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You never know what’s going to happen on the Chesapeake

I had done well on my last three sorties. Now my first bite came in less than a minute.
    I had hooked a frisky spot of about four inches just in front of the dorsal with a size-4 black nickel treble hook and sent it over the side. It headed straight down to the Bay Bridge piling I had selected.
    A strong fish took the bait as it neared bottom. Setting the hook,    I felt immediate resistance, a strong headshake, then nothing. I reeled my line back and found that I had lost my spot. Hook, leader and swivel had been cut off cleanly as well.
    Either a toothy bluefish had hit the swivel when the fish I hooked started its struggle. Or the striper had run to some kind of bottom structure immediately after taking my spot and fouled my line on something sharp. I opened a fresh pack of trebles, red nickel models, bent one onto a section of fresh 20-pound fluorocarbon leader and replaced the lost swivel connection.
    I had been experimenting with these rather small treble hooks for a couple weeks, finding that they were excellent at mouth-hooking the rockfish eating my live spot baits. I could come tight much sooner than when using J hooks.
    Over the next three hours, however, my bait count got ever lower as I released spot after spot that had become exhausted swimming down in the varying currents. I couldn’t find a rockfish of any size to take my bait.
    Heading to the Eastern Shore, I redoubled my efforts. Drifting and fishing a wide area, I marked few fish but garnered nothing.
    Skunked, I headed back toward the Sandy Point ramps and home. As I passed by the previously unproductive bridge supports on the western side, I decided on one last try. I had just three baits remaining.

Back to Go
    Amazingly, with the first drop at the support where I had started the day, I was quickly fast to a strong, fat and healthy 25-inch rockfish. Netting and burying that fish in ice and with renewed optimism, I prepared to hook my next-to-last bait and send it down.
    At the last moment, that little fish squirmed in reaction to the prick of my treble and squirted out of my hand and over the side. Now I had the last bait at the last moment, back at the same place I started out. This was going to be very poetic or a major disappointment.
    I took extra care with this bait, then flipped it out next to the concrete pier. As it swam down toward the bottom I could feel it spurt ahead in panic. Something was chasing it already.
    The fish below quickly engulfed my bait and started running. I set the hook, and a very careful battle ensued.
    The fight went my way. Eventually easing the net under a powerful 24 incher, I was relieved to have limited out. But when I pried open the rockfish’s mouth to remove my hook, I noticed something odd. My red treble hook was stuck firmly in the corner of its jaw, just as I expected, but on the other side of its mouth was another embedded treble, a black one.
    It was my original hook cut off on that fish I lost, still attached to the leader and swivel.
    You never know what will happen on the Chesapeake.

Mountain laurel, blueberries and other acid-lovers, too

September is the best time of the year to transplant azaleas, rhododendrons, mountain laurel, andromeda, blueberries and other plants that thrive in acid soils. This is because these species have stopped growing new stems and leaves and are starting to generate and elongate roots.
    So take advantage of fall garden center sales. If your existing plantings are too dense or wrongly placed, now is a good time to dig and transplant.
    Here’s how to assure success in transplanting plants that prefer acid soils.
    First, make certain that the soil you will be transplanting into is adequate.  Acid soils are generally deficient in calcium and magnesium, but only a soil test of the area will correctly identify soil conditions. Each soil test should be made from a composite of five or more core samples. I rely on A&L Eastern Agricultural Laboratories in Richmond for all of my soil testing. 
    Plants like these also need well-drained, high-organic soils. Even if the soil test indicates an ample amount of calcium, I make it a regular practice to mix one-half cup gypsum (calcium sulfate) to the planting soil. To assure an abundance of organic matter, I also blend one-third by volume of compost or pine fines with the existing soil while blending the gypsum with the backfill. Compost adds not only organic matter but also slow-release nutrients.
    Never amend the soil with peat moss, especially when transplanting rhododendrons. Peat moss holds too much water, making conditions favorable for water-borne fungi that attack the roots of rhododendrons.
    All species that grow in acid soils are shallow-rooted. So never dig the planting hole deeper than the depth of the root ball. There is no need to place compost or back-fill under the root ball because of the shallow-rooting nature of these species.
    If you are digging plants that need more space to grow, the outside edge of the root ball you are digging should begin mid-distance between the drip line of the branches and the stem of the plant. If the soil is dry, irrigate the plant well at least two days before you dig.
    After digging, lift the plant by the root ball and not by the stem. If you are transplanting container-grown plants, after removing the plant from the container, use a sharp knife and slash the outside edge of the root ball an inch deep from top to bottom making the slashes two to three inches apart. Since most container plants are grown in soilless rooting media, slashing the root balls and pulling out some of the roots will hasten new root development.
    The top of the root ball should be visible at the surface of the finished grade. Before mulching, water the plants thoroughly to settle the backfill around the roots and eliminate air pockets. A good heavy watering helps to firm the soil in place.
    Apply no more than one inch of compost or pine bark mulch. Never use hardwood bark mulch because it is basic in nature and contains high levels of manganese.
    Azaleas, rhododendrons, mountain laurel, andromeda, blueberries and other acid-lovers will tolerate light to medium shade, but they will produce more flowers and be more cold-tolerant in full sun. In commercial nurseries, all of these species are grown in open fields and sometimes covered with light shade in late fall simply to give the plants a better appearance for sale in the spring.


