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Mike P 05-09-2004 12:47 PM

Canal How-to
John asked me to write this a year or so ago and it's been sitting around My Documents since then---guess it's about high time I post it :rolleyes:


The Cape Cod Canal is one of the Northeast’s most productive striper fisheries. Few places, if any, allow an angler to fish 30-plus foot depths mere yards away from where they’re standing. The deep, fast moving waters lend themselves to daytime action that can often outpace the fishing at night. However, many beginners are intimidated by the rugged structure and fast moving currents. While there’s no substitute for putting in the hours and racking up experience, hopefully, the following paragraphs will serve to “de-mystify” the Ditch.

The Canal, including the sea approaches, is over 17 miles long, but only a little under 8 miles is fishable from shore. Bank fishermen have almost unlimited access to the land cut, which runs from the end of the eastern jetties to the state pier at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy in Buzzards Bay. The Canal is part of the Intracoastal Waterway, and is operated and maintained by the US Army Corps of Engineers. At present, no user fees or permits are required to fish. This has been the case since the Federal Government assumed ownership in the 1930s, and hopefully will continue indefinitely. The Canal runs in a general east/west direction, and both the north (mainland) and south (Capeside) banks have parking areas that allow frequent access. Some of these are lighted and paved parking areas equipped with restrooms, and some other are just dirt turn-outs along the highways. Some of the paved areas are gated after dark, but most remain open around the clock. In addition, a lighted and paved service road runs almost the entire length of the land cut along both banks. While non-government vehicles are prohibited, the roads offer 24-hour pedestrian and bicycle access. Many of the regulars have rigged up “Canal cruisers”, bicycles set up with rod holders and baskets. A bike is a big boost to mobility, as it allows you to park at one end, load up, and pedal off to your hearts content in search of fish.


Most fishermen are used to scheduling their fishing around the time of tidal height, or “high tide/low tide”. The stage of the tide can be important, as it affects the location of rips and backwashes in various places, but for a beginner, the best advice that can be given is to disregard tide and think current. The Canal has a fairly swift current, and it results from a 3-1/2 hour difference in the time of the tides in the bays at each end of the Ditch. Also, Cape Cod Bay, at the eastern end, has an 11 foot difference (called “tidal range”) in water levels at high and low, whereas Buzzards Bay has only a 4-6 foot range. These two factors account for the current. The current flow can be predicted with a great deal of accuracy. When the water level in one bay is higher than the other, the current will run in the direction of the lower water level. When the levels are equal, the current will be slack. Canal tide charts and the Eldridge Guide predict the time of current change. This is the key---plan your fishing around the direction of current. Some spots produce well on an east current, and some produce better on the west. Also, you have to tailor your methods according to the current flow. If you’re fond of fishing bait on the bottom with a sinker, with few exceptions, this is best done around slack tide, as the heaviest sinker you can throw won’t hold bottom on a raging current. If you doubt this, you’ll do little more than add to what is already one of Earth’s richest lead deposits. On a running current, the best methods are drift-chunking using light rubber-core or egg sinkers to help get a chunk down below the surface, drifting live eels, using sub-surface swimmers like a Gibbs bottle plug or a darter, or deep jigging with heavy bucktails, jig-heads and plastic, or an eel skin jig. At slack, productive methods include fishing bait on the bottom with a sinker, and plugging with lures like a Gibbs Polaris by day, or a big metal-lipped swimming plug by night.


The Canal has some of the most rugged bottom that I’ve ever fished. It is, in truth, a junkyard on the bottom. When you throw in a current that can exceed 5 knots on a moon tide, you can see why it’s no place for light tackle. Canal fishermen use rods from 8 to over 11 feet. In my opinion, the longer rods are really only a good idea at lower stages of the tide, when you can stand on an exposed mussel bed or other flat spot, and have room behind you to get off a good cast. I usually carry two rods with me—a 9-1/2 footer and a 10-1/2 foot one. The rod should be able to handle 4-6 ounces of weight and still load with two ounces at the low end. It should have a lot of backbone, in order to lift a jig off the bottom in 30+ feet of water, and to put the boots to a fish that’s trying to bury its nose in that junk on the bottom. All of my rods are custom models. There are many blanks that could serve as the guts of a Ditch stick. I’ll list a few—in 9 foot lengths, some good ones are the Batson 1089, the All Star (Breakaway) 1088, and the Lamiglas GSB 108 1M. In 10 foot models, I like the All Star 1208 or 1209, and the Lamiglas GSB 120 1M or the XRA 1205, as well as the old reliable fiberglass 121 3M. Going up the ladder, there’s the Lamiglas XRA 126 1MH at 10-1/2 feet, which in my opinion is the best Canal rod going for big plugs and heavy jigs, then the 11 foot XRA 1322 and the All Star 1418/2 for situations requiring the ultimate in casting performance.

