed, “try Chatham.”
That is the beauty of Cape Cod, according to Massachusetts fishing experts. There is no single place to go fishing, and no single way, either. The Cape’s 15 towns are surrounded by waters offering a wide variety of fish and terrain.
If the stripers aren’t biting in the Canal, venture further out and try surfcasting off the beach in Chatham or drop a line from a town pier in Wareham. Then there is the choice of fishing the cooler northern Cape Cod Bay side or the warmer and shallower southern Atlantic Ocean side, not to mention the freshwater rivers and ponds.
Learn the rules of the catch
The very geography of Cape Cod — stretching east from Buzzards Bay along Vineyard and Nantucket Sounds in the Atlantic before curling north around Cape Cod Bay — gives the place a special distinction in regulations for certain fish, too.
“The Cape is nice. We are on that dividing line and there are different sweeps of species on every side depending on what you want to go after,” said biologist Paul G. Caruso of the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries.
Most of the Canal is oriented to striped bass, with some bluefish thrown in as well as some bottom fishing, Caruso said. Both winter and summer flounder can be found there. Anglers catch some black sea bass and scup on the west end from the jetties.
Scup and sea bass are Mid-Atlantic fish and prefer the warmer water. Another sport fish found at either end of the Canal is tautag, which is a cooler water species that will tolerate the warmer temperatures, depending on the time of year, he said.
Anyone age 15 or over needs a fishing license in Massachusetts, which offers separate licenses for both saltwater and freshwater.
Fishermen also need to be aware of the regulations regarding the fish they are trying to catch, Caruso said. Some fish can be caught year-round, including bluefish, stripers and tautag, but there are catch limits and minimum sizes for keepers.
“Look up the regulations on line,” Caruso said. “They change.”
For example, rules for flounder – with their flat bodies and eyes that migrate to one side as they mature in the Cape’s estuaries before moving out into deeper waters – vary between variety, seasons and locations around the Cape.
A fish-by-fish list of regulations can be found at www.mass.gov/eea/agencies/dfg/dmf/laws-and-regulations/recreational-regulations
For game fish, try a charter
Veteran charter boat captain Wayne Bergeron prefers the less traveled Bay side of Cape Cod to the hustle and bustle of the southern locales, like Hyannis and Falmouth. He runs his 35-foot Janine B. out of Sesuit Harbor in East Dennis.
“In the Bay, generally the water is colder. It is shaped like a big bowl. The center is the deepest,” said Bergeron, whose mainstays are stripers, bluefin tuna and repeat customers. “There are a number of shoals and areas that hold fish. They like the edges of sandy areas — that is structure. Any kind of holes you can fish, say a place that goes from 30 to 38 feet and up again. They hunt on the edges, waiting for things to be carried off the sandbars with the tides, like sand eels. You want moving water — times when the tide is going in or out.”
Bergeron said charter boat captains like him will always have an advantage over weekend fishermen because of their years of accumulated experience and the simple fact they are on the water daily.
“It helps to know where to go. Having the knowledge of the fishery, the tides, the water temperature all help,” Bergeron said. “We charter fishermen are out every day. It changes all the time. That is the advantage of using a charter boat captain as a guide.”
Bergeron, who is past president of the Cape Cod Charter Boat Association, said the best way to find a charter boat for hire these days is online. He posts photos of customers and their catches on his website, www.capecodsportfishing.com. He recommends scouring the websites and picking up the phone to ask questions before deciding on a charter.
“Any captain worth his salt is going to talk to you on the phone and they will answer your questions: is there a head on the boat? If it rains, can we get out of the weather? How much to tip the mate?”
While game fish like stripers can be caught from shore, chasing big fish like tuna require special gear and access to deeper waters that only comes with a boat. Most charters supply all the equipment needed for the big haul, including not only thousands of dollars in rods and reels but also special licenses needed to catch, possess and sell tuna.
“That’s three separate licenses,” Bergeron said. “A tuna has to be over 72 inches to sell. Then we let our customers get all the Kodak moments they want with their catch, but we keep the fish and sell it. And they don’t have to pay for the day. But smaller fish we steak up for them. We mostly catch footballs and schoolies — 90 to 180 pound fish that are not commercial sized. Those the customers keep.”
Or go inland to a pond
Cape Cod also boasts hundreds of ponds – most of them kettle ponds left behind by the retreat of glaciers during the last ice age – and many of them stocked yearly with bass and trout, said Steve Hurley, Southeast District Fisheries Manager for the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.
The ponds on Cape Cod are mostly groundwater fed, which keeps the water at a very high quality but has the side effect of making the ponds fairly infertile with a limited variety of native fish – primarily yellow perch and chain pickerel. However, Massachusetts stocks the ponds with small and large mouth bass, various sunfish and trout.
“We stock rainbow and brook trout, brown trout and the hybrid tiger trout, which is basically a hatchery cross of a female brown trout and a male brook trout. It’s a handsome fish, with yellow tiger-like markings on them.” Hurley said. “They have become a popular novelty trout we produce right at the Sandwich Fish Hatchery.”
Some of the most popular freshwater fishing destinations are Nickerson State Park, which has trout-stocked Cliff Pond, Little Cliff Pond, Flax Pond and Higgins Pond, and Long Pond in Brewster and Harwich, which is the largest pond on the Cape.
“Probably the best fishing pond overall on Cape Cod is Mashpee-Wakeby Pond, which is actually two connected kettle hole ponds,” Hurley said. “It’s stocked with trout, has excellent small mouth fishing, excellent large mouth, also large chain pickerel — similar to northern pike but smaller. Mashpee-Wakeby has white catfish, which get to be about six pounds — that’s a large catfish. People tend to catch them and think they have a world record bullhead.”
If the rod and reel is not your thing, Hurley recommends a trip to the Sandwich Fish Hatchery, which at 101 years old is one of the oldest hatcheries in the United States. “For a quarter, kids can buy a handful of food to feed the fish. And it’s free, except for the quarter for the food,” Hurley said.
Jose Martinez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.