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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.

How some of the world’s most famous art found safe refuge in early-America’s Annapolis

You’d want to know if you were neighbor to a secret treasure of masterpieces.
    So I’m telling you.
    Sixty-three paintings by great Northern European masters — Jan Breughel, Rubens and Van Dyck among them — lived quietly in Annapolis for two years, and Prince George’s County for 16 more years.
    “There was no collection of old master paintings remotely like it in this country,” says Arthur Wheelock curator of northern baroque paintings at the National Gallery of Art. “In fact, in both quality and quantity, no collection of Flemish art in this country would rival it until late in the 20th century.”


    They were here, and then they were gone.
    What were they doing here?
    Where are they now? That’s the mystery that obsesses Susan Pearl.

On the Run
    To unravel that mystery, return in time to 1794, when the newly independent United States of America was a safer haven than war-tossed Europe.
    As ripples from the French revolution threatened Antwerp, art collector Henri Stier fled.
    “He got the paintings and his family out,” recounts historian Pearl.
    By horse and carriage and by sailing ship, family and the art collected by Steir’s grandfather-in-law, Michel Peeters, traveled: 63 paintings protected in heavy wooden crates.
    At the core of the collection were, Wheelock says, “masterpieces by Flemish artists, although it also included paintings by, among others, Jacob van Ruysdael, Rembrandt, Titian and Tintoretto. The collection contained no fewer than 10 paintings by Rubens and six by Van Dyck.”
    The displaced Belgian family and their paintings took up residence for two years in Annapolis, renting the William Paca House.
    At the time “there was good society here, very fashionable, with lots of parties,” says Historic Annapolis curator of collections Pandora Hess. Henri Stier’s young daughter Rosalie and George Calvert met and married there.
    But the paintings remained a secret treasure.

Hidden in the New World
    Stier, an aristocrat who owned three homes in Belgium, had landed ambitions in the New World. He bought 800 acres in the Anacostia watershed, near the port town of Bladensburg. But before his house was finished, he was back in Belgium. In 1803, Riversdale became the home of Henri’s daughter Rosalie and her husband George Calvert, of Maryland’s founding family. The plantation gained renown, but not the paintings. They remained a family secret.
    From 1794 to 1816, the paintings stayed crated, lifted out only to be wiped clean of mold, shown to just a few artists. Only a few of the smaller paintings were hanging in one parlor and seen by visitors.
    Nobody saw them. Nobody enjoyed them.
    Then Napoleon met his Waterloo, and Europe was again safe.
    Send the paintings home, Henri wrote his daughter in December 1815. His letter traveled by ship. She received it in February. Ever dutiful, she planned their journey home.
    They’d have left unseen were it not for the pleas of American painters Rembrandt Peale and Gilbert Stuart. At Paca House and Riversdale to paint the family, they’d had peeks at the paintings. Peale wrote that Stier “had placed before me three excellent portraits, by Titian, Rubens and Van Dyck, as objects of inspiration for a young artist.”
    Convinced by these artists “that it would be a public wrong that such a collection of pictures — the like of which had never been in America — should pass out of the country entirely unenjoyed,” George and Rosalie Calvert opened their house. In the spring of 1816, Washington society mingled with artists and collectors at the first blockbuster art exhibit in this country.
    “Some of the finest paintings ever in America,” they were called by Sarah Gales Seaton, wife of the co-editor of the National Intelligencer.
    On June 2, 1816, the paintings were again crated to repeat their journey by horse-drawn carriage, then by ship from Baltimore to Antwerp.
    They crossed the Atlantic a second time aboard the sailing ship Oscar, subject to tempest, predation and shipwreck.
    They survived the crossing. What became of them then?
    Tracking the 63 keeps Pearl busy.

