Fishing the Legendary Backside Cape Beaches

Big bass still roam the Cape's outer beaches. Cory Lovett caught and released this 48-inch fish on a late October outing on an Al Gag's Pocket Rocket plug.

Big bass still roam the Cape’s outer beaches. Cory Lovett caught and released this 48-inch fish on a late October outing on an Al Gag’s Pocket Rocket plug.

A few years ago, in the spirit of branching out from the ever-more- crowded Cape Cod Canal, I began spending more time on the backside beaches of the Lower Cape. These days, it seems any conversation on surfcasting the backside beaches is quickly followed by talk about seals and how it isn’t the way it used to be. During the season, there are rarely encouraging reports coming from this stretch of once-legendary striper surf. Mostly, when I speak to Paul at Blackbeard’s in Eastham and Rich at Nelson’s in Provincetown, they only report about boat or kayak fishing. For the most part, other than at Race Point, there just aren’t many surfcasters giving it a go. Especially not after dark.

But how could this be true? There have been hundreds of articles and dozens of books written about the striped bass surf fishing on the backside beaches. Surfcasters would uproot their lives to spend the summer living and casting in this sandy mecca. It wasn’t too long ago that the possibility to hook a very large striped bass existed on any cast on the backside beaches. The latest round of “good ol’ days” took place only about a decade ago, which is why it’s so surprising that the surfcasters have vanished from the Outer Cape beaches. For the dedicated surfcasting culture on the outer beaches to simply disappear seems improbable, if not impossible.

I suspected that there was still a contingent of anglers keeping the beaches honest and keeping their success quiet. And why wouldn’t they? If any other incredibly popular destination had fallen out of favor with the surfcasting masses, but the fish were still there, I certainly wouldn’t be in any hurry to sound the alarm.

Part of the mystique of the Outer Cape is its vastness, especially compared to other productive stretches of striper surf. You could walk a lap around Cuttyhunk Island in a night or bicycle the length of the Cape Cod Canal in a single tide, but to cover the stretch of sand from Nauset to P-Town – especially now with the restricted beach buggy and foot access – could take a full season.

There’s no denying the explosion in the seal population has put a dent in the Outer Cape surfcasting. Off the beaches, baitfish and bass and bluefin tuna are still present in good numbers, it just seems that neither the bass, nor the bait, are willing to run the seal gauntlet to feed in the surf anymore.

My first few trips to fish the Outer Cape were frustrating. Even after dark, I would often hear the loud sigh of a seal exhaling in front of me. New moon, full moon, northeast winds, southwest winds and winds from every point on the compass in-between, and not only did I fail to turn up a fish, I failed to turn up another fisherman.

Then, finally, some encouragement. An email exchange with Lower Cape surfcasting guide Tony Stetzko, a man who put a 73-pound bass on the beach at Nauset in the early 80s, revealed that he still found fish in good numbers and size. Tony said that one night in early August, the fish were so thick that they were bumping his waders. It sounded almost too good to be true.

At last, some success. In late August, with a storm rolling in, I found bass feeding between the bars on an Outer Cape beach. The fish, schoolies mostly, hit on nearly every cast until lightning forced me back to my truck. Thinking nasty weather was the key, I returned the night before Hurricane Irene was forecasted to approach the Cape, and I hauled in bushels of mung weed while watching seals navigate the growing seas.

The next trip, again in unpleasant weather on Labor Day weekend, turned up a 25-pounder, a fish I’d be thrilled to catch anywhere, especially on a sandy beach on the Lower Cape. Two more trips turned up good fishing, with a couple skunks in between. When I had fish, there were never seals, and when there were seals, there were never fish. My goal was to determine what conditions kept the seals away and allowed the fish to move in, but I never did. By the end of the season, I hadn’t cracked any code or discovered the “magic bullet” for catching bass on the seal-infested backside beaches, but I was plenty content.

