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Articles by Dennis Doyle

When the rockfish wanted to wrangle, I was more than ready

Trepidation is the condition of being uncertain of a situation’s outcome to the point of anxiety. Trepidation was also an apt description of my mental state as I prepped my casting rod and checked the three-quarter-ounce surface popper I had chosen to begin my quest.
    I had just lowered my skiff’s Power Pole anchor onto the far end of a sunken rock jetty that ran for a good 70 yards from a boulder-encrusted shoreline. A few years ago this time of year, I had many a fantastic late afternoon tempting rockfish into attacking virtually anything that splashed or popped through the rips that formed here.
    Over the last few seasons, however, the area had become mysteriously bereft of fish. Though I continued to visit, my efforts had mostly resulted in a lot of nothing.
    As I tried yet once again, I steeled myself for another angling defeat in spite of the excellent conditions: calm water, a good high tide and little wind. Waiting some long minutes for the wake from my skiff’s arrival to dissipate along the empty shoreline, I finally lifted the rod and sent an easy cast arcing out over the water to what had once been a sweet spot in a prominent rip.
    It’s my habit to thumb the cast as it approaches the water, not only to prevent an over-run but also to eliminate any slack in the line and make certain that the lure lands tail-end first. As soon as it splashes I give it a short spurt, my theory being that the prompt movement assures any striped predator alerted to the noise of the fall that that particular creature is alive and attempting to escape.
    My effort to action the plug was a failure — due not to any slack in my line but to something big having already eaten the lure. As I came tight, I added a little extra effort to ensure a hook set. The explosion that followed sent a column of water almost as high as my soaring spirits.
    One of the pleasures of hooking a good fish on a top-water bait is seeing it try to shake loose from the attacking lure’s grasp. This hefty rockfish rocketed from the water sideways, swinging its head and body recklessly across the top of the rip, submerged and re-emerged in a frothy surface tantrum. Then it headed for deeper water.
    After a patient struggle, I led an exhausted and silvery fish into the net. Exhilarated, I removed the lure from the fish’s mouth, took a quick picture and eased it into a bed of ice. I planned to celebrate this victory more than once.
    Another cast toward the same rip was rewarded with an instant blowup. Nerves somehow in check, I managed to keep from striking at the sound of the exploding water. My plug hung suspended about two feet in the air above the roiled surface. As it fell back, it was attacked and, again, sent flying, then sent flying again. Apparently these fish were in a mood to play with their food. Eventually retrieving the lure, I sent it out to a different area. The same thing happened, but this time one of the fish finally caught a hook, and another fight was on.
    This extravaganza went on until dark when, despite the lingering bite, I picked up and headed home. A clear sky and big moon gave me plenty of light to avoid the crab buoys as I exulted all the way home.

Give your tackle a good cleaning

As much as we hate to admit it, this year’s fishing season is winding down. It’s suddenly colder, a lot colder than just a half-month ago. Fall’s remaining weeks will be punctuated by periods of frustrating, unfishable, windy weather. However this forced downtime can give the wise angler a head start on winterizing tackle.
    Looking about my study, cluttered haphazardly with an embarrassing number of rods and reels, I see that their once clean and glistening finishes have been overcome by the dull sheen of salt evaporation and fish slime. A few of the outfits have collected samples of amorphous unknown substances.
    Even rigs that I use until winter puts a full stop to fishing need a little maintenance during breezy periods. Renewing reel lubricants and checking drag smoothness can have critical impact in the remaining season, as the possibility of hooking a big fish that will test every aspect of your tackle is never better than at this time of year.
    Over my many seasons, I’ve discovered it’s best to begin the fall maintenance effort by giving everything an outside shower. I start by lining up every rod and reel I’ve used against my front porch and rinsing them with a soft spray from the garden hose, followed by a general soap-and-water scrubbing, then another gentle rinse.
    The rest of winterizing can be done in stages.
    After the general cleaning, use a stiff toothbrush or car-detailing brush dipped in a strong detergent (no abrasives, please) on the more stubborn areas of dirt accumulation.
    Next focus on each rod’s guide to ensure it is clean and has not been damaged. A cracked guide ring that can be hard to see will shred a line faster than a barnacle-coated piling.
    The best test for guide-ring integrity is pulling a short section of fabric cut from pantyhose through the ring. Any defect is snagged by its fine mesh. A damaged guide should be replaced ASAP; it cannot be repaired, and continuing to use a rod with a bad guide is a recipe for angling disaster.
    Then go over all of the rods’ reel seats, first removing the reel, then scrubbing the seat and its locking mechanism and giving it a good application of heavy-duty silicone. Don’t use grease; it will attract and hold dust and dirt.
    Wipe off each reel with a rag moistened with WD-40 as it’s a great solvent, then give it a light coat of silicone as well. Soak down the mono and braid on your reels with a line conditioner, a great antidote for the salt accumulated over the season. If you don’t use a conditioner, that salt will continue to suck the softeners and lubricants out of the line over winter.
    Next, scrub all cork rod handles with a wet sponge or rag (but never a brush) generously anointed with an abrasive cleanser. Rinse them well. When they are thoroughly dry, go over them with pure neatsfoot oil. That will repair the past season’s exposure damage and keep the cork young over the coming winter months.
    Finally, dress the male ferrules on any multi-piece rod by rubbing them with candle wax or paraffin. Thus treated, the sections will never stick together and won’t separate while fishing. Additionally, the thin wax coating will minimize ferrule wear.
    If you subsequently find that you have the need to use an outfit that you’ve already winterized, just think of it as a lucky break. You’re lucky to have another chance to fish again this season and lucky in the knowledge that your tackle is in first-rate condition and up to any challenge the fall finale might bring.