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

It’s a little late to start seeds but just right to plant seedlings

The best sauerkraut is made from fall-grown cabbage. The best kale and collards have been frosted a few times, growing sweeter with each frost. Fall-grown spinach and lettuce are more tender. Carrots, beets, turnips, rutabaga and kohlrabi are at their best when grown in late summer and harvested in the fall. Both cauliflower and broccoli form tighter heads in fall than in spring. I also harvest many more fall peas than spring peas. If you love Brussels sprouts as much as I do, you must get them started now to harvest a bountiful supply.
    There is more gardening ahead, and now is the time to start sowing seeds. If you planted onions this past spring, they should all be harvested by now — as well as the cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and spinach. So you now have room to start planting your fall crops.
    I have stopped planting peas in the spring because I can make many more harvests from peas planted in August. The cooler fall temperatures promote continuous growth until the killing frost comes late in fall. Spring-planted peas stop producing pods as soon as the heat comes on.
    August is also a good time to make a planting or two of snap beans. If you make two consecutive plantings about two to three weeks apart, you will be harvesting snap beans until the frost kills the plants.
    If you sowed your seeds of broccoli, cauliflower, kohlrabi, Brussels sprouts and cabbage the first week of August, the plants will be ready to be transplanted into rows by the end of the month. Seeds of spinach, lettuce, kale, collards, turnips and rutabaga should have been sown by mid August. To grow the sweetest carrots this side of heaven, the seeds should also have been planted before the middle of August, as should a row of beets for greens as well as for the sweetest roots.
    If you haven’t started your seeds, check the garden centers for seedlings of these cool-weather crops.
    Your soil most likely still holds a plentiful supply of nutrients not utilized by the remaining summer crops. Since the soil is warm, the compost you added to the garden is also releasing nutrients. A fall crop allows you to maximize the uptake of the nutrients already added as well as those released during the decomposition of organic matter.
    If you are not going to plant a fall crop, sow a cover crop of winter rye to absorb all of those free nutrients into their roots and stems. Next spring when you plow the rye back into the ground, the nutrients will be there for that crop.


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

What kind of doublespeak is that?

Sometimes I feel heartfelt compassion for the very difficult job of Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Many citizens and not just a few commercial entities demand endless access to the resources of the Chesapeake, while the wise conservation and management of these resources are the sole responsibility of DNR.
    The blue crab is one such resource. One of the more desired, the more profitable and most celebrated of the Bay’s treasures, it has also been over the last 20 years or so one of the Bay’s species most often in trouble. I sympathize with the pressures the Department has to constantly endure in attempting to protect the crustacean from over harvest and depredation.
    Then, DNR destroys my empathy with pronouncements that seem to defy credibility, common sense and logic.
    On a recent occasion, officials stated for the record on a local radio program and in a subsequent newspaper article that any form of moratorium would cause the species more harm than good.
    That ranks up there with the Department’s earlier statement “crabbing harvests remain at a safe level for the sixth consecutive year,” while revealing the blue crab population had plunged 70 percent also during that period.
    Is that not doublespeak? DNR’s own safe harvest levels imply proper population protection that has obviously not been happening. In the case of “more harm than good,” how can not killing some 30,000 pounds of crabs hurt the overall population?
    Unlike the successful rockfish moratorium, a crab moratorium wouldn’t work for several reasons, according to DNR: the short life of crabs (three years or so); the diminishing fertility of females over time; and the increased natural mortality of cannabilistic crabs when the population is dense. DNR also cites the economic harm to Maryland’s blue crab industry.
    I can understand the Department’s reluctance. Every cutback affects the livelihoods of not only 4,000-plus watermen but also the bottom line of many restaurants and seafood markets. But don’t try to tell me that continuing to kill off a resource is really helping it.
    I can understand unpredictable natural mortality and how cold-weather kills and how poor recruitment causes unanticipated short-range population swings. But to continue to allow optimistically calculated harvest levels year after year while that population free falls defies common sense.
    The near future looks grim for the blue crab. Local crabbers report very difficult catches, fewer and smaller crabs and a continuing dearth of females, indicating more population trouble for the future. This assessment is not scientific, but it seems to reflect reality better than anything coming out of Annapolis.
    I respectfully request the Department reconsider its basic resource philosophy because whatever we have been doing is not working.
    Insisting on species health and abundance above all seems wiser and more realistic than any maximum-sustainable harvest policy by any name.
    Paying closer attention to the recommendations of scientists from Bay conservation foundations could also be wise, as they are free from most political and commercial manipulations.
    That is if Maryland officials are committed to the conservation of the blue crab and share the belief that a consistently large and healthy population will naturally result in a flourishing commercial fishery, a satisfied recreational sector and a happy consuming public.
    If, on the other hand, our representatives are primarily committed to short-term commercial-industry stability — fulfilling market and political demands — then we’re on the right track.

