Each June, the tip of Cape Cod hosts a spring spectacle of bass and bait.
A trip to the Outer Cape begins with a drive down Route 6. As the highway narrows from two lanes to one, my excitement builds, and the mainland gets left further behind the closer I get to the end of the Cape. Newer construction gives way to the classic Cape Cod landscape, with retro signs leading to the National Seashore’s massive dunes appearing between small mom-and-pop shops and seasonal restaurants that have endured for decades.
Traveling down Route 6 is a bit like traveling back in time, and that includes the fishing found at the end of the journey. Every year, huge schools of large, migrating striped bass converge on the abundant bait in the swirling currents at the tip of the Cape, creating some of the best fishing on the East Coast. Fishermen who make the trip often find fishing that offers a glimpse of “the good old days.”
Sunrise: Wood End to Race Point
A typical June outing begins with scouting the stretch from Wood End to Race Point for signs of surface activity. Before boat traffic picks up, striped bass will chase bait up onto the shelf running along Herring Cove and into the current rip that forms at Race Point. Although the topwater action is almost always good around first light, it is common for it to continue later into the day, depending on the conditions.
The area usually holds a mixture of smaller schoolies, fish in the 30-inch range, and the occasional group of 20- and 30-pounders. The most common bait in the area are large clouds of sand eels, which draw diving terns as bass chase the baitfish to the surface. Most of the bass on the sand eels will be on the smaller side, but using larger lures on top can entice any larger fish lurking around the schoolies. If there are any larger baitfish in the area, such as sea herring and mackerel, you’ll see more frenzied action on the surface accompanied by wheeling seagulls, and you’ll almost certainly find bigger bass underneath.
When the fish are feeding on top, almost any surface lure will produce, though spook-style plugs are particularly fun. The walk-the-dog action of the plug often generates explosions from fish even when the bass have gone down and aren’t visible. I like the Afterhours Mega Dookster, a 9-inch wooden plug, but there are many options in plastic as well. Classic pencil poppers in yellow or white also work well. I am partial to Gibbs’ wooden plugs, but plastic pencil poppers can be very effective and durable. A slow, rhythmic, side-to-side splashy retrieve is usually enough, and you can change the cadence until the fish tell you what they want. Some days, a slightly faster retrieve gets fish to commit, while on other days a short pause seals the deal.
Soft-plastic stickbaits can also be very effective surface baits. Got Stryper soft baits, which were created by a local captain, are particularly popular. Try the 11-inch bait rigged on an 11/0 Owner ballyhoo hook. A dab of glue on the shank will keep it in place, and the exposed hook will act as a keel to keep the bait running straight.
If the fish aren’t showing on top, focus on the drop-off and use your electronics to look for bait and bass hanging in deeper water. Smaller 7-inch and 9-inch soft-plastic baits on jigheads work well for fishing a little deeper in the water column and they do a good job mimicking sand eels. Drop these baits down in the water column and work them up toward the surface with long sweeps of the rod. Slender metal jigs also produce when worked in the same way. Fly-fishermen are at a slight disadvantage when the stripers go deep, but still can get into the action with heavy sinking lines and traditional sand eel patterns like Pamet Specials, Deceivers, and Clouser Minnows.
The Backside Blitz
As the sun begins to rise higher in the sky, the action around Herring Cove and Race Point usually dwindles, in no small part due to the abundance of boats fishing the area. This is not to say you won’t have a good day if you stay in this area, but faster fishing is usually a short boat ride away. Rounding the tip of the Cape and fishing the backside can result in some truly large stripers and surface feeds that are so large they must be witnessed first-hand to be fully appreciated.
There’s a lot of water to cover from Race Point down to Highland Light, so gulls are your best indicator of where the fish are. They aren’t always obvious; sometimes they will be sitting on the surface of the water, waiting for the next round of surface-slashing stripers to move through. Fishing spook-style topwater plugs around these birds is a great way to tell if the fish are around. Make a few long casts, and you will find out whether you have stumbled upon a pack of fish or should keep moving. Fishing around birds and continuing to move south down the backside is usually a good strategy. On many days, you’ll eventually find massive groups of fish slashing thorough bait on top.
Some years, the surface action on the backside is almost hard to believe. Last year, baby haddock appeared in the area, floating helplessly as 20- to 30-pound stripers slurped them off the surface, sometimes with the delicacy of brown trout sipping flies in a stream and other times with an intensity that frothed the water white with tail slaps.
While catching these fish on topwater plugs is great fun, it’s a rare opportunity to successfully target fish in the 15- to 30-plus-pound range on the fly rod. A good tactic here is to have an angler use large plugs to tease the big stripers into range for a fly-caster in the bow. Fly-anglers can often get away with intermediate lines here. The fish are already up on top looking for the plug, so having the line push the fly just below the surface puts it right in a striper’s line of sight. These stripers are so aggressive that they sometimes will smash flies right next to the boat. The feeling of having a fish this size rip the fly line out of your hand and then dive to the bottom, sometimes in over 100 feet of water, is something every fly-angler deserves to experience.
This June, get in on some of the best striped bass fishing of the season, and some of the best fishing the entire East Coast offers for stripers. With a trip to the tip of the Cape armed with a box full of topwater plugs, plastic baits and large flies, you can connect with big, migratory striped bass on the surface on Cape Cod Bay.