Fly Fishing the Cape Cod Canal

Fly fishing canal
Photo by Brian Sager

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.

Striper on the fly
A 12-weight setup is not overkill for fighting stripers in the strong Canal current.

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.

canal fly fishing
On crowded mornings, it’s wise to leave the fly rod at home. Fly-fishing can require a little extra space both for the casting and for fighting the fish.

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.

The Rod

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.

Cape Cod Canal Bikes
Of course, fly-fishing at the Canal isn’t always in play. Occasionally, it’s just too crowded to safely cast, so I always have a backup plan. Some days, it seems like the whole world is fishing the Ditch, and even the resident minks have problems finding a spot on the banks. Instead of missing out on a productive morning, enjoy the bites with surf tackle, being sure to observe the fish and bait movements, productive techniques, and other useful information that may serve you the next time you have an opportunity to fly-fish the Ditch.

The Line

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.

canal fly
Bait and Switch: One trick for drawing bass into fly-cast range is the bait and switch. This technique requires a hookless topwater plug and a good friend willing to tease in the fish for you.
Have your friend throw the hookless topwater plug up-current of your position with the hope of luring fish within your casting range. Once the fish is close enough, your friend rips in the plug and casts the fly in its place. Often the fly is inhaled by the teased-up bass as soon as it touches the water.

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.

The Reel

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.

6 thoughts on “Fly Fishing the Cape Cod Canal

  1. Rick Barron

    Fantastic and very accurate article re: fly fishing the canal. One other fly besides the mackerel, pogie, herring,squid flies that can work well, is a long 9inch plus eel punt fly. The eel punt is best made using really long thin hackle feathers that are died black, dark brown. I used to go to Franklin Park zoo and hang around the EMU cage outside the fence to often gather up the feathers for free. You don’t want stiff feathers, you want them to move in the water. To fatten the body and give it weight add long shreds of bucktail hair, darker colors. The eel punt fly is as deadly as any fly in your long box when the bass are there. I admit I also sprayed them at water’s edge with pogie oil juice. You have to remember the fish’s strongest sense is smell not sight.Who cares if they smell their way to the imitation eel. Live eels in the canal are always a sure bet when the bass are there. Another thing I noticed is eel punt fies seemed to always work best fishing when it is raining. In Cohasset years ago you could catch schoolies and smaller bass one after another for hours at Cunningham’s Bridge, but unfortunately the Bio system that used to be at that location no longer exists there. By the way if you hook a 35-40 lb fish remember your rod is an extension of your line and you have to keep it level with the water and you won’t be able to put any pressure on the fish at all until it is exhausted and belly up. I have had big fish snap my pole and line in 3 seconds fishing in Florida from docks and jetties. It happens so fast you can’t react to it. Make sure you take your heart pills first.

  2. J.d.

    Keep killing those fish with those light fairy wands.
    Don’t do it…
    You’re playing the fish to exhaustion.
    I see more dead fish from fairywanders.
    The longer you fight a fish, the chances of it dying are greater. And that’s a true fact!

    Ask ANY biologist…

  3. BeezeChurger

    Queue the salty old/fat canal rats getting angry about a good article “ruining” the canal.

  4. Tyler

    first time i see this im going to make sure to cast over them. seriously gtf out of here. there is no room and time for this type of stupidity. there is already enough stupidity there as it is.

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