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Articles by Dennis Doyle

Proper preparation prevents poor performance

You can never trust Maryland’s March weather. Another certainty is the march of time, which puts us only a couple of weeks from Trophy Rockfish Season, opening April 15. Cold or warm, snow, sleet, rain or sun, the striper season is fast arriving.
    So don’t make opening day your first day on the water. I take at least a week for a shakedown cruise or two plus scouting trips to get ready. That means now is the time to get going.
    My first act of preparation is to remove all my reels from their rods and examine them. Over a long winter, grease and oil can congeal, making the mechanical functioning of the reel stiff and uneven. This can also be true of drag operation. Check each reel and correct any problems.

The Scoop on Line
    Next I take all the reels spooled with mono to a sporting store and have the line replaced. The trophy season brings us into contact with the biggest rockfish of the year. Some of these guys will top 50 pounds. If this is my season to hook a fish of that size, I don’t intend to handicap myself with a line that may have been dragged across rough bridge piers, jetty rocks or pilings last year.
    I prefer to use fluoro-coated monofilament lines. There are all sorts of scientific explanations for fluoro’s superiority, from its invisibility to its superior hardness. I don’t believe any of them. If I can see the line in the water, it’s not invisible; nor will a harder finish keep a line from parting when a 30-pounder wraps you around a barnacle-encrusted piling and keeps on going.
    What I do believe is the test results of an old experiment. Berkeley Fishing Line Company strung a number of samples of mono- and fluoro- lines in a massive aquarium populated with large fish. The purpose: to count the number of times fish bumped into the mono lines vs. the flouro lines. The results counted twice as many collisions with fluoro as with mono.
    I’ve also found on my own when chumming that I can still catch fish with fluoro lines when the tidal current slows or stops. I rarely can get rockfish to bite in those situations with mono, and almost never with braid.

Tie a New Knot
    The next critical item on my opening day list is to cut off all knots in all lines and leaders and retie each one — carefully. If you wait till you’re on the water, the temptation to immediately begin fishing will be too great. Broken knots are the number one cause of losing big fish. A knot tied sometime last season is a prime candidate for failure.

Recharge Your Batteries
    You’ll also want to recharge all marine batteries. Then check them again the next day. Winter temperatures can be hard on battery cells. They may briefly charge to full capacity, but the faulty ones will lose that charge rapidly. Checking your batteries 24 hours after a full charge should identify the weak ones and save you from getting stranded out in the middle of the Bay.

White perch make good sport and better eating

March brings a springtime treasure that almost makes up for its treacherous weather: white perch. These tasty fish have just begun to show up in the creeks, though the winter storm that tormented the Northeast coast might delay the bulk of their numbers.
    A close cousin of the striped bass, white perch (Marone americana) are the most numerous fish in the Tidewater as well as the species most often caught by recreational anglers. They can reach 18 inches in length, but due to Maryland’s largely unregulated commercial netting in the Chesapeake, not many taken by hook and line are over 10 inches.
    The largest white perch on record anywhere was caught in 2012 in a Virginia private pond by Beau McLaughlin of Virginia Beach. It weighed three pounds two ounces and measured 17 ¾ inches. The previous record of three pounds one ounce was taken in 1995. The current record for the Chesapeake is two pounds 10 ounces.
    Living 15 or more years, white perch is a particularly prolific species. The male fish move upstream toward fresh water and await the arrival of females. The females arrive next, usually on an incoming tide, and move into the warmer shallows when they feel the urge to spawn. Each gravid female produces 150,000 or more eggs as she releases her roe in stages in tributary headwaters over one to three weeks from mid-March through May. The males follow, broadcasting their milt over the roe. The eggs will hatch out in one to six days. Fingerlings remain in the shelter of the headwaters for a year or two before descending to bigger Bay waters.
    Finally spent of eggs, the females return downstream to Bay waters while the males stay on station until the females stop arriving. After the spawn has been completed. The fish then regroup and move out to their preferred haunts. Some gather near the Bay shorelines or over shell bottom flats in about 10 to 15 feet of water, others prefer moving back into the estuaries in two- to five-foot depths.
    Fishing for white perch in the springtime is generally a shallow-water experience. A light-action spin rod with six-pound test mono is the optimum tackle. Tipped with a small, weighted casting bobber and a shad dart, a grass shrimp, a minnow or a piece of worm as enticement, the rig is cast out from the shoreline and worked back in a slow, twitching motion.
    When fishing from a boat, target shallow shorelines during the flood tide, particularly areas near submerged brush, fallen trees, rocky edges and around docks or bulkheads. As low tide approaches, the fish tend to retreat to the deeper water. Then a top-and-bottom rig with a one-ounce sinker is a better producer for both shore and boat anglers.
    There is no minimum size nor possession limit for white perch, but a fish much under nine inches lacks enough meat to warrant harvesting.
    Their table quality is unequaled, whether baked, broiled, fried whole or filleted, rolled in panko and crisped in hot peanut oil. If you haven’t tried them, you’re missing out on a Bay treasure.

