June 2011

Net Perfection

Cape Cod Life  /  June 2011 / , ,

Writer: Rob Conery / Photographer: Erika Wastrom 

Cape and Islands fishermen are hooked on striped bass.

Cape and Islands fishermen are hooked on striped bass

A fisherman, knee deep in water, works to reel in his catch. Photo by Erika Wastrom

For fishermen, there’s a magical tide that washes over Cape Cod and the Islands every year. The temperature notches up, and fish of all varieties rush into the warmer waters in bays, estuaries, and rivers around the Cape. There are cod, fluke, flounder, black sea bass, tautog, scup, and bluefish—and those are just some of the edible saltwater varieties—that swim in the waters around Cape Cod. But for thousands of anglers, the ultimate is the striped bass.

The pilgrims served it at the first Thanksgiving. Today, the striped bass is the most coveted recreational fish in the Commonwealth. “A striper can thrill an 8-year-old by eating a sandworm fished from a harbor jetty,” says Kevin Blinkoff, editor of the New England fishing magazine On The Water, “and do the same to an Orvis-clad adult by turning its nose up at a perfectly presented crab fly.”

Stripers, he says, “make you feel like nature has created a perfect fish, just for you.”

The reasons for striper popularity are myriad. Aesthetically, they are beautiful. Consider their bright white trim and understated grays and faded greens. Even the aspect ratio of their scales is proportionally consistent with the weathered cedar shingles on cottages across the Cape. They literally look like they belong here.

They also feed aggressively. A hungry striper will crash a bait like a car wreck. And if you hook one—and they can range up to 60 pounds or more—you’ll know all about it. They fight like cornered wolverines. Hooked stripers leave shattered rods, snapped lines, straightened hooks, and frustrated fishermen in their wake.

Cape and Islands fishermen are hooked on striped bass

A local fisherman steps out for what he hopes will be a day full of successful catches. Photo by Erika Wastrom

Stripers are also a delight on the dinner table. Their fillets—sort of carpenter glue off-white with wine-red highlights—cook up white and flaky. Their taste is somewhat stronger than cod or haddock without being gamey. They taste like a fresh ocean breeze feels. You can make fish chowder and they stand up well to baking, broiling, or frying. And perhaps nothing says “summer on the Cape” quite like fresh fish on the grill.

They range up and down the East Coast from their Chesapeake Bay spawning grounds—there is even a West Coast variety. But to me, this is the quintessential New England fish.

Stripers are with us only from about April to October. They head north from the Chesapeake, following the bait and warming water. When our waters hit 50 degrees, the bite turns on. Another indicator is forsythia; when it blooms, there are stripers in our waters. The first spring run striper is usually caught in April from South Cape Beach in Mashpee.

Vinny Foti is president of the Cape Cod Salties Sportfishing Club. After a career as a schoolteacher in Yonkers, New York, he moved to the Cape for the relaxed-pace lifestyle, and soon found the fishing “surpassed anything I’d imagined.” Now he can’t wait to get his boat—Bass Taxi—in the water every spring. “I love to nudge the engine into reverse as it backs me out into the channel at Blish Point and into Barnstable Harbor to chase some early season stripers.”

Alex Hay runs Mac’s Seafood on the lower Cape. He recalls fishing the chilly spring tides with his grandfather around Duck Harbor, Bound Brook, and the Pamet. “On a good day,” Hay says, “we’d catch them by the dozen, teasing them up with long silver and chartreuse flies.”

Cape and Islands fishermen are hooked on striped bass

This fisherman makes it look easy with a huge striped bass, perfect for a summer’s dinner. Photo by Erika Wastrom

Reverent of their versatility, Blinkoff says, “Stripers can be found cruising the sandy flats of Monomoy, feeding in the waves of the open beaches from the backside, tailing in the grassy marshes of Barnstable Harbor, and lurking among the treacherous rocks of Nobska Point.” While there are hot spots and areas that produce more than others, there is no one place that flat out holds fish around the clock for an entire season. As the saying goes: Fish have tails. They are constantly on the move in search of food.

