By the time my brain had fully registered the thought that I should look down at my screaming reel, the yellow fly line had turned blue. “That’s my backing,” I realized, as a wave crashed directly onto my face, nearly filling my waders and remaindering me that I was already far off the beach and beyond the breakers. It didn’t matter. Somewhere in front of me, an enormous striped bass had eaten my fly and was headed for the North Atlantic.
Cape Cod is a geologic anomaly left behind by the last Ice Age. Receding glaciers created the enormous sand bar that forms the easternmost portion of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The glaciers also left behind habitat that is crucially important to the Atlantic striped bass fishery. Along its lengthy coastline, Cape Cod provides traveling schools of striped bass everything they need to feed, rest, and prepare for their next migration phase. Salt ponds, flats, estuaries, bays, inlets, jetties, and offshore currents hold a variety of striped bass prey species over the course of the summer. The diversity of good striper habitat and prey also creates the main challenges of striper fishing here—there is so much good water and so many options for fishing locations and methods, it can easily be overwhelming.
To an angler, the annual striped bass migration is some of Mother Nature’s best seasonal magic, served by a silver fish with black stripes. This thought crosses my mind as I watch the first light of May’s last day hit the eastern horizon from the parking lot at Nauset Light Beach in Eastham, MA. I can feel butterflies in my stomach as I walk to the surf line, carrying a 9-weight rod and a green-and-white Clouser minnow I tied during a winter snowstorm 5 months earlier in New Hampshire, waiting for skiable conditions and thinking about stripers.
Surf Fly Fishing
It was as close to a scene from my childhood that my 50+-year-old legs could get me. I had spotted some schoolies feeding just outside the surf line. Their silver bodies reflected the sun, framed against the rising wall of the next 3-foot wave. I sprinted down the beach directly into the southwest breeze, trying to get into position for a cast, thankful for the two large seals that were keeping baitfish and pursuing stripers corralled for the time being. I could not contain a laugh that must have sounded like a kid chasing a kickball on a playground. Finally managing to get ahead of the school, I lobbed a downwind cast and connected on the third strip. Such is the thrill of fly-casting for stripers in the Atlantic surf of Cape Cod.
Fishing the surf zone can be a gnarly, wind-in-your-hair, salt-spray-on-your face experience that might not be for everyone. It is definitely not the relaxing experience of casting to trout rising next to a quiet riverbank. Instead, it’s more like casting while standing inside a washing machine during a hurricane. Fishing for bass in the surf is a great experience all summer, though probably better earlier in the season when the bass show up hungry and full of sea lice. There are too many great beaches on the Atlantic coast of Cape Cod for surf fishing to try to name many, so I’ll describe two of my favorites and let you discover the rest.
Nauset Light Beach
The best water begins to reveal itself 2 to 3 hours before full low tide. Look for a southwest or south-southwest breeze and count on a 9-weight to bomb casts past the breakers and deal with the wind. Stop to check out the surfers at the bottom of the beach-access trail and then continue north along the beach. Substantial rock structures that look like ancient lava flows become holding areas for small bait as the tide retreats, and they are magnets for feeding stripers. Continuing north, hummocks between fingers of sand bars form catchment areas that stripers use to ambush schooling baitfish and snack away. These areas slowly take form as the tide ebbs. At full low tide, skip the lengthy casts in exchange for shorter, more frequent ones as the fish stack upright in the surf line. Plenty of beach features in this area provide places to cast from adjacent to the breakers, making fish-catching casts even easier.
Coast Guard Beach
There is structure off the beach directly in front of the path from the parking lot that continues prominently as I walk south. The beach contours on Coast Guard Beach are even more pronounced than Nauset Light Beach (which Coast Guard’s next-door neighbor). Appealingly, Coast Guard Beach has more than just surf fishing to offer. At its southernmost point is the inlet to Nauset Harbor, which connects several nearby bays and a large salt pond (adjacent to the Cape Cod National Seashore Visitor Center).
Stripers love to congregate where the inlet meets the ocean, waiting for easy meals to be flushed their way on an outgoing tide. Sand eel, shrimp, and crab imitations cast to the middle of the inlet and swung on the ebb flow may be followed by several fish at a time, making for some heart-pounding action. One word of caution for fishing this area: you’ll need to watch the tide carefully since access routes flood quickly on an incoming tide and deep channels separate great places to fish the inlet and the beach. It is most safely fished for about an hour on either side of low tide.