The Wide World Over
    Pearl’s quest began in her office. She worked upstairs in the mansion before it was restored as Riversdale House Museum. Her job — researching historic structures for Maryland–National Capital Park and Planning Commission — bumped her into the secret treasure.
    Original letters and papers told her part of the story. The more she learned, the more she wanted to know.
    What had become of them? Where were they now?
    “Finally, I hit the gold mine,” she told me. A genealogist hired by Henri Stier’s fifth-generation descendants shared copies of the “masses of letters” back and forth across the Atlantic.
    With letters, a sketchy packing list — written as family hastened to escape French armies in 1794 — and a catalogue of sales, she set about tracing their post-American journeys.
    Art is long; life is short. The owners died, but the paintings thrived, increasing in value with age.
    Each owner’s death led to an auction that disbursed the paintings more widely. At their sale in 1817, Henri Stier bought his 20 favorites from the collection that had been at Riversdale. His death in 1821 returned one painting to Riversdale. George Calvert — widower of Rosalie, who died three months before her father — purchased Rubens’ Romulus and Remus. That painting crossed the Atlantic a third time.
    Cross-checking list after list with the original packing manifesto, Pearl has successfully traced 20 of the 63 paintings that had long ago found refuge in Chesapeake Country. They are the most prominent and valuable ones, mostly kept in the family.    
    “I find it amazing how much information about that collection one can pull together from the packing list, Rembrandt Peale’s account and descriptions of the works in subsequent sales,” Wheelock said.
    Romulus and Remus continued in the American Stiers’ family and is now in the keeping of the North Carolina Museum of Art.
    Two more are in America: Rubens’ painting of his brother Philippe in the Detroit Institute of Art and Jan Brueghel’s wonderful The Entry of the Animals into Noah’s Ark in the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
    The Van Dyck portraits of Philippe LeRoy and his bride Marie de Raet hang in the Wallace Collection in London.
    At the outbreak of World War II, several paintings owned by the European branch of the family found sanctuary in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Brussels, where they remain.
    Pearl has seen almost all 20.
    “Twenty out of 63 doesn’t sound like a lot,” Pearl says, “but it actually is, considering what you have to do to track them down.”
    As for the others, she says, “I’ll probably be working on it for the rest of my life.”

See for Yourself
    Here it is 2016, the bicentennial of Michel Peeters’ collection’s departure from America.
    And here they are, 16 of the found paintings of the original 63, on exhibit again at Riversdale.
    “Of course we couldn’t get the originals,” Pearl admits.
    Masterpieces are not loaned to county museums with neither security nor ideal air and lighting conditions. Instead the museum purchased high-resolution digital images that, printed and framed locally, now hang throughout the Riversdale House Museum.
    “The exhibit is a wonderful way to step back in time, envision the original paintings and feel the excitement visitors experienced when world-class Old Master paintings were publicly displayed in Riversdale Mansion in the spring of 1816,” said Carol Benson, director of Anne Arundel County’s Four Rivers Heritage Area.
    Docents lead tours, “electronically enhanced” with hand-held tablets that interpret and enlarge paintings for inspection of detail (though connections are temperamental).
    It’s a sight worth seeing, especially now that you know the story.


    Open Friday and Sunday 12:15-3:15pm thru Oct. 23. (On Sunday, Sept. 18, a University of Maryland quintet plays Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition): $5 w/age discounts: 301-864-0420; riversdale@pgparks.com.
    Copies of the Stier-Calvert correspondence are held in the Riversdale Historical Society archives.

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.

Summer sends these insects singing

Heat wave temperatures may not have us humans singing for the joy of life, but that’s not the case for several insect species that voice their appreciation of the heat this time of year.
    Late summer’s exceptionally warm days drive the cicadas (also called harvest flies) to start their singing early. The buzzing is the quintessential sound of summer and how this cicada earned its name. The hot and humid days of late July and August draw the males into the treetops to vibrate a drum-like abdominal membrane called a tymbal to call potential mates to their location.
    These black and green dog-day cicadas differ from the giant 13- and 17-year broods that emerge out of the ground by the billions every few years. The Brood V 17-year cicadas emerged this spring in Western Maryland, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia. Our portion of Chesapeake Country missed them.
    Periodical cicadas survive by sheer numbers, while the annual dog-day cicadas rely on camouflage and speed to avoid predation. They are a favorite snack for birds, snakes and the cicada-killer wasp.
    After mating, the female dog-day uses her ovipositor to cut open a twig and lay eggs inside. Six weeks later, the nymphs hatch and burrow into the ground where they will live for three years, sucking juice from tree roots.
    It’s summer’s musical finale, so enjoy it.

