The Cape Cod Striper Scene

Each June, the tip of Cape Cod hosts a spring spectacle of bass and bait.

A trip to the Outer Cape begins with a drive down Route 6. As the highway narrows from two lanes to one, my excitement builds, and the mainland gets left further behind the closer I get to the end of the Cape. Newer construction gives way to the classic Cape Cod landscape, with retro signs leading to the National Seashore’s massive dunes appearing between small mom-and-pop shops and seasonal restaurants that have endured for decades.

Lower Cape Boat Launches

Boat Launches
The closest ramp is at the Pamet River in Truro, but parking is limited and fills up quickly. Boaters can also launch from other locations on Cape Cod, including Sesuit Harbor and Sandwich Marina, and make the longer run across the bay.

Traveling down Route 6 is a bit like traveling back in time, and that includes the fishing found at the end of the journey. Every year, huge schools of large, migrating striped bass converge on the abundant bait in the swirling currents at the tip of the Cape, creating some of the best fishing on the East Coast. Fishermen who make the trip often find fishing that offers a glimpse of “the good old days.”

Sunrise: Wood End to Race Point

A typical June outing begins with scouting the stretch from Wood End to Race Point for signs of surface activity. Before boat traffic picks up, striped bass will chase bait up onto the shelf running along Herring Cove and into the current rip that forms at Race Point. Although the topwater action is almost always good around first light, it is common for it to continue later into the day, depending on the conditions.

When the fish are feeding on top, almost any surface lure will produce.

When the fish are feeding on top, almost any surface lure will produce.
Photo by Captain Bobby Rice

The area usually holds a mixture of smaller schoolies, fish in the 30-inch range, and the occasional group of 20- and 30-pounders. The most common bait in the area are large clouds of sand eels, which draw diving terns as bass chase the baitfish to the surface. Most of the bass on the sand eels will be on the smaller side, but using larger lures on top can entice any larger fish lurking around the schoolies. If there are any larger baitfish in the area, such as sea herring and mackerel, you’ll see more frenzied action on the surface accompanied by wheeling seagulls, and you’ll almost certainly find bigger bass underneath.

When the fish are feeding on top, almost any surface lure will produce, though spook-style plugs are particularly fun. The walk-the-dog action of the plug often generates explosions from fish even when the bass have gone down and aren’t visible. I like the Afterhours Mega Dookster, a 9-inch wooden plug, but there are many options in plastic as well. Classic pencil poppers in yellow or white also work well. I am partial to Gibbs’ wooden plugs, but plastic pencil poppers can be very effective and durable. A slow, rhythmic, side-to-side splashy retrieve is usually enough, and you can change the cadence until the fish tell you what they want. Some days, a slightly faster retrieve gets fish to commit, while on other days a short pause seals the deal.

Soft-plastic stickbaits can also be very effective surface baits. Got Stryper soft baits, which were created by a local captain, are particularly popular. Try the 11-inch bait rigged on an 11/0 Owner ballyhoo hook. A dab of glue on the shank will keep it in place, and the exposed hook will act as a keel to keep the bait running straight.

The Outer Cape offers a rare opportunity for fly fishermen to target 20-pound stripers.

The Outer Cape offers a rare opportunity for fly fishermen to target 20-pound stripers.

If the fish aren’t showing on top, focus on the drop-off and use your electronics to look for bait and bass hanging in deeper water. Smaller 7-inch and 9-inch soft-plastic baits on jigheads work well for fishing a little deeper in the water column and they do a good job mimicking sand eels. Drop these baits down in the water column and work them up toward the surface with long sweeps of the rod. Slender metal jigs also produce when worked in the same way. Fly-fishermen are at a slight disadvantage when the stripers go deep, but still can get into the action with heavy sinking lines and traditional sand eel patterns like Pamet Specials, Deceivers, and Clouser Minnows.

The Backside Blitz

As the sun begins to rise higher in the sky, the action around Herring Cove and Race Point usually dwindles, in no small part due to the abundance of boats fishing the area. This is not to say you won’t have a good day if you stay in this area, but faster fishing is usually a short boat ride away. Rounding the tip of the Cape and fishing the backside can result in some truly large stripers and surface feeds that are so large they must be witnessed first-hand to be fully appreciated.

