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Put these tools — not useless ­garden gadgets — under the ­Christmas tree

I hope you had a laugh over my column on useless garden gadgets two weeks back. This week I’m turning serious, suggesting useful tools the gardeners on your holiday shopping list will want and use.
    The Garden Bench and Kneeler is great, especially for us older gardeners. Getting down on your knees is easy; getting up is hard. The Garden Bench and Kneeler pad is easy on the knees, and the handles are a great help in getting up. I have had mine for years. When you get tired, turn the kneeler up and you have a bench to sit on.
    The Garden Stamp or Dibble Board is ideal for maximizing garden space as it provides the proper spacing for transplanting or sowing seeds. Different boards are made for different crops. Rake the garden smooth before pressing the board into the soil. Then sow seeds or transplant in the indentations made by the stamp. I have made them for my own garden using old broomsticks, dowels and scrap lumber.
    Gator Bags or Arbor Rain Bags are very effective for transplanting trees and shrubs and for keeping young trees alive, without wasting water, during drought. Installed around the base of newly planted trees or shrubs and filled with water, the bags release the water slowly into the soil for days so the root ball stays moist until new roots grow out into the soil. They’re also easy to fill.
    The Garden Weed Torch is a great way of killing weeds growing in the cracks of sidewalks, in gravel-mulched beds and along ditches without having to use weed killers. A quick flash from a flame kills weeds without damaging concrete or stones, and it doesn’t leave any residue.
    Okatsune Shears, made from the same process used for making Samurai swords, are great for cutting plants. Long handles make them easier to use.
    Pruners and loppers by Felco and Corona keep their cutting edge with very little sharpening. For pruning branches eight to 12 feet above your head, use long-reach pruners. Carry hand pruners in a sheath attached to your belt to prevent injury.
    The Soil Knife is a great tool for dividing perennials, for digging holes when transplanting and for lifting seedlings from the soil. Mine is a Japanese gardener’s knife with a blade about two inches wide and cupped for digging, so it can be used in place of a trowel for planting. One edge of its blade is saw-toothed, while the other can be sharpened. Also purchase the sheath for carrying it.
    Soil thermometers are useful in determining when to start planting certain crops. For instance, corn seeds should not be planted until after the soil is 60 degrees or warmer. A long-shank thermometer is helpful in monitoring microbial activity in compost piles. An active compost pile should read 130 to 140 degrees. When temperatures drop below 100 degrees, it is time to turn the compost.    
    The Weed Stick and Weed Wick are safe and effective for applying herbicides with minimal environmental impact. The Stick and Wick apply the herbicides only in a limited area, thus preventing potential problems associated with sprays. Apply the chemicals based on manufacturer’s recommendations.
    The Weed Bandit hoe is my favorite because of its long rake handle and stainless steel head with a corrugated blade that stays sharp. I like the small Weed Bandit for hoeing onions and closely planted plants, and the medium blade Weed Bandit for all other weeding work.


Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at DR.FRGouin@gmail.com. Please include your name and address.

The Geminid meteors are unique

This week’s celestial highlight is the annual Geminid meteor shower, which peaks late Saturday and before sunrise Sunday. This coincides with the rising waning moon, which just shy of last-quarter still shines quite bright. Fortunately, the Geminids are some of the brightest “shooting stars,” and given patience and a dark spot away from urban glare, you could still expect to see one or two meteors each minute. Plus the Geminids generate a fair number of meteors for several days before and after the peak.
    Like all meteor showers, the Geminids occur as earth passes through a trail/stream of cosmic dust and detritus. As these bits of rock and ice hit our atmosphere, they burst into flames. While the end results are the same, the source of the Geminids’ debris trail is unique. In every other case, these trails of debris are left by comets orbiting the earth in the same way as the planets. The source of the Geminids, however, is a five-kilometer asteroid, known as 3200 Phaethon, that passes between the sun and Mercury every 1.4 years.
    And where comets orbit the sun with a long tail releasing a trail of flotsam, 3200 Phaethon has no tail but somehow produces a trail of debris anywhere from five to 500 times larger than any spawned of comets. Instead of a tail of its own releasing fragments as it’s heated by the sun, 3200 Phaethon pulls bits of dust and debris into its wake as it travels the solar system in a way astronomers are still trying to explain.
    Many meteor showers have been seen since the dawn of civilization, but not the Geminids. They were first noted in 1862 — simultaneously — by an American and a British astronomer, who each recorded an average of 14 meteors an hour. Year by year, that number grew, even as astronomers searched for the shower’s source. Then in 1983, armed with the Infrared Astronomical Satellite, they found 3200 Phaethon to be the parent of the Geminids. By that time, the shower had grown to an average of 120 meteors an hour under good conditions!
    With clear skies you can see the spawn of 3200 Phaethon anywhere in the dark sky, but all point back to the constellation Gemini.
    While you’re at it, look for Jupiter rising in the east-northeast around 10pm and high in the south come dawn. Saturn rises just ahead of the sun in the east-southeast. And Venus and Mars are both visible after sunset.

