Throughout the long history of anglers fishing the Cape Cod Canal, the most common tactical approach to landing striped bass has been jigging—first with tin squids and eelskin jigs, then bucktails and straight-tail soft-plastics—along with fishing various plugs in the upper part of the water column. Coming from Florida, however, I have always been keen on using swimbaits.
I was born and raised on Sanibel Island and grew up chasing the common snook, which is arguably the most popular and sought-after gamefish among Florida surfcasters and inshore fisherman. After moving to Massachusetts five years ago, I was incredibly intrigued by one particular species, the striped bass. Knowing I would be living 45 minutes from the Cape Cod Canal, I spent hours studying different approaches for these bass, looking into ecological patterns such as migratory habits, feeding habits and more.
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As I dove headfirst into researching these fish before my move, I began to notice extreme similarities between the striped bass and the common snook. The feeding habits, fishing strategies, physical appearance, size, and strikes were all distinctly similar to the fish I had pursued for 20 years while surfcasting in Florida. My primary method of approach for snook had always been the swimbait. I had caught thousands of snook with them and I wanted to take my somewhat unorthodox approach to the promised land of striped bass shore fishing.
I arrived at the Herring Run Recreation Center on the mainland side of the Cape Cod Canal in May 2015. The nerves, anticipation, and excitement of finally making it to the destination I had been researching for months (and what would grow to be my new home as an angler), was unparalleled. I remember getting out of the car and walking up to the Canal. I noticed stripers blowing up on herring right away, which made me immediately think of snook blowing up on mullet. I grabbed a Vudu Mullet, a slow-sinking swimbait, and managed a striped bass on my first-ever cast into the Cape Cod Canal. Thus began a five-year journey into using swimbaits as my primary method for catching striped bass and bluefish in the Canal.
When attempting to make swimbaits work in the Canal, you must understand the time of year, feeding patterns, tides, depths and wind in order to accurately choose your presentation. Swimbaits have become more popular over the last few years, and there are a myriad of choices: floating swimbaits, glide swimbaits, hard-plastic swimbaits, soft-plastic swimbaits, weighted swimbaits, all with different sizes, weights, and patterns.
Floating Swimbaits and Glidebaits
During the herring run from late April into the end of May, many of the bass are feeding on them, so there tends to be more fish feeding on the surface and mid-column. Try and “match the hatch” as best you can, but also take the tides and current into consideration. You can’t go to the Canal on a strong tide and expect to throw a floating swimbait because its action and presentation will be hindered by the strong current. However, if it is slack tide, that same lure can be an excellent option this time of year. A safe bet is to use surface swimbaits during the slack tide in the months of May and June when stripers are actively feeding on top. I cruise up and down the Canal on my bicycle at slack tide, looking for actively feeding fish to which I’ll throw a hard-plastic floating swimbait.
While floating swimbaits are great during these particular conditions, slack tide lasts only about 30 minutes. When mackerel and herring are abundant in the Canal, and the tide is ripping, one of my favorite options is a glide swimbait. These baits are typically more of a mid-column one that can sink from 5 to 15 feet deep and retrieve with an extremely lifelike presentation. One of my favorite characteristics of these bigger glide baits is that the retrieve is simple and beginner-friendly since all you have to do is reel. These lures have produced fish for me countless times when all others failed to catch. They have extremely lifelike movements that can deceive fish and entice them to bite even when they may not be actively feeding. They are very versatile in the fact that they work well in strong currents and slack tides, can be retrieved near the surface and at different depths, and can be retrieved in different ways. They are my favorite option to throw when fish are actively blitzing. However, the downside is the price. A good hard-plastic swimbait can cost anywhere from $12 to $200, though my favorites typically cost between $20 and $40.
Jigging Soft-Plastic Swimbaits
Now, what about fishing the bottom with swimbaits? Many avid anglers are well aware that no fishing method has produced more striped bass, both large and small, in the Cape Cod Canal than jigging. This has long been the most effective method of producing fish in the Big Ditch. So, knowing this and accepting that I can’t argue with statistics, I had to adjust my swimbait approach even more and learn how to use swimbaits on the bottom of the canal.
