Cape Cod Stripers

Cape Cod Stripers

Bass, bonito and false albies in the flats, rips and estuaries.

  • By: Rob Conery
  • Photography by: Bob Mahoney
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You can hear it as soon as you step on the Centerville property. It gets louder as you walk down the grassy path, past the flats skiff and the old Bahamian smuggling vessel up on stands. From the open barn door near a small pine grove, in the humming, electric air, an urgent buzzing pops. Inside, from the rafters hang fly rods, surfboards and yacht club burgees.

A lone figure is bent to his work; 1,100-degree plasma torch hissing in one hand, Jedi blast shield covering his face, he is reducing pieces of cold-rolled steel into fish.

Everybody calls him Swainer, but his real handle is Steve Swain. His incomplete résumé might read: fly guide, sculptor, gallery owner, designer. Swainer lives with his wife, Sarah, a popular local musician, their two little girls, and a yard full of chickens.

He sells fish sculptures out of his gallery, The Frying Pan, on Wellfleet Harbor. Swainer took an old oyster shack (“If anything, we de-renovated it,” he says) and stiffened it with reclaimed wood, old ship’s members, even driftwood that washed up in Wellfleet Harbor, and opened for business in 2010. He’s barely had time to fish since. It’s driving him insane.

Cape Cod is a piney sandbar that juts east from Massachusetts into the northern Atlantic. Rich ecosystems blend as the cold Labrador Current collides with the warmer Gulf Stream. Within a day’s sail lie the richest fishing grounds the world has known. Vikings crossed oceans in open boats called knarrs to fish here as early as 500 AD. Today, even after centuries of development have turned parts of Cape Cod downright suburban, there are epic fishing spots.

Striped bass were served at the first Thanksgiving, and since then generations of Cape Codders have grown up plugging and, at night, fishing live eels for bass. But only in the past 20 years has fly-fishing for the Cape’s prime saltwater gamefish exploded.

Flats fishing can be enjoyed near Barnstable Harbor on the Cape’s north side, along the Brewster flats on the inside elbow, and all over Monomoy to the south. The Monomoy area is an eight-mile barrier sandbar that jogs due south from Chatham. It features crashing waves and whitewater rips along the ocean-facing backside, and acres of gentle, wading flats on the protected inside. In addition to the flats, the Cape is just one long beach, with scores of miles of sand from which to wet a line, including upwater estuaries, open ocean, streams and brackish ponds. You can always find a lee shore to present a fly.

Fishing The Cape, a local fly shop, is the place to begin your search. The Harwich shop opened its doors 17 years ago, responding to the surging return of striped bass after more than a decade of declines. Between effective moratoriums and the cleaning up of their spawning grounds around Chesapeake Bay, the return of the striper is one of the great comeback stories in fishing.

Chris Kokorda manages Fishing The Cape. While he remembers a time when, growing up on Long Island Sound, the catch of a single striped bass would be front-page news, he says the fishery has rebounded and is on solid footing.

Kokorda says there are at least three stages in the bass season, which runs from mid-April to November. “Spring fish arrive and pattern,” says Kokurda. They’ll school with like-size fish, he adds, and more come in on every new spring tide. By summer, they slow down and spread out. Stripers like to feed in waters between 55 and 65 degrees, so in August’s broiling heat, they’re hard to entice. By fall, ahead of their southern migration, they’ll mass with fish of all sizes, even blues, and feed. These huge schools can fill a beach with acres of fish, but they move around and are often gone in minutes. Catch a blitz when they herd bait on the shore, and you and your gear are in for a workout.

Flats stripers feed better on the flooding tide, as cooler ocean waters cross the warm sand, but they will occasionally bite on the dropping tide as well. “I’ve seen them in six inches of water, scrambling along on their bellies, eating sand eels,” says Korkoda.

Vinny Foti is president of the Cape Cod Salties Sportfishing Club. He calls stripers on the flats “without a doubt the best part of fly-fishing. You get to see the take. You’re watching the fish come to your fly, you get to adjust the speed of the strip, the pause and the pull.” Foti is a retired schoolteacher from New York who moved to the Cape for the laidback lifestyle and the fishing. He now calls the east bar of Barnstable Harbor in about two feet of water his “office.”

