I am fresh off a relaxing family vacation to Cape Cod; the former surfcasting capital of the world and home of some of the tastiest looking sand beaches you’ll find anywhere on the planet. I have been visiting the Outer Cape, on and off, since I was a little kid and fishing the beaches was one of the things I used to look forward to most—I have gone for a week each of the last four years and I have brought a rod with me exactly zero times. You may be questioning my grit as a surfcaster or my devotion to the sport—but unfortunately it’s not that I’m going soft, it’s that I have learned that it’s just no longer worth my time.
On our first day, we headed to Coast Guard Beach in Eastham; this beach makes up the northern edge of the famous Nauset Inlet and then stretches two or three miles before being shadowed by the majestic dunes the Cape Cod National Seashore is so famous for. As we picked our spot among the sunbathers my mind slipped into overdrive and went through an involuntary rundown of the tide, wind, current structure and wave action. At roughly the same time my conscious mind was running through stories I’d heard or read by many of the surfcasters that made their names on the Cape beaches from the 1960s through the early 2000s.
By chance, (or was it?) we sunk our umbrella right in line with a cut in the offshore bar. The tide was low and coming in, a quick scan with the Costas revealed that a deep hole accompanied that offshore cut and a long finger bar reached out to meet the water flowing in from the Atlantic. Words from the late Tony Stetzko began to float through the back of mind as I walked through the shallow cut that was carved by the incoming water as it eroded the base of the finger bar and spilled over into the next bowl. I remembered him telling me about some amazing nights where big bass were slurping sand eels in a spot just like that. Dozens of fish, all over 30 and some over 40 working that little nearshore jet of current—their backs fully exposed—a swimmer and dropper reeled with the rod tip almost jammed into the sand getting eaten almost every cast. And when the school cleared, you’d drive down to the next bar and find another pile of fish ready to play.
I am not a sand fisherman. I’m not saying I can’t do it or haven’t, but I like my boulder fields and I like my deepwater rock formations. But as I walked out onto that finger bar and saw how steeply the water dove off from inches deep to well over 10 feet, my brain was on fire—it took some serious willpower to keep myself from playing the fisherman’s version of air guitar as I placed imaginary casts in my head. It was one of those places where you look and you just know that fish would be there—or, rather, should be there.
The current, the structure, the exchange of water between the ocean and the trough, the water jets rushing downtide between the bowls… sheer perfection. I really wished that I’d brought a rod… but the one thing I’ve left out of is that there were four huge seals and a smaller harbor seal swimming with the sunbathers in that hole. Looking south, the next bar was a “table top” (not connected to the shore) and there were easily 200 seals basking on the sand and another 50 sitting submerged with their heads poking out of the water like turtles, gawking at the gawkers shooting pictures.
As the week progressed we hit Lecounts Hollow and Marconi Station Beach—each of them had their own angling charm and their own armies of seals. When I visited those beaches at dusk I saw a single caster fishing with a small panel of seals hoping he’d luck into a fish so they could take it. People have told me that the seals know to follow people carrying surf rods and now I’m a believer. I was able to talk to one of the surfcasters, he told me that it has become a game of perseverance on the Cape beaches, you have to fish a lot of nothing days and nights to get into a few fish for the season. He did tell me that the beach I was walking had a good shot of fish the night before, but it was all seals after that—he added that a fish over 20 pounds would be considered extraordinary these days.
There are a lot of emotions that surface when I walk any of the Outer Cape beaches, they will be forever tied to my soul and childhood. I remember in all of the years we went between 1990 and 1998 I saw FOUR seals and they were all together in one spot as I was walking out to Nauset Inlet. When I see hundreds and thousands now it kind of breaks my heart. The Cape used to be known for its fishing and anyone had a decent shot off of those beaches. I remember seeing dozens of buggies with rods in the bumpers, big fish in the coolers at the shops, photos galore on the shop walls and now, there is no draw for surf fishermen on the beaches. I have no doubt that there are some hardcore locals that have figured out how to fish around the seals, but for average Joe or even the seasoned traveling surfcaster, the only things left of those bygone years of world class striper fishing are the stories and the memories. Too many seals is no good for anyone—I hear rumors that the State may step in to thin the herd a bit, but until someone is killed by a great white in plain view of thousands of vacationers, I doubt very much that any action will be taken. I didn’t even get to enjoy those great years on the Cape and I miss them, I can only imagine what it must be like for the guys who actually lived it.