I’m a dreamer–a hopeless surf-fishing romantic. In many ways, I am the archetype of the angler who fishes for reasons that have nothing to do with fighting or reeling in fish. I look for very specific things in my angling pursuits: adventure, escapism, intellectual challenge, physicality, natural beauty, etc. I know that I’d catch more fish if I used eels instead of plugs and flies, but this is one of my weaknesses—if you can really call it that. I’m uncompromising in the specific ways and places I want to fish.
One of my “weaknesses”, or rather, let’s call it an “uncompromising pursuit”, is my love of November on Cape Cod. Certainly, if I abandoned the Cape in October and headed to points south, I’d catch more fish. This isn’t hypothetical; I have friends who chide me about my silly stubbornness as they put dozens of fish on the sand and I skunk trip after trip. Yet, I maintain my lonely, hard vigil on the Cape because I am both living in the present, pining for the past, and hoping for the future.
November is a particularly raw and pure time to wander the beaches of Cape Cod. I walk in the proverbial footsteps of some of the greatest surfcasters to ever live. In November, the number of anglers pursuing stripers from the surf plummets, especially once Veterans Day comes and goes. I often feel as if I have the entire coast to myself. Access becomes a free-for-all, with many areas that were off limits—even after Labor Day—coming back into play. There’s also something about catching fish, while everyone else has given up, that feels special. These “overtime” fish help sustain me through the dark winter. Every moment is a gift, and when each fish could be my last of the year, I find something to love about each one I catch.
Yet, ultimately, this is not why I surf fish on Cape Cod through Thanksgiving. I do it because, as I said, I’m a dreamer. In days gone by, Cape Cod beaches were one of the top destinations in November for both quality and quantity of surf stripers. Long before Tony Stetzko caught his world-record fish on November 3, 1981, and then again long after, anglers flocked to the sand beaches from all up and down the East Coast in the fall. And, as recently as 10 or 15 years ago, the fall primetime still included much or all of November. For many anglers, these were not times to catch straggling schoolies or an occasional 30-inch fish, but rather a time for pursuing large fish, even hoping for some of the largest of the whole season.
As much as has been made of the Block Island bites in November, the Cape’s sand beaches rivaled them for decades. However, with the fishery currently being overfished, the beaches aren’t what they used to be. Still, every season I hear rumors, and I just can’t help but dream about how incredible it would be to catch a 40-pound striper after everyone else has given up hope. So, I walk the beaches in November looking for my diamond in the rough, a late-season unicorn, the jackpot.
It’s not easy fishing. Storms bite and claw at the sandy shores with extra intensity in November. It can be brutally, viciously cold. Yet, if the best tides and winds also intersect with a cold front, I cannot wait for the weather to change “next week,” because by next week, the season could be over.
I fished one night when the air temperature just a few miles from the coast dipped well below 20 degrees. That night, the saltwater was freezing in the smaller guides of my surf rod, but fish were blitzing on sand eels right in the wash. However, good fishing is more the exception than the rule since I get skunked in November more than any other month, and often the skunk is broken only by 12- to 18-inch fish. It takes a lot of motivation to get in the car and drive to the coast when I haven’t had a hit in 3 days, it’s 30 degrees and snowing, and it’s been dark for 4 hours before I even got in the car.
However, I adamantly argue that hooking a fish of a lifetime in November is hardly a pipe dream. Let me step back from the romanticism for a moment and lay out some cold, hard logic and data. From everything I have read and the limited data that has both been measured and noted anecdotally, it is assumed that the majority of fish heading north past the Cape in the spring go through the Cape Cod Canal but then go around the backside of the Cape on the way back south. This means that any stragglers will likely be cruising along the backside’s sand beaches and down around the south side of the Cape. Further, it’s been noted many times that the last fish to migrate tend to be very, very small, or extremely large, and they even mix together at times.
Just about every year, a few large fish are caught on the first moon of November in the Canal. I’ve heard rumors of 40-inch-plus fish in Cape Cod Bay well into November, and I’ve even seen Cape Cod holdover fish that were 40 inches caught in the dead of winter. These are not stories from 25-year ago. These catches are made every year, despite the precipitous drop-off in angler effort by Halloween. I can’t help but wonder what might be caught if the number of anglers fishing in November matched July.
Every year, I also hear whispers of a large fish or two caught along the backside. These rumors are hard to track down, but they seem to circulate every year. And why not? I’ve heard stories of fish in January on those beaches, slot fish in mid-April, and just about everything in between. It’s the Wild West, or perhaps I should say the Wild East. Since the number of diehards out walking those beaches continues to dwindle every year, I can’t help but think opportunities are being missed.
Then there are my own experiences, which suggest a giant is out there waiting for me to make my move. First and foremost, I’ve had a 40-pound fish in mid-to-late October, one moon off the first moon in November. That’s tantalizingly close, and I ended up skipping most of the November moon that year due to work obligations, but what if had been able to fish 10 days straight around it? Second, I’ve had absolutely phenomenal action with smaller fish well into mid-November, stretching from south of Boston all the way down the Cape to the outer beaches and along the south side. I’ve caught fish in excess of 20 pounds in Buzzards Bay deep into November. However, two of the best pieces of recent evidence I have specific to my point about catching a giant on the sand beaches come from November 2017 and November 2020.
