Steep, slippery banks, large crowds, fast-moving water, big striped bass—surfcasting at the Cape Cod Canal comes with a unique set of challenges. Adding one more challenge by fishing with a fly rod at the Ditch almost seems insane.
There are several reasons why most anglers don’t want to fish the Canal with a fly rod: The current is too strong; the banks are too steep; the backcast space is too limited; and the fish are too far. All of these reasons are just challenges to overcome. The struggle to successfully fly-fish in the Canal makes hooking up and landing a fish that much sweeter.
When I hooked my first Canal striper on the fly, I was both terrified and excited. Big bass had been pushing schools of mackerel onto the banks at low tide. My chartreuse dragontail with the same color bucktail hollow wiggled like a lost mackerel just below the surface for only a few seconds before being inhaled. The fly line ripped through my fingers, leaving a line burn, then a few seconds later, the reel was dumping line while my 9-weight rod bent like a piece of al dente spaghetti. The bass quickly wrapped some sharp structure, scarring my fly line and snapping my 20-pound tippet.
I thought my 9-weight setup was plenty strong enough to catch big stripers at the Canal—boy, was I wrong. I hadn’t accounted for the extra lifting power that I needed to fight big fish from a fixed location and in heavy current. Adding to my frustration, I had left my fly wallet in the car that morning and didn’t have a replacement fly on hand. Despite having my surfcasting gear fully rigged up and ready to catch the blitzing bass, I left the bite and biked back to my car for the flies.
I returned to find the fish still blitzing. I turned my back to them to calm down while I tied another chartreuse dragon and bucktail combination to a new tippet. I cast the fly a short distance from the shore, where it was inhaled.
This time, I was able to turn the fish into the current and after a quick fight, I landed and released a 36-inch bass. Immediately after, the stripers pushed the mackerel to the middle of the Canal, well out of reach of my fly rod.
Despite sometimes being more challenging, I enjoy fishing the stronger tides around the moons because more bait is swept through the Canal at these times. A heavier current sucks bait in from further away and draws in more predatory fish. By targeting the periods around slack tide, I avoid the challenges of fly-fishing when the Canal is running at a peak current approaching 6 knots.
When timing the trip, I always target the lower stages of the tide because there is more room for my backcast. If it’s safe, I wade out a bit to provide even more backcast room and to give a hooked bass less of an opportunity to run my line over the sharp ledge.
Another benefit of fishing the lower stages of the tide is that there is more structure to fish, and that structure is often visible. Low tide exposes the many rocks and points where Canal stripers lurk.
When choosing a fly rod for the Canal, you’ll need a rod that is dependable, capable of throwing big flies, and has enough backbone to battle large fish in heavy current. My 9-weight, built on a high-tensile graphite blank, had enough strength to deliver heavy flies, but it lacked the backbone needed to keep the biggest fish off the bottom. In the Canal, a 12-weight is not overkill. A longer two-handed fly rod may be useful to cast a bit further in these applications, but always be mindful that longer rods and spey-casting techniques require a bit more room on either side of the angler—which is never a given at the Canal.
In the Canal, I prefer a heavy sink-tip line to combat the strong current and shoot my line further. Canal fish tend to hang on the bottom or around ledges, and on some trips, getting a fly to the bottom quickly can be the difference between hooking a fish and going home skunked. Fly choice can also impact line choice. Bulkier flies require a heavier sink tip to get them into the zone.
Between the size of the fish and the strength of the current, you’re likely to see your backing after hooking a striper in the Canal. I use 35-pound-test Gel-Spun backing. It is much stronger than dacron backing, has a smaller diameter, and is extremely abrasion resistant. As always, the leader material should be the weakest link in case of failure. The 30-pound fluorocarbon should break well before my fly line or backing if the fish wraps any structure.
The Canal Fly Box
Mackerel, squid, bunker, herring, whiting, eels, lobster, crabs and many other striper snacks can often be found roaming the Canal, and fishermen tie flies to imitate all of this forage.
Most of my patterns are large mackerel imitations since many of the blitzes at the Canal happen when big schools of mackerel move in, but I always have flies that resemble squid, bunker, and herring.
I almost always add weight to the hook shank when tying flies for the Canal. The extra weight helps me fish them more effectively in the heavy current. I make sure to use an extra-strong hook with a short shank to give the fish less leverage on the hook.
There are two things I require in a Canal fly reel. First off, the drag must be powerful and smooth because stripers are eager to test how strong your reel is as soon as they grab the hook. Second, the reel should be sealed. With the moist, foggy conditions at the Canal and the likelihood that the reel will be submerged or splashed, a sealed drag keeps moisture, sand, mud, dirt, shells, and anything else from getting into your reel’s drag system.
The Cape Cod Canal is such an uninviting place to fly-fish and I have made many excuses to leave my fly rod in the car; some days, those excuses are well justified. Masses come out to fish when the word of a good bite gets out, and some anglers don’t understand the room needed to cast a fly. Currents rip through the Canal so fast that I’ve seen rods snap like twigs. There are numerous obstacles and failures that a fly-angler must endure when fishing the Canal, but when successfully landing a fish, the reward is more than worth it. If it was easy, everyone would do it, and that level of difficulty is the reason I enjoy it so much.