If an extraordinary day comes your way, grab your gear and get fishing

Friend and neighbor Frank Tuma and I were enjoying a combination shakedown cruise and yellow perch outing on the Magothy River. At Beachwood Park, we noted a number of anglers milling about with about as much success as we were enjoying, which was none. No one seemed to care. It was enough to get out on the water.
    Tossing minnows, spinner baits and small spoons separately and in combination, then just about everything else in the tackle box, we worked over shoreline spots thoroughly. Targeting fallen trees, derelict docks, jetties, groins and anywhere either of us had ever caught a fish, we exchanged stories of successes and disasters.
    I worked my two favorite outfits. One is a five-foot-four-inch, extra-fast-action Loomis GL2 spin rod with a Shimano Sahara 1000 reel spooled with six-pound P Line. The other is a six-foot St Croix medium-power casting rod paired with a Shimano Calcutta 1000 DC-level wind reel, spooled with 10-pound Power Pro.
    My buddy, ever the more practical and pragmatic of the two of us, used his trusty six-foot-six-inch, ultra-light spin rod of unknown provenance and a mystery spinning reel spooled with 10-pound Spider Line. Frank caught all the fish.
    After working the Upper Magothy to little effect, we explored the nearby creeks lower down the river, trying to rescue the day with a pickerel or two. At about noon, Frank hooked up with a real scrapper on an orange-and-yellow spinner bait with a lip-hooked minnow. I assisted by netting the flashing pickerel for a quick picture.
    Quite near the same spot, Frank then had another smashing strike. His rod bent over, and I could hear his reel grudgingly giving up line in fits and starts as the fish refused to come closer. The battle went on for long minutes, and the water boiled as the fish came near the surface again and again — Never close enough, however, to identify except as a big one.
    Guessing a really big pickerel, then perhaps an early-spawning rockfish, Frank worked the fish gradually closer while I threatened him with disgrace if he lost it. As it finally neared the boat and I leaned over with the net, we caught a flash of a brown and orange flank. Then it was gone. The hook had pulled.
    After a moment of anguish we laughed. This was what fishing was like — and we would have let the rascal go anyway. Now we were free to interpret the brute anyway we felt. It could have been a big channel cat, or perhaps a thick and powerful carp heading to spawn. I suggested a wayward cobia. That was preposterous, but it had been a long day and we were both getting a bit addled after such a successful late-winter’s day on the water.

