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Some days it takes perseverance to fill your cooler

It was nearly noon. My skiff was getting low on gas, a chop was building and my cooler was still empty. Having started in the early hours, searching and fishing from Sandy Point to Hackett’s and Tolley’s then up to Podickery and over to Love Point, I was now on my way back to the ramp without a single rockfish.
    My eyes ached from looking for feeding sea birds. The only ones that I had spotted appeared as baffled as I was. My bucket of chum was back on ice, as was my supply of menhaden. My casting rods, rigged with top-water plugs and deeper water jigs, remained unused.
    It was decision time. Either I quit, pull the boat and head home for a warm meal, a shower and a nap, or I mount a serious second effort. I was tired and hungry, but I knew the forecast ruled out fishing for the next few days. A large foul-weather system was approaching; even now the wind was building.
    Deciding to go on, I secured my center console on the trailer, then drove toward more sheltered waters. Days ago I had located a few schools of particularly chunky white perch. Hoping that they were still there, I launched at a convenient ramp and headed back out.
    Slowly cruising the channel edge, I saw what looked like a nice school of perch on my sonar screen. I motored back up-current, dropped a hi-lo rig baited with pieces of bloodworm and let out line. Feeling the one-ounce sinker skipping over the shell bottom below, I held my thumb on the spool and drifted along.
    Thump, thump, bang! My light rod tip bent down, and the spool turned against the drag. I felt the surges of a good fish below. Then the rod really bent over, telling me a second fish had jumped on. Two nice perch eventually flashed in the sun as I lifted them up and over the side.
    I let the smaller guy go, iced the other, over 10 inches, and decided, perhaps impulsively, that 10 inches would be my minimum. Rebaiting, I dropped the rig back down and resumed the quest. The next school lit up my screen, and the fight was on again.
    But by 3pm, I had accumulated only two more 10-inch keepers in my box, though I had caught and released dozens of perch. Conditions were now deteriorating. The wind had begun pushing one way, the tide another. My drifts had become hesitant and were resulting in fewer strikes.
    I was again considering calling it a day when I noticed a nice school on my fish-finder. Casting back up-current, past where the fish had been marked, I retrieved with sweeps of my rod. Bam, bam: Two fish slammed the baits. The biggest was 11 inches, his buddy a hair smaller.
    That simple change turned the key. Drifting or slowly motoring until marking a school, then casting back over them and retrieving the baits with pronounced sweeps resulted in hard, prompt strikes and, almost invariably, nice big perch.
    Within another hour I had more than a dozen big, thick black-backed perch in the box.

What’s in your suitcase?

Twenty seahorses do not belong in your suitcase. Which led to trouble last month for a Vietnamese traveler arriving at Dulles International Airport.
    All 20 live seahorses, found in a routine baggage check by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, were seized. Had the seahorse collector possessed only four, she could have kept them: The baggage limit is four seahorses.
    Because of over-harvesting for aquarium trade and medical research, seahorses are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. From 1990 to 1995, the world’s estimated seahorse population declined by half. Asian waters are the most popular for seahorse harvesting.
    Of some 50 species that inhabit shallow, warm waters around the world, the Chesapeake is year-round home to one, the lined seahorse, with populations extending as far north as Calvert County. Lined seahorses, like many other seahorse species, mate for life. So if you see one, perhaps clinging to your crabpot, put it back. Not in your aquarium — or your suitcase.

