Ditch Dispositions: The Attitude Of The Day - The Fisherman

Ditch Dispositions: The Attitude Of The Day

predawn
Predawn light illuminates a promising tide on the Cape Cod Canal. Eric Sykula photo.

Be observant and use logic to increase your odds in the Cape Cod Canal.

There’s a kneejerk reaction among ‘non-Canal’ fishermen that catching a big fish in the Canal is easy and therefore, the accomplishment is somehow ‘less than’ it would be if landed in – virtually – any other place using any other method. And there are times when it would be hard to argue with that point. When the Canal is really ‘going off’ the bite is completely bonkers; skill goes by the wayside and catching a giant fish becomes a game of chance.

I remember one summer day back in 2014 when there was an extended period of afternoon blitzes. A man and his wife were walking down the canal road carrying rods, I heardd her say, “How do I do this, again?” The next morning I saw a photo of her hoisting a mid-40-pound class striper, which was her first striper ever. She was quoted as saying, “Is this a big one?” If that doesn’t convince you that everyone with a capable rod and reel and the gumption to get to the canal on time during an ongoing blitz has an equal chance at ‘going large’, then you’re not listening! But I hasten to add, that blitz fishing is always a game of chance, whether firing pencils from a sandy beach or flipping Docs from a boat.

Bait Logic

Another irrefutable fact is that there always seems to be one guy or gal that has the hot hand. And while there are times when that person may not be able to explain their mastery, most of the time, they have taken a moment to read the situation and then adjusted their presentation accordingly. This approach, which sometimes reads like sorcery, is actually very logical and can be utilized by anyone with a little practice.

The easiest attitude to read is that of the baitfish. Whether they are frantically running, zig-zagging and leaping to try and escape death, or they’re tracing the shoreline in the shallowest water where the risk of predation is minimal, there are a lot of clues in what you can see. Right off the bat, you can see what kind of bait is there, you can see how big it is, you can see how abundant it is and you can read how elevated their senses are. Knowing the type of bait may offer clues as to what colors might work and, if you’re familiar with the species of bait and their tendencies, it may offer clues about how to present your plugs.

For example, if they’re mackerel, they often travel within 30 feet of the bank and they often swim just below the surface, leaving a series of v-wakes as a school approaches. I’m a big believer in showing the fish something they expect to see; my lure may not look exactly like a live mackerel, but if it’s the right size and I present it in a way that acts like the real thing, I feel that they might be more inclined to take it down.

Sometimes size is the key factor. You wouldn’t think a wild fish that’s trying to catch a frantic baitfish in its mouth could afford to be choosy, but I’ve seen it happen too many times to ignore. Just last year I happened to show up at the Canal on what many consider to be the best day of 2023. The fish were on mackerel and they were hitting pencils and 9-inch Magic Swimmers, but the catch rate wasn’t equal to the intensity of the blitz. Finally, I got a good look at the macks and they were smaller, averaging around 5 inches. Digging in my bag, I found a 6.5-inch Magic Swimmer buried behind the tubes. For the next hour, I hooked up on every single cast, and landed many nice fish, but if the treble on that plug had been in better shape, I would have really put on a show.

Something else to pay attention to is the speed of the baitfish around you. If they’re just lazily swimming along, they’re not stressed and this probably indicates that there are no fish in the immediate area. But if you encounter a school of bee-lining baitfish on a mission, get ready, because some of the biggest fish I have seen come from the Canal have been caught right after this phenomenon took place. If there are lots of baitfish in tight along the banks, you can set yourself up for repeated success by exploiting an area where the safety of the shallow water ends abruptly. This is one of the reasons why the Cribbin can be so great late in the tide, eddies take away some of the current and there are several areas where the bottom drops out and there’s suddenly no place for a mackerel or menhaden to hide.

One last thing to look for is gathering baitfish. Sometimes you’ll be riding along and you’ll see a tight school of large bait piled into some shallow little pocket along the bank. This is the time to descend the bank down-current from the school and cast back along the bank. So often, there are big fish pinning them in, just daring one of those baitfish to try and make a break for it, and you can fake that mistake very easily.

fish
Observation will lead to more fish caught in The Big Ditch. Adam Aguiar Photo.

Fish Brains

It’s not always easy to read the gamefish, because they are so often not visible. But you can still derive many clues from observing how they’re feeding and how they hit your lure. For example, if you’re seeing fish hit sparse baitfish on the surface with punishing fervor, that’s a clue that there may be a lot more stripers than there are baitfish and they’re having to compete for whatever baitfish are available. Conversely, if you’re seeing a lot of interest behind your plugs and no committed strikes, they are taking the time to follow and inspect the bait, which may mean a few things.

First off, they may be confused by the speed of your retrieve. If a wolf pack of bass were to fall into line behind a lone bunker, odds are good it’s going to try to escape the danger. However, if your plug continues to lumber along at the same speed, that might read as a reason not to eat or it may just pique their curiosity and they may follow for a spell, trying to figure out what they’re looking at. On your next cast, fishing double the speed, and speeding up even more when a fish shows interest, can sometimes convert interest to a strike.

