Cape Cod Canal Striper Jigging

The Cape Cod Canal has no secret spots, but it does have plenty of secrets.

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 Big Ditch is a favorite spot among On The Water staff members.
The Big Ditch is a favorite spot among On The Water staff members.

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.

Lead jigs have probably taken more stripers in the canal than any other lure.
Lead jigs have probably taken more stripers in the canal than any other lure.

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.

At times, metal jigs and lures will be your best bet.
At times, metal jigs and lures will be your best bet.

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.”

21 on “Cape Cod Canal Striper Jigging

  1. Randy

    Good info. Will use drifting technique on shinnecock inlet jetty …and will hope for a nice bass! Have had little luck up until now will hope this will increase my chances …. Thanks Randy

  2. Jerry

    I’m looking for a guide to teacher me how to fish the canal maybe u can help thanks

    1. kyle

      My team does guided ditch trips give us a shout. Follow us on instagram
      @freedom_fishing_newengland
      @frothy_lure_co

      1. Justin

        When do you have guided trips for cape cod canal?

  3. tunamarlin

    This article is filled with techniques that helped me catch stripers in the #1 man-made fish habitat in the world. For off-cape folks, we should read this before every visit. As unforgiving as the canal can be, I can’t wait for my next visit. Thanks for the great article.

    1. john

      You made the locals very upset that’s so funny.
      Go to bell rd in Bourne this is where all the locals fish in late may.you can catch alot of bass here.its called the tidal flats, be prepared to get grilled though because the cape is practically a ghost town for most of the year and the locals are very antisocial.
      It’s actually pretty funny.
      Anyway bring swim shads and make sure to arrive 4 hours before low tide, this is when the migrating fish will be finding their way in.
      Tight lines.
      For more info on the canal that locals don’t want you to know email me at pires886@yahoo.com.

  4. john

    The locals where actually talking about this article ,you guys lost some money on tthis issue lol

  5. John connors

    I just moved down here from vt and I still have vt plates on my truck and I have found the local guys that I have met to be some of the most friendliest people I have met very willing to share info and help me out, I have met a few un responsive and cold guys but I think they are everywhere in vt they are usually the commercial guys

    1. Mike O

      Hello John , I envy you , I am looking forward to fishing the Cape as I’m a landlocked Vermonter. I’ll be looking for a local guide to hire for an evening or two can you recommend any one ?

  6. Mass resident

    Yeah the locals think they own the canal, I love walking out of there with a 30# bass, and all I get is dirty looks. I’m a law abiding Tax paying Ma resident who has every right to fish and harvest my limit if I choose. Just because I don’t look or smell like a local doesn’t mean I can’t. So now I get satisfaction out of, out fishing the so called locals that think I shouldn’t be there. Especially when they talk fishing Etiquette but they don’t have to follow it but you do. I’m not saying it’s all of them but 80% for sure, haha get over it, stop being so uptight and butt hurt. ? ?

    1. Richard

      I was on Bell st. Fishing for approx. 45 minutes when a local came in and started fishing 8’ away from me and there was plenty of room elsewhere. This guy started casting over me and than had the nerve to complain about others fishing in his location.

    2. Richard

      I would love to see Fish and Game spend some days on Bell Street

  7. Mark

    Great reading!! I just moved to the cape during the winter from Boston were I grew up an did most of my fishing.I have never had the pleasure of fishing the canal but have read a lot this winter about it and plan on spending a lot of time fishing there this spring,summer an fall and I hope the locals aren’t as bad as some of the stuff I have read. But to those of you that have wrote an shared your experiences good an bad about the canal I’d like to thank you it’s been a joy to read about it and I can’t wait to get there an do some fishing. Even if the locals aren’t welcoming I’ll fish on!!!

  8. NBMA

    What a great article. Thanks for all the knowledge. I am new to the saltwater game. Always fished my grandfathers lake in maine. Now I’m obsessed last 2 years, I love taking canal trips unfortunately I have little info on the “hot spots” where is the ditch located?

    The locals are a hit or miss that’s for sure. Met a few great guys met a few asshat.

    Hope everyone has a hell of a spring/summer!

  9. Danny G

    I agree with the comments about some of the canal locals being “asshats” (LOL)…….however not all and I have found the the people at Reds Bait and Tackle to be some of the friendliest and helpful people around , always willing to help or answer questions……(no i don’t work there or get any kickbacks)…….i live west of Fall River in Somerset….and fish the canal every chance i get. Good Luck to all who try there luck in the BIG DITCH

  10. mike

    what about the turn, its very important I was told but I don’t have a clue! somebody explain the importance of the turn please!

  11. Rob

    I fished the canal last August overnight from 10pm till dawn. I was at Bell Road across from the Maritime Academy. I was all alone until a dickhead local turned up at 5am and set up within 15 feet of where I was fishing. He had a bumper sticker on his truck that said “Welcome to Bourne, now Leave” – He figured he would pressure me out of there but I stayed and bagged a beauty. 1-0 – later dude!!

  12. MICHAEL MULLIS

    I love Sept, fat bass still hungry, running thru canal,,ant out crop will do..

  13. whiskey t

    Fished there on three separate trips. Four days each trip. Had a blast every time. Personally I thought everyone was super nice. Be polite, give space, practice good etiquette and your straight. I hate when our local fishing and surf spots get crowded so I get it. Wasn’t behind the bar so I wasn’t asking for I.D. so not sure if they were local or not but overall people were great.

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