After more than five decades of fishing the Cape Cod Canal I have no doubt that jigs have accounted for more big striped bass than any other type of lure. But not all jigs are the same. Some work better than others in specific locations and knowing how to fish them over various types of bottom structure is essential. The right equipment is a factor, too.
You might look at the canal and see a body of running water that pretty much looks the same from one end to the other and conclude that the bottom is uniform in depth and composition. However, this is not the case; to be successful the angler must learn to identify potentially productive areas to jig. We need to find structure like weeds and mussel beds, as well as obvious man-made structures such as bridge abutments and piers. The weed and mussel beds are irregular in size, shape and thickness. Generally, the thicker or denser parts of these beds are toward the center of the big ditch. Over time, the hard running currents of the canal have dug out pockets or holes alongside these beds.
The same holds true around the bridge abutments and piers. One should try to locate backwashes and places around these man-made structures where the water appears to be moving slower than the overall flow; these indicate depressions, deeper places where trophy stripers like to lie in wait for their prey. It’s no secret that big fish are lazy; they look for slower moving water and won’t move far from their holding area if they don’t have to. Locating the depressions adjacent to the weed and mussel beds is more difficult because there are hardly ever visual clues. This is one of the reasons that you must fish your jig as close to the bottom as possible, and even the best canal fishermen lose many, many jigs every season to hang-ups. But if you can find these areas, your chances of catching a large fish are increased.
There is a different set of conditions at the two ends of the ditch. The bottom is mostly sandy in both places and bass use depressions in the sand, even quite shallow ones, to hide and take advantage of any bait that might get swept by. When jigging in these areas you must keep your jig bouncing along the bottom and adjust the controlled drift so the jig can fall into the depressions. This is where it is a huge advantage to use braid rather than monofilament, because every little bump and hesitation is instantly telegraphed through these non-stretch lines.
Using your rod to put pressure on the fish as it runs is a judgment call, and once the battle is engaged, a combination of rod pressure and a well-set drag is the formula for subduing the fish. A heavy run is best countered with the rod at the 10 o’clock position to allow the line to peel off the reel and still maintain some control. If a fish is determined to take line, let it! That’s what your drag is for – drop the tip just a bit while still maintaining a tight line. Don’t reel against the drag. Should the fish turn and go in the opposite direction, you still will be able to lift your rod and maintain pressure. Although stripers in the ditch will usually carry on the fight in the same direction as the current, they can and will swim against it, and you should always be prepared for this eventuality.
I usually use 4- to 6-ounce jigs, but the choice of style depends on water movement and where I am fishing. I carry Uppermans (flat head), No Alibis (open mouth, “Smiling Bill”), K jigs (the “Canal Special”) and the Bug Eye (made by Charlie Cinto). The shape dictates the rate of drop and fluttering action, and each offers a different presentation. The flat and bullet styles will descend a little faster and, once on the bottom, will dance from side to side as they’re jigged. The round style descends slower and then hops along the bottom as it is worked. You’ll find these at the many tackle shops catering to canal fishermen.
It is worth mentioning that while most of the time you should keep your jig close to or on the bottom, there will be times when stripers will hit higher up in the water column. A change in style of jighead can put you in that strike zone.
You can enhance your offering by attaching a pork rind, strip of herring or mackerel to the hook. I use jigs with 7/0 or 8/0 hooks because large fish are less apt to straighten out a hook of this size. The standard colors of white, black and yellow will all take fish, but I have also taken fish using jigheads that were pink or green in an attempt to imitate bait present at that time. Bucktail jigging is most effective using the lighter colors during daylight hours and the darker colors at night.
Bucktail jigs aren’t the only way to work the deep water in the canal. Spoon-type metal jigs such as Crippled Herring, Kastmasters, Hopkins, Deadly Dicks and diamond jigs are very productive. I recommend that you replace the treble hooks with extra-strong single hooks. Keep in mind that if the hooks are free-swinging on these metal jigs then the hooks and singles are less likely to get hung up. And don’t be afraid to make alterations such as painting metal jigs different colors; pink, red and green have all worked for me.
You will see many different approaches to jigging in the canal when it comes to presentation and how action is imparted to the lure. I would like to offer two ways that I have used with great success in my 55 years of fishing the big ditch.
The technique I use most often, and the one that may prove to be easiest to learn, starts with casting upcurrent into deep water and allowing the jig to hit the bottom. Keep the reel in free spool or have the bail open, and control the line with your fingers (on a spinning reel) or your thumb (on a conventional) as you allow line to “bleed” out. This will ensure that your jig stays on the bottom for a longer period of time than if you engage your reel immediately after the lure hits the bottom. It is very important that you raise or lower the rod tip to help maintain contact with your jig as it works its way along.
