Summer Surf: Pack A Ditch Bag - The Fisherman

Summer Surf: Pack A Ditch Bag

Making Canal stops part of your summer surf game plan is a wise idea, here’s how to make sure you’re ready.

There was a time when I never missed a breaking tide at the Cape Cod Canal. But because these tides fall on the moons, my Canal trips were usually the second half of a double dip mission. I would hit a high water surf spot and fish until 11 or 12 and then drive to the Canal where I would hop into the passenger seat, recline it all the way back and sleep until my cell phone alarm jolted me awake about 30 minutes before first light.

Needless to say, I have a ton of experience packing a diverse bag for the Canal, something I could leave in my vehicle, grab without looking inside and knowing I would be prepared for whatever the Big Ditch had in store that morning.

The Magic Swimmer

The most widely used and important lure to have for any set of breaking tides is the 9-inch ‘228 SSK’ Magic Swimmer. This segmented swimmer can cover a large swath of the water column, from the surface, down to about 10 feet. It is also one of a handful of lures that can be effective day and night. The most common way to use this bait is to cast it uptide to about 10 o’clock, (or 2 if the tides going the other direction), snub the cast just before it lands to keep a tight line and reel it just a little faster than the tide is moving, keeping it swimming right on the surface. A variation of this, when the fish are blitzing, is to reel as fast as you can while still swimming the lure; in either case, the hits are highly visual and explosive.

In the dark, you may find that casting far uptide and then just allowing the lure to swing through the current is all you need to do to hook up. The slower, waking retrieve is also a favorite of nighttime Canal casters. When you buy a Magic Swimmer, take it out of the box and remove all of the hardware, swap out the split rings for size 5 Spros and change out the forward hook for a 4/0 Tsunami Salt-X treble or a 5/0 VMC. I use a 1/8-ounce weight in the second hook position but you can also use a 3/0 Salt-X or a 4/0 VMC—under no circumstances should you use a tail hook on this plug.

Pencil Poppers

The pencil popper made its name on the Cape Cod Canal when Stan Gibbs invented it back in the 1960s or 70s. Legend has it that Stan used to test them at pole 155 on the mainland side. There are hundreds of pencils on the market today, and while nearly all of them work, I only use a select few. My far and away favorite is the 3-1/2-ounce ‘Jobo Senior’ made by Guppy Lures. This plug has accounted for many of my largest Canal fish (and more than a couple heartbreakers too). I like it so much because it’s easy to work it slowly, which is not always the case with pencils intended for the Canal.

Another favorite of mine is the Yo-Zuri Surface Cruiser, this plastic version of the classic wooden pencil casts like it has a jet engine attached and works easily with a larger wake thanks to its large, flat face. One that I’m very excited to put more time into this year is the Panic Pencil from Savage Gear, this design incorporates a stepped hull on the belly that helps it hold better in current and throws a unique bubble trail as well. As a standard rule, I start slow with pencils and only speed up when a fish shows interest in the plug. The only other situation where I might choose to work a pencil quickly is during an all-out blitz where drawing attention might otherwise be tough amid the hordes of fleeing baitfish.

Little Neck Poppers

The little neck popper from Super Strike was the first plug I used for topwater stripers in the Canal and I don’t see myself ever making the trek to the Ditch without one. The thing that makes this plug unique is its swimming action. When allowed to swing on a tight line or retrieved slowly through slack water, the Little Neck will wobble on the surface like a Danny plug, making this plug a dual threat. When the fish are finicky, I will tie on a Little Neck and swim it with only subtle pops every 10 feet, or so, of retrieve. I rig my Little Necks with a cut 3/0 VMC treble up front and a 5/0 Eagle Claw siwash hook on the tail dressed with 4- or 5 3-inch hackles.


If you look back through the reports over the past few years, you’ll see that paddletail soft plastics have not only become staple baits in the Canal, but they often account for the only consistent hookups on mornings when the topwater bite is dead. Baits like the FishLab Mad Eel and the Savage Sand Eel have become must-have items in every Ditch Bag. But the market is beginning to flood with paddletails tailored to the Canal caster, with colors, shapes and sizes to replicate all of the baitfish that appear throughout the season in the Big Ditch. Look up local makers like Zinger Baits, East End Lure Co and 508 Soft Baits for a peek at what the hardcores are coming up with. I typically throw baits between 5 and 9 inches in length on heads ranging from 3 to 5 ounces. These baits can be cast and retrieved at a variety of speeds or bounced along the bottom to find fish hugging deep structure. Another must-have paddletail is what many refer to as the ‘Fat Shad’ from Tsunami, these chubby shads have a heavy internal weight that gets them down fast in heavy current and they can be deep-drifted near the bottom with great effectiveness.

Swimmers Large & Small

Swimmers of the plastic lip and metal lip variety also have a place in the well-rounded Ditch bag. Many smaller swimmers feature inferior hardware, or in some cases, inferior through wires, which all lead to the same result; heartbreak. The plastic lip swimmer I trust the most in the Canal is the Hydro Minnow from Yo-Zuri, this swimmer comes in two durable sizes and all of the classic colors along with many, nearly photographic, natural patterns. The hardware and hooks are adequate right out of the package and they can be replaced with your favorite trebles when they finally give in to punishment.

On the metal lip side of the coin, I have rarely thrown a surface swimmer in the Canal, really only because a Magic Swimmer does a better job in that situation. But deep-divers can play a vital role, especially when huge schools of macks enter the picture. The hierarchy of size in a striper school is a very real thing, and the biggest fish often hang back and hang low, while the smaller fish battle each other on the surface. Using something like a Conrad, Troller or other deep diving metal lip, will get you down into that zone without having to manage 5 ounces of lead, making for a very realistic presentation. One morning a few years ago I was throwing the deep swimmer I designed in the dark and crushing fish into the 30-pound class, the bite lasted well into daylight and I never changed plugs. Many of the guys around me, throwing more ‘conventional’ Canal plugs were only catching one fish to my three or even four. I was not a popular guy that day, but I sure enjoyed it!

Honorable Mentions

Of course there are many, many other plugs that might find a place on a Canal ‘must have’ list. One that stands out is the Stick Shadd, this amazing little flattened football catches big numbers of huge bass in the Canal every year, but the company has discontinued the design, so grab them wherever you can! Long-neck style pencils like the 3T designed by Joe Paiva have become extremely popular along the banks of the Canal, look up Paiva Lures to get in line for one of these very cool plugs. The Doc might be the most popular striper plug in the world today and, yes, it works in the Canal too, I used to throw them at slack and catch fish while everyone else was sitting down, I got a lot of questions but I never gave up my secret! Lastly, even needlefish have a place in the Canal. When whiting show on the surface with their streaky bubble trails and unpredictable zig-zags, I throw a needlefish. Something that sinks slowly and has some beef to it like a Wadd or the needle I designed known as the Flat-Glide. Whiting frustrate most anglers, but they won’t if you have a needle, trust me on that one.



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