Could these long-necked fish-eaters be a ­looming threat?

I noticed the first few cormorants on the Bay in the early 1990s, though I didn’t think much about their appearance at the time. Cormorants had been absent from the Chesapeake, their numbers driven down by pesticides, particularly DDT. The otherwise large populations stretching across the northeast coast down through Florida cushioned them from total exhaustion.
    Over the intervening years, since the banning of those pesticides, their numbers have been rapidly expanding to include a Chesapeake Bay population. The double-crested cormorant, the species now common throughout the Bay, is a large, heavy-bodied black seabird with a sharp beak (curved at the end for catching fish) and a small patch of yellow-orange facial coloring. During their nesting season, both sexes sport prominent white-feathered crests above their eyes for which they’ve earned their double-crested name.
    Airborne, they resemble a small goose with an even wing beat and often fly in large groups called flights. They are a handsome bird, with a slim head, long neck and graceful profile, Though cormorants have a slender profile, their necks are expandable and they can swallow fish 10 to 12 inches in length.
    As diving birds, cormorants can chase their prey, virtually any species of fish, deep underwater, swimming with the aid of their wings. They are able to stay submerged for minutes at a time and cover large distances underwater.
    Most birds are hollow-boned to aid in flight, but the cormorant’s bones are solid to provide strength as well as weight to help them dive. Their feathers are not completely waterproof, again an aid to diving, and that is also why you see the birds perched, holding their wings open to dry and enable them to once again get airborne. Perched and drying their wings, they have an ominous, dark appearance. Worse, say some commercial fishermen, is their appetite.
    Pound netters suffer particularly as the birds have learned to target their fish traps where menhaden, herring, alewife, perch and rockfish make easy pickings. Flocks can gather quickly and eat ravenously. One area waterman told me cormorants had gathered in the hundreds to devour thousands of small white perch that had become trapped in his pound net.
    Seeing large flights of cormorants this season, I wondered if they could become a problem for free-swimming fish. Maryland Department of Natural Resources confirms a resident Chesapeake population of some 4,000 nesting pairs. Those resident birds annually consume an estimated three million pounds of fish of all species. Northerly cormorants also make the Bay their southern wintering grounds — and bring their appetites.
    Adding to the problem is guano from nesting cormorants, which has killed areas of critical wetlands vegetation. Their presence has also driven other species of native Bay seabirds off their traditional and limited nesting grounds.
    Hunting cormorants was banned during earlier periods of population decline. So we may be seeing another surge in a bird population that can be unhealthy, particularly in sensitive areas such as the Chesapeake.

