Saltwater Fishing Seasons on Cape Cod
Although the first migrating striped bass don’t usually show up along the south-facing beaches until the middle or end of April, local anglers will start hitting the estuaries in search of fish as early as late March or even earlier if the weather has been unseasonably warm. Any stripers they encounter will most likely be “holdovers” – small fish that did not migrate and spent the winter well inside those estuaries, salt ponds or harbors. How many holdovers may be around is highly variable. Some years certain places such as Scorton Creek in Sandwich and upper Barnstable Harbor hold quite a few and while very few is any are of legal size the possibility of hooking up for the first time since the previous fall can be irresistible. But some years there will be virtually none. Many years ago there was a viable fishery for winter flounder and smelt in the salt ponds and harbors in March but sadly, those fish have all but disappeared. Even farther back, anglers regularly took cod from the Outer Cape beaches and even in the Cape Cod Canal and every year a few hardy souls go in search of them these days, but no reliable reports ever seem to come from those expeditions.
A couple off shore “head boats” go out to George’s Bank all winter long from Hyannis and nearby Plymouth for cod and haddock and if you think you can put up with bone chilling wind, long rides through potentially rough seas and the physical labor involved with using heavy bottom fishing gear in deep water you may be rewarded with delicious, fresh fish.
When the first stripers do show – usually out at Martha’s Vineyard but a few days later along the beaches of Mashpee and down toward Hyannis – the word gets out quickly and by the end of April you will notice fishing rods on top of many a car and truck on the Upper Cape. There is always some debate about whether the first fish that are caught are truly migratory specimens (identified by the presence of sea lice on their bodies) or holdovers that have left the estuaries but in any case, the striped bass season has begun.
Beginning in early May things happen quickly as both stripers and often, early bluefish arrive on a daily basis. The bass spread out quickly, some migrating around the Cape and some moving through the canal. By the second week of May the chances of catching big striped bass get better, due to the presence of herring, squid and other larger bait items. Both beach fronts and interior locales are good bets and if a herring run is nearby, so much the better.
Some Cape fishermen feel that June is the best month of them all as spring transitions into summer. This is because the largest of the stripers will be arriving, plus the fact that both shore and boat anglers have a good shot at them. Things can heat up even from one tide to the next as wave after wave of migrating fish charge through. Some will stay in the general area for the entire season, others continue north. Fluke (summer flounder), tautog and scup will be targeted by bait fishermen. And bluefin tuna begin to show off Provincetown and down the outer Cape to the waters off Chatham. The 8-week period between the beginning of May and the end of June may very well be the best time to fish around Cape Cod due to the variety of species available, usually warm weather and the summer crowds have yet to materialize.
The fishing season is in full swing around Cape Cod and the Islands by the end of June. Just about every species that inhabit our waters is here with the exception of false albacore and bonito. But by mid July the first of those fish will show up, too.
While it’s still possible to take stripers during the daylight hours, shore based anglers begin spending much of their fishing time under the cover of darkness and hour or so just before dawn (which comes very early at this time of year) can be absolutely magical. Cape Cod Canal anglers look forward all year to the “breaking tides” (slack water just before or at dawn) in June – this may be the best time of the entire year to catch very large bass on surface lures in The Big Ditch. Trolling tubes and pitching live eels after dark along the Elizabeth Islands is very popular and some boating anglers on the Upper Cape fish nowhere else. The outer Cape beaches should also be fishing very well for both stripers and bluefish.
Offshore the tuna season begins in earnest with bluefin showing in good numbers off Provincetown and off Chatham. Although not quite as popular as it once was, some Cape offshore fans “go south” to fish areas like The Dump, The Fingers and all the way out to the canyons south of the Vineyard and Nantucket in search of yellowfin, sharks and more exotic species like wahoo and mahi.
This is the best time of year to take youngsters down to most any local dock, pier or jetty that is adjacent to water 10 feet deep or more to catch the ubiquitous scup (called porgy in Connecticut and Rhode Island). All that’s need is a light rod or even a drop line with a small hook, small weight and small strips of squid for bait (available at most local tackle shops). The little fish are ravenous and sure to keep young anglers from getting bored. There is even the possibility of catching fluke – summer flounder – in the same areas.
