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Monday, August 13, 2018

The Big Ditch - An American Pastime

The idea of the Cape Cod canal was born nearly 500 years ago as Myles Standish of the Plimoth Colony dreamt of connecting the Manomet and Scusset Rivers – then full of coveted salt-run brook char - to expedite trade with local Wampanoag and Dutch to the north. After years of feasibility studies, the canal broke ground in 1909 and opened to traffic by 1914 providing easier trading, wartime safety, and consequently world-class fishing. This would’ve been around the time my great ancestor, Cristopher “Crit” Whittemore (pictured left), fished for striped bass. Here, he stands below a big pin oak likely along the Connecticut River during a herring run in the late 1800s.

This season, I made a point to learn from the infamously unforgiving canal. Locals joke that it holds more lost lures to its rocky substrate than fish. I put in time observing eddies during low tide, speaking to locals, watching birds, and tagging along with experienced friends. I saw generations of men clustered together whispering of what lure to use and how to fish the current conditions, ignoring passerbyers inquiring about their luck. Others woke up before dawn to walk the banks without a fishing rod in hand, merely in search of comradery.

I planned my ferry rides from Vineyard Haven to Woods Hole around the moon cycle. The new moon brings dark skies, bright stars and big tides. The breaking tides occur when the extreme low tide coincides near the break of day when the bite is strong. I napped by day and met my father and friends by midnight to claim our spot. After every story we told, more and more headlamps sprung up across the canal. The silence of anticipation was interrupted by the occasional barge and constant lead jigs raining down from across the ditch. I’ll never forget the sudden explosions of feeding fish on the surface as the sun crept up from the pitch pines. Grown men riding makeshift “canal bikes” creatively fitted with rod holders, tackle baskets and fish trailers passed back and forth chasing baitfish and their predators. Lines crossed and fistfights sprung up from time to time - the bite was on!

Within an hour's time, we caught big bass nearly every cast. Smaller fish were caught first before a lag in action. The big fish were next, expending less energy by cleaning up the disoriented tinker mackerel pushed up against the rocks below my feet - sometimes jumping onto the rocks to avoid the inevitable.

At some point, the adrenaline wears off and a breather is much needed. I look up with a sore back to find the banks lined with big fish - one per person - caught by those who claimed good spots.

Before long, men slowly trickled out from their spots dragging their keep, hoping to buy ice and make work on time. The streets are lined bumper to bumper with cars fastened with license plates of all different colors as the novices begin to show up.

What began as a quest to catch my first big canal fish this year turned into something more. The journey gave a glimpse into old-time America, and connected me with my past. I came across folks of infinite backgrounds, occupations and orientations bound together by our nation's oldest pastime. Dragging my fish up the steep bank staring off at the old Buzzards Bay Railroad Bridge built in 1910, I felt like I was passing through a speakeasy where I didn't hear a lick about religion, politics or money - just fish tales and what a great day it is to be alive. 'Til the next new moon!