Most Canal regulars use conventional reels. They offer big advantages in casting, and in controlling a big fish in heavy current. I’ve retired most of my older reels, and use Abu Garcia Ambassadeurs almost exclusively. The smaller 6500 size reels, as well as similar sized Calcutta 400s and Penn 965s, can be used if spooled with thin braided line. My preference has always been the larger 7000 size Ambassadeurs. Many old timers still prefer to use non level-wind reels. Some still use the old Penn Squidders, but most now use more modern reels like the Newell 229 and 235, and the Daiwa Sealine 30s.

If you’re more comfortable with spinning reels, I would suggest that you invest in a model with strong gears. Fortunately, they are available. The spinning reels I have the most confidence in are the older Penn Z-series models 704 and 706, the newer Mitchell Nautil 7500, and of course the Lexus of spinning reels, the Van Staal.

Some holdouts still do all of their Canal fishing with mono. I’ve switched over to the new thin braids for almost all of my Ditch fishing. They offer many advantages. They are incredibly thin for their strength. The thin diameter means it penetrates the water better and isn’t as wind resistant, which allows you to get a jig down to the bottom better. They allow you to use a lighter jig, which is less prone to hanging up. And, their sensitivity is unbelievable. You can feel the bottom better, you can detect when your jig is hanging up sooner which allows you a better shot at rescuing it, and you can almost feel the fish breathing on your lure before it hits. There are a few drawbacks to braid, and lack of stretch can be a two-edged sword. It’s easier to tear hooks loose from poorly hooked fish, especially with a stiff rod, and it’s easier to put too much pressure on treble hooks causing them to straighten. Also, when using surface plugs like Polarises and pencil poppers, it’s easy to catch “buck fever” by yanking the lure away from a fish before it has a chance to get the hooks in its mouth---so mono still has its place in my tackle bag. I suggest 25# or 30# mono, 30# Fireline, or minimum of 50# spun braid for the Canal.


In my opinion, too many guys get hung up on “spots”. Whenever the talk turns to the Canal, you’ll hear the same spots getting thrown around—the Cribbin, Portagee Hole, the Radar Towers, the Jungle and so on. The traditional spots earned their lore, but they also attract crowds. There are thousands of spots where you might find the fish. I watched someone from New Jersey, who had never seen the Canal in his life, pull out a 40# bass on his second cast in a spot that doesn’t have a name. What I suggest is riding the Canal on a bike by daytime, and scoping out the structure. Look for points and mussel beds that jut out from the bank. Look for places where there are rips, backwashes, and seams between the main current and a backwash. Make some casts with a 3-4 ounce bank sinker, to get a feel for the bottom. Feel the sinker bouncing and take note of places where the bottom suddenly drops down a few feet. Carry a notebook and jot places down. You can find almost any spot easily—every pole that holds a navigation light has a placard displaying a station number on it. They start at “pole 10” at the east end and run all the way up to “pole 385” near the railroad bridge. If you find a spot that you think might hold fish, jot down, for example, “ledge 30 yards west of pole xxx” in your notebook, and try it out that evening. If you want to try the traditional spots, get the pole numbers from a local tackle shop, or obtain a Canal map from the Corps of Engineers. They’re also available in certain tackle shops.


Often you’ll hear the regulars talk of “the breaking tides”. They’re referring to the twice a month low slack current, where it falls around the time of first light. For most of the Canal fishing season, these tides occur for 4-5 days around the new and full moons. Some old timers also call them “minus tides”, as they are marked by one or two asterisks in the official Canal tide chart. What it means, basically, is that bottom clearance at dead low tide is less than normal because the tide ebbs more on the new and full moon. Often, on these early morning slack tides, fish will be seen thrashing on the surface chasing bait. These are the times you want to have your big surface poppers with you, and be able to cast accurately. Yellow plugs work year-in, year out on these tides, and mackerel pattern plugs are also productive whenever the macks are present in quantity. Bait supplies vary from year to year, and some years, plugging is slow. In other years, you can find bass tearing up the surface from one end of the Ditch to the other.

Well, those are the basics. There’s no substitute for hands-on experience, so take these words as a starting point and put in the time. Good luck and hope to run into you in the dead of night this season.