The current flow will force the jig up off the bottom as it swims farther downcurrent. If you are using braid, it is easier to feel variation in the bottom and/or a fish picking up the jig. If you suddenly feel no weight at all, it could very well be that a large fish has picked up your jig and is moving against the current. If this happens you should immediately engage the reel and take up the slack before you strike. Remember, fish do not always take the jig or metal in the same direction as the water is flowing.
I try to work the jig as far as I can before engaging the reel, because once this happens I know the jig will slide past the edges of the underground structures and out of the strike zone. How far you let it go can make the difference between catching a fish, coming away empty or even hanging up and losing your jig. This is where experience is the best teacher; you must put in the time to learn the subtle nuances of jigging. In any case, when you engage the reel and start the retrieve, do it slowly and smoothly to minimize hang-ups.
One more note on equipment. You’ll be able to move the jig or give it more motion with a rod that has a stiff tip. Many of the stock casting rods that you’ll see have soft tips, which are great for distance casting, but put a nice fish on the other end in deep water, along with a hard moving current, and in most cases the fish will win the battle. Remember, this is not a beach where you will have the luxury of walking the shoreline as you battle the fish. You’ll probably be planted on a slippery rock on the edge of the flow and you must do battle with your quarry without the luxury of being able to move. When you hook up with a large fish, the amount of backbone that your rod has will determine if you control its travel or it controls you. The more the rod moves under pressure from a large fish, the larger the hook’s penetration hole becomes and the less chance you will have of bringing the fish to the water’s edge. This is the critical point in the battle when the majority of quality fish are lost.
The second technique that I use is what I call “walking the jig.” This method is used in areas where the service road is relatively close to the water or when casting from piers where there are few obstructions. Simply put, what you’re going to do is actually walk along and follow the jig as it bounces along. You can cover a lot of water this way, much more than if you stand in one place and cast. And for the angler who has some years piled up, rock hopping becomes a little harder to do, but this method can be employed safely. The first step is to be aware of people around you when loading your rod to make a cast; the canal is popular with walkers and bikers both day and night, and you’ll need some room to utilize this technique to maximum effect.
Start by casting upcurrent and allowing the jig to hit bottom. Now it gets a little tricky because, depending on the velocity of the water, you can engage your reel or let it stay in free spool as you walk along with the jig. If the water flow is slow, it’s fairly easy to walk along at the same speed as the jig is moving, with the reel engaged, without getting hung up on the bottom. If the water is running full bore, allow the line to run off the spool with the least amount of thumb pressure (to prevent a backlash) as you walk. This will keep you in the strike zone a little longer.
A few more tips on using this technique. I find this method to be very effective during the top of the current changes, as opposed to low water current changes. Be sure to locate an area where you can land a fish without going down the rock embankment until you need to remove the hook. This is another time when having the right rod can greatly enhance your chances of lifting a fish under controlled conditions. And finally, as with stationary jigging, expect to lose some gear. Those of us who fish the ditch refer to this as “appeasing the Canal Gods.”
The canal has many spots that you can walk to and find fish, but being mobile will allow you to fish more spots and even find some solitude. The service roads that run along both sides of the ditch are perfect for biking; rig one up with a basket and rod holders and you can hit many locations in one outing. A bike allows you to do some serious scouting, too. Learn where to fish a jig at low water and at high water. Look for outcroppings, sand bars, mussel beds and weed beds. Keep a log that notes locations you find to be productive and all the conditions when you caught fish. With a good pair of Polarized glasses you can see some amazing detail quite a way out into the canal, especially during the “minus” tides, those low tides when there is a full or new moon. This will also increase your chances of discovering what type of bait the stripers are after. You can then select the appropriate jig and pork rind trailer colors to further your chances of success.
The Cape Cod Canal has no secret spots, but it does have plenty of secrets. No one angler can know the subtleties and variables of every location because each day is different, and the stripers’ feeding habits can and often do change with the tide. Each fisherman who challenges the waters of the big ditch develops a style that works for him. Those who put in the time and learn from their experiences will ultimately be successful at catching quality striped bass. As in any fishing experience, it is important to keep a positive attitude. And when you’ve gained some knowledge and skill, don’t be stingy about passing it on to the next generation of fishermen so they can begin learning the mysteries of fishing the “big ditch.”