I only did run into one other angler, a fisherman, who like most of us, liked to bend the ear of anyone listening about days past, when the whole Outer Cape was open to beach buggies and the seals were fewer and the fish were bigger. He claimed not to have caught anything and said he wasn’t even sure why he still bothered. He could have been lying–another thing fishermen do–or he could have just been telling the truth.

There aren’t many places along the New England coast where you can feel completely removed from modern life, but the beaches of the Outer Cape are one of them. Walking north or south away from parking lot access, with towering dunes behind you and very little ambient light to compete with the night sky, the rest of the world might as well not exist. It’s just you, the surf, the stars, and on good nights, the stripers. It’s a place that on a summer night with a 9- or 10-foot surf rod and a plug bag full of minnow-style swimmers, you can enjoy the aspect of fishing that doesn’t hinge on catching.
The fishing on the backside isn’t what it was 30 and 40 years ago. It isn’t even what it was 10 years ago. But it still exists. The waves still break, the sands still shift, and sometimes, under the cover of darkness, striped bass still move into the surf to feed.

  1. Alan Beberwyck

    Great article, Jimmy. I’m a New York resident, but between 1990 and 2005, the Great Backside beach was my primary fishing destination on the Cape. I never fished all night, I didn’t camp out on the beach or drive a buggy, but I always loved the serenity, and undisturbed natural beauty of that strip of coast. Now, most of my fishing takes place in boats, but if the weather keeps the boat at dock, I grab my surf rod and go for a walk on the backside. There’s no place quite like it.

    Reply
    • DAVE JOHNSON

      THE BACKSIDE IS ALL DONE AND OUR GOVERNMENT HAS NO CLUE TO FIX IT. THESE SEALS MUST BE HARVESTED NOW SO THE FISHERIES CAN THRIVE LIKE 1O YEARS AGO AND BEFORE. WITHOUT THE BACKSIDE–THE CAPE IS FINISHED WITH JUST OLD MEMORIES OF HOTELS, RESTAURANTS, COTTAGES, FULL OF FISHING PEOPLE HELPING THE ECONOMY TO THRIVE HERE. THE FISHING PEOPLE HAVE LEFT TO MAINE AND ELSEWHERE TO CATCH BIG LINESIDERS AND WHERE THE SEALS ARE KEPT IN LINE LIKE OUR DEER HERD MANAGEMENT. WE NEED THE SEAL MANAGEMENT NOW BEFORE THE CAPE IS DONE . MOST PEOPLE COME HERE TO FISH AND IF THE SEALS EAT THE FISH BY BY BIRDIE. 25000K OFF THE BACKSIDE BEACHES NOW POLLUTING, CRAPPING, STINKING UP ALL THE BEACHES AND NO HELP OR WORD FROM THE TOP SEASHORE MANAGEMENT. ARE YOU KIDDING ME. THIS IS A HUGE CANCER THAT WILL VERY SOON DESTROY THE CAPE COD ECONOMY. WAKE UP CAPE COD THIS IS JUST LIKE A HUGE OIL SPILL THAT CAN,T BE STOPPED STOPPED IN CAPE COD BAY

      REMEMBER THEY ARE EATING ALL THE LOBSTERS AS WELL.. IT WILL BE TO LATE WHEN A GREAT WHITE EATS YOUR CHILD TO DEATH OFF THE BACKSIDE.

      DJ

      Reply
  2. Peter Watson

    I see the biggest threat to surfcasting the outer cape is the Piping Plover issues.
    Being an avid Nauset surf fisherman for over 40 years I see the fish are there but we are not. Late May and early June brought fish progressively larger every weekend until the Plovers closed the beach on June 10th and as of August 15 it is still be closed to us OLD Timers who cannot make the long walk from the parking lot to productive fishing spots. A lot of these surf fisherman have given up and sold their rigs and stopped buying the $250.00 sticker due to all out frustration over these closures. There are may things that can be done to keep open access to surf fishing these areas but no one will sit down and develop some compromises.
    Enough is Enough! They have reached their Goal of having 2000 nesting pairs on the east coast but now want more and more. Who is there standing up for our rights. Who can we sue over access and abuse of power?