This community collaboration ­delivers a sleigh full of holiday cheer

What do you get when you introduce a variety of memorable Christmas characters and nursery rhyme originals to a romantic hero and two scheming evildoers plus their naughty toy followers?
    A recipe for holiday cheer, Babes in Toyland, adapted for the stage by Twin Beach Players’ president Sid Curl, with additional dialogue by Matthew Konerth and Valerie Heckart.
    The play has undergone adjustment since it was first performed by Twin Beach Players in 2009, Curl reports. As well as reworked dialogue, a Master Toymaker antagonist was added. Two casts of children plus a few adults form this 70-member community ensemble.
    Directed by Rob and Valerie Heckart, this colorful holiday spectacle overflows with cuteness. From the moment our memorable fairy tale and nursery rhyme favorites take the stage, the audience, both adults and children, is rewarded with a spirited and playful performance.
    We meet Mother Goose, Mother Hubbard and their fabled family of youngsters: Jack and Jill, Little Miss Muffet, Bo Peep and her wandering sheep, Mary Contrary, Simple Simon, Curly Locks and Boy Blue. Polly Flinders, Georgy Porgy, the rascally-yet-playful Rodrigo and Gonzorgo brothers, and Tom Tom are also part of the family. In concert with Santa’s busy elves and toys, all merrily stroll about the stage and sing their opening song to an accompanied, taped rendition of “Here Comes Santa Claus.”
    As the plot unfolds, we meet the ruthless Barnaby, owner of much of the town neighboring the North Pole, who is intent on transforming the village into an amusement park and on wedding Mary Contrary in exchange for pardoning Mother Hubbard’s rent debt. Partnering with him is the Master Toymaker who has plans to replace the vacationing Santa Claus and rule the North Pole.
    All is not lost when Delancy Marmaduke, a puppeteer by trade, comes to town and is smitten with Mary Contrary. Nursery rhyme children provide support for Santa’s elves, while marching soldiers square off, horrid toys clash and Santa returns in a force of polar opposites.
    Sight gags, strobe lights, diabolical laughing, conga lines and interactive engagement draw laughter from the audience. Bright and imaginative costumes and expressive portrayals set off simple stage lighting and set design, taped songs and timed holiday background music. Despite publicly acknowledged technical issues, actors and crew embrace the challenges to perform admirably together. That is the spirit of community.
    Does it take a village? You bet it does. Santa’s village.


Fri., Sat. 7pm; Sun. 3pm: North Beach Boys and Girls Club. $12 w/discounts: 410-286-1890; www.twinbeachplayers.com.

