Every summer, millions of migratory fish make their way through the Cape Cod Canal, chasing their next meal.
In hot pursuit, thousands of fishermen from around the region descend upon the 100-year-old waterway and cast their lines from April to November, when the striped bass run. Anglers may hook anything in the canal, from a bluefish to a tautog, but a striped bass is the big enchilada.
A.J. Coots of Red Top Sporting Goods on Main Street in Buzzards Bay, says he enjoys the abundance of fishing locations along the canal. “It’s all public access,” says Coots. “There’s no real spot that’s better than every other.” As fishermen say: fish have tails. They are always on the move. And with a bike ride along canal paths, so are you.
Today, a century after its construction, millions visit the Cape Cod Canal each year to enjoy recreational opportunities provided by the waterway—from camping to cycling, cruising, dining, and fishing.
If you want to try fishing for the coveted stripers, keep in mind that they are opportunistic predators. To ambush their prey, bass like to hang in slow moving water, behind rocks, structures, or bridge abutments, waiting for baitfish to be swept through, caught in the powerful currents. Fishermen who cast in these areas increase their chances at reeling in a good-size fish. Recreational fishermen may keep up to two stripers per day and the minimum size for a “keeper” is 28 inches. Massachusetts requires that anglers obtain a saltwater permit available at tackle shops and at www.mass.gov/saltwaterpermit. (An alternative site is www.mass.gov/eea/agencies/dfg/dmf/recreational-fishing/recreational-saltwater-permits.htm.)
Another popular, if less visible, kind of fishing along the canal is recreational lobstering. This requires a separate permit, but permit-holders can fish ten recreational traps. Some lobstermen even have custom trailers mounted to their cruiser bikes so they can haul a few traps at a time. They plunk the pots in the water and wait. Bluefish is a popular bait, as are mackerel and pogies. The older and stinkier the bait, the better—lobsters are bottom feeders and not fussy eaters. Coots has eaten lobster pulled from the canal and says, “they’re delicious.”
Another way to enjoy the canal is to take a cruise. Hy-Line cruises has been running iconic harbor tours in Hyannis since the years of JFK’s presidency, and also offers scenic and music trips along the canal today.
The cruises get underway in June and depart from the company’s dock in Onset. Every Friday and Saturday from 8 to 10:30 p.m., guests 21 and over enjoy live music cruises. Jazz trips are held on Sundays, from 1:30 to 4 p.m. Guitarist Dan Lyons of Marstons Mills has performed on the canal cruises since the late 1990s, first with his band, The High Kings, and in recent years, with another Cape band favorite, 57 Heavy. “The atmosphere is great,” Lyons says of the boat shows. “You have the natural beauty of the Cape, the sunset, sailing under the bridges; it’s beautiful.” Lyons is a veteran entertainer who has played in venues from Vermont, to Florida, to California, and has opened for the Jerry Garcia Band and the J. Geils Band along the way. Lyons says the boat crowd is generally less inhibited than those in a typical nightclub scene. “They’re out on a boat,” he says. “The evening feels more like an event—they’re ready to dance! People loosen up quicker.”
Tickets for the music cruises cost $19. For 2014, scheduled acts include blues with the George Gritzbach Band, The Goat Roper Band playing country, and Harry French, a one-man act who blends hits from the ’50s to today. Groovy Afternoon plays dance songs from the ‘60s and ‘70s and Hy-Line has at least one show booked with a DJ who’ll be playing Jimmy Buffett music for the cruise ship’s Parrot Head Night.
Hy-Line’s marketing manager Betsy Rich books the bands for the cruises. “It’s so much fun,” she says. “Everyone makes friends with each other.” Rich says sometimes folks along the canal get in on the act. Walkers and skaters have been seen dancing along to the music as the cruise boat sails past. On one occasion, Rich says a cyclist followed the boat from the path alongside the canal, flashing a light in time to the music. The band followed suit, improvising a “Flashlight Man” song on the spot, with the crowd singing along. “It’s a special occasion,” Lyons says of the festive atmosphere aboard the ship. “People get into it.”
Hy-Lines runs two- and three-hour scenic cruises in the summer, too, with guided commentary on the various historical and scenic sights along the waterway with interesting anecdotes thrown in. Food choices on board include chips and simple snacks, but Rich recommends nearby Onset spots like Marc Anthony’s for pizza, or the Quaohog Republic for pub food and raw bar choices after the trips return to the dock.
For a more traditional restaurant, the Pilot House in Sandwich features live piano music in the lounge Friday and Saturday nights in summer. This is a great spot to savor a view of the canal while fishing boats glide by. On the last Wednesday of each month, the head chef leads a cooking class, guiding students through preparation of an entree and a dessert paired with a drink.
To work off calories either before or after dinner, many walkers, joggers, cyclists, and rollerbalders use the twin trails that flank the canal. Maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the trails, each about seven miles, are smooth, well-graded, and well-lit. Numbered poles along the way help bikers and joggers keep track of their progress, or choose a reasonable turnaround point. Canal Cruisers Bicycles in Buzzards Bay offers bike repair, and bike rentals are available by the hour, or by the day.
“It’s peaceful and well lit,” Harwich’s Talia Arone says of the canal paths—one of her favorite spots to recreate and relax. “I often go at night, after work, for a stress buster. It’s nice seeing the boats coming in.”
Arone has traded in her rollerblades for quads—traditional four-wheeled rollerskates, not inline skates—and in 2013 she co-founded the Cape Cod Roller Derby, based in Dennis. Years of rollerblading helped her build endurance—she was known for long, all-day trips—and now her team competes in flat-track roller derby meets, the latest in a sport that has roots dating back to late 19th-century endurance competitions.
For longer visits to the canal, the Scusset Beach State Reservation offers canal-side parking as well as 98 camping sites for both RVs and tents from April into October. Sandy Scusset Beach is right there and has a trail that links directly to the canal paths.
All the while, the celebrated 100-year-old waterway that flows between the paths is just brimming with sea life. A.J. Coots says he loves to fish on a cool morning, as the mist rises off the water. A favorite activity is tossing a topwater plug—a floating lure that splashes and is designed to create a ruckus that imitates a flailing baitfish—in the early morning stillness. “There’s stripers popping everywhere,” says Coots, “jumping two-and-a-half feet out of the water, exploding at the plugs. If that doesn’t get your adrenaline going, something is wrong with you.”