How I resurrected a 1971 sailboat

Making old things new again is part of my family history. When I was a boy, my mother furnished our home with used furniture purchased at auction. I would often help her strip the paint or varnish from the wood and apply a new finish.
    So I wasn’t daunted by the challenge of restoring a 1971 24-foot Ventura MacGregor sailboat. Wife Clara has long had a desire to own a sailboat. When we were offered this one, with trailer, for $1,400, I tested the hull for soundness and purchased it.
    After hauling the boat to Upakrik Farm, I backed it into the barn, where I used car jacks to lift the boat from the trailer; then I supported it three feet above the floor with beams attached to barn supports. Using putty knives and scrapers, I removed a five-gallon pail full of barnacles from the hull. From the cockpit we removed several bushels of leaves as well as several more of composted leaves.
    I tried to lower the swing keel by loosening the cable, but it was wedged in the housing. The keel is made with 100 pounds of steel and 400 pounds of lead with wood filling the voids, and the whole thing is covered with fiberglass. Inspecting the keel with a powerful light, I saw that the fiberglass had split open and barnacles had attached themselves to it.
    Removing the swing keel from the housing took me several years: Farm work occupied most of my time during spring, summer and fall, and in the winter it was often too cold to work in the barn. Finally, I extracted the keel in pieces. Then I fit it back together and made an accurate outline of the original. Using one-inch band steel welded to the steel shank and conforming to the original outline, I made a new swing keel. With the guidance of Garry Williams, owner of Osprey Composites of Deale, I covered the reconstructed keel with several layers of fiberglass.
    Once the keel was resurrected, I spent months sanding the hull, deck and cabin. Cracks in the fiberglass had to be ground down to a solid surface and filled with new fiberglass. I did so much sanding that I wore out a DeWalt orbital sander as well as countless pads of sandpaper. All of the fiberglass work was done under Garry’s guidance, and I hired his painters to spray paint the boat. Most of the chrome fixtures had to be ­factory refinished.
    The tabernacle that holds the base of the mast had been ripped from the top of the cabin, demanding major repair. The interior of the cabin also needed major refinishing and refurbishing; I installed ceiling lights, ship-to-shore radio and wood moldings.
    Clara had the task of naming our boat. After much research on boat names, she chose The Happy Heron.
    Nine years after purchase, The Happy Heron was launched at Herrington Harbour North in Tracys Landing and navigated to Paradise Marina, where it has been berthed on a lift when not in use.
    Since its launching, I have sailed it at least five times with a friend and twice with Clara.
    In the spring of 2013, I had a serious accident the day after Thanksgiving followed by a second worse accident resulting in permanent damage to my left leg. I have difficulty getting in and out of the boat and can no longer stand on the cabin to hoist the sails. Clara also has developed bad knees, so it appears that the time has come to sell The Happy Heron.
    That’s all right. Restoring that boat was a challenge that I enjoyed probably more than sailing it. Making something new again is in my blood.

Next year’s flowers and vegetables thrive on what you do now

The leaves of herbaceous perennials are turning yellow with their margins already crisp-brown. Trees and shrubs have stopped growing leaves; winter bud scales are well developed over the buds in the axils of their leaves. Perennial plants are getting ready for winter.
    Annuals, too, are dying. When your annual flower garden is at the point of no return, set your lawn mower to its highest level and mow down those dead and dying plants. Mowing creates a mulch and keeps stems in place to catch and hold leaves. The roots of those dead plants will decompose in place and create tunnels for the roots of next year’s annuals to follow. Leaving those tunnels is one more reason not to spade the garden next spring. Another? Spading allows weed seeds to germinate by exposing them to light.
    Turning to the vegetable garden, cover the earth over winter by planting a cover crop of winter rye at the rate of seven to eight pounds of seeds per 1,000 square feet. The rye will capture nutrients not absorbed by this year’s crop. As well as preventing nutrients from entering the Bay, the cover crop crowds out winter weeds and holds the soil in place. When you plow the cover crop under next spring, it will release those nutrients back into the soil. The decomposing cover crop will also improve both the nutrient- and water-holding capacity of your soil and reduce its density, which will result in improved root growth.
    If your day lilies, peonies and hosta are crowded, fall is a great time to divide them and extend your garden or share them with neighbors and friends. For showy flowers in May, transplant peonies shallow, making certain that the eyes, the flower buds, are at grade and not covered with more than one inch of soil.
    To assure a bumper crop of asparagus spears next spring, neglect the bed until all of the stems have turned straw color. That’s the sign all of the nitrogen that has accumulated in the stems and leaves has drained down to the roots.  Next spring when the buds start growing, there will be a readily available source of nitrogen for that first burst of spears.

Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at Please include your name and address.

Butterflies release commemorates life

“The butterfly is a symbol of how lives change and are transformed,” said Calvert Hospice’s Linzy Laughhunn as he set free one of 72 monarchs during a celebration of life ceremony at Chesapeake Highland Memorial Gardens in Port Republic.
    Chesapeake Highland Memorial Gardens are surrounded by open land where the released monarchs will find milkweed on which to lay their eggs and for nectar as they prepare for their epic migration to Mexico.
    The commemorative monarchs are shipped overnight in a dormant state from Fragrant Acres Butterfly Farm in Chickamauga, GA, ( and brought to normal temperature about an hour before release.

Pet poop and chicken skat don’t fit in

If you’re making compost for your vegetable garden, don’t add manure from pets or backyard hens. There is always the possibility that dog manure may contain hookworms. Chicken manure contains high levels of salmonella organisms. Unless temperatures in your compost pile remain at 150 degrees or higher for five days running, neither of these disease-causing organisms will be killed.
    The standard of 150 degrees or higher for five days was based on research conducted on composting bio-solids from wastewater treatment plants and chicken manure from broiler farms. These standards are called PFRP — Processed Further to Reduce Pathogens.
    Such high composting temperatures cannot be reached or maintained under home composting systems. PFRP requirements can be achieved only when large volumes of organic waste are composting under controlled conditions as in certified commercial composting facilities.
    We’ve given serious consideration to pet waste in efforts to keep it from polluting creeks, rivers and the Bay.
    With laying hens in many backyards, chicken sanitation is an issue needing equal attention. If you were to visit a chicken farm, you would be required to wear rubber boots and walk through a shallow pan of sterilizing solution before entering and exiting the poultry house. The sterilization solution works to prevent diseases from being carried into the poultry house and salmonella from being carried out.  
    Children should not be allowed to play in areas where chickens are foraging, and safe disposal methods for their waste must be devised flock by flock. 
    One way is direct composting chicken waste in flower gardens or in landscaping. In those uses, the only health risk is from handling the manure.