Disquise and foul odor protect this butterfly

    Caterpillar Survival Rule No. 1: Be disagreeable.
    Eurytides Marcellus, the Zebra Swallowtail, a striking butterfly in classic black and white, is Calvert County’s official butterfly. Whether chosen for its instantly recognizable good looks, for its clever defensive tactics or both, the Zebra’s admirers must decide; details of the mascotorial appointment are lost to history.
    Moving across the landscape in aerial scout fashion, the Zebra seldom settles for long. It lights near edges of puddles or ponds and favors zinnias, summer phlox and butterfly weed.
    The larva feed on foliage of the pawpaw, the American banana, a shrub or small tree once plentiful in the understory of hardwood forests. Smooth and light-green, the larva’s bulbous head and oversized eyespots imitate a snake. If disguise isn’t sufficient, when disturbed it flashes a bright orange, forked apparent tongue that emits a foul odor. This cunning caterpillar has Rule No. 1 covered.
    There is no chasing a scout on the wing, so I was pleased to snap this photo of the Zebra in refueling mode.
    Does anyone besides me see Lewis Carroll’s hookah-smoking caterpillar? Or a dark-coifed fairy in zebra-striped wings?
 

The very thirsty Silvery Checkerspot

     After being tethered and tightly wrapped since last autumn, checkerspots in the garden are like tiki bar openers, brightly dressed and very thirsty.
    I see the silvery checkerspot,  Charidryas nycteis, feeding in groups at everything: bee balm, summer phlox, Shasta daisies — blooming or not, even experimenting with the artificial woodgrain of vinyl siding on our house.
    Larvae feed on turtlehead, both Chelone glabra (white) and lyonii (pink). Turtlehead requires constant moisture, so populations of checkerspots tend to wet meadows.
    Checkers feed summer and fall, then lay eggs in clusters. The eggs hatch and partially develop as pupae, then hang suspended, literally and figuratively, in brown-speckled white cases over the winter. This period of suspended growth is called diapause, a useful tactic to survive inhospitable seasons whether cold or long and dry. Warm weather triggers full development and liberation.
    Silvery’s larger cousin is the ­Baltimore Checkerspot, Maryland’s official state butterfly, a rarer sight.

Organic matter adds ­hidden benefits to soil

Addition of organic matter does great things for soil. It works as a slow-release fertilizer and source of essential nutrients. It reduces the density of heavy silt and clay loam soils. It improves soil’s nutrient retention and increases water retention. All of these benefits redound to plant growth.

