Our upwind leg out of Barnstable Harbor took us past Sandy Neck to the shoals which spread away from Barnstable and Sandwich like huge sheets of submerged, flattened dough. The shoals beyond attract baitfish. And where there are baitfish on Cape Cod, there are striped bass, bluefish and bluefin tuna.
Partially wildlife refuge jointly administered by the state of Massachusetts and the towns of Barnstable and Sandwich, but mostly a barrier island whose affect is both haunting and desolate in the all, Sandy Neck is long and delicate and windswept. Deposited in Cape Cod Bay by glaciers elongated into a long, hilly arm by littoral drift and wind, the Neck’s shoals absorb groundswell that rumble in from the bay in during winter. The waters and shoals off the front side of the barrier beach hold striped bass and bluefish from late May to October.
It is a most excellent kayak fishing destination. Likewise the same holds true for backcountry campers willing to hike two miles down the front side of Sandy Neck Reservationto a fine tenting campground, maintained by Barnstable, that lies low in the dunes and surrounded by a thick and stubby marine forest a short walk to good surf fishing.
My fellow sea kayak fishermen chose Sandy Neck during the late part of the twice-a-year striper and bluefish run for several reasons. The three of us find Barnstable Harbor to be an over-rated kayaking area, even if the fishing there can be quite good, especially in the guzzles and channels that encircle the harbor’s many marsh grass islands Little Thatch, Great Thatch, Tupper and High. The harbor is nice, but you’re hemmed in on one side by the great marsh on the backside of Sandy Neck beach, on the other by mudflats. And although seals sometimes summer there — puppy-faced cuties with heads the size of a large cat’s — spend an afternoon in Barnstable Harbor and it’s soon a case of seen one seal seen them all. Powerboats crowd the harbor on weekends. Meanwhile the waters northeast of Sandy Neck, leading to Wellfleet and Truro, are usually as empty midweek as a school playground after recess.
Mike and I make short work of another angler’s suggestion that we fish the harbor.
“Think Disneyland,” Paul says.
“With motorboats,” I add.
Kayak fishermen will find Sandy Neck’s northerly and easterly waters, its sprawling shoals, to be more compelling, especially when Cape Cod Bay’s unique light lies over them in a blurry scrim. You mistake a seabird on the flats for the mast of a ship, a sandbar for an island. Then a wave rolls past and the bird and the sandbar disappear. Then the color of the water shifts: first blue, then yellow, then blue. Our plan: comb from the eel grass just beyond the shellfishing boat ramp a tub of the sandeels which flit around the shallows in search of copepods. Find the former, hook them onto unweighted hooks, work the edges of the shoals just outside the whitewater around the corner from the red nun that marks the entrance to Barnstable Harbor — all the while keeping an eye out for offshore party boats returning from the cod and haddock grounds. With any luck we’d find either striped bass or bluefish. And all this without having to resort to the maddeningly slow trolling, the cumbersome lead core line setup and pricey stainless steel swivels required by the more favored tube-and-worm. This is Cape Cod, after all; sand eels abound here. They’re free, they’re easy to catch, and when in Rome….The tube-and-worm, wwell that’s more of a Boston/North Shore thing anyhow, and we’re miles away from there in more ways than one.
We set up a compass course of 280 magnetic, using for ranges the water tower in Yarmouth, not far from Hyannis, and the edge of the Beach Point at the mouth of the harbor. Presently the fog burns off, the horizon clears, and there, in plaintive sight, looking far more genuine than does up close, the fishing shack colony and weathered grey wharves at of Beach Point and its superannuated lighthouse. We’ll return via the channel that slices through a mesa-shaped hummock to the southwest. Clams here grow big enough to choke a pig; the oyster fishery here is as robust if not as reliable at Duxbury Bay a little further north, whose the waters don’t heat up so soupily. Not surprising, then, that striped bass here are just often as big as barnyard pigs, too, and with appetites to match.
I scan the shoals for signs of fish.
There!! A splash in the low whitecaps. Immediately a flurry above as terns tumble down to feed on the surfaced baitfish.
Bigger fish down below, probably bluefish, feeding on the baitfish. Or, with luck, a clump of bantam-sized striper schoolies with a submarine-sized or two keeper holding further off, where the water’s deeper and more thickly turbulent with swellwash and tidal current.
We round Beach Point, riding the tide current, and begin to paddle upwind, northwest, around the bend into the wondrously vast flooded salt pannes inside of the dry sandbar. The pannes are slowly growing, as beachgrass takes hold, into a second beach front. We pause to set up our gear while we deal with a Cape Cod Bay classic: heaving chop that paints white the roofs of the mobile home-sized rollers motoring in across the bay before coasting up and over shoals. Park the kayak bow-to-wind just outside the breakers and it’s any easy job to drift the sandeels in on the back of a wave and into the whitewater.
I cast. Immediately a bluefish, with that characteristically awkward hop, seizes the sandeel, yanks the leader and plops below the surface. This is a nice sight to see. The fish wriggles, drops the sandeel, and when I tap the eel again, another bluefish yanks at it and scuds off with it. I stuff the rod butt down the front of my pfd as an impromptu rod holder, square the kayak bow-to the wind once, balance the kayak with my knees against the underside of the foredeck. Then I tighten the drag and reel the bluefish in.
Sea kayak fishing is an excellent way to become a better kayaker and, possibly, a better fisherman. Inevitably you find your kayak off balance as you twist in the cockpit to face fish that grind from one end of the kayak to the other and then, sometimes, around the bow or stern. Meanwhile your paddle is an afterthought as you work the fish: you either bungee the paddle to the foredeck or let it float beside you, on a tether, in the water. The only tools you have at your disposal to keep your balance and your kayak upright are your knees, thighs and hips.