It may also mean that your lure is the wrong size or features an unnatural action. So a good first countermove is to downsize by an inch or two and switch to something ultra-natural, like an unweighted soft plastic. When I make this move, I typically try to make the lure swim for the first few casts and then try something with more twitches and pauses to see if I can crack the code. Sometimes though, it just means that the fish are not ‘turned on’ – typically, when I have encountered this situation, it took a change in the tide to turn on the bite.

downsize
On this day, it took downsizing to the 6.5-inch Magic Swimmer to kick the bite into overdrive.

Human Clues

Sometimes there are no natural clues available, and yet, some dude off to your left is whaling on them while everyone else is just chucking and winding. I am not the type that will go over and ask the forbidden question, “hey buddy, what’cha using?” But I’m also not so stubborn that I won’t try to figure out what he’s doing differently. Very often, the secret is depth. The most important part of this is not to psych yourself out. Just because you don’t know exactly what he’s using, or you do know and you don’t have it, or you don’t have the same color, that’s just giving yourself permission to fail. By watching what he’s doing, you should be able find a way to mimic his method using something in your bag (that is, if you’ve packed a diverse bag).

Here’s a real life example from a few years back. I was fishing below the campground in late-July and the bite had been good all week. It was a windless morning and those famous Canal mosquitoes were so thick I thought I might wither away from blood loss. As the sun lit the scene, I noticed a guy a few poles down that was crushing fish, he appeared to be swinging a jig. But as I watched, I noticed that he was casting a light jig up-tide, letting it settle, and then ripping it in at a high rate of speed. I didn’t have any light jigs on me, but I did have a deep-running metal lip that would hold in the current, even if I burned in it.

I cast my metal lip up-tide and cranked it down hard to get it deep. Holding it deep by staying tight to the plug, I waited until it swung against the flow, then I would crank it hard with intermittent stops, almost like a snappy jerkbait retrieve. The fish could not leave it alone! This lasted for at least two hours and ended when the current was running so hard, I couldn’t work the plug against the tide without it rolling out. What I assume was happening, since there were zero signs of fish on the surface that day, is that a big school of fish was running deep along the first drop-off and the key was getting something down to their level and making it look like it was getting away. This would trigger a competitive response as multiple fish broke away from the school and rushed to be the first to eat it. When you can get stripers to feed competitively, they will forgive a lot of the shortcomings of your lure and presentation.

Colors, Lights & Shadows

FURTHER READING
If you want to learn more about what to pack for your next run to the Cape Cod Canal, scan the QR code or thumb through your home archives to the July 2022 edition, where you’ll find my story “Summer Surf: Packing a Ditch Bag”. This article details a handful of must-have lures for the Canal and tips for how to rig and use them.

Summer Surf: Pack A Ditch Bag

There’s been a lot of emphasis on retrieve speed in this article and, hopefully, I’m driving home the point that a very fast retrieve is often very effective in the canal with paddletails, Magic Swimmers and pencil poppers. There are exceptions of course, but you can temper your top speed based on the amount of available light, most of the time. So when it’s dark out, even when the Canal has been in blitz mode for days, you will typically do better by using slower retrieves and more classic night lures like jigs, darters and plastic swimmers. As the sun ignites the sky, experiment more and more with faster retrieves and with lures that run shallower or on the surface. Magic Swimmers, Pencil Poppers, Spooks, Savage Sand Eels, Whip-It Fish and I am super excited to use the NLBN K-Tails in the Ditch this season.

As far as colors go, you will see lots of guys along the banks throwing custom plugs that look so much like a live mackerel you’ll be looking for pupil dilation! But, my experience has been that it’s usually better to stand out than it is to blend in. If there are already thousands of mackerel in the school in front of you, how likely are the fish to single out yours if it looks exactly the same but doesn’t really act like the real thing? My best two colors have been solid, bright white and fluorescent lime green. One tide last summer I smashed fish on the 5-inch NLBN paddletail in lime green, just casting into breaking fish and cranking it back in quick. It was out-fishing all of the typical Canal lures being thrown around me, 5 to 1. Think about driving by a large grassy field, if a deer flips its tail out there at the back of the field, your eye instinctively darts to that flash of white. I believe these colors, fished at high speed, draw the eye of the striper in a similar way, and they will instinctively home in on your plug, even among scores of the real McCoy.

The Canal is one of the most inclusive striper fisheries in the world and summertime is the best time to take advantage of it. If you want to be one of those casters that always seems to have a bent rod, it takes more than just being there. Make it a challenge that you take on every day, challenge yourself to be more observant and try to use logic to make your observations work for you. There will still be days when it just doesn’t come together, but most of the time, you’ll catch more fish and you’ll leave feeling like you learned something. For me, that’s about all I can ask for from a day at the Ditch.

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