Retention of nutrients
    Adding organic matter to soils increases the retention of nutrients and makes them available to the roots of plants. This process is known as increasing the cation-exchange capacity of soils. You learned in the July 24 column how organic matter releases nutrients slowly through mineralization. In addition to supplying the major elements, compost supplies trace elements such as boron (B), iron (Fe), zinc (Zn), manganese (Mn), sulfur (S) and copper (Cu). These essential trace elements are important to the growth of healthy plants and to the quality of the crops they produce. But they’re not part of commercial fertilizer mixes.
    Increasing the cation exchange is especially important in sandy loams or loamy sands. Nutrients leach through these sandy soils quickly. Because sandy soils are well aerated, they do not retain organic matter. So to maintain productivity on sandy soils requires frequent applications compost or animal manure and the use of cover crops.
    On sandy loams or loamy sands, use no more compost or manure than six cubic yards per 1,000 square feet for the initial application. On silt or clay loam soils, make that four cubic yards as these soils are better able to retain nutrients than sandy loams or loamy sands. Repeated applications should be one-half or one-quarter.
Water-holding Capacity
    The addition of organic matter to sandy soils increases water-holding capacity.
    The addition of organic matter to heavy silt or clay loam soils increases water infiltration, thus increasing their ability to retain water while at the same time allowing excess water to drain.

Soil Density Reduction
    It won’t work to use sand to improve the drainage of heavy silt or clay loam soils. Short of 55 to 60 percent, the addition of sand will only result in making the soil like concrete.
    Adding 10 percent compost will increase both the organic matter concentration and the productivity of heavy silt or clay loam. Pine fines are one of the better organic materials to use to lighten heavy soils. Pine fines are a waste product from the manufacturing of pine bark mulches. Because pine fines contain high levels of lignins — a source of organic matter that resists decomposition — pine fines will persist in the soil for a long time.

Disease Control
    Another hidden benefit of amending soils with compost is its ability to control soil-borne diseases. Quality compost contains three naturally occurring fungicides and numerous beneficial microorganisms known to control common soil-borne diseases as fusarium, pythium and rhizoctinia. To get this bonus, use recently made compost. As the compost ages, these benefits are gradually lost as the biological activity of the compost decreases.

Lesson 3: Jumpstart your garden with compost tea

     Your organic garden will need a jumpstart. Organic gardening relies entirely on the release of nutrients from the decomposition of organic matter and the bodies of the microorganisms that digest the organic matter in the soil. In cold soils, nutrients are not readily available.
    Room temperature — a consistent 72 degrees — is the starting point for analyzing the situation. With 72-degree soil temperature, the rate of the mineralization of organic matter is approximately eight to 10 percent. If the soil contains three percent organic matter, it releases 24 to 30 pounds of nitrogen per acre per year. Producing a respectable crop takes between 80 and 100 pounds of nitrogen per acre.
    In summer, when soils are at room temperature and above, it takes a soil with five to 10 percent organic matter to produce a respectable crop. Even if soil temperatures increase above 72 degrees, the mineralization rate increases only a few percentage points. To grow a crop in soils containing less than five percent organic matter, you’ve got to add organic fertilizers, including compost. As the microorganisms that digest the carbon of the organic matter die, the minerals in their bodies and in the cells of the organic matter are released.
    The cooler the soil, the slower the process. Mineralization of nutrients from organic matter stops when the ground freezes. In spring, the mineralization rate of organic matter is not nearly up to summer’s eight percent. Even if the soil contained five to 10 percent organic matter, it would not supply sufficient nutrients to grow early spring crops such as cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, celery and lettuce.
    Traditional agriculture uses starter fertilizers with early spring transplants. Starter fertilizers are made of water-soluble minerals that are instantly available to the roots of plants, regardless of soil temperature. Applying these fertilizers near the roots of new transplants helps establish them quickly in the soil and resume normal growth. 
    Compost tea can be used as starter fertilizer. Brew the compost tea at room temperature three or four days prior to transplanting. Partially fill a five-gallon pail up to half capacity with mature compost. To assure maturity, I strongly recommend using commercial compost. Top with water and stir vigorously. Stir the compost three or four times daily to provide adequate aeration for nutrient release from the compost. Or you can aerate the compost using an aquarium air filer as a substitute.
    When you transplant three or four days later, irrigate each plant with one to two cups of compost tea.
    A second batch of tea can be made using the same compost by filling the pail again with water and repeating the process. The second batch will not be as concentrated as the first unless you allow a week or more for it to release its nutrients into the water.

