Dispatches From The Ditch - The Fisherman

Dispatches From The Ditch

canal
It’s impossible to deny that the Canal is a very special place. John Doble Photo

A year of memories from the Cape Cod Canal

As this story goes to print, Canal rats from near and far will have made their final casts of the 2021 season. As winter’s grip tightens, it’s nice to take a moment to reflect back and remember the ordinary and unusual alike. Following are some thoughts from a guy who was there almost every day.

The Everyday Stuff

More harbor seals were spotted with 40-inch stripers hanging out of their mouths than ever before.

A fisherman at Bell Road caught a striper and distinguished himself from the rest by not loudly yelling, “WooooHoooo!”

Lines were crossed and tangled in the crowded combat zone, east of the Railroad Bridge on the mainland side where the endless refrain of “open your bail!!!” could be heard daily starting at 3 a.m. and echoing as far away as Aptucxet.

Multiple innovations were used as strong kickstands for Canal bikes such as broken hockey sticks, metal pipes, notched broomsticks, wooden stakes and a first for me this year when I saw a former golfer at the Cribbin who had a putter wedged under his bike seat!

Some people just invite tangled lines by setting up too close regardless of polite requests to create distance. “Wild” Bill is a nice guy, but resembles a weathered mountain man with a gray bushy beard. He has a successful repellant for those who crowd him and won’t move on. As a last resort Bill just looks at the space invader and says, “Don’t make me go back to prison!”

crowd
When the fishing gets hot huge crowds can form, but there’s usually enough fish for everyone. John Doble Photo

Suggestions To The Committee

Poaching was a problem again this year as greedy fishers rushed oversized stripers to the trunks of their cars or to the bushes across the service road. The Environmental Police do a terrific job with their small force of dedicated law enforcement officers, but they must cover the entire state of Massachusetts; it’s too bad that there aren’t more, as some days they are really needed on the Canal.

The US Army Corps of Engineers do a great job, but rest rooms are not yet open in the early morning so it would be nice if there were more portable facilities along our favorite ditch. In addition to the status quo, a good standard would be to position at least one in every parking lot.

And speaking of potential improvements, it would also be nice if the low-hanging tree branches over the service road could be trimmed back to avoid contact with tips of fishing poles standing up in bike rod holders.

Why I Get Out Of Bed

The faces of astonished tourists watching the Railroad Bridge go up and down reminds me to always appreciate this magnificent mechanical achievement that is a terrific feat of American engineering in our own backyard.

We have all had fish blow up on a surface plug a few times without committing and then finally chomping down on the lure. I landed an east end 39-incher in June at first light after she hit my Guppy Jobo, Jr. five times before finding the hooks!

For at least most of the season, bluefish were harder to find than a jelly donut at a weight loss clinic! I caught a few, but the yellow-eyed devils must have decided to circumvent the Canal, although more were caught in the fall. Fresh broiled bluefish is delicious, but on the other hand my plugs look much better for their absence.

I will never forget the July morning when a truck bearing Iowa plates pulled up beside me in the east end parking lot and the gentleman driving asked me for directions to the Canal Tunnel! I told him, “you’ll have to get the stickah first!”

pistol-popper
The Pistol Popper putting some fish on the rocks the author in August of 2021.

Then there was the 20-something dark haired girl sitting on a rock at the Herring Run watching her boyfriend fish. There weren’t many people on the Canal as he let some long casts fly with his Gibbs Canal Special punching through the overcast drizzle. He brought his Tsunami Airwave rod back over his shoulder for another cast, but the plug hooked onto her bike parked at the edge of the service road behind him. His lure didn’t make it to the water and the bike tumbled right down the jagged rocky bank! The bike didn’t appear to sustain much damage and his sympathetic, sweet girlfriend just smiled!

I was lucky enough to land my share of striped bass with my favorite jig, the Bill Hurley 5-ounce white Canal Killer, but I also caught a delicious black sea bass on the same lure near the Bourne Bridge in August while targeting linesiders.

Motorized bikes are becoming as common as pubs in Dublin! I wasn’t having much luck near the Sagamore Bridge when an angler stopped his electric bike to tell me that fish were breaking in the west end. He then sped off on the 4.5-mile journey without having to expend any physical energy!

As many times as I have seen it, I still smile when a bike goes by with a child seat on the back, but instead of a kid in the seat there’s a cooler or surf bag!

The swift canal current creates a short window of opportunity to reach breaking fish so I like surface plugs that float, eliminating a wasted seven precious seconds of reeling my sunken offering back up to the top. Pistol Pete Freitas is a great guy and even though he is a skilled angler he has just recently started building his own lures. He asked me for some personal preference specs and later generously presented me with some perfectly crafted salt water works of art. Sending Pistol Pete a photo of a fish held by me with his hand made blue pencil hanging out of its mouth in August made for the happiest day of the season. I was ecstatic for the accomplished surfcaster so I named it the Pistol Popper!

Simon’s Surprise

The most unusual event this year happened at the beginning of the season. Simon Tan is an experienced Canal Rat whose humble nature causes him to fly under the radar and shun publicity like it hurts. The good natured sportsman is well known on the canal for his innate kindness and superior angling skills as well as his respectful, modest demeanor. Simon utilizes his vast knowledge of local tides, surfcasting gear and canal technique to put fresh fish on the family table.

Dark clouds from an overcast sky produced a moderate rain on an early afternoon in late May when Simon and his friend decided to try their luck on Bell Road in the west end. Simon fishes for striped bass quite often, but on this day he was focused on some of the other plentiful bounty from the big ditch. He baited his #5 Gamakatsu circle hook with crabs and landed three tautog, then switched over to squid in search of some tasty porgies.

simon
Simon and his friend with their co-angled 52-inch striped bass that hit a squid strip intended for scup.

He had already caught about eight scup for his bucket when his squid was hit so hard he was almost jolted forward. The 11-foot ODM Jigster Extreme bent over like a U turn as 65-pound braid zipped off his Saltiga in a hurry. Simon, who had been lulled into a state of relaxation by the routine constant tap tap of the bait stealing scup, was now fully alert and engaged in a fierce battle with a heavy adversary. He was satisfied that he had set the drag properly to balance applied pressure with line security, thus he was able to fight the fish with confidence.

After about a 10 minute tug o’ war Simon could hear his buddy behind him expressing amazement at the dynamic action he was witnessing. Simon, instantly remembering that his friend had never caught a striped bass, quickly handed off the rod to his smiling colleague to continue the fight for another 10 minutes. Finally they could see the seven stripes of an enormous linesider whose powerful broad tail was still sweeping through the canal current close to the rip rap stone bank. The big girl measured out to an impressive 52 inches before a healthy return to the westbound tide. Every surfcaster tries to land a big striper intentionally, not by accident. Simon had been hoping for another scup when his bait followed the sinker to the bottom that day, but little did he know that he would soon be hooked into the surprise of a lifetime!

“East End Eddie” Doherty is a retired Massachusetts District Court Clerk-Magistrate and the author of SEVEN MILES AFTER SUNDOWN Surfcasting for Striped Bass along the Cape Cod Canal.

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