For my youngest’s 24th, a hard-fighting false ­albacore

It has been quite a while since I heard a reel drag shriek. I had to go to Florida to hear it — not once but three times in minutes.
    My youngest son, Rob, was holding the protesting rig as a powerful fish departed at speed. Harrison, my next oldest at 27, was live-lining a small pilchard farther down the pier when his reel also began to wail as line ripped off the spool.
    Their friend Matt then joined in the cacophony. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw his rod jerk down and the reel spool turn into a blur accompanied by another high-pitched drag howl.
    False albacore (average weight eight pounds) are one of the fastest fish in the sea at 40 knots. The boys were getting first-hand knowledge of just how speedy and powerful they can be. A first run in excess of 100 yards is about average on light tackle for this most numerous member of the tuna family.
    At the end of that run they’ve broken off, slipped the hook or paused, momentarily, to wonder where the rest of the school has gotten. That’s not the end of the fight, merely the beginning.
    The fact that all three of my party had hooked up, almost simultaneously, on that Florida fishing pier had nothing to do with my guidance, unless you count selecting the right mentor.
    The most convenient location to fish saltwater around Delray Beach, Florida — where my youngest is living and Harrison and I were visiting — was a long public fishing pier projecting into the ocean along the sandy eastern Florida shoreline.
    I had little firsthand knowledge of the local fishing. That was supplied by Vinny Keitt, a dedicated Florida pier angler who has been teaching the intricacies of that form for almost 30 years. Vinny is a giant of a man. Six and a half feet tall and broad, he presented an imposing figure strolling onto the pier, pulling a custom flatbed with rods, reels, gear and coolers.
    Greeting him was every person on the fairly crowded pier, from 12-year-olds fishing worn family spin tackle to everyday anglers to knowing sports wielding custom-made graphite rods rigged with Van Staals and high-end Shimanos. A well-dressed middle-aged woman proffered a sizeable king mackerel by its tail and exclaimed, “Look, Vinny, just like you taught me!”
    Soft-spoken and with a seasoned teacher’s manner, Vinny, selected a light spin rod rigged with a sabiki — six tiny hooks dressed with white feathers and a one-ounce sinker. Within a few seconds, he reeled back up the rig now wriggling with three or four small pilchard baitfish that had latched on below.
    He then placed a pilchard, nose-hooked and weightless, onto each of our medium spin rods, tossed the baits out and handed us the outfits with a few concise instructions. Within a very short time, each angler was struggling with a two- to three-pound blue runner, a hard-fighting fish of the jack family.
    The bite escalated from there, culminating an hour later in our hookups with the false albacore plus an awesome jump from a 60-pound tarpon before it spit Harrison’s hook.

Hauling in jimmies cradling sooks

The big crabs were coming fast, furious and two at a time. My buddy, Mike Fiore, was in the bow holding a crab net crammed full of doublers. He was finding so many of the big males cradling females and clinging to the concrete bridge columns just below the water’s surface that he hadn’t time to shake one set out of the net before we were onto the next.
    “This is unbelievable,” he whooped in excitement. “I’ve never seen so many doublers.”
    Nor had I, and the fact that we hadn’t intended to go crabbing that morning made it more all the better.
    We didn’t have a basket on board to store the crabs, so Mike was simply dropping them onto the deck. There was soon scarcely room to move about in the skiff, with crabs two deep and scuttling in search of a return to the water.
    We had that net only because we intended to catch some big white perch. A crab net is the ideal landing device to ensure that a big heavy black back won’t be lost while over the side of the boat.
    The perch outing was a bust. Despite an early arrival, by mid-morning we had virtually nothing to show. The fish were not there, though we worked the likeliest areas with our best spinner baits.
    We exhausted Plan A and went into Plan B areas with no improvement. With a couple of peeler crabs and some bloodworms for a deeper-water Plan C, we headed for a not-too-distant bridge.
    As I eased my skiff up to a piling so that Mike could drop his top-and-bottom rig on the down-current side where we hoped some jumbo perch would be laying up (they weren’t), he blurted out, “Man there’s a couple of really big doublers hanging onto this column.”
    The baited top-and-bottom rig he had prepared never got wet as he laid down his outfit and wielded our perch landing device (the crab net) to bring the big jimmy and its date on board. Shaking them onto the deck, he leaned out and netted a second, then a third.
    “Dang, look, they’re all over the place,” he observed.
    The crabs kept coming.
    A successful angler can adapt to changing conditions. The conditions that day had changed drastically. We went from angling for white perch to harvesting blue crabs.
    I maneuvered our light craft close around each bridge support in turn, and Mike scooped up the doublers. After about an hour of working just a portion of the pilings, we had an astonishing number of crabs crawling the deck.
    Creating a couple of makeshift measuring devices marked at 5½ inches to ensure we didn’t keep any undersized crabs, we culled through the lot. Pitching the females plus all of the males even close to undersized, we still ended up with nearly a bushel of nice jimmies.
    Temporarily holding the keepers in our fish box while culling, we were then faced with another problem. A cooler is a poor place to store crabs as there is no air circulation. We had no other container and were almost an hour from home, so we dumped the keepers back onto the deck and began the run to the boat ramp.
    During the trip back, as I moved my flip-flop clad foot to discourage a big jimmy that was seeking shelter in my shadow, the motion was enough to trigger a typical crab response. It latched onto my big toe.
    With tears of pain and laughter running down my cheek, I held my foot still and the boat up on plane until the beast got bored and released my aching digit. The delicious crab feast we held that night was more than enough payback.