Buying local? Try vinegar lulled for five months in a skipjack’s hull

     The taste of place is about the best translation English can give to the French word terroir. The idea comes from the vineyards of France, so it doesn’t have to jump far into the vinegar barrel.
    Still, it’s a bit of a leap into the hold of the skipjack Rosie Parks, a ­vintage Eastern Shore oyster boat.
    Rosie Parks was built in 1955 by legendary boat builder Bronza Parks of Dorchester County for his brother, Captain Orville Parks, and named for their mother. Her hold was framed to contain oysters, not vinegar. But in 1975 she changed careers to sailing ambassador for Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum and the Bay’s dwindling skipjack fleet. In 39 years, she’s taught many a lesson of maritime terroir. But imparting the terroir of boat and Bay to a barrel of Italian vinegar is a brand new assignment.
    “The Rosie Parks has such rich history on the Chesapeake,” says Bill Acosta, owner of Olivins Aged and Infused Fine Olive Oils and Vinegars Tasting Shop in St. Michael’s, home of the museum and its historic skipjack. “We wanted to create a special balsamic vinegar that gives people a real sense of place, with an exceptional taste and to support the museum in a meaningful way.”
    To create a special vinegar with a real sense of place, on July 10 a five-gallon barrel of Balsamic Modena was loaded into the skipjack’s hull. There it will remain for the next five months, its aging accelerated by the gentle motion of the boat at its dock along the Miles River. And, this year, the not-so-gentle motion as Rosie Parks joins her kind for races in Deal Island on Memorial Day and Cambridge in September.

    “Aging barrels aboard boats started out in history as a necessity, as most trade occurred over waterways,” explains museum chief curator Pete Lesher. “A boat’s movement can speed up the process of aging, whether it’s spirits, vinegar, or another liquid. We’re very excited to taste the results of these efforts.”
    The wooden barrel is made of toasted oak, which will flavor the vinegar. “Even the temperature changes aboard Rosie Parks will influence the taste of this special blend,” said Acosta. “The barrel expands and contracts as the temperatures rise and fall, infusing the vinegar with undertones of toasted oak.”
    Rosie Parks Balsamic Vinegar should be ready for sale the day after Thanksgiving. The 60 six-ounce bottles will, Acosta says, “be antique and nautical looking, labeled with local artist Amy Ostrow’s painting of the Rosie Parks sails up at sunset.” Acosta expects each to be priced at $20 to $25 and sold at his St. Michael’s shop. A portion of each sale goes to the museum.

When fishing is good it is very good; When it is bad, it’s still pretty good

     I’ve suddenly run into a problem I haven’t had in quite some time. I’m having the devil’s own time catching good rockfish. During the long lulls between bites, an explanation has emerged for my difficulties and disappointments.
    I blame it all on last season. Last season was phenomenal. Big fish in quantities rarely seen around the mid-Bay remained all the way through the year. I could rise at 9am, get on the water by 10am and most always have my limit of 10-pounders by noon.
    Last year, the chum bite was astoundingly effective until late June, when live-lining took over and was even better. This year is developing much differently. The schools of big fish that settled all around the mid-Bay are gone.
    Chumming is already dropping off. Live-lining has not developed, what with the dearth of small spot and rockfish being both scarcer and more finicky.
    My attempts to find them where I did last season have wasted a lot of fishing time. Likewise, my insistence on behaving as if they would eventually show up has led more poor performances than I would like to admit.
    Sticking to my schedule of rising late and still expecting to find good fish is proving to be another major error. The summertime heat is apparently shutting down the bite after 10am. My unreasonable expectations (again, based on last season) are causing me unnecessary emotional trauma.
    A smaller quantity of rockfish and the many anglers searching for them means that to be successful one must achieve ideal conditions, fishing better times of day and night plus making it a priority to find where the fish are located. Wait for them to come to you, and they most likely won’t.
    The few rockfish frequenting last year’s traditional locations do not remain long once discovered. Avoid areas of high fishing pressure to get fish in the box.
    In other areas that have proven productive in the past, stripers gather during the dark, quiet hours to feed but flee as soon as the sun rises or boats arrive. Being the first to fish any particular structure or holding area counts.
    To catch fish consistently this year, you’ll want to start very early or very late. I’m talking about being on the water nearer 5am or starting at sundown and fishing into the night. You will encounter more fish at these times, and when you do find them they are much more likely to take your bait or lure.
    If you’re fishing structure by casting or drifting baits, sound discipline is critical, especially in shallow water. Consider electric power or turning off your engine while working an area. Another good tactic is to sit quietly and do nothing for a good five minutes after arriving at the location you intend to fish. You’ll be surprised at the results.
    Fewer fish are in residence this year. The stripers that are here are under heavy pressure, spooked and uncooperative. Anglers will have to be at the top of their game and using every trick in their arsenal when pursuing them.
    On the Chesapeake, when fishing is good it is very, very good, and when it is bad, it’s still pretty good.