Silly humor and puns abound in this animated fowl comedy

Penguins who came to prominence as the wisecracking sidekicks in the Madagascar movies are now headlining their first feature film. Bored by the laws of nature, the four set out to find adventure. Voicing the birds are Tom McGrath as Skipper; Chris Miller as Kowalski; Conrad Vernon as Rico and Christopher Knights as Private.
    The quartet fancy themselves secret agents of sorts, and after escaping the confines of the New York City Zoo, the feathered friends set out on their greatest mission yet: breaking into Fort Knox. Instead of gold, the penguins want their favorite discontinued junk food, stored in an ancient vending machine in the depository break room.
    The mission for cheesy treats succeeds, but it catches the attention of Dave (John Malkovich: Crossbones) a zoo octopus resentful at being ignored. Kids and their parents are infinitely interested in the antics of penguins, but cephalopods just aren’t cute enough to hold an audience’s attention.
    Dave escapes the zoo, recruits an eight-legged army and develops a serum that will mutate the world’s penguin population into monsters. How does an octopus become an expert in genetic mutation and engineering? It’s a kids’ movie; don’t think about it too much.
    Narrowly escaping Dave, the penguins move to stop him before he ruins zoos everywhere. The obstacle is The North Wind, a professional animal spy organization led by Agent Classified (Benedict Cumberbatch: The Imitation Game). Classified and his team of highly trained, well-equipped agents dismiss the penguins as bumbling amateurs.
    So the race is on to see which team of do-gooders can stop Dave.
    Filled with puns, slapstick and patently silly situations, kids will delight at the humor while adults are more likely to roll their eyes. If the phrase "Nicholas, cage them" doesn’t tickle your funny bone, Penguins of Madagascar will be a long slog. I love a good pun, but my seatmate was driven to distraction.
    Directors Eric Darnell (Madagascar 3) and Simon J. Smith (Bee Movie) slip in some adult humor so surprisingly clever it might be too obscure for its audience. A cameo by director Werner Herzog is only hilarious if you are familiar with Herzog’s musings on penguins in the documentary Encounters at the End of the World. If you’ve never heard of Herzog, the entire opening joke, which lasts for nearly five minutes, is lost.
    If, like your reviewer, you are a cinephile with a juvenile love of puns — or if you’re under the age of 12 — Penguins of Madagascar is a lighthearted romp. If tough-talking penguins, evil word-playing octopuses and convoluted plots give you a headache, this film is for the birds.

Fair Animation • PG • 92 mins.

Fishing in a chill rain is better than not fishing

As my cast settled, the streamer curved down and across the dark current. As the line straightened out at the shadow line, an unseen rockfish slammed the fly hard. I struck back and lifted. My nine-foot rod bent all the way to the cork handle, and my line came tight to the reel. “They’re here,” I informed my friend up in the bow, “or at least one of them is, and it’s a good one.”
    The night had turned cold, a lot colder than I expected. Drops of icy rain had begun to splatter my foul-weather coat, and that wasn’t expected either. George Yu, an old fishing buddy, and I were taking a long shot, trying to get in one last bit of action before rockfish season closed. It looked like our effort — and discomfort — just might pay off.
    Our skiff was anchored a long cast up current of one of the piers of an area bridge, a reliable rockfish hangout in seasons past but one we hadn’t visited in a while. It was a nighttime-only bite and dependent on tidal current, moon phase and a fair bit of luck.
    We had decided to try it earlier in the day. One problem, originally, was the moon. It was close to full, and that much light at night almost always scatters the fish. Near total darkness is necessary to allow the bridge lights to cast a distinct shadow line. There the rockfish like to concentrate and ambush bait.
    However, a good, solid overcast had formed and was projected to remain heavy throughout the night. The 10-day forecast promised few other chances at catching a last fish before the season ended. We decided to chance it.
    The next problem was timing. My friend couldn’t get out of his office until late, putting us on the water at 8:30pm, well after dark, with a tidal current predicted to slacken at 10:30. That left a pretty short window for success.
    To make the effort more difficult, we were using fly rods and hi-density sinking lines to try to coax the stripers into eating. We’d been successful using this technique before. But it did mean we would be dealing with a right-hand wind.
    A right-hand wind tends to push the backcast (assuming a right handed caster, like myself) across behind the angler’s body. Hence, the forward cast can easily stick the fly’s hook through your ear. Only a slight breeze had been predicted. But if you put much faith in a marine wind forecast you haven’t fished the Bay much.
    The first fish, when it came, proved a spirited fighter. I had forgotten how much colder water enhanced a striper’s ability to resist capture. I expected to see a 23-incher come alongside as I struggled to bring the fish near the boat. This one measured scarcely 18 inches, though it was as winter fat as a football.
    “We can do better than this,” I said, slipping the fish back over the side. By then my partner was hooked up and struggling with his own fish.
    “Get the net,” he called out.
    “It’s going to be smaller than you think,” I replied. “Relax. It’s not going anywhere.”
    When the fish broached alongside us, I scrambled for the net. It wasn’t a giant, but it was definitely a keeper. A few minutes later George slipped the heavy 21-incher into the fish box. In another couple of casts, I was tight to its near twin.
    Deciding to endure our good fortune, we hooked and released small and just-keeper rockfish for well over an hour, holding out for a pair of heavier critters to reach our limit. Then the current began to die and the wind picked up.
    “I think I’ve enjoyed about as much of this as I can stand,” I said after too many minutes of no fish, my teeth chattering and my fly whistling too close to my ear.
    “Anytime you’re ready, I’m ready,” George said. “We got in one last trip.”