Fly Fishing in the Wind
Wind is almost always present and its direction is an obviously critical factor. Typically, south-southwest to southwest breezes are the norm in summer, but check the forecast and plan accordingly. An incoming tide with an onshore wind means a tough day. In these conditions, it might be better to find a beach chair and a good book.
Cape Cod Seals
Love ‘em or hate ‘em, finding seals often means locating fish. Seals can be helpful because they pin their food against the beach, making it easier for us to find and cast to the fish. As the season progresses and the fish become more plentiful, so do the seals. Whether or not seals are an angler’s competition is often debated; however, it’s clear that seals in the water do alter the behavior of striped bass. Fish that are afraid for their lives don’t tend to stop and eat. And, don’t forget that seals are also food, but for some of the ocean’s largest predators. Keep an eye on what’s going on around you!
Fly Line Management
We all know that fly line has a mind of its own, wrapping around anything and everything it can. Tuck in, tape down, or otherwise reduce the number of things that the always-present wind can do to your line.
In the surf, excess slack line is a hassle waiting to become a disaster. Only have as much line off the reel as you can consistently cast, then slowly lengthen casts from there if conditions require. Occasionally banging out casts the entire length of line helps keep it stretched and avoids frustrating snarls in the stripping guides.
It can be helpful to contact the stripping basket with your hand on every downward strip just to be sure your line is landing inside the basket instead of going overboard. Inadvertently dumping a pile of line in the surf will form a bird’s nest around your feet in the waves. When this happens (and it will), do yourself a favor and reel in a bunch of line and begin making short casts to stretch the line again. Add line to extend subsequent casts when the line has been sufficiently stretched.
Inlets, Estuaries, Jetties
Standing on the jetty at the entrance to the Bass River, I could hear kite surfers behind me on West Dennis Beach. With the wind in my face, I managed a meager toss of a beefy deceiver pattern on a sinking line to what I hoped were bass waiting for dinner at the entrance of the river. A loud “Whoooop!” meant one of the surfers just grabbed some air. I instinctively looked in that direction just as a semi-truck hit my fly close to the jetty and took off straight into the current running down the center of the river. My drag whined and I was sure my leader was about to part ways with my fly when the fish ran into the opposing ocean swell at the river’s mouth. It pivoted and raced back inland against the outgoing tide, digging low and taking line until it tired and ultimately came to my net. Next stop, the top shelf of my grill….
Fishing the inlets and estuaries of Cape Cod is fun and accessible to nearly everyone. Given the density and quantity of the terrain, fishing them could be a full-time job and last nearly all year since a few bass always stay behind when the rest of the migration heads south for the winter. These holdover bass sustain diehard striper enthusiasts and keep hope alive during the cold New England winters.
River inlets are often protected by jetties that form prey-holding structure and can be quick and easy to access, but also means you will have plenty of company. While crowds and fly casting don’t mix particularly well, it is possible to find a time and tide that accommodates your jetty-fishing appetite. Areas that are particularly interesting for the fly fisher include the western end of West Dennis Beach (at the entrance to the Bass River), the inlet to Waquoit Bay accessed either from the west by Washburn Island State Park or from the east from the Mashpee Town Beach, and the entrance to East Bay in Osterville via the jetty adjacent to Dowses Beach.
Look for an outgoing tide and think of “swinging the fly” through the current as you would fish a streamer for trout. Baitfish, crabs, and other bass delicacies are washed from nearby marshes and inland beaches, then swept out on the tide to waiting bass.
If possible, bring along a sinking line when casting from the jetty since outgoing flow can be quick and may keep a fly on an intermediate line too close to the surface. A sinking line allows you to fish the entire water column. When you need more depth, cast slack and vary the tempo and length of your retrieve. Another approach that can instigate some explosive takes is to use a floating line and a topwater fly (e.g., a “gurgler”), casting into the riprap of a jetty from a boat. Every striper angler should give this a try at some point. While topwater flies might seem counterintuitive at first, you’ll be convinced after the first time a large bass crashes your fly on the surface.
Guide Adam Aronson of Gypsy Soul gave me some great insight to fishing estuaries. “Throughout the season, small flies often yield big fish. One of my favorite approaches is throwing small tandem flies. Think two Ray’s Flies or olive and white Clousers in size 2. These can imitate a wide range of baitfish from silversides to sand eels, depending on how you fish them. Remember, though, to open up your loops when throwing two flies.”