Yellow perch are the first panfish of the emerging spring season

My rod tip was arced over so hard that the tip entered the water off to the side of the skiff. The drag on the tiny spin reel was groaning as it released a few yards of four-pound-test mono into the current and an unseen fish made its best effort at an escape. I pushed my slender stick up high to avoid fouling the line on the brush tips poking out of the water where the fish was heading.
    The water boiled as the fish neared the surface at the far shore. A glint of gold flashed against the morning rays of the sun. Bingo, just what I was hoping for. A yellow perch was on my line. Then another broach and a pair of flashes. Bonus: Two yellow perch were on my rig.
    Yellow perch are closer to gold or brass than yellow. They are also known as ring perch, neds or yellow neds. No one I have ever spoken to has an explanation for the ned part of the name. The ring aspect is due to six to eight, vertical, bright-olive stripes along the flanks of the delicious fish that give it the appearance of being ringed. In other parts of the country it is known as the raccoon perch, the lake perch, the American perch and the ringtail.
    Whatever you call it, the fish is the first panfish of the emerging spring season. It was once significantly more numerous than today and far more popular with anglers. But the Bay population has suffered over the years from commercial overfishing and the silt and lawn chemicals released from residential and commercial developments around the headwaters where they spawn. Of late, their numbers have been recovering due to Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ efforts at restricting commercial harvest so that our 300,000 recreational anglers could be apportioned half shares with the three-dozen or so netters that continue to harvest them.
    In February, yellow perch begin ascending the Bay tributaries, seeking to spawn in the freshwater sources where they were born. They feed on worms, insects, larvae, grass shrimp, minnows and other small fish and live in the more brackish waters of the Chesapeake during most of their life.
    This fish has a unique spawning characteristic. It releases its eggs encased in a long accordion-like membrane designed to hang up on rocks, brush or any stream structure that ensures the roe do not settle to the bottom. If the egg sacks do not remain suspended, they are far more likely to become covered with the silt and chemical residue that washes into the streams in the spring rains and much less likely to hatch out.
    The traditional angling method for ring perch is a light spin rod armed with a shad dart or two suspended under a casting bobber and tipped with grass shrimp, worms or small minnows. Four-pound test mono is just right for the task, but an angler can get away with up to eight-pound in a pinch.
    Fish the first of the flood around the shores of the headwaters or the last of the ebb at the deeper holes. Or fish whenever you can as the runs of perch during the spawning season are unpredictable.
    There is a nine-inch minimum size limit with a possession limit of 10. The citation size is 14 inches, and the state record is two pounds three ounces for tidal areas and three pounds five ounces for non-tidal.
    Scaling, eviscerating and beheading the fish will result in the tastiest preparation, but filleting the fish makes the end result boneless. Baking, broiling or breading and frying all result in a great meal. The traditional approach is a crispy coating and hot peanut-oil frying.
    The results are all the same: a delicious treat made all the more tasty because it’s the first fish dinner of the coming spring season.

Alex Perez knows how to reel them in

There is an old axiom in fishing that is as true today as when it was first coined, probably centuries ago: Ten percent of the anglers catch 90 percent of the fish. Those words came to mind as I canvassed local fishermen.
    Few anglers have caught consistently over the past month, but some who did reported not just a fish or two but exceptional catches. They also had the pictures to prove it. Among the notables is Alex Gallardo Perez, an accomplished Chesapeake Bay angler at just 22 years old.
    Beginning at the age of five at his birthplace in Wilmington, North Carolina, Alex was schooled in the angling arts by his dad, Candelario. Alex angled extensively for redfish, seatrout and flounder along the Atlantic seaside, but his first fishing memories are of Acapulco, Mexico, his father’s birthplace, where he and his family vacationed summers.
    Surf-fishing the Pacific with a light eight-foot rod, young Alex tangled with ocean panfish, snook and roosterfish on almost every trip. His first trophy fish was a 150-pound yellowfin tuna hooked off of Acapulco when he was a boy of nine. He fought the fish to boatside by himself, but his dad and uncle had to help him get the beast into the boat. Alex has been an almost fanatical angler ever since.
    After the family moved to the Annapolis area about 14 years ago as his dad expanded his construction business, Alex began to pursue rockfish (best so far, 43 inches), white perch (a 13-plus-incher), yellow perch (15 inches and over two pounds) and largemouth bass (seven pounds). His biggest catch to date is a sand tiger shark of about 111⁄2 feet and 400 pounds, caught and released two years ago in Ocean City.
    These days Alex fishes almost exclusively from his 12-foot Hobie Outback kayak, as it gives him excellent access to most Chesapeake waters as well as enabling him to fish well up in the tributaries and launch just about anywhere he can see water.
    Alex lure-fishes for all the Bay species, casting and trolling crank baits and spinner baits as well as jig fishing and, occasionally, live bait. He also competes in freshwater bass kayak tournaments with the Mid-Atlantic Kayak Bass Fishing Series. His first full season, just last year, Alex won the Rookie of the Year award.
    He attributes his success to consistency and determination, fishing from morning till dark on his free days and even before and after work at Anglers Sports Center in Annapolis. He explores the waters thoroughly, often finding concentrations of fish overlooked by more experienced anglers.
    “People get used to fishing the same areas the same ways and forget that fish can change their habits from year to year and begin showing up where they once didn’t frequent,” he says. “An angler has to remain flexible and innovative and never take anything for granted.”