However, most “serious” anglers who target bottom species like fluke, black sea bass and tautog head farther out. Rocky areas or areas with a mix of rocky and sandy bottoms are best for sea bass and tautog; fluke prefer sandy bottoms such as are found on Mashnee Flats near the west end of the Canal and at Middle Ground between the south side of the Cape and the north shore of Martha’s Vineyard.
By August the so-called summer doldrums usually set in with the exception of fishing for those recent arrivals from points south: bonito, false albacore and sometimes Spanish mackerel. They usually stick to areas some distance from shore and are the targets of the boating crowd but occasionally in places like Woods Hole and along the Vineyard Sound side of Falmouth they may come in close enough for shore anglers to have brief opportunities. Beyond that, fishing well after dark is just about a necessity if you want to catch stripers; bluefish may cooperate during the day however.
After the typically slow fishing of high summer, fishermen on the Cape look forward to cooler nights of fall and the kick off of the fall migration when massive numbers of stripers and bluefish begin moving through (or out) on their way to their southern winter waters. In September the water is still very warm so night fishing is still the best way to go if you’re after stripers but with huge numbers of baitfish active both in the estuaries and in the open water the possibilities of catching bass during the day along with bluefish get better all the time.
Offshore fishing is about at its peak with angler pursuing both giant and school size bluefin. The wild card is always the possibility of tropical storms, which can heavily affect the presence and location of those fish.
Bottom fishing is still viable but seasonal closures can impact that type of fishing. Best to always check state regulations before targeting fluke, sea bass or tautog.
Things shift into high gear in October and the Cape Cod Canal gets much attention from striper fans as fish from the north begin moving through. For generations the outer beaches have been a favorite destination of anglers in beach buggies, some of whom save all their vacation time for the two week period around Columbus day.
Typically the first of the fall northeast storms happen in October and while they can sometimes feature absolutely wild striper fishing in equally wild conditions, they also serve to push even more bass through and out of the area. False albacore will still be around but they too can disappear almost overnight after a storm in October.
When the calendar is turned to November the end is in sight. Schoolie size bass can still be found in the upper reaches of many salt ponds and estuaries and the Canal still has stripers moving through but measuring success in single digits of fish caught rather than dozens becomes the norm. Back in the 1980s when schools of menhaden kept the bluefish around it was even common to catch those fish right up until Thanksgiving but with the huge decline in those baitfish the blues leave much sooner now.
Although you certainly can’t compare winter saltwater fishing on Cape Cod to what we have available at other times of the year, there are still a few options worth exploring. Weather permitting, a few head boats (large party boats with enclosed, heated cabins) sail out of Hyannis and nearby Plymouth harbors all winter long. They run out to George’s Bank or other offshore areas for a full day of bottom fishing for cod and haddock and sometimes the action can be quite good. Preparation in terms of appropriate clothing and perhaps sea sickness remedies is very important.
Some years there are “holdover” schoolie size stripers in a few of the estuaries such as inner Scorton Creek, upper Barnstable Harbor and a few other creeks around the Upper Cape. The action is never fast and some years there are no holdovers to be found but quite a few Cape anglers will hit the familiar spots during the brief January thaw that happens most years. Light tackle and fly fishing are the way to go for these small fish.
Scorton Creek and a couple of the creeks in Falmouth, Childs River and Coonamessett River can be fished for sea-run trout all winter long. These elusive fish are never a sure thing but your best bet is Scorton where the state stocks brown trout. These are hardly ever true sea-runs, i.e., fish that were spawned in fresh water upstream and inhabit the brackish estuaries in the winter but some can be quite large. Worth a try with light spinning gear or a fly rod if the weather is decent.
It’s also worth mentioning that Cape Cod has some great freshwater trout fishing all year round including ice fishing during especially cold winters. There are even spawned out Atlantic salmon stocked in certain waters with Peters Pond in Sandwich a favorite with anglers.