Cape Cod Fly Fishing Flats
Standing in waist-deep, quickly becoming chest-deep water just off Paine’s Creek in Brewster, I thought “Well,” but no other thought entered my mind. My right arm was numb from hours of casting an 8-weight and I’d tried every fly and line I carried out there. There were plenty of fish, so that certainly wasn’t the issue. At times, the water looked like a school of fish at recess. Flat calm conditions and bright sunshine meant a great beach day and spooky bass. When a thought did finally enter my mind, it was “I’ll see you tomorrow.” I hoped the next day’s forecast called for a few clouds and an easy breeze that would ripple the water covering the flats.
Many estuaries and creeks on Cape Cod empty to larger bodies of water in broad, level areas known as flats. While the term “flats” may conjure images of Andros Island or the Florida Keys, Cape Cod is home to North America’s largest flats system. Brewster Flats runs roughly 10 miles from Barnstable Harbor to North Eastham, exposing nearly 12,000 acres at low tide. It can be a mile’s walk from the parking lot to the “edge” (an always-retreating or advancing surf line). When the flats are exposed, an angler can easily see the widely varied contours of bottom, giving clues about how predators such as striped bass use this environment to their advantage while feeding.
The topography of Brewster Flats is highly variable. Ankle-depth can be separated by a few feet from a steep drop into a deeper, quickly moving channel. Sandbars and deep cuts are everywhere and are constantly being shifted by seasonal storms. It’s not hard to find yourself standing on a sandbar surrounded by a fast-flowing flood tide and not have a clear path back to dry land.
Consider carrying your phone, keys, etc. in a submersible container in the event you have to make a deep wade (or possibly a short swim). Better yet, be sure to know the path back to shore well ahead of the advancing tide. On Brewster Flats, the tide comes in and out about as fast as you can walk, so the surrounding landscape may look very different in a matter of minutes.
Be sure to research the area you are headed to beforehand, or even better, fish a time or two with a local guide to get the lay of the land before heading out on your own. While Brewster Flats is the largest and most famous on Cape Cod, don’t neglect other locations such as Pleasant Bay and the area adjacent to the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge and Stage Harbor in Chatham. There are many more flats-fishing options both large and small from the upper to lower Cape.
Sight-fishing in sunny conditions on the flats is a lot like hunting—anglers tend to be on the move while scanning for and stalking fish, which tend to be in constant motion. A stealthy approach is critical in these conditions since bass are easily spooked. It’s not uncommon to make lengthy casts to far-off fish followed by short casts to fish swimming into close range. Quick, accurate casts that land softly in the path of an oncoming fish are required, making this method of catching stripers both challenging and rewarding. On the flats, small flies can catch big fish, and a little surface chop may make them less spooky. While fish can be more easily seen in sunny conditions, don’t automatically sleep in if it’s cloudy. Blind-casting to areas where bass are known to congregate, such as points where tidal flows pinch between contours and concentrate prey, can be productive on overcast days.
Fishing on the flats is best done an hour or two on either side of low tide. However, if you have time, arrive a few hours before low tide and observe what happens as the outflowing tide gets progressively lower. Your observations of what prey species are abundant could tip you off on what flies to use.
Flats Fly Fishing Gear
A two-rod approach can be useful if the fish are spooky. Try using an 8-weight with a clear intermediate line for stealth and a 9-weight with a sinking line to put a crab or shrimp imitation close to the bottom. When prepping your gear for flats fishing, remember that these fish won’t have deep water to run to. When hooked, the only option is to head for the horizon, so be sure to have plenty of backing.
There are four pieces of equipment no one should be on the flats without—a compass, a tide chart, a way to tell the time, and a method for calling for help (e.g., a cell phone or distress whistle). Weather, darkness, and (especially) fog can arrive unannounced. Anglers have drowned on an incoming tide when fog confused their way back to shore.
Cape Cod’s Striper Migration
The Jones Brothers Cape Fisherman 23 left Saquatucket Harbor and its dense fog at the same time. The contour of Monomoy Island became more and more discernable as we headed south and the fog continued to clear. I listened to the captain’s description of the ecosystem we were traveling through and tried to digest the incredible diversity that filled such a small geographic space. Monomoy Point passed on our left as the numbers on the depth finder got bigger in a hurry. Across the chasm of Butler Hole lay Bearse Shoal, Pollock Rip Channel, and what I hoped to be a personal-best striped bass on the fly.