TheSpecialist 05-09-2004 01:38 PM

Mike excellent read. Lot's of valuable info in there.

justplugit 05-09-2004 01:43 PM

Thanks Mike!:btu::)

Notaro 05-09-2004 09:06 PM

Now, this post has given me answers. It's not about tide on the canal. It's the currents.

mikecc 05-09-2004 09:31 PM

Great job Mike

The Dad Fisherman 05-13-2004 09:18 AM

This has to be one of the best How-to's I've read...awesome info.

GMAN 05-14-2004 11:04 AM

excellent job mike
we need more knowledge like this.

JohnR 05-27-2004 02:35 PM



fishnfool 06-02-2004 09:54 PM

Great read:claps: Makes me want to buy a bike and ride the canal..:)

missing link 01-20-2005 06:18 PM

Great post !!!!!!!!!!!
Link Sr.:cool:

dickmont 07-29-2005 11:44 AM

Canal How - To
Thanks Mike. That's a great post. I've always enjoyed fishing the ditch, it's a unique fishery. Now I'll be able to do it a little smarter.

Slammer223 02-01-2006 05:03 PM

Fantastic post Mike.We appreciate it greatly.

StripinLine 02-01-2006 07:00 PM

WOW. Nicely done....

Tom d 05-08-2006 08:47 PM

Thanks a lot. Nice to hear someone with good experience is not afraid to share it!!!!

Swimmer 05-10-2006 12:45 PM

Thanks Mike.

Mugz 05-18-2006 08:27 AM

I like to read this once a year to get a "re-fresher course"...great info.

Shuley76 08-26-2006 11:29 AM

This is how my Canal expericaince usually goes.

*Arrive at the Canal during mid afternoon
*Look around and find a decent spot where there is no people.
*Rig up a 10 foot meadium action surfcast rod with a chunk of frozen mackeral.

*Make a cast as far as I can.
*Watch the bait drift to the shore.
*Watch a big Boat drive by
*Make another cast as far as I can.
*Watch The bait drift to the shore and get stuck on the bottom
*Watch another boat drive by that makes alot of waves.
*Watch 3 hours go by with no bite.
*Drive home 30 miles away all pissed off.

What am I doing wrong? I read the sticky but it doesn't really tell me excatly how to fish the canal,it's not "taking me by the hand" and showing me.

Slipknot 08-26-2006 12:29 PM

First mistake is arriving mid afternoon :hs:
maybe certain times that may work if there's a blitz going on but they don't happen often.

I get up at 2:15 and get there by 3 AM so I can fish 3 hours in the dark then try for the breaking fish on top at sunrise.

you might want to find some place where the current swirls and fish the slack tides if you are gonna chunk, fish at night and you won't fight boat wakes.

there is a lot to fishing the canal

good luck

Shuley76 08-26-2006 12:36 PM

So find a whirlpool somewhere and throw some bait in it at 3am?

Slipknot 08-26-2006 12:46 PM

it's not that simple

there are rips that are in close
and eddys where the current goes around stuff and flows backwards
direction of the current it key to specific spots

I don't chunk so I can't take ya by the hand , sorry

Shuley76 08-26-2006 12:58 PM

What do you use if you don't mind me askin?

Mike P 08-26-2006 05:07 PM

Frozen mackerel is OK if you can't get fresh bait, but fresh pogies are always your best bet for chunking.

Here's the rig I use when I chunk--my main line---usually 30 or 40 pound test mono--gets tied to a Krok barrel swivel. Then I run about 3 feet of 50 pound leader to a 7/0 or 8/0 Owner live bait hook. I attach either a 3/4 or 1 oz rubber core sinker above the swivel. This is key--you need a swivel and to put your rubber core weight above the swivel, or else the chunk will just "helicopter" or spin in the current. You're not going to cast this rig very far, but the nice part is, you don't have to. 40 or 50 feet is fine--the rip rap drops off into 30' depths very close to shore. Let your bait drift naturally in the current with the rubber core helping to keep it down. When you feel a bump, drop your rod tip and set when the line tightens. Don't let a fish run too long with the bait or you risk deep hooking it.

I like to do this kind of chunking around low water. Say, the last 2-3 hours of the west running current, ot the first 2-3 hours of the east. As the tide gets higher, you tend to get too much of a backwash and it impedes the drift of your bait. Some spots produce better on the west, and some do better on the east. There are good chunking spots close to just about anywhere you can park along the Canal.

I feel this kind of chunking is just as productive as trying to anchor bait to the bottom with a heavy sinker on a full bore current, and it's more active fishing.