A hard fighter and incom­parable on the table

The previous two fish were a 10- and an 11-incher, but when I cinched this perch it was clearly a more formidable adversary. Boring for deep water in an extended, measured run, the perch then paused and just plain refused to budge. I lifted my rod and tried to pull him toward the surface but found it almost impossible to gain line.
    Having lost a number of big perch trying to out-muscle them, I patiently kept a deep bend in my stick. Eventually the fish began to move, steadily and away. I was at a loss for what to do next.
    The primary goal that morning had been to get some nice white perch for dinner. The secondary goal was to be off the water by 11am, when the August sun would begin to really throw its heat around.
    While I’ll launch my skiff in the wee hours before dawn when the water is at its coolest, I have never been a morning person. Luckily I didn’t have to rise early for these fish. The white perch is one species in the Bay that is almost immune to warm temperatures.
    The whitey is also as sporty as they come, a hard fighter, easy to lose and incomparable on the table, especially when fried. The only possible shortcoming is the perch’s modest size, but that can be remedied by matching the tackle to the fish.

Tackle Tips
    My favorite rods for tangling with these spunky fish, especially in shallow water where they can really show off their stuff, are a pair of light, Loomis five-footers with full-length cork grips and Shimano Sahara 1000 reels spooled with four- to six-pound mono.
    I throw a variety of lures, and each can be superior depending on the circumstances. Spinner baits are, overall, the most productive class of lures. A 1/6-ounce Super Rooster Tail in Clown Coach Dog or Chartreuse Dalmatian are superior for water up to four feet deep and have been the most popular perch lures in the mid-Bay for the last half-dozen years or so.
    A more recent addition, the Capt. Bert’s Perch Pounder in orange and black (Jamie’s Halloween) is fast overtaking the Roosters in terms of fish catching. These baits also work well in deeper water up to six feet and feature a single, fixed, super-sharp Gamagatsu hook that resists bottom fouling and makes de-hooking the fish a great deal easier.  Deeper water lures include the Kastmasters and the P-Line Laser Minnows.
    White perch of all sizes can usually be found in the shallows around rock jetties, piers and docks, fallen shoreline trees, any kind of rip-rapped edges and any deeper underwater structures such as bridge supports, rock piles, oyster reefs or sunken boats. The more remote, hard-to-find or difficult-to-access structures have the best chance of holding larger fish.

Back to the Fish at Hand
    It took some long and anxious minutes before my monster finally began to tire. Early in the battle I was suspicious that the rascal was a rockfish in disguise but its steady, determined runs and thumping head shakes convinced me that it was an old, thick shouldered, black back.
    Netting the beast as it finally emerged from the depths, I was still astonished by its size. Measured from the fork in its tail to the tip of the nose, it registered a solid 13¾ inches, my personal best in 35 years of fishing the Chesapeake. As contrast, it would take a rockfish of more than 36 inches on light tackle to equal the thrill of landing this outsized perch, indeed a trophy.
    Six perch that day easily provided dinner for me and my wife. I filleted the fish (the big one turned out to be a male), then cut each into finger-eating-sized portions. Rolled in panko crumbs, fried to a golden-brown in peanut oil and served with fresh, Eastern Shore sweet corn and sliced tomatoes, it was a meal to remember.