The notion that bigger fish are found in bigger water may not always be true, but it is true frequently enough that any angler should take this approach to striper fishing (as often as possible) on Cape Cod. Prime areas for finding offshore stripers are locations where tidal currents in deeper water collide with shallow underwater features like shoals or bars. These offshore current “rips” create a series of standing waves that trap and hold prey species. The shoals off Monomoy Island, which extend south from the tip of the elbow of Cape Cod, create miles-long current rips that mean great striped bass fishing. “There aren’t a lot of places with a nearly season-long surface bite that give fly fishers a great chance at landing big fish on any given day, but the shoals around Monomoy are one of those special spots,” according to Captain Patrick Cassidy of Cape Cod On The Fly. Cassidy is one of the area’s premier guides, with decades of experience fishing the Monomoy rips.
Boats take up position in the calm-water side of the rip, allowing anglers to launch large baitfish or shrimp patterns on casts that drift flies through the calmer water and ultimately get pulled into the chaos of the rip. Once a fly is engulfed in the rip, long and aggressive strips back towards the boat can trigger bass to feed. Strikes often come within the first few standing waves of the rip, a favorite place for bass to ambush stunned prey from below. When selecting a rod for boat-based fishing, place the emphasis on fighting fish rather than casting. Since hooked fish are likely to sound, lean toward a rod with good hauling properties. Generally, a sinking line (sink tip or full sink) with a short but sturdy leader is the right tool for the job. Note: If casting in the surf zone is like casting while standing in a washing machine, casting from the bow platform of a boat pitching on waves created by colliding ocean currents is like sending and mending line while standing on a roller coaster. Start with short casts and feed line into the drift. Extend casting distance over time to cover more water as you get your sea legs.
Stripers schooling offshore often push bait to the surface, trapping them in the two remaining dimensions of space for easy picking. The blitz created by the ensuing feeding frenzy is easily recognizable by the commotion created on the surface and the cacophony of diving sea birds looking for a free meal (all of which are often closely followed by a fleet of boats carrying similar-minded anglers). The blitz happens suddenly and with little advance notice, lasting for seconds, minutes, or longer. Chasing the blitz calls for a floating or intermediate line and often some quick casting since fish are continually on the move, boiling next to the boat and then 30 yards away a moment later. A 10-weight won’t hurt in this situation, especially if you are into larger fish or attempting to make long, quick casts in a strong ocean breeze.
Larger fish tend to lurk at lower depths, so it can be a challenge to get your fly to sink past the schoolies on top to the larger fish below. One caveat – sharp-toothed bluefish often join the fray and can easily shred a mono or fluorocarbon leader. Many a fly has been lost to blues, so carry wire leaders when possible.
Try aiming for the edge of the bait ball, letting the fly sit briefly before making short, erratic strips to mimic a stunned baitfish that’s broken from the school, hoping to escape.
Captain Cassidy sums up his overall approach to the Cape Cod striper season this way. “At the start of the year, I like to focus on Brewster flats and the creeks, coves, and shoreline of Cape Cod Bay, where large bass often show up after they’ve made their way through the Cape Cod Canal. Getting the season’s first fish while waist-deep and slightly chilled (despite wearing waders) is an especially rewarding experience. As the water warms off Monomoy and the outer beaches toward the end of June and the beginning of July, I shift my focus there. With the arrival of squid and other bait, the boat is key for figuring out where the bass are on a particular day and whether the blues have arrived. It’s also the start of sight-fishing the Monomoy flats, which is a whole other level.
“As the season progresses and patterns emerge, though, I continue to check and fish the bay, especially early in the morning and later in the evening on any of the tidal creeks or flats where sand eels, crabs and shrimp are the go-to food source for bass. When August hits, go wherever the fish were last and then go somewhere new. That’s the great thing about fishing Cape Cod: it’s an adventure every time and a great feeling to find fish in a spot you’ve never fished after doing the work to determine it has potential.
“Fall brings more blues and albies, plus the possibility of blitz fishing as bass feed for the migration south. I focus on the Outer Cape but make quick moves when necessary because the season will be over before I know it. And, don’t forget that fish move and so should you.”
Cape Cod and fly-rodding for striped bass are a perfect combination because this enormously adaptable fish can be found in many different kinds of water and Cape Cod has almost all of them.