I glance to starboard and watch Mike cast backwards, over his shoulder, towards a surfaced boil of bluefish. I love watching bluefish on the surface. They bounce around like those ping-pong balls that used to fall out of the sky on Captain Kangaroo. Mike’s long and narrow Impex Force lV, a fast fiberglas sea kayak made for overnight expeditions, wallows in the water not in bow-to weather position most kayakers feel comfortable in. Rather, his boat lies sideways to the waves and wind.
A large well passes beneath him. As he retrieves his hook lure, his rod jerks, then bends. By the way he’s stabilizing his kayak, arms raised overhead, rod angled back over his head, his hips doing the hula dance, he looks like the proverbial drunken braggart on a barstool swatting at patrons who have insulted him. When finally he hoists the bluefish it’s longer than a Congressional filibuster and about as fat, say, double Haystack Calhoun’s pre-diet girth.
“Keep your hands AWAY from its head! ” I yell. “You’ll get bit!”
Bluefish look you straight in the eye as they bounce off the sprayskirt. Take your eyes away from theirs and you’ll likely be wanting stitches or a prosthetic. You can lose a hand, or a chunk of one. CHOMP. Bluefish have a reputation for oiliness, but this is hogwash. This will be a good day and once we get home it’ll be time to fire up the smoker. Bluefish fillets are delicious so long as you bleed your blues as soon as you land them. Fishermen who put bluefish down put down what they haven’t experienced, propagating as myth about as accurate as schoolboy explanations of human reproduction.
Hips loose, Mike’s the fastest, most relaxed paddler the rest of the fishing trip. We’ll be here two more days; we’ve got three tent sites in the backcountry dune area where to make a comfortable bed all you have to do is dig low hollows in the sand for your shoulders hips. Once we land and set up camp, out with the cellphone, and my cousin will drive down the front of the beach in his 4-wheel to pick up and pack back to his house what we caught. The biggest smoker belongs to him; his fee for trucking our catch will be a third of what we catch. Lawyer’s terms. Some of Mike’s speed and ease during the rest of our trip will be due to his own innate athleticism. The rest will have to do with his having dealt several times with bluefish that require him to balance his kayak with hia legs and hips. Over the next hour or so he drags six more bluefish to the water’s surface before sliding them over his foredeck and into his lap, where the fun really begins: bleeding his catch.
Mosey around admiring the scenery in a sea kayak and after a while all you do is sit there. Catch bluefish from a sea kayak, on the other hand, and your sea kayak becomes that much more than an expensive if not particularly comfortable lounge chair. Paddle Cape Cod Bay’s choppy waters between Barnstable and Sandy Neck, moreover, and down the front side of Sandy Neck while you land stripers or bluefish, and you’ll find yourself better prepared for adventure anywhere.
To fish Sandy Neck’s kayak waters on a day trip, take route 3 south to Cape Cod. Cross over the Sagamore Bridge to route 6. Follow route 6 east to exit 4/Old County Road. Turn left off Old County Road onto route 6a/north. Take your first right off 6a/north onto Sandy Neck Road. Follow Sandy Neck Road to the end, where you’ll find the parking lot run by the town of Sandwich. Hoist your kayak from the roof, carry your gear down to the beach in the off-summer season, then paddle east for as many miles as you can handle along the northern shores of Sandy Neck Beach. The bluefish (and rough water, so don’t venture here unless you have good roughwater skills) will be there…
Alternatively, to reach the far east end of Sandy Neck, where you can land at Beach Point and walk your gear to the front side of the barrier beach if the surf is too rough, launch from the surfaced municipal ramp at Barnstable. Take route 6 east to exit 6. Head north, on route 132, to route 6a/east, through Pond Village into Barnstable. In Barnstable, take a left onto Hyannis Road to Barnstable Harbor. Launch from the town ramp. Once you’re on the water, paddle northeast two miles to Sandy Neck, Beach Point and Beach Point Light to tide the current (be aware of the tidal rip when the tide’s going out) to fish the shoals that run along Sandy Neck for six miles to the west.
But for the best in the Sandy Neck fishing experience, fill a backpack with enough gear (tent, food, water, sleeping bag, surf-rods, surf lures, etc.) for as many nights as you want to sleep out, and contact the town of Barnstable at (508) 790-6272 to reserve a backcountry camping site at Crossover 4. The backcountry area is well-sheltered, includes a Port-a-Potty and picnic tables, and is so remote that at night you’ll think the world uninhabited. Tent sites are $20 per night. Make arrangements with the rangers beforehand and they’ll transport to the trailhead your drinking water and firewood. Plan on a gallon of water per camper per day; light fires below the high water mark. But don’t count on a ride to the trailhead, and don’t try to hitchhike or ask a friend for ride there. To preserve the backcountry camping area experience, regulations stipulate that campers have to hike to the area on foot, carrying all of their own gear. The hike’s well worth the effort.
If you’re not the primitive camping type, Sandy Neck overnight ORV camping is available to non-residents. First you’ll need a non-resident ORV permit, priced at $150 as of 2010, and you’ll have to buy an overnight permit. The combination of fees works out to a low per-night cost if you fish Sandy Neck’s bay-facing shores during the spring and fall striper runs. The surf here is a constant, and there’s always a lot of water moving over the sandbars. Just be wary that in the fall and spring, cold dry fronts bring from the northwest bring surf that, while it does a nice job of attracting fish, can make casting difficult. Also keep in mind that Barnstable has some specific rules about what kind of ORV gear you need on your vehicle (full-size spare tire, for example), and that your camper van has to have a self-contained greywater system.