A Practical Guide to Reading the Water

by David C. Churbuck, editor, Reel-Time

Ever cruised out of an inlet past a jetty on a busy weekend morning and looked at the line of bait and plug fishermen standing shoulder-to-shoulder on the rocks, drowning seaworms or whatever it is that those smelly baitfishermen use for their "meat pattern" of the day? The prospect of fly fishing from a crowded jetty is not any one's idea of a good time, but there are occasions when jetties and the inlets they protect are the best fishing around, from either boat or shore. This is a basic guide to jetty and inlet fishing that should give you some pointers about where to be, how to cast, and hopefully fight a fish on a jetty.

If you subscribe to the rule that fish love structure -- rocks, weeds, mussel beds or reefs -- then a jetty delivers that and more .... a fast stream of flooding and ebbing current that brings bait tumbling past the rocks at the jetty's ends and along its sides. Jetties are built to keep a channel to a harbor, inlet, or river open and free from shifting sands carried parallel along the shore. They vary in length, some are well constructed with fishermen in mind -- the top is flat and easy to walk -- others are old, dilapidated structures with wash-outs and sections that can be submerged at high tide.

Some very big striped bass have been caught from the jetties of the Cape Cod Canal, Hyannisport, Oak Bluffs, and Falmouth. One eel fishermen we know has caught 60 lb. fish on three consecutive October tides at the same jetty on or about the same date, so you can expect some company on the jetties and always a crowd during the day!

Jetties can be very effectively fished from a boat anchored or idled near them, but trust your seamanship (not your anchor) and always anchor downcurrent from the rocks. If you do drag, it will be away from the rocks, not towards them which can be a definite "drag," especially at night.

Any one who has fished a jetty will usually say the same thing first: be careful. The rocks can be slippery and covered with slime. Slip, tumble across a few granite blocks, land in the channel and you can expect to be torn up by the barnacles at the water's edge...if you make it to the rocks. More than likely you'll be there when the current is running full bore and if so, you can expect a wild ride in or out of the inlet. Some fishermen swear by "creepers", spiked soles that strap to the bottom of boots or waders. I don't wear them, but I do take a lot of time walking around, and take some time selecting the best boulder to cast from. Concentrating on your cast can get your mind off of your footing, so select the biggest, flattest rock you can find, not the one that is best situated for the fish.

Do it in the dark

The biggest hazard to jetty fishing is the fact that most of it, for flyfishers anyway, takes place at night. The reason for fishing in the dark is simple. At night there isn't any boat traffic to put down the fish, and no spin or baitfishers to antagonize with a double haul. And as an added bonus, the wind blows lightly at night, which is a great help in jetty fishing where accuracy and presentation matter quite a bit. Nighttime does accentuate the danger of walking on the rocks, so carry a flashlight. A pencil light like a Mag-Lite, wrapped with cloth tape and held between the teeth and aimed in front of your feet is a good bet. Waders are okay, but don't think they entitle you to wading once you pick your way out to the end of the rocks. I wear them because I like to fish the beaches that abut the breakwaters, but they do cut down on your agility quite a bit. Jeans and deck shoes are most comfortable and better than waders if you slip into the drink.


Experienced river and stream fishermen will love jetty fishing, one of the few venues in saltwater that calls on the skills so necessary for success in freshwater. The effect of a large estuary draining through a pair of jetties is a torrent under a new or full moon tide. Current speeds can exceed six knots, enough to stop a sailboat in its tracks and push it backwards with its sails filled. Try to cast up current and in a second your line, leader and fly will be swept downstream and onto the rocks. Don't try to fish the channel at full flow. Slack tide -- the short period between ebb and flood -- is a good tide to look for rising fish in the middle of the channel. Listen for splashes and cast upcurrent, not at the splash, it will have moved away from the fish by the time you hear it, but above the spot where the sound came from.

Jetty Technique

The fish will be found outside of the jetties, down current from the ends, in pockets of slow or still water behind the rocks. They'll hang there, snatching bait out of the turbulence. It is in this zone that you want you fly to drift. If the current is really ripping along and the bait seem to be deep in the water, then fish with a fast sinking line up to a full lead-core, anything to get the fly down deep in the few seconds of drift it will have before swinging out tight in the current.

Dead drifting flies is an art that is difficult to describe. Again, river and stream fishermen will be familiar with the process. The process works like this. the cast is upstream, against the flow. As the fly moves downstream, towards the angler, it will be very difficult to maintain contact with it. If the fly is bumped by a fish, discerning a hit will be difficult if not impossible, and hook-ups will be a matter of luck more than skill. If the fly is hit or bumped and the fish is not hooked, then back away and try the cast again.