Its bite can kill a horse

Beware the brown recluse.    
    The spiky-legged brown recluse grows as long as three-eighths of an inch. A violin shape marks its back. Its bite is devastating. I know because I’ve seen it firsthand.
    A big, warm-blood, show horse on my Southern Anne Arundel County farm was bitten on the leg by a brown recluse. After more than two months of treatment, she had to be put down.
    In animals and humans alike, the characteristic signs of this spider bite are blistering and swelling at the bite site and surrounding area, followed by skin necrosis and peeling, leaving a deep, exposed area that may need skin grafts to heal. Treatment can go on for weeks, as Philip Angell of Annapolis found out.
    About a decade ago, Angell was tidying up a woodpile in his yard in early May. He wore long pants but only clogs on his feet, allowing a brown recluse to bite him on the ankle. He didn’t know he had been bitten until he noticed a red, hard spot as he was showering. He applied hot compresses until it was time to go out that evening. By the next day, the spot was redder and harder, and by the third day, infection was setting in, prompting an emergency room visit.
    At the hospital, the doctors recognized the spot as a brown recluse bite. The wound was lanced, then drained and scraped, then Angell was put on intravenous antibiotics in the hospital for several days. Before going home, he was fitted with a contraption that he kept on for 10 days, enabling twice-daily drips of antibiotics, each session lasting an hour. The treatments were successful, and today Angell has only a small scar to show for his experience.
    The bite of the brown recluse is distinctive, but it’s best if the spider is seen and captured for identification. Wounds may be wrongly attributed to a snake or black-widow spider, and treatments may vary.
    I found my horse killer in a pile of towels and saddle pads waiting to be laundered, near the horse’s stall. After killing the spider, I slid it into a plastic bag to await identification.
    Sarah Gorczyca of Home Paramount Pest Control confirmed the identification. Encounters seem to be trending, she reports, with calls concerning brown recluses coming in from Edgewater south through Calvert County.
    Maryland is not these spiders’ natural habitat. They concentrate in the central and southern United States but may hitch rides on vehicles.
    Wherever they settle, brown recluses build irregular, loosely constructed nests in dark undisturbed areas. Their nest serves only as a retreat and a place for the female to lay her egg sacs. As their name implies, they are reclusive and do not like to come out of their webs except at night to hunt for food. Thus they may reside in close proximity to people and animals and never cause problems. While not aggressive, they will bite if accidentally touched or pressed against.
    Look for these spiders in shoes and boots, in piles of clothing or laundry lying on the floor, in basements and garages, and under leaves and mulch.
    Human bites remain infrequent. This year, neither Calvert Memorial Hospital in Prince Frederick nor Anne Arundel Medical Center in Annapolis has treated humans bitten by brown recluses. In prior years, both have treated a few, including Angell’s.
    Small animal veterinary clinics have reported a few cases, some very serious. In one home where a dog was bitten, exterminators discovered hundreds of brown recluses nesting in the garage. The dog survived after months of treatment.
    For animals, prevention is difficult. They are at the mercy of Mother Nature. Call the exterminator if a brown recluse is seen.