By the way---if boat wakes are washing your line into the rocks, you're using too light a sinker. Try "drift chunking" the way I described and see if you can get some fish.

NIB 08-28-2006 05:58 AM

Try the west end.the area from the rr bridge east has quite a few little points that get exsposed at low mike said u don't have to thro far.Ur "fishin" ur bait at the ditch not just tossin it out waiting for a tap.Toss it up current.holing the rod tip high taking up slack as it drifts towards u the letting some out as it goes away.Rubber core sinkers are the choice because u can adjust the amount of weight to have the right "tickin" the bottom action.with ur rod tip high fish the bait from upcurrent down current along the inside drop off.I have witnessed keeper bass takin in the daylight hrs. with this technique.Low tides near dawn or dusk can be more productive as bass will feed more aggressively at these times.Get there early as the good spots get tied up with anglers fast.

Shuley76 08-28-2006 07:03 AM

Wouldn't a rubber core sinker still get caught on the bottom? When I cast upstream it washes to shore,is this normal? Do I just cast upstream,let it drift,reel,cast upstream rinse and repeat?

striprman 08-28-2006 07:03 PM

I use a 100 pound test mono leader(clear Ande, not "leader" material, just plain mono) on a 3' leader with 8/0 or larger hooks. My "bait" reels are jigmasters with 50 or 60 pound test and I like using a heavy, 10' ("conventional", not spinning) rod (the Penn rods and reels work for me, but any heavy duty rod and reel will work) The heavy leader line holds up to the rocks better than 50# test and the bass don't seem to mind. Big blues have trouble biting through.
Deadstick with a 5-6 ounce bank sinker on a fish finder (I like the cheap ones, they open up with 50 pound test and sometimes all you need to do is replace the sinker). If I go through 6 rigs a tide, I feel I'm doing good (if no one is around, I'll "spike" 2 or 3 rods). Most times I end up losing 3-4 rigs, sometime I don't lose anything. Once you dislodge the rig from the bottom, DO NOT stop cranking (as fast as you can) until the rig is all the way in. If you let the rig hit the bottom again (once it's initially dislodged) you will ALWAYS loose the rig on the "drop off" ledge or other bottom snags. If you do get your rig stuck, DO NOT try to pull it off using the rod, or against the reel (you will bend the spool arbor). I use a heavy stick with a piece of wet towel or face cloth. Wrap the line around the stick and wet cloth a few times and pull. You will pull up a clump of weeds, a big old mussel or break off (use your back, 60 pound test is pretty hard to snap, use your muscles). The wet cloth keeps the mono from getting "friction burn" which produces a weak spot in the line (thats why you spit on your knots before cinching tight).
Change the bait every 15 minutes or so (If the chunk is "washed out", cut it into little chum pieces and throw them into the rip) and put a nice fresh chunk on your hook. Many nice fish have come with boats going by, makes better "rips" and "white water". Big fish like to "root" on the bottom. I set the drag about 8-10 pounds, the fish hook themselves. Make sure the drag is engaged after casting and setting the rod in a sand spike or a piece of old PVC tube (make sure the spike wont dislodge from the rocky hole you place it in or "good by rod and reel" when Mr. Big latches on and keep a good hold on the rod, you might get a strike before you can "spike" the rod and engage the drag. Also, make sure the line is "taught"(no bow in the line), you want the rod to "bite back" as soon as mama bass strikes. I cannot emphasize enough that your hooks need to be razor sharp. Throw a little chum out there now and again. With practice, you can tell if the rig is "set" properly (not stuck on the bottom or wrapped with weeds from the tidal current) The heavy line helps when a 30 foot piece of kelp or a big clump of floating eel grass decides that your fishing line will be it's new resting place. Pay attention to how the line is reacting comming from the tip of the rod to where it enters the water. Fish don't seem to strike when weeds are stuck on the hook or line. Also, I have caught many starfish and sea anenomys with that sharp hook, they are other potential "snags". East Tide, West Tide, Slack tide, high and low, day or night, this method has worked for me. I believe the bass use their cavernous mouths and powerful gills to "suck" the bait in, especially a large chunk. Make sure the point and barb is exposed after hooking the piece of bait, the barb keeps the piece of bait from sliding off the hook. I have hooked many fish in the eye, in the folds and flaps of the gill covers, just on the tip of the lip (by a "hair"), between the eyes and on the top of their heads. Razor sharp hooks are a must. I have NEVER "gut hooked" a fish this way . I use "J" hooks (not circle hooks). If you are not using honed, lazer or chemically sharpened hooks (Gamagatsu, Eagle Claw) you won't catch fish on those kind of strikes (you might not hook up on a "normal" strike either, if your hook isn't sharp). Get a hook sharpener or honing stone. There is also a correct (and incorrect) way to sharpen your hooks, read up.
I catch about 3/4 of the fish that strike the bait, sometimes they do get the chunk without hooking up, sometimes the hook pulls before the fish is landed, sometimes they find a rock or snag that they can wrap the line on (use heavy line)...thats fishing.