Chesapeake oysters and rockfish

The way to anyone’s heart on Valentine’s Day is through their stomach. That means seafood in our neck of the woods.
    The recreational season for rockfish is closed, but the commercial season is in full swing. Caught in the cold winter waters of the Chesapeake, these stripers will be extra fresh and tasty. Purchase one generous fillet for each guest. The flesh should be firm, never slimy, and have a pleasing smell with a slight sweet edge.
    My favorite appetizers are oysters, well chilled and on the half-shell. A dozen oysters will do for two people.
    Rinse the oysters well and scrub them with a stiff brush; otherwise some of the grit may get transferred onto the meat. Opening an oyster is easier than it looks, and you don’t need specialized equipment. I often use just a flathead screwdriver and a stout glove for my left hand as I am a righty. With a gloved hand, hold the oyster firmly against a wooden or similar non-slip surface with the domed side down and insert the screwdriver or oyster-shucking knife. Dig it into the hinge and give it a good firm twist until the muscles that hold it closed are separated.
    Next insert a slim, sharp blade or the oyster knife between the two shells. First, angle the blade up against the flatter side of the oyster to cut through the muscle holding the meat to that part of the shell. Then remove the top shell and do the same to the lower half. Be careful not to spill any of the oyster liquor. Carefully place the half-shell on a plate covered in crushed ice.
    Inspect the oyster for bits of shell or debris and carefully pick out any you find. Never rinse an opened oyster, as this washes away the flavor. Put a half-dozen on a plate and cover with plastic wrap if you’re not serving them immediately. Lemon and Tabasco are my favorite condiments, though many like a simple horseradish or cocktail sauce.
    Rockfish can be quickly and reliably rendered with a type of pan broil. Preheat the oven to 275 degrees. Slather the fish in olive oil and sprinkle generously with salt and ground pepper. Place the fillets in a hot, heavy skillet — cast iron is ideal — and quickly brown on one side. Then turn, adding more oil if necessary. After about a minute transfer the pan to the oven for about 15 minutes. The fillets are done when they flake firmly.
    Just before serving, anoint the fillets with melted lemon butter; then dust with paprika and chopped fresh dill. Large steamed carrots served in four to five inch sections are especially good this time of year. Cooking them in large pieces preserves just an extra bit of the sweet, earthy flavor.
    Yukon gold or red-skinned potatoes diced, steamed until they’ve just become tender (about 10 minutes) and sprinkled with parsley are also an excellent side dish, as is steamed, fresh spinach, drained well and anointed with a bit of mustard vinaigrette.
    For desert, try my quick Cherries Jubilee recipe that has pleased friends and family over the years. Place shallow bowls with generous ice cream servings in the freezer before dinner to make things quicker. After everyone has eaten and the plates have been cleared, open a can of cherry pie filling. You may want to conceal the can to maintain a bit of mystery.
    In a shallow saucepan, melt two tablespoons of butter; add most of the pie filling. Gently stir until combined, then add in the contents of a mini bottle of cognac or brandy (one and a half ounces) and mix again. Serve the bowls of ice cream, then pour more of the liquor over the cherries and carefully light on fire. Pause for effect before ladling out the still burning mixture over each ice cream. Bon appetite!

Once upon a time, this fish meant food and sport in early spring

Mention the word gudgeon to any Bay angler, and you’ll usually get a quizzical look. It was not always so.
    The gudgeon (Gobio gobio) is a small (up to five inches) schooling fish of the carp family that lives in our brackish waters but spawns in fresh water. They will sometimes appear in good numbers in our tributaries in early springtime, sprint to more lonesome areas to procreate, then disappear to whence they came.
    Francis F. Beirne, a Maryland historian, documented the gudgeon runs in his 1951 tome, The Amiable Baltimorean (reprinted in 1984), as a long-ago springtime obsession. Describing schools of the little fish in the “tens of thousands pulsing up the Gunpowder watershed” in the early 1920s, he noted crowds of waiting anglers, armed with slender cane poles, sewing thread for line, a small bobber and a tiny hook baited with a pinch of worm.
    The catches were often in the hundreds. Cleaned, dusted with seasoned flour and fried a crispy brown, along with red-skinned potatoes, the gudgeon were a gourmand’s treat. Over intervening years the runs have fallen with the quality of our waters.
 