Keeping Silt Out of Pond Waters

Re: Stopping Brown Bay Waters:

Q Thanks for your great Aug. 20 article on Stopping Brown Bay Waters. I live on a four-acre tidal pond. Several of the properties have steep slopes, and there are two ravines that cascade heavy rains into the lake.
    Whether we have rain or not, the water is always murky brown. From your article it appears that the Filtrex Sox would help in the wooded ravines. Would it help to line the shoreline with it as well?

–Dave Bastian, via email

A The Filtrex Sox is being used to line the sides of creeks and shores of lakes and ponds. I recently saw it being used in Maine in highway construction.

Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at Please include your name and address.

Nurseries want to sell, and planting time is right

Many garden centers and nurseries have fall sales to reduce their inventory. What doesn’t sell, they have to spend money protecting in winter or suffer losses.
    These sales are timed right for you, too, because early fall is a great time for planting trees, shrubs and perennials, as the plants have time to establish roots in their new soils before winter sets in.
    Plants produce new roots faster when their tops are going dormant. In preparation for winter, most woody plants stop growing leaves and new shoots starting in mid-August when daylight hours grow shorter and evenings become cooler. Thus, all of the sugars being produced by the foliage are directed toward growing new roots. New roots this fall means more top growth next spring.
    Container-grown plants you buy now have been growing in that container all summer. Therefore, it is likely that the outer edge of the root balls are encircled by roots, a good indication that the plants are root-bound.  If you transplant such plants without disturbing the roots, it is unlikely that they will survive the winter because new roots cannot break through the mat into the surrounding soil.  
    When removing plants from their containers, examine the root balls carefully. If the roots have filled the container, pull them loose or slash them with a sharp knife.  I prefer slashing the outer edge of the root ball from the top to the bottom approximately one inch deep at three- or four-inch intervals. By slashing the outer roots, you will be forcing the fine roots to branch and form new roots in the new soil.  
    An alternative method is to crush the root ball until you see the roots loosen, and use your fingers to pull the loosened roots away from the ball. This method requires more time but achieves similar results.
    Never dig the transplant hole any deeper than the depth of the root ball. Ninety percent of the roots of trees and shrubs are in the upper six inches of soil. Plant with 10 percent of the root ball above grade. Back-fill with a mixture of one-third by volume compost blended with two-thirds by volume existing soil.
    The compost will provide not only the essential nutrients for good root growth but also a transition zone for roots that have been growing in a soilless mixture. If you are transplanting azaleas, blueberries and related species, blend one to two tablespoons of gypsum into the soil before backfilling. Acid soils are nearly always deficient in calcium, which is essential for good root growth.

Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at Please include your name and address.

Only a very good friend shares a perch honey hole

My small spin rod was bent down deeply, and the delicate six-pound mono sizzled through the water as a small but mighty fish cut hard away, my spinner bait sparkling at the corner of its mouth.
    The sound of the lightly set drag feeding line was a sweet melody to my ears, reassuring me that its measured resistance would be unlikely to tear the hook from the perch’s delicate mouth. I intended to let that rascal run until it tired; then I would invite it to dinner, that very evening if things worked out.
    Behind my skiff’s console seat sat a small cooler designed for a six-pack of canned beverages but in this case perfect for another purpose. Half-full of crushed ice, it already nestled four 10- to 12-inch white perch that I had scored that morning. It had taken me over two dozen releases of smaller fish to garner these heftier prizes.
    I wanted these fish for a fry-up, and I knew from experience that the thicker fillets from perch that size would retain just the perfect amount of interior moisture and flavor yet yield a nicely crisp panko-coated exterior for a crunchy-on-the-outside-savory-in-the-middle dining experience. The thought of golden-brown fillets bubbling in hot peanut oil and the willingness of the numerous perch in residence to continually smash my small lures was turning my morning into a fine day.
    Recent problems with the rockfish bite in the mid-Bay had me baffled. Three straight six-hour outings with only undersized or barely keeper stripers to show for my efforts made me reconsider my strategies. Then I remembered an old axiom: If at first you don’t succeed, the heck with it. Try something else.
    The something else in this case was switching to white perch. The fact that I’ve also been having trouble consistently finding decent-sized perch did give me pause. The past season I had already had to write off extensive areas that had produced some great fishing over the past several years. The fish there had simply disappeared. Whether it was from over fishing or some environmental change, I was unsure, but there were no longer perch in residence. As tributary white perch are generally territorial and don’t move far from their home waters, I guessed it might take quite a long time for these locations to recover.
    My only option was to begin searching out new territory.
    The first attempts produced little success until a friend took pity on me. Fatigued by the unrelenting tales of my recent angling frustrations, he offered to show me the nearby location of his better perch successes. Of course he swore me to secrecy.
    I held out little hope that the area would live up to the hype. But having no better options at the time, I spent a morning with him testing the area.
    The shoreline we visited turned out to be one long honey hole. We were into good fish for more than three hours. The best white perch that day was a 13½-inch beauty boated by my friend. I easily iced down enough thick and heavy white perch for the dinner I had in mind.
    By then it was just 11am. Though overcast skies and a flood tide were extending the perfect conditions almost indefinitely, we quit the area for the day. It’s always wise to limit the harvest on a good fishing hole, saving the bulk of the population for later trips.
    Now I’ve got to redouble my efforts at discovering new perch fishing territory. One good spot is not enough to rely on for anywhere near the rest of the season. Besides, I’ve a favor to return.