It was a calm, balmy night, with high humidity and a low temperature in the high 50s. I arrived long after dark at a spot I had scouted several times in October. The moment I crossed the dune, I could see a huge mass of sand eels twinkling under the full moon like the facets of a giant diamond. For more than a week, I had been catching schoolies at this spot, with a few 12- to 16-pound fish mixed in every night, but I could immediately tell that something was different on this night. I could see gentle rises—almost like trout on a bug hatch – interspersed everywhere, going 100 yards in each direction. I practically ran to the shore, my plug bag banging against the back of my legs and began bailing schoolies on a Red Fin. It was a joyous hour of fishing – easy and rewarding. The fish had the bait balled up tight to shore so I had to stand back 30 feet because many of the hits came as the plug was just about touching the shore. It was as visual a bite as I’ve ever seen in the middle of the night, but that isn’t why I remember it so clearly.
Suddenly, tight to shore were several successive and gigantic splashes, which truly scared me half to death. Moments later, shad, schoolie stripers (or both) were being blasted out of the water like they were tiny peanut bunker, throwing themselves in all directions. This happened multiple times over a 1- to 2-minute period. I quickly changed to the largest plug I had, which was a big, 3.5-ounce Gibbs Danny, while my heart was hammering in my chest the entire time. I cast directly into the chaos but had no hits. Then, it was over just as fast as it had happened, and I caught no more fish despite staying another 4 full hours! I just could not believe what I had witnessed. I fished that spot for three more nights after that, taking off work and fishing just about all night each time, hoping and wishing, but I never caught another shad or even a striper over 30 inches.
In the last few years, the bite has waxed and waned, but I’ve never repeated that experience. However, last year I think I may have come the closest to the lonely, cold, and hard vigil paying off.
I was into a blistering bite of schoolies and slot-sized fish. It was the best it had been in at least two years, and in a week, I had caught well over 70 fish from 15 inches to 18 pounds. The fish were relentless, and unlike years past, not overly fussy. I had it all to myself, with seemingly every other angler in Massachusetts having hung it up for the winter.
Then, one night I was picking away for a couple of hours at fish at the very end of my casts. Unlike the night in 2017, it was not balmy. A savage, 30-knot-plus west wind was approaching gale force, and several times the sky opened, so I was soaked and shivering. It was a tough bite and I was having a hard time staying connected to my plug, which was a relatively small, light 7-inch 247 needlefish, but I could not tear myself away.
At one point, I watched a huge school of bunker come sliding past my position, just at the edge of the first sand bar, relatively close. It was a bit unusual, but certainly not the first time I had seen them in November. I immediately switched to a glidebait to try and replicate the large bait profile. It got me nowhere: no hits for 5 or 10 minutes, so I switched back to a Choopy needlefish, which fellow surf-rat Chris Lawton had sent me as a gift earlier that year. I let launch a mighty cast and watched the needlefish sail away toward the horizon, fully expecting to start catching schoolies as it dropped over the outer bar. I connected with the plug, gave it a moment to settle, and then worked it back at a moderate rate, keeping it mid-column. No hits. I repeated it again. No hits.
After a dozen or so casts, I decided to just let the lure sweep, keeping contact with it as it bumped and slid across the bottom. This time, less than halfway back, it was hammered by a fish of substantial weight. Despite leaning back with all my strength, I could not budge her, and for a few moments nothing happened. She then came to the surface, and I could see large splashes as she went berserk, every head swing felt in the bend in my rod. She took off hard and the drag began to sing, but only long enough to make my heart jump into my throat. The fish then came to a standstill, so hard it practically rattled my teeth, and the line broke instantly. I am not embarrassed to say I let out a very high-pitched yelp, and nearly fell over backwards before collapsing to my knees in the sand in a dejected tantrum. I was traumatized.
It took me a few seconds to compose myself and, then, examining my reel, it was clear what had occurred. With the combination of the light plugs I had been using and the frustrating wind sweep, my line had been going on the spool very loosely all night. This was further compounded by the extremely low speed I had been retrieving the needle prior to the crushing hook-up. The sudden burst of extreme tension had jammed the line into itself. I had to pick it out with a hook, which ultimately forced me to cut back almost 50 yards. It’s the only time this has ever happened to me, and a heartbreak I still am trying to get over. It’s also why I’ll be out there again this November wandering the desolate, wild beaches of the Cape looking for vengeance, and dreaming of surfcasting glory.
Fall Stripers Tips for Cape Cod
If you’re interested in searching for your own November giant on Cape Cod this month, I believe there are three main ways to do it. The first is to the fish the Canal, which retains all the same fishy elements it has in July and August: lots of current, bait, and deep water. I’ve seen big peanut blitzes in the Canal this time of year, and one early November, I got into a very solid bite of teen-sized fish on darters. I am no Canal expert; that November darter bite, which lasted three nights, is the only time I’ve spent any substantial energy fishing the Canal. However, Jimmy Fee, editor at On The Water, suggests fishing the west-moving tides when they run through daybreak. Late-moving baitfish, like sea herring, may appear in the Canal on these tides, bringing with them some of the last big bass of the season.
The next best bet is to focus on the outflows that can be found all along Cape Cod Bay and the south side. These outflows continue to hold bait long after the main body of stripers has moved south. By paying close attention to the weather, you can catch warmer, sunnier days that translate into warmer water coming out of these backwaters.
The combination of bait and warmer water attracts the attention of fish of all sizes. Even if you fish at night, the shallows in the adjoining bays and rivers retain a lot of heat deep into the night; sometimes the water coming out of these outflows is five degrees warmer or more. I tend to fly fish these places in November, but swimmers, darters, soft plastics, and bucktails are all essentials too.
Finally, focusing on sand eels on the open beaches has been one of my best tactics in catching decent numbers of fish. It’s a lot of work since it requires some prior scouting, keeping an eye on any changes in structure due to storms, walking good distances, and typically dropping everything to fish “goldilocks” conditions: not too rough, not too calm, but just right.