    The presence of gudgeon each springtime is not limited to the Gunpowder River; the fish can be found in most of our freshwater tributaries. Their timing is impossible to predict, but most schools appear coincidently with those of the herring and hickory shad. Dogwood blossoms predict the peak of the season.
    The fish are rarely caught accidentally because of their small size and smaller mouths, so an angler has to be fishing for them purposefully with hooks originally designed for trout flies (size 22 through 14), lightly weighted and fished off the bottom, usually with a tiny bobber. Rarely these days, the schools can be spotted nearer the surface circulating through the swifter waters, awaiting the proper conditions to continue upstream to spawn.
    Approaching the fish with a fly rod, a floating line and a tiny, bright-colored silver or gold fly can also be an effective method of catching them. Hildebrandt Lure Co. makes a small, Flicker Spinner fly rod lure in size 0 (1⁄32 oz.) that may be effective and can also be used with a light spin rod with a small bobber for casting weight.
    Maryland Department of Natural Resources does not regulate gudgeon specifically. It is considered in the same vein as our other common minnows and can be harvested similarly. For hook and line or dip net, there are neither limits nor closed seasons. Keep in mind, though, that their numbers are limited, so if you happen upon a good concentration of them, moderation is prudent.
    It may seem like an outsized labor to catch such a diminutive fish, but it connects us to an old Maryland angling and dining tradition.

Thick and blue is tried and true; thin and crispy is way too risky

Shivering, I resettled my stool, a plastic five-gallon pail, and reached for the skimming spoon. Easing over to the two holes we had spudded in the six-inch-thick ice an hour earlier, I scooped the already thickening slush threatening to close them. Meanwhile, I hoped that my mother hadn’t noticed her favorite slotted spoon missing from its peg in the kitchen.
    That long ago late January, temperatures were in the low teens as a friend and I perched, cold and uncomfortable, on the middle of the solidly frozen Presque Isle Bay. The sheltered piece of water is formed by a sandy 3,200-acre peninsula about halfway between Cleveland and Buffalo on Lake Erie.
    We were keeping a close eye on the tiny ice fishing poles perched at the edge of the two ice holes. Around us were scattered the trophies of our angling efforts: yellow perch, crappie and a few bluegills, frozen rigid within minutes on the ice.
    It takes at least four inches of the hard stuff before it is safe to venture forth. (Thick and blue is tried and true; thin and crispy is way too risky). When that happens, you are in a mesmerizing environment.
    The problem with Maryland winter, from my perspective, is that temperatures usually don’t remain low enough for long enough to support winter sports, like ice fishing.
    Except for one spot: Deep Creek Lake State Park. The largest lake in the state with 69 miles of shoreline and an average depth of 25 feet, Deep Creek is in Garrett County at the southern edge of Meadow Mountain in the Allegheny Highlands, where it frequently gets cold enough, long enough, to fish through the ice.
    Yellow perch are one of the more common catches there, fat and muscular in readiness for their impending spawn. Big crappie, too, often over 12 inches, plus large bluegills and occasionally some walleye, pickerel and northern pike.
    Garrett Hoffman is a recognized ice-fishing expert there, fishing the area since he was nine years old. A DNR-certified guide, Hoffman also has the specialized equipment to enjoy the sport to its fullest.
    Tip-ups are small ice fishing outfits designed to be placed right in your 10-inch diameter fishing hole. A small attached flag springs up smartly when you get a bite. The springing action also produces enough tension to set the hook, so all you have to do is reel in your catch.
    Small (24-inch) specialized spin rods are also available for jigging, one of the more productive methods of enticing the slow-moving fish, swimming in 33-degree water, to bite. Fathead minnows are the best bait, but wax worms and maggots work too.
    From a comfort standpoint, the most important gear for ice fishing is the fishing shanty, a pop-up shelter comfortably seating two or three anglers, keeping them warm if not toasty and protecting them from all but the wildest windstorms.
    Hoffman also has the proper ice auger to drill fish holes and strainer spoons to keep the holes ice-free. He is also the only ice guide in the area — if not the state: 301-616-6232.