The canal has depths that can reach 50 feet, so this was no easy task. There are no hard-plastic swimbaits that can reach a depth like this, especially in a fast-flowing current. However, soft-plastic swimbaits, those weighing anywhere between 3 and 6 ounces, work beautifully. A 5-ounce lure seems to be the sweet spot for the Canal during most tides. Another one I like is the Hogy Pro Tail, a 6.5-inch, 4-ounce lure in bone that has become one of my top producers. It has a realistic profile, good action, and is durable enough to handle many stripers before breaking down.
To fish one of these baits while the tide is running, begin by casting it up-current so it sinks as it moves with the current. From my experience, you must make sure your swimbait makes it to the bottom. Assuming you have some space, allow your bait to drift either to 10 or 2 o’clock, depending on the current direction. I always make sure to feel my swimbait dragging along the bottom (the strike zone) before beginning the retrieve. This is where 80% of my striped bass and bluefish have been caught in the Canal. Typically, the structure on the bottom is bumpy so I wait to feel the bait thumping and dragging along bottom before beginning my retrieve. To allow it to hug the bottom for the longest time, I reel as slowly as possible. During the retrieve, I lightly twitch the rod every 2 to 3 seconds, and sometimes twitch it aggressively twice in a row. I do not actively jig the bait by heavily lifting the rod and allowing it to sink. My goal is to simply hug the bottom and stay in the strike zone as long as I can while forcing the bait to twitch.
The bait, being retrieved against the current, mimics a struggling baitfish attempting to swim against it. The twitches are paramount to success with this approach because your bait will look as if it is struggling to swim against the current. This gives a striped bass or bluefish that is otherwise not actively feeding an incentive to strike a seemingly helpless baitfish. This retrieve method also creates vibrations as the tail kicks along the bottom of the Canal, also alerting fish to your swimbait’s presence.
There are days in the Cape Cod Canal when the current is simply flowing too strongly and it is impossible to get even a 6-ounce swimbait to the bottom. In these rare circumstances, cast far up-current and allow your bait to drift and sink, still retrieving it as deeply as possible. I always use a slow retrieve and twitch the rod gently one to two times every two to three seconds. This can be a painful way of fishing because each cast seems endless, but I can assure you that when using soft-plastic weighted swimbaits in the Canal, this is the most effective way to retrieve them. Each cast takes about 45 seconds to a minute and, realistically, the time when your swimbait is in the strike zone is about 8 to 12 seconds. No matter how slowly you retrieve or how heavy your jig is, if you are reeling in against the current and it is a strong flow, your swimbait will eventually be lifted off the bottom. At this point, you can continue your retrieve or quickly bring it in to recast.
When practicing this retrieve, sometimes I burn it in as soon as I’m off the bottom, and other times, I continue to retrieve slowly the entire cast. This depends on how the fishing has been throughout the day. On each occasion, notice new patterns and adapt. For example, if I have caught three fish and noticed that every single one came directly off the bottom while I was in the strike zone, I will reel in as quickly as possible every time my lure is off the bottom. If I have been getting fish later in my retrieve while my swimbait has been off the bottom for some time, I continue to retrieve this way the entire cast. Every day is different, and the fish are constantly adapting their hunting methods.
During slack tide, I continue to use this same retrieve method. I think the results are the same, if not better, during slack because I am able to keep my swimbait in the strike zone longer. Very seldom do I change my retrieve. If I see actively feeding fish blitzing on top, I may simply cast and reel in order to keep my swimbait closer to the surface. I constantly adapt to the feeding patterns present throughout the day. If I have been fishing for an hour or so without a strike, my first step is always to change my retrieve – Not my bait, not my spot, but my retrieve.
There may be times when you cannot actively see fish feeding on top, but they are present mid-column. In these circumstances, you probably won’t have much success hugging the bottom. So, prior to moving spots or changing your lure, first change your retrieve. When my ordinary style of retrieving has not produced fish, I may try a more traditional method where I jig the swimbait much harder in an upward direction and then allow it to sink a bit. This causes it to move up to where the fish may be feeding; other times, I may just reel it in.
Such is the beauty of swimbaits. They are so versatile and there are a variety of ways to use them.
If I adjust my retrieve and still fail to produce fish, I will likely continue to fish in the same general vicinity. My next step is to adjust my profile and switch to a different swimbait. It may be just a different color, different size, or maybe both. Patience is a virtue and I often find that patience and persistence is rewarded at the Canal. If I switch size, color, retrieve, and I am still not producing results, that is when I simply move, and start the process all over again.
Find Aaron on Instagram at @abenz.fishing