Milkweed nurtures monarch caterpillars

Plant milkweed, we’re told, and monarch butterflies will come. It’s true. My milkweed is crawling with caterpillars.
    Only one or two of the orange-winged monarchs alighted on this little grove of milkweed when I was watching. I saw no egg-laying or tiny eggs on the undersides of the spearhead-shaped leaves. Only when I noticed the sorry state of the patch did I see caterpillars. Clippers in hand, I had cut a branch when a horned head poked out at me.
    A half-dozen yellow-white-and-black-striped caterpillars were devouring the milkweed, reducing it to stems.
    A week later, the population had risen to a dozen and a half two-plus-inch-long hungry caterpillars.
    Clearly, a lot was going on when I wasn’t looking.
    Any day now, big change is coming. After a couple weeks of voracious eating, the monarch caterpillar hooks itself to a leaf and shimmies into its homemade silk chrysalis. Inside, the caterpillar metamorphoses, emerging in about 10 days as a gorgeously winged monarch.
    Those butterflies will drink the nectar of other plants in my butterfly garden — Joe Pye weed, ironweed, boneset, black-eyed Susans, purple coneflower and more — before heading south and west in the later stages of a journey whose map they inherit.
    The annual pre-winter migration from Canada to Mexico takes four generations, each lasting roughly six weeks.
    This generation of monarchs must be rising all over Chesapeake Country, as my butterfly garden was part of a widespread campaign to bolster the species. Two dozen neighbors planted their own gardens, and our Fairhaven effort joined many more throughout the region and the nation, all part of the Monarch Watch Waystation Program.
    Keep your eyes open! On the wing, new life should soon be invigorating this threatened, far-traveling species.

Move crowded azaleas this month

Perhaps you planted young azaleas close together to achieve instant effects. Within a few years, those young azaleas will be crowding each other. Unless you remove some of them, they will grow tall and spindly.
    September is the best time of the year to dig and transplant azaleas, rhododendrons, andromeda, mountain laurel, blueberry and related species. By early September, the plants have stopped growing and are setting flower buds. When plants stop producing stems and leaves, they start producing roots. Thus, transplanting in September gives the plants time to establish themselves and be ready to resume normal growth in the spring when they begin to flower.
    When transplanted in the spring, the plants will flower, but new growth will be limited because the plants have to grow new stems, leaves and roots at the same time.  
     Azaleas and related species are very particular about where they grow. Unless irrigated during drought, they are best grown in light shade. On the other hand, the more direct sun plants receive, the more flowers they produce. Under dense shade, they will produce good dark foliage but few flowers.
    It is always best to grow these  plants in deep organic-rich soils that are acid in nature so they can absorb nitrogen in the ammonium form. Ammonium nitrogen is more readily available in acid soils than in neutral soils such as those good for growing annual flowers and vegetable gardens.
    To avoid problems, have your soil tested before planting. A good soil test will provide the pH of the existing soil, the amount of calcium and magnesium present as well as other essential nutrients essential for good plant growth. Never fertilize these species with lawn fertilizers; they contain nitrogen in the nitrate form, which will cause stunting.
    Acid soils tend to lack calcium, which is essential for good growth. Calcium is as important in plants as it is in humans. Thus, to supply calcium without making the soil neutral or alkaline, blend a few tablespoons of gypsum (calcium sulfate), into the soil before planting. If the soil is low in magnesium, add a tablespoon of Epsom salts, which is magnesium sulfate.
    Successful transplanting also depends on careful watering. A newly transplanted shrub or tree should be watered thoroughly at three-day intervals. Light daily watering does more harm than good.

Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at Please include your name and address.