Trotline your way to a pickin’ party

Heading out from the ramp in a late morning sortie for white perch, I encountered a solo crabber’s boat at the edge of the channel. He was pulling in his trotline from the stern and looked up as my skiff approached.
    Seeking info on the crab catch, I gave him the sign language gesture asking how he was doing (arms open and a questioning look on my face). Shaking his head. he indicated problems. I killed my engine and drifted closer.
    “My line got tangled first thing; It took almost an hour to get it cleared. Then the side of my basket broke open,” he indicated with a flip of his head toward the shattered pieces of a wooden bushel in the bow. “The crabs got out and they’re crawling all over the boat. I’m going home.”
    “Bad day then,” I answered.
    “No, a great day,” he replied. “I got almost a bushel already. I’m just tired of them trying to crawl up my legs.”
    I gave him a thumbs-up as I restarted my motor. He flashed a big grin and resumed retrieving his line.

Do It Yourself    
    Finally, a good year for crabbing. After three years of Maryland Department of Natural Resources promising that crab numbers were improving, they are. Bouncing back from the slow recovery of a female population once again driven into near collapse by commercial over-harvest, the recreational crabbing season is proving a good one.
    Recreational crabbers can once again expect to get a family crab dinner with their own hands in a reasonable day’s effort, though DNR continues to add constraints on recreational crabbers: no female harvest, reduced trot line length and delayed starting time (all to favor the commercial sector). There’s no better crab than what you yourself provide.
    Feasting on succulent blue crabs a mere two or three hours out of the water is one of the finest epicurean experiences a Marylander can have. Just about anyone can catch their own, with a minimum of equipment, although a boat of some kind (even a borrowed kayak) is required to get the job done with a trotline.
    The trotline is the best, most effective device for catching crabs in any quantity. Six hundred feet is the current legal maximum for one crabber. If you fix a chicken neck bait every four feet on your line, that’s 125 baits (about 10 pounds of necks).
    Motoring, paddling or quietly pulling yourself down the crab line and netting each crab as it lifts up from the bottom, you can now expect to fill a basket in under a day. Starting early is the key as the crabs will usually stop moving to feed by about 11am and won’t start up again until later in the afternoon. On cloudy days, the bite may stay steady.
    Anchored on either end and marked by identical buoys, the trotline is kept on the bottom by about three feet of galvanized chain on each end. Constantly running the line with a wire-basket net will maximize the catch you will accumulate in the traditional split-wood bushel basket. The current minimum size for a male crab is 5¼ inches.
    Choose a day with a good tide running right from the start, for crabs move with the tidal current, and you need a steadily moving crab population to keep your trot line producing.
    If you’re not catching and the tidal current is moving, try another location. The one you’re at is probably not going to work.
    Area sports stores or crabbing stores offer the most affordable supply of line for crabbing and can fill in the details of just how to set it up, how to tie the slip knot for the chicken necks and the current depth where crabs are being found (right now it’s between six and 10 feet). They’ll also have a ready supply of chicken necks and the proper nets, anchors and floats.
    Crabs inhabit just about every body of water that feeds the Chesapeake. As long as you’ve got a good run of water (i.e., 600 feet) of the proper depth you have an excellent likelihood of catching Mr. (but not Mrs.) Blue Crab.

Plan B might be your score

I lifted my rod tip to strike and felt a solid resistance. The small rod bowed. About 30 feet from the boat, I saw the swirl of a fish breaching just under the surface. Then my drag started to sing. We were in the skinny water just off of a rocky Bay shoreline and throwing Capt. Bert’s Perch Pounders.
    There was either a really big white perch at the end of my line — or a lurking rockfish had fallen victim to my black-and-orange spinner bait. After about 50 yards of line had sizzled off of my small spin reel, I was guessing rockfish. It headed into open water and had my thin six-pound mono stretched tight and singing with tension.
    It was becoming a long run, even for a striper. Since less than half my line remained on the spool, I raised the Power Pole anchor to chase the speedy devil. Starting up the Yamaha, I eased out from shore and followed the fleeing fish. It finally slowed and allowed me to put some line back on my reel.
    Lifting and reeling, I brought the fish nearer until it decided it didn’t like that development and took off running again. Within a few short seconds, my line supply was again reduced. I put the motor back in gear and resumed pursuit.
    That I was enjoying the situation was an understatement. I hadn’t had such a tussle in weeks, and the fact that it was on a light five-foot rod didn’t diminish the experience. Determined not to lose this torpedo, I kept the rod pressure moderate, constant and off to the side.

