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.