Beginners Guide to Plug Fishing the Cape Cod Canal
There is no better place in the world for consistently catching trophy sized Striped Bass from land than the Cape Cod Canal. The six-mile-long, man-made canal, is a land-based fisherman’s dream. There are multiple points of access, a sidewalk on each side of the canal for walking or biking and most important, boats are not allowed to fish in the canal! If you’ve never been to the canal before here are some tips to get you ready for your first trip.
The key timeframe is the end of May through early September. The fish migrate from the south and quality size fish will arrive sometime around the end of May. Some fish will push through and continue north, while others will stay through the summer, taking advantage of the bait that stays in the canal. At the end of August and through early September there is a push of fish heading south, “when the cows come home”. If you are making a special trip to the canal the key is to line up your trip with the “breaking tides” during June, July or August. The breaking tides are negative (or double negative) low tides that occur at or around sunrise. These tides trap bait in the canal and offer Stripers the ability to ambush prey, particularly on the surface. The best tide chart to use is the Army Core tide chart – https://www.nae.usace.army.mil/Portals/74/docs/Recreation/CCC/Brochures/2020TideTables.pdf . The negative tides are marked with a * or ** for double negative. The sun rises in the summer sometime around 4:30-5am so plan on being there early to get a spot in the dark.
Planning your trip
Once you have identified the dates for your trip there are a few key things to book. First would be a location to stay. There are several local hotels and campgrounds in the area but my first choice is an Airbnb rental. If your lucky you can find a rental directly on the canal for an affordable price. One addition that I would highly recommend is renting a bicycle for riding the path along the canal. There are a couple local companies that rent bikes with rod holders and baskets for your gear, specifically for fishing the canal. Having a bike is key for maximizing your chances of being in the right place at the right time. Be sure to grab a rental vehicle large enough to carry your fishing gear and bicycles. A lot of the guys fishing the canal wear waders so they can wade out to cast and to make landing big easier. I personally prefer water proof boots and comfortable pants over the waders. That combination makes riding the bike much easier. Whatever your choice, make sure that you have water proof footwear. You can choose to wear spikes on your boots but I haven’t found that to be necessary for most areas on the canal, although you do need to be careful with your footing especially at low tide.
The canal is a long-distance casting game and your gear needs to reflect that. I bring two rods (both 2 piece) for the canal:
1. 10-1/2 ft, 20-40lb class spinning rod, 1-4oz lures – This is the rod I use to throw swimming plugs or smaller topwaters.
2. 11ft, 30-60lb class spinning rod, 4-10oz lures – This is the rod I use to throw heavy swimbaits, heavy jigs and large topwaters.
On both rods I fish either a 200 or 250 size Van Staal but you can fish any comparable size spinning reel. The key is to not go overboard on line and leader size. On both rods I fish:
40lb Yo-Zuri SuperBraid – http://yo-zuri.com/category/superbraid/
40LB TopKnot Fluorocarbon – http://yo-zuri.com/category/topknot/
If you are doing heavy jigging you can step up your leader size but in almost all cases 40lb is fine. If you want extra distance on casting you can drop your braid down to 30lb but for me 40lb is perfect. There are a lot of people fishing the canal and therefore I like to us white braid because I can see it easily and keep track of where my line is compared to the other anglers. On my rods I fish a 75lb prime snap by Spro, that allows me to quickly switch lures without having to re-tie.
Lures for the canal can be broke down into three categories: Topwaters, swimming plugs and heavy jigs/swimbaits. I will be the first to say, I am not dialed in to the jig/swimbait bite and they are most effect after dark. I focus my attention on topwaters and swimming plugs. The key with any lure for the canal is distance. There are a couple key lures by Yo-Zuri that fit this fishery:
a. Yo-Zuri Surface Cruiser (6-1/2”) – http://www.yo-zuri.com/products/surface-cruiser-floating/
b. Yo-Zuri Mag Popper (5-1/4”) – http://www.yo-zuri.com/products/mag-popper/
a. Yo-Zuri Hydro Minnow Long Cast (6-3/4”) – http://www.yo-zuri.com/products/hydro-minnow-lc/
b. Yo-Zuri Mag Darter (6-1/2”) – http://www.yo-zuri.com/products/mag-darter/
c. Yo-Zuri 3D Inshore Twitch Bait (5-1/4”) – http://www.yo-zuri.com/products/3d-inshore-twitchbait/
The Surface Cruiser has enough weight (2-1/2oz) and the stream lined shape to cast long distances but still floats, unlike many of the other topwaters thrown on the canal. That allows you to vary your retrieve while the other pencil poppers can only be fished fast or they sink. The Mag Popper, Mag Darter and Hydro Minnow LC have weight transfer systems to offer even greater casting distance, especially into the wind. That can make the difference between hooking up or just watching fish break outside your range. All of these plugs have 3X or 4X strength treble hooks and split rings that can handle bass up to 50 inches or more, even in the strong current of the canal.