Fishing Against the Tide
    This had turned out to be a fine day.
    Low tide was to have been at 5am on the charts, so when we splashed the boat at 7:30am we felt the current should be on the point of reversal, if not solidly incoming. However, the water at the Sandy Point boat ramp was just under the finger piers, hardly low-tide conditions.
    Arriving at one of our favorite Bay Bridge supports, we found no current. The water was flat calm, and my finder was blank of any fish marks. In anticipation of the imminent arrival of the current along with Mr. Rockfish, we began to live-line small spot down around the supports
    An hour into our efforts the water was still as dead as the bite, not surprising since rockfish are always reticent to actively feed unless there is current. The Bay, unfortunately, often runs its own tide schedule regardless of the printed versions. This was just another incidence of its fickleness.
    Should we continue live-lining and hope — or resort to Plan B? Having been at the mercy of tideless days on the Chesapeake, we had included in our tackle arsenal a couple of perch rigs, a supply of Bert’s Perch Pounders and some of our favorite Rooster Tails. Thus we voted for Plan B.
    After a quick run to shallow water, our fortunes improved. Thick and hungry white perch were hanging on almost every rocky erosion jetty that came out from the shoreline. They attacked our lures with gratifying vigor regardless of the lack of tidal current. There were a lot of nine-inch fish, but there were also some heavy-shouldered black-backs that passed the ten-inch mark.
    Then along came that Olympic-level rockfish. Eventually, I managed the marathon sprinter into my net. Surprisingly it measured just barely 20 inches; I had assumed it to be larger from the way it had resisted capture.
    Once on ice, it might shrink below the minimum size. I decided this particular fish’s fighting genes should be passed on to as many offspring as it might manage, so I eased it back over the side.
    By 10:30, the sun was getting oppressive, and we had enough big perch on ice to supply dinner for six.

Their lifespan is just too short

My German shorthair pointer, Sophie, passed away this past winter after 13 years of memorable companionship. Her absence is almost as imposing as was her presence. A flicker of movement off to the side still makes me turn my head, expecting her to bound up to my side. Returning home, I can’t help but look for her bright eyes shining in a front window as she somehow anticipates my arrival once again.
    “A dog’s lifespan is too short,” author Agnes Turnbull once said, “their only fault, really.” I’ve had the good fortune to know a number of dogs, and almost every one was so special and their passing so painful that right now I can’t bear the thought of going through it again. Of course, I will eventually weaken.
    The variety of dogs to choose from is more diverse than ever. Hunting dogs, or the sporting dog group according to the American Kennel Club, are my preference for both a pet and a field companion, for we share a similar inclination. This group of dogs includes Labrador and golden retrievers, Brittany and springer spaniels, pointers, setters and similar breeds.
    These animals are also more likely to be well behaved and intelligent as those traits are critical to their purpose in the field. They are easily trained as well, and most quickly acclimate to a family setting, ­especially if introduced while young. They do, however, expect to be exercised and taken afield.
    I also like working dogs, bred to perform tasks such as guarding property and persons, pulling sleds, water rescue and such. The more common breeds are the Rottweiler, the Doberman pinscher, the Siberian husky and the Great Dane. All are generally quite intelligent and purposeful, but all require intense obedience training; some are aggressive and need thorough socializing.
    The herding group is attractive as well in that it includes probably the most intelligent and readily trainable breeds. That includes the border collie, the Belgian Malinois, the German shepherd and Belgian sheepdog, as well the Welsh corgi.
    Herding dogs need plenty of exercise — plus opportunity for herding. Actual herding duties are their greatest joy, but gently gathering, directing and ensuring the safety of a family and its young children is a challenge these animals generally find fulfilling.
    The hound group is bred for hunting of a special type. Afghans, wolfhounds, bloodhounds, coonhounds and beagles, among many others, generally do well in more rural or open settings (and not particularly well in urban environments). Their instincts are to track and pursue other animals, relentlessly. Some of these breeds have a distinctive beauty but are particularly single-minded, and this does not always translate well into proper urban behavior.
    Some breeds in the hound group have the instinct to signal their location by howling or baying, something to consider when deciding to acquire one.
    Then there is the terrier group, breeds that originated for vermin control, hunting and (unfortunately) fighting. Today they are known for their energy, alertness and high ­spirits. Most possess individualistic personalities and require firm obedience training and, especially for the larger types, plenty of exercise.
    The toy group is composed of particularly small dogs, or selectively bred smaller versions of larger breeds (the toy poodle, the pug, the toy terriers and the Chihuahua, among others). They are particularly popular in urban environments. Exclusively intended as pets, some are even referred to as purse dogs. They are more easily cared for than the larger breeds and are known for being long-lived and loving animals.
    Non-sporting dogs comprise the largest, most populous and diverse group, including breeds like French poodle, Dalmatian, shar-pei, chow and the bichon frise, types that have evolved from many different roles to become pets and companions. Most have a singular appearance. Few generalities can be made of them because each is so unique. They do, however, share the same virtues as all dogs: loyalty, mirth, innocence, courage, curiosity and unconditional love.
    Now I’ve got myself thinking.