    Reply
    • Lucy Pope

      Yes, and when the plover “crisis” is over, the least terns,or some other species is all lined up to become the protected species.

      Reply
  3. Tonmy

    I’ve had great success in the bay just outside of provincetown. Usually from my kayak but once in a while just walking out in knee deep water with schools of keeper sized bass. Have also done Herring Cove and Race Point with minimal success though.

    Reply
  4. Norbert

    Well, Dave Johnson said it all … we need the professional wildlife managers (of which I am one in another state) to demand a revision/amendment/contingency to the Marine Mammal Protection act to allow for sustainable culling of the seal population. I’ve enjoyed watching the seals over the years on family vacations … many years ago before the population sky-rocked and the impacts of an out-of-control population became evident. Just search the web for seal diseases in other countries and you will find catastrophic seal deaths due to uncontrolled populations. When that happens on the Cape, thousands of dead seals washing up on the Cape shores will get people to thinking “gee, we should have done something about that”. Write your officials, visit their offices and demand a seal harvest for the Cape ecology, as well as the fishermen and the seals themselves. We can treat this… it just needs the right prescription.

    Reply
    • Steve

      I really don’t think the seals are the primary problem, and I think any attempt at changing policy to allow culling of seals is doomed to failure

      Have you seen the reports of huge schools of bass and blues chasing bait onto the beaches near Nauset this summer (the home of a huge seal colony)? Quoting last weeks OTW report “Stripers have hit the beaches at Nauset, Marconi, and Coast Guard, with fish over 20 pounds chasing adult bunker onto the sand at times.”

      How many thousands of seals live on Monomoy which a perennial bass hotspot? How about race point and Billingsgate? Obviously the seals do not keep the game fish away. Seals feed primarily on sand eels (and sick or injured fish) which appear to be doing just fine. Degradation of the salt ponds and spawning grounds and overfishing of game fish and forage like menhaden and herring are far greater issues than the seal population. Let’s not forget warming water temps which is the real cause of the collapse of the southern New England lobster fishery

      In my opinion, our efforts would be far better spent addressing those other issues. We can’t even muster the political will to cull the dear population on MV to control Lyme disease. Trying to get the feds to allow us to kill seals will be a massive wast of time and effort.

      Reply
      • Bill p.

        I fished herring cove memorial day weekend at sunset and race point south during the day and caught 127 schoolies in 4 days. The fishing would be hot with fish every cast and than a pod of seals would push through. Wait 5 min and fish every other cast again. Only once did we have a seal grab a fish and that was a mackerel that was caught from shore and taken while reeling it in. Yes the seals might push the fish out but if theres bait everyone wins. I bet if you take an outer cape beach and another beach with comparably less seals and put as much time in at each you will end up with similar results. Just remember the fishing isnt like it “WAS” anywhere. Thats our fault not the seals. I will be putting in my time at race point this weekend for 4 nights. I bet i wont be disappointed no matter what the outcome is.

        Reply
  5. John Floyd

    Wow!!! I have cried many times when I had to leave the Cape to come home to Delaware. From Hatches to Chatham (Chatham to the Southern side of the Nauset Inlet) we fished all night every night. CB radios kept us all informed as to where the fish were. But you had to be an insider on a team–me-lucky enough to meet and make friends with a NY City Firemen. Shared info. with Frank Daignault as well!! He didn’t like dogs!!! I planned on driving up to the Cape in sept/oct and fishing the Race, Traps, and back beach. But are you guys saying we can’t drive there anymore? If so, that materially sucks. These places are holy. Shoot the seals, tourists and sharks that keep us from our shrine. I’m not liking what I’m hearing at all!!!

    Reply
  6. steven

    great story,been fishing back side spring ,summer,falk,for over 25 yrs,has changed,but still fish,just spend the time early am or right tide at night!

    Reply

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