2023 On The Canal: Dispatches From The Ditch - The Fisherman

2023 On The Canal: Dispatches From The Ditch

The author enjoys a rare uncrowded moment fishing the Canal’s famous ‘Combat Zone’. Ken Stuart Photo

You never know what you might see along the 7-mile stretch of the Cape Cod Canal. Here are some memories of 2023 on the Big Ditch from a guy who wet a line there almost every day.

Wakeup Signs

Canal walkers, joggers and bike riders using the service road on the Cape side in the west end are alerted just before the railroad tracks by a large yellow and black sign that reads, “Caution, Watch for Trains.” There is no protection from a gate or barrier that comes down like at most railroad crossings, only common sense – which is not always so common! I must admit that, even after all of these years, whenever I see the ominous sign at 3 a.m., my tired brain is suddenly jolted to attention, putting me at full alert quicker than a cup of black coffee!

Too Early!

I had just closed my bail after a blind cast into an east ripping tide before sunrise, then looked up at the service road behind me to see a middle-aged gentleman out for his morning walk. I smiled and said, “Hi, how you doin’?” It was kind of a rhetorical question, but he took it seriously when he answered, “I don’t know – it’s too early to tell!”

Doctor’s Note

The 25-year-old surfcaster next to me reeled in a nice slot striper so I walked over and congratulated him as he told me his name. When I asked if I could mention him in a story his face went pale and doom filled his eyes as he said, “No, please don’t. I’m supposed to be at work today!” He won’t be the last angler to call in sick and head for the Canal!

A Family Affair

I pedaled my bike out of the west end at 4 a.m. on an eastbound ride in the dark right by a mother and three kids who were fast asleep wrapped in blankets on the small patch of grass between the service road and the rip rap stone bank as a surfcaster, presumably the father of the family outing, was casting close to the water.

Who’s #1?

About 25 of us were packed together elbow to elbow at the Combat Zone, casting in sequence to avoid tangled lines. The west tide calls for the angler on the far right to cast first so he becomes #1, then #2 casts and so on. After the last guy on the other end has cast and is clear, he will yell, “OK go again #1.” I was #2 on this day so I told the humble man on my right that he was #1, but through some broken English he kept insisting that I was #1 because I was more experienced as he viewed being labeled #1 as a compliment and status designation. I don’t think I was able to properly explain it, but I did get him to cast first! Every time the guys on the other end would yell again for #1, he would look my way to be sure it was okay to cast and of course I would nod in the affirmative. When his girlfriend showed up later, he put his humility on hold just long enough to flash a big smile as he told her that we had made him #1!

Vito Marsico with a 38-pound Canal striper taken during the summer of 2023.

Animal Instincts

On another morning I was #4 in line so I was ready to throw just after #3 launched his soft plastic jig into the raging current, but I had to hesitate for a moment as a whale breached right where I was aiming my cast! I landed my lure just behind the massive tail and was happy to see it swim toward Buzzards Bay, as I really didn’t want to hook into a whale!

Dogs Always Listen

The striped bass had been following a pattern of breaking 45 minutes later each day. They started showing the day before at 7:15 a.m. so today they were due to start splashing at 8. I was sitting on my bucket, killing time, when a lady walking a golden retriever came by and started a conversation. I told her that I was waiting for the fish as she headed for Bell Road with her tail wagging friend by her side. When she came back a half hour later, I could hear her talking to the dog as she walked by behind me. The loyal canine listened attentively when she told him, “That guy is still waiting for the fish!”

Deer Eddie

I had just tossed my 5-ounce Hurley Canal Killer into a strong west tide in the east end. As I waited for the jig to sink, I turned around to see a curious deer right behind me. We locked eyes and the frightened doe bolted for the trees. You never know what you might see on the Canal!

Crime Doesn’t Pay!

There were fistfights and threats reported this year at Bell Road as well as the infamous area next to the railroad bridge on the mainland side that I dubbed the Combat Zone years ago. Anglers too close to each other and not casting in sequence resulted in tangled lines, damaged gear and sometimes lost fish. Short tempers were exacerbated by some hot, humid days and rude behavior. Fishing should make people happy so I was hoping to leave crime behind when I retired from the court system!

The People

Pat LaCroix is a Park Attendant on the mainland side where her smiling face can be seen riding in a golf cart from the railroad bridge to Bourne Scenic Park. She opens the restrooms every morning, but the best part of her job entails leaving out bowls of water along the service road for thirsty dogs and she buys six different kinds of canine treats to offer on her route. One of her “regulars” just happened to be walking his black lab behind my fishing spot. The tail started wagging upon spotting Pat as she pulled over and told the playful pup, “Come and get your treat!”  I said, “Where’s my treat”, but there were no GrandMa’s Donuts onboard!