The majority of the topwater lures thrown on the canal are pencil poppers, like the Surface Cruiser. However, a traditional style popper can be extremely effective as well. On my last trip I caught 20+ slot and schoolie size Stripers on the new Mag Popper. This is the best casting floating popper on the market period. It has a patented Magnetic Weight Transfer system that uses a sled that slams into the back of the bait during your cast and then locks back into place after landing. I fish the popper around slack tide and the first hour of the tide. I work it slower and more subtle for Striped Bass than I do for other species (Jacks, Tuna, Roosterfish). Letting it swing at the start of the tide, while working it slowly can be very effective. A big plus on the popper is it stays in the strike zone longer and many times you can hook up even if the fish misses the plug on the first strike.
Personally, I reserve throwing topwater plugs until I see fish actively breaking on the surface. Some guys will throw them all morning but for me I put in on the secondary rod and grab it when the opportunity appears. For the most part I fish a swimming plug and 75% of time the swimming plug I throw is the Hydro Minnow LC. That plug casts very well because its stream lined, weights 1-3/4oz and has a weight transfer that keeps it from tumbling in the wind. It has the swimming action, shape and size that perfectly mirrors the tinker mackerel in the canal. It’s a plug that I can make long casts to breaking fish with or that I can catch fish up close to the rock because it stays in the water all the way back to you. I always have this plug tied on a rod when fishing the canal and I’ve caught some of my largest Stripers when they aren’t actively feeding on top.
A new addition to fishing the canal for me is the Yo-Zuri 3D Inshore Twitch Bait. This is a slow sinking lipless twitch bait that can be fished with a straight retrieve or slowed down and fished with a twitch and pause retrieve. This bait has a different (deeper) profile and you can vary the retrieve to get finicky fish to eat. In this bait I tend to throw the Bone pattern or the Peanut Bunker pattern.
There are many colors that will work on the canal but the two main patterns for plugs are Green Mackerel and Bone. Mackerel are the key forage for Striped Bass in the canal. Other prey is available, including Squid, Herring and Bunker, but Mackerel is the bait that fuels this fishery. When picking colors for my plugs I make sure to have at least a couple of each plug in a mackerel pattern. In 2019 the regular Green Mackerel pattern was the hot ticket for me. In 2020 the new Wacky Mackerel pattern (combination of Green Mack and Bone) was the go-to color for the bigger fish. For topwater plugs, I will once again fish the Green Mack patterns but I would also suggest having a few in the Bone pattern and a couple in an all Yellow school bus pattern. When throwing to breaking fish having a solid color, that is easy for them to see can be important.
Before I arrive, I research where the fish have been showing up on the canal. There are several forums, blogs and pod casts that report on the bite in the canal. I have personally had the most luck in the middle to west end of the canal. I will park at an access point close to where the fish have been and with the bike work that general area. The canal connects Buzzards Bay on the west end and Cape Cod Bay on the east end. Buzzards Bay is shallower than Cape Cod Bay and the water warms up faster. Therefore, most of the early season (May/June) fish tend to be caught on the middle to west end. One unique thing you will notice about the canal is the direction of the water and the tides are not lined up exactly. The water will change direction (from east to west or west to east) an hour before high tide and low tide. The key is to be in the right spot when the tide turns from west to east. I will typically be somewhere on the west end early in the morning and fish that location until the tide turns east towards Cape Cod Bay.
I am not a stationary fisherman. I grew up chasing fish down the beach or up and down the pier. So, when the tide turns east, I wait for a school of Striped Bass to push the mackerel through and I will jump on bike and follow them for several miles, picking away at fish as I go. I will catch a few, when they pass by, I jump on the bike and find an open spot farther east and repeat as I go. A lot of guys will won’t put in the effort to move, instead choosing to wait for the next school.
There are names for many of the famous spots along the canal and you can find a guide to that online. There are key spots like the Railroad track bridge, the radio tower and the state park on the east end that get larger crowds, but fish can be caught at any location along the canal.
One of the best ways to get outfitted for EVERYTHING you need to fish the canal, including information on where the bite has been, is to go to Red Top Sporting Goods or Canal Bait & Tackle. These are well stocked stores and the employees fish the canal on a regular basis. They are a great place to pick up a two piece rod, reel, line and all the lures and terminal tackle you need. Check out these stores, including their great section of Yo-Zuri products.
Red Top Sporting Goods
Address: 265 Main St, Buzzards Bay, MA 02532
Phone: (508) 759-3371
Canal Bait & Tackle
Address: 101 Cranberry Hwy, Sagamore, MA 02561
Phone: (508) 833-2996
The last thing I will say on the canal fishery is if you do visit please pick up after yourself and follow the local fishery laws. This is a one of a kind fishery, let’s keep it great for future generations!