Swainer, the fishing-deprived artist, calls the area’s bonito and false albacore “lightning footballs.” Many anglers consider those fish to be the ultimate test of an angler and their equipment. The time they spend here is brief, and even then they are elusive. Highly migratory pelagics, tireless fighters from the tuna family, false albacore and bonito are what Cape Codders call funny fish.

They show up, first bonito and then albies and for the next few weeks—late summer into fall—they’ll zip in and out of casting range. Funny fish feed aggressively on the smallest bait. White, green and silver flies with a bit of flash mimic that bait.

While bonito and false albies draw attention, it’s the striped bass that accounts for more than 70 percent of all saltwater trips in Massachusetts. Minimum keeper-size fish (28 inches) weigh around 10 pounds. Stripers this size are six or seven years old and have made several successful round trips from their Chesapeake Bay spawning grounds up to New England. Smaller fish are managed as strictly catch-and-release.

It is estimated that more striped bass are killed in Massachusetts after catch and improper release than all the take-home keepers combined. Take a moment to really rock them awake. (Fly removal is straightforward on sandpaper-mouthed stripers, but take extra care with bluefish and their sharp, eager teeth.) Also, stripers have what marine biologists call “a protective layer of gunk” over their bodies; avoid rubbing off that layer.

Stripers ghost in as brown-gray shadows over the khaki and aqua flats. Hook one and it’s game on. Their full-shouldered runs quickly put you into your backing, sometimes busting knuckles the whole time. A 9-weight with some backbone is a good stick for these fish. Stripers have excellent vision, so your tippet selection must be nearly invisible. The striper’s primary diet is sand eels, and sand eel patterns and big Clousers draw takes.

While plenty of Cape Codders gain their livelihoods from the tourist hordes, many celebrate the post-Labor Day exodus, when part-timers head back to their homes and put the kids in school. And Swainer is one of them; last year he rejoiced in the proper way—he finally stole away from the gallery, met the fall run, and cast to his delight for those stripers in the shallows, on the feed.

Planning for the Cape

Local Scene

Frying Pan Gallery
(250 Commercial St., Wellfleet; 508-349-0011; www.fryingpangallery.com) Fish art ranging from Swainer’s metal fish sculptures to fine photography. Open seasonally until the Wellfleet Oyster Fest in October. On select nights, Swainer’s wife, Sarah, rocks the old oyster shack with her rockabilly band, Randy & The Oak Trees.

Fishing the Cape
(16 Rt. 28, Town Line Plaza, West Harwich; 508-432-1200; www.fishingthecape.com) Eight hardcore guides with maybe twice that number in reserve give Fishing The Cape the deepest bench around. Guide rates start around $250 for six hours of one-on-one guided wade casting and go up to $575 for one or two anglers for eight hours on a guided boat trip that might include fishing rips, poling flats and/or beaching the boat and wading.

Drinks

Chatham Bars Inn
(800-527-4884; www.chathambarsinn.com) Gatsby-like seaside casual elegance with attendant prices. But really, just pulling into their half-circular driveway is an awesome sight. There are any number of small motels and cottage colonies. Fall motel rates in Chatham start around $125 a night.

Eats

Land Ho
(Corner of Rt. 6 and Cove Rd., Orleans; 508-255-5165) An institution and local favorite, with stuffed quahogs and cold Guinness on tap. Ask owner John Murphy about his art.

Chatham Squire
(487 Main St., Chatham; 508-945-0945) Unpretentious pub on Main St., Chatham. Kind of a locals-prices-for-everyone place, with specials like traditional seafood cakes with beans.

Mac’s Shack
(91 Commercial St., Wellfleet; 508-349-6333) Casual sushi and raw bar. Real deal fishermen/chefs minimally interfere with ridiculously fresh, that-day fish.

Rob Conery has cast, walked and waded—and occasionally hooked fish—around Cape Cod and Nantucket. He is a frequent loser in Tuesday night poker.