A Truly Blind Cast

Canal Rat Bill Walsh makes the drive from his home in Roslindale to wet a line as often as possible. Bill, a great guy and experienced surfcaster, was having trouble with his vision so he had cataract surgery on both eyes. He told me, before the operation, his fishing routine added new meaning to the term “blind cast”!

Hooked for Life?

An inexperienced fisherman in his mid-twenties was casting a pencil into breaking fish. The ferocious school of fish was hitting his offering, but not getting hooked. Cast after cast, he came up empty. Closer inspection revealed that he had left the protective plastic tubing on the hooks! We told him to remove them and he hooked a slot on the very next cast. Hopefully he’s now hooked for life.

The Happiest Angler

I was surfcasting the west end next to Rick Easton, a nice guy who doesn’t get to fish as much as he would like. Rick was bouncing a green mack Savage off the bottom that was attacked by a strong predator. Rick became the happiest guy on the ditch after reeling in his PB striped bass that measured 43 inches. He was smiling and laughing like he had just hit the lottery; it was nice to see somebody who wasn’t afraid to show appreciation and excitement!

Romantic Getaway?

Jim Mittenzwei is a great friend who lives in Kentucky and loves to fish, ranking the Canal near the top of his bucket list. He had taken his wife to Paris for her 60th birthday so my wife J. Do and I were congratulating him on flying to France and for being such a creative, romantic husband until he told us the rest of the story. Jim had actually taken his wife to Paris… Kentucky!

One of the Best

Dave Tworek, who we all have been pulling for as he battles serious health issues, is quite simply one of the best guys on the Canal. Dave had just hooked up with a striper when he noticed a guy he didn’t know take a bad fall on the dangerous rocks. Dave quickly released the fish and went to the aid of the injured angler whose name was Ken, helping him up the rip rap stone bank to his bike. Ken was bleeding from his arms, legs and a big knot on his head so Dave followed him on his own bike to make sure he made it safely back to his vehicle. Not everyone would leave fish to help a stranger; Dave’s good deed paid off in spades the next day when he landed his “PB” with a heavy linesider that measured out to 48 inches!

The big fish came early this year in the Canal, here’s Nick Defala with an early spring 38-pounder.

The Sea Monster

Jack Barton is a talented carpenter and experienced surfcaster who wets a line almost every morning before heading off to a worksite. He is such a good son that he built a custom chair for his father to use on the Canal while he was recovering from heart surgery.

Jack was jigging at one of his favorite spots on the mainland side of the Canal toward the east end at about 4 a.m. He was casting into the moonless pitch-black night while wearing hip boots and standing in thigh-deep water. His jig was working the bottom as it was carried along by the west dropping tide. Jack felt something bump his feet and knew from previous daytime excursions that the area around him featured a very sharp drop off to much deeper water. An eerie feeling fell over him as he felt another bump at his feet with the darkness preventing any visual clue as to the cause.

Suddenly, a huge harbor seal rose out of the water and stood up directly in front of Jack. It was the same height as the startled angler and almost in his face producing a plume of vile, disgusting level of bad breath at only an arm’s length away! Jack quickly recognized it in the dark as a seal, but not before his mind briefly raced to a split-second thought of being eaten alive by a ferocious sea monster! Jack screamed and heard the carnivore scream in a mimicking, vociferous yelp that sounded almost human! He fell backward with water rushing into his waders and crawled out of the Canal while holding his rod above his head, even the shock of a monster in the dark couldn’t stop Jack from protecting his precious fishing gear!

Jack estimates that the enormous seal may have weighed up to 300 pounds and the memory of that night has resulted in a new fishing habit: he now only stands in deep water in daylight!

A Taste for Danger

It’s always fun to wet a line on the Canal next to Mashpee Mike LaRaia. The Falmouth Fishermen’s Association member is not only an interesting guy to speak with and an accomplished Canal Rat, but he also skippers his small Boston Whaler deep into Nantucket Sound where he catches his share of delicious black sea bass. Mike’s wife, Luzia, a retired flight attendant for United Airlines, was concerned about her husband sitting in a small boat bobbing out in the middle of a vast body of water and was so worried for his safety that she asked him to stop. However, she changed her tune after tasting her first mouthwatering plate of fresh sea bass and now encourages Mike to continue with his ocean excursions!

She’s Worth It!

My wife, affectionately known as J. Do, does a great job as my agent by booking speaking appearances, handling public relations and other duties. Most agents, however, take 4%, but my bride takes 100%!

Doherty is a retired Massachusetts District Court Clerk-Magistrate and the author of Seven Miles After Sundown and Laughs, Lies and American Justice. He fished the east end of the Canal so often that other anglers started calling him East End Eddie, thus a nickname became a pen name. He can be reached at [email protected].



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