Many hearts out of hiding

“My heart in hiding. Stirred for a bird, — the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!” wrote poet Gerard Manley Hopkins of a hawk called the windhover.
    In the week since I wrote in Farewell to My Dog Moe, I’ve learned that dogs release many a heart from hiding. Your letters brought me joy, comfort and consolation by introducing me to your dogs, echoing my loss and sharing the stretch to find words for a relationship so intimately wordless. Here is what you’ve said, from far and wide:
    Diana and Jack Alkire, George and Linda Beechner, Soze and Boss: I read your special tribute to Moe aloud at our Friday family dinner. There was not a dry eye in the house. I’m pretty sure even the collie, Boss, teared up. It was a beautiful tribute to a great dog.
    Steve Carr: Moe was indeed a magical beast. There is something about a very large Lab, be they white or black, that captures our heart. I think it is their uncanny resemblance to their bear roots They are truly loving and loyal bears. All roly-poly fur and smiling affection. Moe was a born comedian. He was like a Miro painting or a Calder contraption. He instantly brought a smile. He was whimsical.
    I lost my best friend Baggins — a dog I actually helped deliver in a snowy Davidsonville basement — many, many years ago, and the loss still stings. I have been unable to take that leap of faith ever again.
    Ariel Brumbaugh: I’m sure the house feels empty without him shuffling around. He was a good dog friend to have in Fairhaven, and he will be missed.
    Erin Coik: Moe was always a welcomed surprise to see here at Family Auto and by far the happiest customer to ever walk through our doors.
    Clementine Fujimura: I lost my Mayday this summer and I miss her so much. I remember and continue to love all my dogs, in heaven and here.
    Leigh Glenn: Indeed, he was a magnificent creature and yes, an angel. Because he is an angel you know he’s never really gone and will always be at your side and in your dreams. Dogs certainly are special kinds of angels and you have been fortunate to be blessed by such dogged wings.
    Tom Hall: He was a great dog, wasn’t he? I’m sorry for your loss of such a pal.
    Nini Hamalainen: How fast the time flew by, but even in dog years it was short. Are humans allowed in dog heaven? Shoot, I don’t want to go anywhere else.
    Steve Hammalian: I just read your beautiful editorial on Moe. Having just lost my beautiful English setter Cleo just one month before this resonated deeply with my wife and me. You really depicted the day-to-day life with a dog just wonderfully. Thank you.
    Maureen Hudson and Gracie: My heart is aching for you. I know we all think it about our own dear dogs, but Moe was truly special: such a gentleman, and such a wonderful presence in our community.
    Barbara Malloy: Moe’s story left me tearful. I adopted my yellow Lab Sunshine at the pound when she was four months old. She was to be euthanized in two days. When my husband met Sunshine, it was love at first sight. They were inseparable for 16 happy active years. Kevin was a heart transplant recipient, and Sunshine would spend many naps with him nestled in the crook of his legs. I would tease him saying if anything ever happens to Sunshine, you will be right behind her. That’s exactly what happened. Sunshine passed away in August of 2010, and my dear husband followed two weeks later. Four years have gone by, but I can still hear my Kevin saying to Sunshine, want to go to McDonalds in the truck for a Big Mac? She would twirl and bark with glee. Oh how I miss them.
    Amy Kliegman: I wept as I read of Moe’s passing. He was a sweet boy who I will remember with great fondness. Just seeing his picture makes me smile. Losing a beloved dog is one of the hardest things in life. My heart is heavy for you, as I know you are feeling a great void. I’m sure he has taken a piece of your heart with him, as did Max, and maybe others before him.
    Sue and Steve Kullen: There will never be a boy better than Moe. He had the best life, as you guys made sure of that. He was a city dog, a country boy, loved the boat, subdued fish, loved the Bay and charmed everyone he met. He charted a grand course. He was one lucky dog. We all loved Moe. He will be missed.
    Doug Lashsley: We have never met, but I read your publication very frequently and could not help but send you a note after reading your tribute to Moe. My attention was first drawn to the photo and then the title of the tribute. It is so easy for me to identify with your feelings having owned labs all 63 years of my life, Chesey, Shiloh, Gambo, Swiss … all of them either yellow or chocolate and each with a personality, character and spirit that made it easy to see why they are partners for life. You provided such a simple yet powerful image of Moe and the dignity he achieved with age. I am sorry for your loss but can tell from the article that he gave you 10 lifetimes of pleasure and hope that’s the memory you treasure.
    Farley Peters: Moe was my friend, my boyfriend. He was one of the most social dogs I ever knew; hated to be left alone. He was always seeking out new friends, and you knew you were his when he nuzzled his head between your legs. Then all you had to do was hug him, love him and feed him, a willing task I will now sorely miss.
    Andy Schneider and Kathy Best: These damn dogs just fill our hearts with joy while they’re with us and then rip them out when they pass.
    Michelle Steel: I will miss Moe so much. He was such a dear, sweet friend to me. Rest in peace, Sweet Moe. There will never be another like you.
    Gail Gash Taylor: I have tears streaming down my face. They are not just dogs, cats or my horse companion of 18 years. They become part of our very being.
    Plus condolences from Sandy Anderson; Margie Bednarik; Mick and Cindy Blackistone; Sharon, Mike, Sarah, Mary and Cassie Brewer; Diane Burt; Kathy Gramp and Scott Smith; Juanita and Cliff Foust, Gail Martinez and Jack Brumbaug; Mark McCaig; Bob Melamud; Don Richardson; Kelly Schneider; Luanne Wimp Slayback; Carlos Valencia …