Thats my "lazy mans" way of catching fish (actually, it's pretty hard work, cranking, casting, changing/cutting bait, taking weeds off the line and hook ,chumming, galloping up and down the rip-rap). Works day or night.

I like jigging, throwing plugs/eels but my old back gets tired quickly. I always bring a 11'-12' spinning rod with a heavy duty "long cast" spinning reel set up with 30 pound test fireline to throw jigs and plugs if I feel so inclined.

I don't know how many times I've heard "your the only person I've seen with a fish"

When the MILF's come by with their kids, I like to hold them up (next to the little girl on her bike with training wheels) so the moms can say "wow, that fish is bigger than you"

When the fish dumps 3/4 of your reel, set at a 10 pound drag, you know you got a good one on.

During the summer, my favorite time to fish in the canal is about an hour before low slack (West running tide) through slack until a couple or 3 hours into the East running tide. If I have the time, and feel OK, I'll just stay and continue fishing until the bait runs out. Depending on how the fishing is, that could be anywhere from one to 15 hours (if the fish arent there. you will spend a longer time soaking the bait then when they are there, unless you get disgusted, throw all the bait away and leave, saying to yourself "this place blows"). 10 fresh pogies or frozen mackerel last me a full tide if I'm fishing 2-3 rods and chumming every once in a while. Where I fish, the rip forms up nicely 1/2-3 hours into the East running tide (my favorite "window of opportunity") 1 good bite is all it takes to go home with dinner.

When the fish are comming back from up north or from out in Cape Cod Bay during the fall (high tide/ west running tide), I go to the east end or the herring run and do throw jigs and plugs on the mornings the fish are moving back down south. After doing that, if I'm feeling ok, I head to the west end and fish the east tide with cut bait.

Tight lines and fair winds to all.

Striprman/west end

striprman 08-28-2006 08:00 PM


Originally Posted by Slipknot
First mistake is arriving mid afternoon .

I have caught many nice fish at high noon or there abouts, mid afternoon on a east running tide has given me some fish that I still talk to myself about

There is a lot to fishing the canal.
On this, I agree


good luck.
Yes, luck is a big part of it, but you have to make your own luck. Some people are luckier (better prepaired to catch a big fish) than others

NIB 08-29-2006 06:37 AM


Originally Posted by Shuley76
Wouldn't a rubber core sinker still get caught on the bottom? When I cast upstream it washes to shore,is this normal? Do I just cast upstream,let it drift,reel,cast upstream rinse and repeat?

Thats why ur usin lighter rubber core sinkers instead of heavier banks.That technique I save for around the slack.If ur usin 1 oz U have to cast upstream to get it down.once it ticks down u can let it rest it will mpre that likely pop off or u can like i said "fish it".That is reeling as i comes towards u till it goes by keeping contact with what is going on.Till it sweeps by u an it should stop.It will hold till the pressure builds up then it'll pop off an u have to reel it in.Fishing the bottom at the ditch u lose rigs.It goes with the territory.

Shuley76 08-30-2006 07:52 AM

OK next few questions...I hear people mentioning West current and East current..How do I know which way is west and which way is east.Which way is best and How do I know which way is it going before I get there? The way I usually arrive at the canal is right by the railroad bridge on my right through the parking lot,with the other bridge (Bourne I think) to my left. As far as fresh pogies go,Does fresh bait float? And where can I get some in that area? (sorry for the newbie questions) Thanx for all your help so far.

Mike P 08-30-2006 11:52 AM

From where you usually park, east is to your left and west to your right. Between the two highway brdiges, the Canal tends to run more NE/SW than straight E/W, but the same rule applies--current running to your left, on the mainland side--east tide. To your right, west.

To find the current flow, pick up a tide chart and read the left hand column titled "Railroad Bridge Current Turns". The time listed there is slack current, ie, when it's getting ready to change directions. The change from east to west is a high tide slack, west to east is a low.

You can get tide charts at the restroom near the herring run, at the Visitor Center in Sandwich, and in tackle shops around the Canal.

Shuley76 08-31-2006 08:20 PM

Do poppers work well in the canal at all?

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