One is American, the other speaks with a soft Scottish accent

When our expanding family moved from our small house in Annapolis proper to a larger abode in Cape St. Claire on the Broadneck Peninsula, we were greeted by one of the more garrulous and distinctive birds in America, the crow. A large flock of the all-black avians was ensconced in and around the many trees that abounded in our new neighborhood.
    They did not sound like the crows I had grown up with long ago in Pennsylvania. These Broadneck crows seemed to have a different call all together, a low-pitched, nasal caw quite unlike the brash, raspy caw-caw-caw I was accustomed to hearing. It was as if these birds were possessed of a strong but soft Scottish accent.
    I discovered that not only did they sound different from the crows of my youth, the American crow (Corvus branchyrynchos), they were an altogether different species: the fish crow (Corvus ossifragus). Their numbers are significantly less than the American crow, but they are common to the wetlands and river drainages throughout the eastern and southeastern United States.
    Smaller than the American crow but not by much, the fish crow is otherwise a very similar bird. They are all black, quite intelligent and dine omnivorously on anything edible, including crustaceans, fish (living and dead), fruits, small reptiles and mammals and, unfortunately, the nestlings of other birds.
    Those ebony rascals ranged through our Broadneck neighborhood for a number of years — until one spring I heard the additional calls of the American crow echoing around the houses. At first I thought it was a melding of sorts, but after a day or so I realized the truth. A battle for territory was going on.
    The fight — and it was a loud one — lasted for the better part of two weeks. After that the nasal, Scottish accent of the fish crows that we had become accustomed to was replaced with the raucous caw of the American crow. This species then dominated our neighborhood for the next 20 years.
    A few weeks ago, however, I began to hear that Scottish burr once more. Their calls seemed to be everywhere at once as they began flitting through almost every copse of trees in the area.
    I then realized I had not been hearing crows of any kind for some time, years perhaps. Doing a little digging, I discovered that the reason for this absence had been a dire episode for crow populations in general.
    West Nile Virus, first identified in 1937 in Uganda, showed up in the United States in 1999 and within three years was widespread across America. A mosquito-borne infection that hit about 20 percent of humans with flu-like symptoms (and worse), it proved particularly deadly to all species of crows in the Americas.
    Ultimately, the fish crow proved somewhat more resilient (50 percent mortality once exposed to the disease), than the American crow (over 90 percent mortality). The overall crow population across the nation collapsed to about half of its previous abundance. Now that precipitous decline appears to have leveled out if not reversed.
    There is hope and some scientific evidence that both species are increasing in resistance to West Nile, but the change is slow. In the meantime, the territory of the more disease-resistant fish crow is expending due to the relative absence of the once-abundant American species.
    Today, it is once again pleasurable to hear the understated voice of the fish crow echoing about the Tidewater. Though sometime in the future the species may be again challenged for territorial supremacy, I am delighted to be remaking its acquaintance.
    Note: The raven, the largest bird of the genus Corvus, is also seen in Maryland but much less commonly. Ravens are noticeably bigger than both American and fish crows. Many of those around the Chesapeake favor purple and black.

Conservation Note

    The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission made a decision in 2012 to manage Atlantic menhaden as a critical part of the ecosystem rather than a single species and reduced the allowable commercial harvest. The results were an improvement in species population.
    Now, at the first sign of success, the Commission is considering increasing the commercial harvest.
    Communicating your displeasure at this action could reinforce the Commission’s resolve to protect the species: ASMFC, Menhaden Management, 1050 N. Highland St., Suite 200 A-N, Arlington, VA 22201 or A personal written and mailed comment gets exponentially more consideration than an email.