Sandra Olivetti Martin
Editor and publisher; editor@bayweekly.com

A home on the range ain’t all it’s cracked up to be

Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank: Mary and Martha) is a better man than most. Tending a homestead by herself in the harsh Nebraska territory, she’s made her plot a success. But it’s a hard, solitary life. She longs for a family, but the men of the territory revile her self-sufficiency.
    Cuddy’s world is unforgiving. Wind whips the dead earth across the flat expanses of dry brown, treeless land. It’s an easy place to die, especially for a woman. Harsh winters freeze crops and starve livestock, disease claims the young and the weak, roving bands of displaced Native Americans pick off lone settlers, and unscrupulous men believe any unclaimed woman is theirs to abuse.
    Though Cuddy barrels through her solitary existence, the ugly realities of life in the territory outpost are too much for three other women, who develop prairie fever. Theoline (Miranda Otto: Rake) kills her baby after a psychotic break. Arabella (Grace Gummer: American Horror Story) is catatonic with grief after the loss of her three children to a diphtheria outbreak. Gro (Sonja Richter: The Miracle) has become feral after the death of her mother left her alone with her abusive spouse. The three husbands decide the best thing to do is send them East to their families. Each woman is treated like chattel, a defective cow that won’t produce and is unceremoniously sent back to the seller. Though the men want to be rid of their “fevered” wives, none wants to make the long, dangerous journey East.
    Cuddy, the only unattached landowner, volunteers to shepherd the women across the dangerous Nebraska territory to the safety and civilization of Iowa. Because she’s a woman, the town decides that Cuddy must have a homesman, a male guide. Cuddy finds her own help in George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones: The Family), who is about to be hanged for claim jumping.
    George is glad to trade the noose for a job. He chafes at being bossed by a woman, but he needs the money and the whiskey that Cuddy promises at journey’s end.
    An old-fashioned western with a desolate view of life on the frontier, The Homesman is heart-wrenching and beautiful. As well as acting, Jones co-wrote the script and directed, creating a powerful narrative about the ugliness of humanity and nature.
    Working with cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, Jones makes the planes of the territory a character. Each shot emphasizes the isolation and cruel beauty of the surroundings. The sky is a vast kaleidoscope, but the ground is a dull flat expanse in all directions. Houses sit on the horizon line, looking like they’re about to fall off the edge of the earth.
    In his performance and his shooting techniques, Jones pays homage to classic western tropes. Western fans will recognize images from True Grit, Sergio Leone and John Ford films. Jones’ George is an amoral hybrid of Walter Brennan and Rooster Cogburn. It’s one of the brightest and most nuanced performances he has offered in years. It’s a treat to watch Jones leave his usually austere style to whoop it up as a scallywag who isn’t above a fireside song and dance when the mood — or the whiskey — strikes him.
    In the quieter role of Cuddy, Swank is astounding. She sets her jaw and squints into the wind like a true pioneer, her determination to make a life for herself impressive and fearsome. Her Cuddy is a complicated woman whose steel will belies a sad, sensitive soul. When the loneliness becomes too great, she unfurls a felt keyboard and pretends to play piano. It’s an effective character note and arresting visual metaphor for her life on the prairie: Cuddy has the skill but no instrument, so she must be satisfied with the pantomime.
    A fatalist western that places the human condition somewhere between despair and misanthropy, The Homesman isn’t a film for the popcorn crowds. Filled with wonderful acting — there’s even a Meryl Streep cameo — breathtaking cinematography and philosophical questions, it was made for cinephiles. Buy a ticket and be thankful that you don’t have a home on the range.