Black squirrels once were common in America before European migration

Peering out the front window with my first cup of coffee this morning, I was rewarded with the sight of at least a half dozen squirrels cavorting on my snow-covered lawn, running up and down the trees, chasing each other and creating a maelstrom of snow powder and furry activity.
    One of the frisking rascals, I noticed with surprise, was melanistic, a black phase of our common gray squirrel. Though fairly rare (one in 10,000) these days, the jet-black variety is a handsome mutation and jogged some interesting facts loose in my memory.
    Winter storm warnings of about two inches of snow had been choking the airwaves. Despite having been born and raised around the snow-bound Great Lakes and immunized to such hysterics, I did begin to feel concern for the neighborhood critters. Which is why I had piled an ample supply of corn and seeds under the sheltering hull of my trailered skiff for the squirrels and birds.
    This, of course, made my yard quite a gathering place for local wildlife, including the black squirrel (which, I later found, regularly lives about a block away). Black squirrels, I also discovered, were much more common in America and perhaps even dominant in many large areas before Europeans began migrating to North America.
    Heavily forested with mature hardwoods, the dense canopy of the pre-settlement forests was not readily penetrated by sunlight. Dim light provided an advantage to the darker coloration of the melanistic squirrel variety. They were not as visible as the grays were to the many owls and hawks that were their principle predators.
    Agricultural, however, soon changed that. Clearing the forests to provide for shelter, fuel, farming and livestock likely left the darker-colored squirrels more visible in the now semi-forested areas. Since black offspring are common only when both parent squirrels are black (the black gene being recessive), the black variant began to give way to the gray as the dominant squirrel variety.
    Today the gray is far more common throughout their ranges. But exceptions remain. When I arrived in this area to work for the Department of Agriculture, I lived in Washington, D.C., where I was surprised to note a large number of black squirrels in the parks surrounding DuPont Circle and the Executive Office Building grounds. I distinctly recall one female, quite friendly, that lived near my apartment and sported a tiny rhinestone collar.
    It turned out that the National Zoo had imported 18 black squirrels from Canada (where they remained relatively common) during Teddy Roosevelt’s administration (1901-1909). They were released on zoo grounds, quickly became acclimated, then spread throughout the city, which had previously lacked any appreciable squirrel population.
    Today, Maryland (at College Park and Joppatowne), Kansas, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Pennsylvania, among other states, are noted as having populations or concentrations of black squirrels. Their exact source is undetermined or at least undocumented. More I don’t know, just as I don’t know how this one came to my yard.


Seen any black squirrels? Tell us where and when: editor@bayweekly.com.
 

A triumph of hope over experience

The 18th century English writer Samuel Johnson got it as right about New Year’s resolutions as about his original subject, marriage. That thought struck me as I attempted to set personal goals for the New Year, hoping these meet with more success than usual.
    I’m going to have to exercise to increase my energy and endurance throughout the winter if I am to mount the kind of fishing campaign I intend to begin in just four short months.
    Resolution Two is to simplify my tackle. Over the years I have accumulated an excess, to the point of hindering my activities. An angler does not need to choose from 100 lures when on the water. A dozen will do. I know many an angler who excels with less than half a dozen.
    Divesting myself of all of these lures is not without pain. I’ll have to find someone who wants them, for I can’t throw them away, and there is no practical market for used fishing lures. And I must do it well before the next season begins so there is no temptation to hold on to them.
    Resolution Three is to cull my outdoor clothes. My wife pointed that out just last week as she gathered used items for a Purple Heart collection. A lucky fishing shirt is difficult to resign to the rag bin, even if its elbows are holed. A significant portion of my many ball caps suggest they may also be well past their due date. I must send them all off without pity.
    Last comes the most painful resolution of all. I had some great angling successes last season but also some disappointments. I told myself that the brutal August heat dampened the bite for the following months as well. I was wrong.
    I have come to acknowledge my reluctance to rise early in the morning as the reason my later season fell off.
    Six o’clock may be early in the spring when the water temperatures are in the 50s and the bite will only get better as the sun brings more warmth to the depths. But from mid-August on, the fish will be on the move at the first blush of light when the water is at its coolest and most comfortable for them.
    That means rising at no later than 4am — and not just one or two mornings, when I feel conditions may be perfect, but every morning to give all of my sorties a better chance of success. The thought of that early hour brings tears to my eyes. But again, it must be done in 2017 or my freezer will be empty again next winter.