If you think of the fly drifting through a 180 degree arc of the compass, with zero being the start of the drift and 180 the end, then the critical fishing zone is from 90 degrees on. When the fly reaches the end of the drift and is held straight out by the force of the current, feed a little more line and work the fly with the tip of the rod, making it swim a bit. A rip line may present itself between the quiet water in the lee of the breakwater and the rushing torrent of the tidal flow. Don't limit your technique to the dead drift. Methodically cast along the arc and don't ignore the calm side of the rocks. Don't try drifting your fly along the rocks on the channel side. You're sure to snag up good and tight and many a fool has gone in the water trying to save a lost $4.00 fly. Don't try tugging it free either. I know of a fly fishermen who caught a fly in the eye

That's where the hits happen, along the rip line. Striped bass in particular can be lazy feeders, conserving calories by hanging in the still water and picking off bait in the stream on an easy upward strike. They will leave visible rises behind and even loud holes in the water. Keep your light to yourself. The fish are hanging closer to the tip of the jetty than you think and any accidental flash will put them down for the night. Do your fly work before you hike out. Get accustomed to working in little to no light. Some fishermen swear by the fish attracting properties of a fixed light, such as a lantern, but they're a pain to lug around.

Deciding which leg of a jetty to fish

The place to fish on an outgoing or ebbing tide, is at the end of the jetties on the ocean side. The water flowing out of the back bay or estuary will speed through the inlet and then fan out into the open water. Be aware of which direction the ocean current is moving. On Cape Cod's Nantucket and Vineyard Sounds, the rule of thumb is: ebbs west/floods east. Know which way the coastal current is drifting as it will deflect the outflow dumping out from between the jetties, pushing the water to one side or the other and thereby favoring one jetty over another.

On an incoming tide the place to fish is on the inside of the inlet. Fish feed facing into the flow. I greatly prefer fishing the inside of an inlet to the jetties. There is less wind in the lee, there are usually flats inside the bay or harbor for wading, and the fishing is more civilized than the survival ordeal that can take place on the rocks. The effects of a flood tide and the eddies formed by the discharge of the ocean flow are sometimes less obvious than they are on the outgoing tide. Read the water. The fish may be grubbing for bait very close to the beach, so thoroughly work the edge before wading in.


Inlet fishing is a lot more fun and relaxing than jetty fishing. I define inlet fishing as any entrance to a back bay or estuary without jetties. I enjoy wading and fishing from a beach where I don't have to worry about my footing, just keeping my backcast high and out of the grass and brush. My favorite inlets are the Riley's Beach/Dead Neck inlet in Cotuit, the Gut on Chappaquidick, and Nauset Inlet in Orleans/Eastham. All are deep, narrow, and dependable fish magnets. Each one demands a different technique, all pose their own different dangers, and yet all are among the most pleasant places to wet a line that the Cape and Islands have to offer.

If you can, try to scope out an inlet a couple hours before low tide. Watch which shore the current favors, keep an eye for places where the channel comes in close enough for a good series of casts. Don't blow your arm out trying to cross an inlet with a fly line. Some, like Nauset, are so wide that no spin caster could come close to crossing it. Wade a strange inlet in the daytime and spend most of your night fishing, if you're fishing a fast moving tide, on the beach, out of the water.

The degree of dropoff at inlets, is in some cases, such as the Dead Neck side of Cotuit's inlet, three feet to twenty. With a ripping current, one step, and you're history. Stay on the sand and enjoy a nice dry series of casts quartering the current with a dead drift down to any rip lines.

Many inlets are fringed with groins, those wonderfully named mini-jetties that sand hogging waterfront owners built to steer a little sand in front of the bath house. One groin led to another, so expect to pick your way across many a groin if fishing the Northeast. Groins are slippery, but great structure for fish. I like to wade out in between two groins and cast at each. Fish love to hang in close and go for little black and white Lefty's Deceivers in the spring. A good cast drops the leader ten feet beyond the end of the rocks. Let it sink a tad and then slow strip it through the wash around the tip. Woe the leader when the fish decides to flee around the far side of the groin.

Be considerate to the property owners when fishing inlets and their groins. Forget them when the bluefish first blitz through in the middle of May through the Fourth of July and every groin from Woods Hole to Chatham has a surfcaster with a dozen Atom Poppers standing on the end of it. Early May is the time to be in the water. Sunset on a high outgoing. Fish until dark and expect the fish to only hit for a half hour or so around darkness. Have your act together for releasing the fish in the water. Wading back to the sand every time you hook up will spook the school and shut things down faster. A good set of hemostats on a lanyard, a small penlight wrapped in tape, and you should be able to lip (watch for the hook when your thumb is in the fish's mouth and always flatten your barbs!) the bass, slip out the hook with the stats and have the fish on its way in seconds.

Some inlets, such as The Gut on Chappaquidick to the east of  Martha's Vineyard, are very narrow and have just as much current ripping in and out of them as a jettied inlet. Nauset, in Orleans, is extremely wide and should be considered one of the hairiest to wade. I fished with a dozen cyber-striper fishers in 1994 at Nauset and wouldn't let anyone in the water until it was light enough to see where you were going. Any inlet with surf involved is a scary place to be. The surf is coming at you from one side and the current from the other. Fishing the inside of ocean inlets is great on an incoming tide. But that's when I like to backwater fish in the rivers where the herring are lined up before entering the herring runs.

What's your favorite inlet or jetty? Let us know by posting in our Reel-Talk bulletin board!

Reel -Tme

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