Great Western • R • 122 mins.

I’m dreaming of Florida fishing

Rockfish season ends December 15, just days away. That is also the end, at least for the next few months, of the focus of my sporting life. Since last April, my schedule has been planned largely around the hunt for stripers and related marine forecasts, the timing of proper tides, desired wind direction, the 10-day outlook, the maintenance of my skiff and for the last few weeks, favorable temperatures. All of that will be over soon.
    But wintertime fishing is not hopeless.
    Lately, I’ve been considering some bad-weather traveling. There is always a good bite somewhere. Travel far enough south, and good things can happen.
    Since my oldest son and his family have moved to southern Florida, I’ve become acutely aware of the winter sailfish run that starts every January just off Miami. Some sailfish have been hooked from local fishing piers. Miami is just the focal point; the bite extends quite a distance both north and south.
    It was improbable to me that an exotic pelagic fish that rarely gets any closer than 30 miles off the coast of Maryland would be cavorting within almost a stone’s throw of a more southern city. But the warm, northward flowing Gulf Stream Current that closes with Florida’s southeastern coast does just that. It also brings dolphinfish (mahi mahi), wahoo, king mackerel and various species of tuna. These are just the sorts of finny critters that can help a serious angling addict through Maryland’s two most intemperate months.
    Last year I sampled this fishery on board the sportfisherman Thomas Flyer out of Miami. Within a half-hour, we hooked up our first of five sailfish for the day. A little later, we were slammed by a number of mahi up to 10 pounds. We lost one or two much bigger fish sight unseen. I immediately wanted to do it again.
    Florida has plenty of charter boats and fishing guides as well as public boat ramps all along the coast. The salty (and delicious) Gulf Stream gamefish are often found so close to the coast that, assuming a judicious selection of wind conditions, a relatively small craft of 18 feet or so, trailered down or rented onsite, is enough to get you to the fish.
    The technique for hooking is simple: slow trolling (also called bump trolling) live baits. Pinfish and pilchards can be bought at tackle and bait shops or caught by jigging Sabiki rigs resembling small bunches of tiny shrimp. These baitfish often concentrate around navigational structures just off of the shoreline; look for early morning charter boats gathered for the same purpose.
    With a supply of live bait on hand, the usual strategy is to stream your lines with the baitfish hooked through both jaws out behind the boat and move at the slowest speed that keeps the baits trailing to the stern but doesn’t allow them to wander very much to one side or the other (and tangle with other lines). Search youtube.com for bump trolling for more information.
    You won’t need heavy blue-water tackle to tangle with the critters; most will be under 40 pounds. Any medium-heavy six- to seven-foot rod with a good quality reel with at least 200 yards of 20-pound mono will be adequate.
    Sometimes, though, you might hook up a behemoth (there’s the occasional blue marlin at more than 500 pounds) that will strip your reel of line and break off. That possibility only adds to the excitement.
    Even if the fishing is slow, you’ll be warm. Temperatures in southern Florida during January and February average in the mid 70s.
    Winter action for sails, wahoo and mahi usually lasts into early March.