Striper fishing, like many things (county fairs, dinner in the North End) is best at night. Dusk and dawn are also excellent. Catching a striped bass on the hottest, bright sun-shiniest day of summer is possible, but the odds grow longer.

Most spring stripers are of the smaller “schoolie” variety, but bigger “keepers” are close behind. In Massachusetts, stripers must measure 28 inches to be legally kept, with a strict two fish per angler daily limit. (Starting this year, recreational anglers need to carry a saltwater permit, available for $10 at any tackle shop.)

Learning how and where to search is a lifelong process. Like sailing, golf, or any other activity of enduring participation, the rudiments of fishing can be learned in an afternoon. The rewards come through a lifetime of effort. Whether surfcasting, trolling, bottom fishing or fly casting, there’s a moment in angling that never gets old. The bite. You cast your offering out there, hope to the horizon, and then you feel it. Nibble, nibble, yank! It’s away! The fish takes the bait and now the universe is just you against him.

Johnny Spampinato is a professional musician on the Cape (he’s a guitarist for The Spampinato Brothers and NRBQ). If there’s one thing he loves more than music, it’s fishing, something he has pursued on the Cape for decades now. He sums up the appeal like this: “Stripers on the Bay with the sun setting. Picture yourself dragging back the meat, tail swishing behind you. A tired walk, a satisfied man. I don’t know…I just love it.”

Tips to Land a Choice Striper
I will not build false hope. I write about fishing for a living. And I’ve chased stripers off boats, beaches, jetties, and bridges from Race Point to Wasque Point. They are not easy to catch, but they are possible to catch. That’s what makes it so fun.

In terms of equipment, start with a six- to 10-foot fishing rod with a spinning reel loaded with 12-15 pound test line and some 3/0-sized hooks. Here, in descending order of effectiveness, is what you want on the hook: live bait, cut bait, and lures.

Live eels are going to work the best, especially at night, but they’re not for the faint of heart. They are slippery, black, over half a foot long, and they bite. You need a rag or a sink scrubber just to pick them up. But they work: when stripers see them, they go insane.

Next best would be live herring or scup. Anything swimming lively will tempt a feeding striper. Cut bait—sometimes called chunk bait—is also effective. This is fresh or frozen fish or clams that you cut into chunks and into which you bury a hook. You’ll heave this out and let it soak on the bottom, where stripers often feed.

Finally, you have artificial lures. These run the gamut in size and design, and are available in rainbow hues. The advantages of lures are they are reusable and (obviously) easier to handle and transport than live bait. They are most effective when fish are feeding on or near the surface.

If you don’t have a boat or you’re not up for hiking the beaches, you still have options. The less expensive way is to book onto a “head boat.” For around $50 per person, they’ll take you out with bait and rods included. It’s a fun, communal way to wet a line, and the captains go where the fish are. They generally target bottom fish like scup rather than stripers, but it’s an easy way to get out on the water and try your hand at angling. You might even catch your dinner.

Charter boats are more expensive, but typically provide more expertise. For a hundred dollars or more, you get a licensed captain, his boat, and a dedicated first mate to assist you in the cockpit, plus high-end gear and electronics. Charter trips, which can often accommodate up to six people, can go in search of stripers, even tuna or sharks. Plus the mate will often fillet and bag your catch of the day—and they often know great recipes.

Rob Conery is an avid fisherman who writes a much-read and enjoyed column on fishing for a Cape Cod newspaper.

Rob Conery

Rob Conery writes a weekly fishing column for Cape Cod Times. A graduate of the University of Massachusetts, he splits time between a hobo camp in western Maine and his native Cape Cod where he has spent 45 consecutive summers walking distance to Lewis Bay. He has written many articles for Cape Cod LIFE including a recent piece on Cape Cod and Islands divers, and his novel Winterland is available on Strawberry Books.