There’s a lot of water to cover from Race Point down to Highland Light, so gulls are your best indicator of where the fish are. They aren’t always obvious; sometimes they will be sitting on the surface of the water, waiting for the next round of surface-slashing stripers to move through. Fishing spook-style topwater plugs around these birds is a great way to tell if the fish are around. Make a few long casts, and you will find out whether you have stumbled upon a pack of fish or should keep moving. Fishing around birds and continuing to move south down the backside is usually a good strategy. On many days, you’ll eventually find massive groups of fish slashing thorough bait on top.

Some years, the surface action on the backside is almost hard to believe. Last year, baby haddock appeared in the area, floating helplessly as 20- to 30-pound stripers slurped them off the surface, sometimes with the delicacy of brown trout sipping flies in a stream and other times with an intensity that frothed the water white with tail slaps.

Dr. Richard Cambria caught this striper on an unweighted Got Stryper soft plastic.

A large bait can draw out the biggest bass in the school. Dr. Richard Cambria caught this striper on an unweighted Got Stryper soft plastic.

While catching these fish on topwater plugs is great fun, it’s a rare opportunity to successfully target fish in the 15- to 30-plus-pound range on the fly rod. A good tactic here is to have an angler use large plugs to tease the big stripers into range for a fly-caster in the bow. Fly-anglers can often get away with intermediate lines here. The fish are already up on top looking for the plug, so having the line push the fly just below the surface puts it right in a striper’s line of sight. These stripers are so aggressive that they sometimes will smash flies right next to the boat. The feeling of having a fish this size rip the fly line out of your hand and then dive to the bottom, sometimes in over 100 feet of water, is something every fly-angler deserves to experience.

This June, get in on some of the best striped bass fishing of the season, and some of the best fishing the entire East Coast offers for stripers. With a trip to the tip of the Cape armed with a box full of topwater plugs, plastic baits and large flies, you can connect with big, migratory striped bass on the surface on Cape Cod Bay.

  1. fishnphreak

    The famous backside – used to be the Mecca for striped bass surfcasters – now totally ruined by all the seals just waiting for you to hook them dinner. I’ve watched them follow surf fishermen down the beach, waiting for the opportunity to swipe a bass; Very Sad.

    • DayBreakCaster

      Ditto, its a shame, I have the urge to make the Haj this weekend with the tides in alignment for surfcasting, but I know the trip is a bust from the start with the number of seals.

    • fishnphreak

      John, I would say it is not safe to launch a kayak from Race point. But you have a Hobie kayak with pedal drive might be stronger than a paddle boat. Current will come around Herring cove and get very strong sweeping past Race point and can sweep a paddle boat out to sea. That happened to me. I was in my kayak which I launched from Herring Cove. I caught a bluefish trolling. While fighting the bluefish, the current caught me. Since my concentration was in getting the fish into the kayak, I didn’t notice the current had got me. Once the fish was in the kayak and I looked up, to my dismay, I was at least a mile from shore. I could see a truck on shore but no people. They were too far away. I paddled like a madman and the truck got no larger. I persevered, but got a bit panicked with the thought of not being able to get back. Finally the truck got larger. I made it back, completely exhausted. The truck was a Natl. Seashore Ranger truck. He had been called by people on shore who had seen me get pulled out far and were worried about me. He offered to throw all my stuff into his truck and drive me back to Herring Cove. I declined and said I could just stick close to shore and paddle back to herring Cove. He recommended for me to not do that, as I would have to cross the same current rip and the exact same thing could happen again, and then I might not have the strength left to get back. Somehow my common sense prevailed and I took him up on his offer. I think it was high tide that causes these conditions. Maybe at low tide it would be better. And I have seen a couple in a kayak jig wire line between the rips and catch a striper. Maybe with 2 people, the currents can be managed. I did have enough power to get back – but it took every ounce of energy I had – and quite a long time. With 2 paddlers it would have been a lot easier. But with one paddler – ….I wouldn’t want anyone else to go through what I went through – just to catch a bluefish???????

    • fishnphreak

      Hi John – again. I reread your question. If you are considering the actual Race Point beach site on the backside, I think you would be OK. That is a mile or so from the actual Race point. There are no serious rip currents there. That beach is pretty shallow and I don’t consider it a very good fishing beach, Ballston in Truro is much better. My experience was at Race Point itself. There are 2 rip currents formed by the 2 points at Race Point. They can be very strong and dangerous.


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