Decking your halls, from trees to poinsettias

Buy a Fresh, Safe Christmas Tree
    For the freshest Christmas trees, buy locally from a Christmas tree grower’s lot or cut your own. Otherwise, you could be buying an imported tree cut in late October or early November.
    Fresh-cut Douglas fir, Scots pine and blue spruce are the most fire-safe Christmas tree species, ranked by the State Fire Marshal based on research conducted by the Bay Gardener in cooperation with the Maryland Christmas Tree Growers.
    Fraser firs are not fire safe. Do not buy them.
    Once you bring the tree home, cut an inch from the bottom of the trunk and place in a bucket of 100-degree water. Keep the tree and bucket in the shade until you are ready to bring it indoors. When you bring it in, cut another inch from the trunk and immediately place it in water. Make certain there is always water in its stand. A good Christmas tree stand should hold at least one gallon of water.

Wreaths and Roping, Too
    Most of the Christmas wreaths and roping sold in big-box stores, grocery stores and many garden centers are made in New Mexico, North Carolina, New Jersey, the West Coast and Canada starting in October. Few of these facilities have climate-controlled cold storage for keeping greens fresh prior to shipping. Most are stored on the floor in sheds and barns and sprinkled with water when they appear to be drying. By the time they reach Maryland, they have already lost a high percentage of their moisture.
    At Upakrik Farm, I wait to make wreaths and roping until Thanksgiving week to assure freshness. I store them on the barn floor in stacks no greater than 10 deep to prevent compression and to assure adequate moisture. I sprinkle the wreaths and roping daily to keep them moist and cool to maintain freshness. Because I sell only freshly made wreaths and roping, I have many repeat customers at the Riva Road Farmers Market. There is no substitute for freshness.

Gather Greens in Your Garden
    For long-lasting holiday greens, gather arborvitae, Canaan fir, Douglas fir, junipers, Nordman red cedar, red pine, Scots pine and white pine. Many broadleaf evergreens will also hold up throughout the holidays. Choose from American holly, cherry laurel, Chinese holly, English holly, English ivy, mountain laurel, pachysandra, periwinkle, rhododendron and southern magnolia.
    Increase the life of greens by cutting one to two inches from the base of the stem as soon as you bring them indoors and immerse them in 100-degree water. Change the water at least every other day.

If You’ve Got Winterberry Holly, Bring It In
    Winterberry shows at its best this season, inviting you to cut it for Christmas decorating. The native deciduous forms of holly grow as shrubs six to eight feet tall. At this time of year, the ends of the branches are filled with clusters of bright red berries.
    Use extreme care when cutting the stems to minimize shedding berries from the stem. Once they are cut, do not put them in water. Since the berries shrink very slowly, they will remain attractive for a month or more indoors. Thus, they’re ideal for making dry arrangements or for decorating the Christmas tree.
    Holly berries are not poisonous, though neither do they taste good.

Keep Poinsettias Pretty
    The brightly colored bracts and dark green leaves of poinsettias make them the ideal Christmas plants. Varieties are better now than ever before. Now available in many shades of red, white, pink and speckled, they retain their bracts and leaves longer with minimal care.
    And no, they are not poisonous.
    Keep your poinsettia fresh looking by careful watering. Check the growing medium daily for adequate moisture by pressing your finger into the medium halfway between the stem of the plant and the wall of the pot. If the medium feels cool and moist, there is adequate moisture. If the medium feels warm and dry, water thoroughly.
    Add water until it flows through the bottom of the pot. If water flows immediately through, the medium is too dry to absorb water. Soak the pot in a basin or pail of warm water for 30 minutes to an hour. Drain the plant before returning it to its place.
    Avoid overwatering. Poinsettia roots are very susceptible to rot.


Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at DR.FRGouin@gmail.com. Please include your name and address.