There may be a fungus in your soil

Every year, a number of readers complain that their garden did not produce as much as last year’s.
    If your garden is on poorly drained soil, you can blame some of the problem on wet feet. All vegetable-producing plants demand well-drained soils. Soils that tend to remain wet for several days after a hefty rain can cause roots to rot, thus reducing crop yields.
    Or your problem could be a fungus.
    If your garden is small and you are unable to rotate crops every year, there is a good possibility that certain fungi are accumulating, resulting in poor root growth. Four soil-borne diseases commonly affect roots: Fusarium, Pythium, Rhizoctinia and ­Phytophtora.
    The most effective method of preventing these diseases is to rotate where you plant crops each year. Crop rotation breaks the cycle.
    If your garden is too small to allow rotation, you can try any of three other methods of solving the problem of soil-borne diseases.
    One is to heat-sterilize the soil once every three years. In early July, rototill or spade the soil and moisten thoroughly before covering the area with a sheet of four-millimeter, clear plastic, sealing the edges to the ground. The clear plastic will create a greenhouse effect, causing a heat buildup sufficient to kill most of the disease-causing organisms. The plastic should remain in place well into early August. In addition to disease-causing organisms, most of the weed seeds and rhizomes will also be killed. However, this means that you will not be gardening on the third year.
    Another method of control is to incorporate, just before planting, a one-inch-thick layer of active compost like LeafGro, lobster compost or homemade compost from the previous year. Compost must be fresh for the naturally occurring beneficial organisms to neutralize the disease-causing organisms.
    The third method is to plant a cover crop of winter wheat or winter rye in late August, while tomatoes are still being harvested. The cover crop will also absorb residual nutrients, prevent soil erosion and improve the soil.
    Your cover crop must be actively decomposing before planting in the spring. The rapidly decomposing organic matter will promote the establishment of beneficial organisms that help control the disease-causing organisms.
    So next spring, you must keep the soil moist and rototill or spade the area two to three weeks before planting.
    Isn’t nature marvelous?

Harvest the Sweetest Corn
    If you like eating truly sweet, sweet corn, harvest the ears before the sun rises and refrigerate immediately. Better yet, dunk the ears in ice-cold water before placing them in the refrigerator.
    If you harvest sweet corn in the heat of the day, the kernels will be filled mostly with starch. During the heat of the day, the sugars in the kernels are converted to starch. The sugars produced in the leaves during the day are translocated to the kernels during the cool of the night.


Ask The Bay Gardener your questions at DR.FRGouin@gmail.com. Please include your name and address.

Chesapeake Curiosities: Battle Creek Cypress Swamp is the northernmost of its kind

A habitat unique in Maryland flourishes just south of Prince Frederick. Battle Creek Cypress Swamp is one of the nation’s northernmost naturally occurring stands of bald cypress trees.
    “It’s actually a bit of a mystery why the swamp is here, as we don’t see similar stands of trees in other low-lying swampy areas of the county,” says Shannon Steele, Calvert County naturalist.
    In 1957, the Nature Conservancy purchased 100 acres of land to protect the unusual ecosystem. Today, a boardwalk brings you into the habitat, crossing about 10 acres of the swamp. The park encompasses most of the remaining cypress stand, but some trees remain on nearby private property.
    Delaware has another stand of cypress trees on the Eastern Shore in Trap Pond State Park.
    Some of ­Battle Creek’s cypress are ex­tremely old. “The oldest tree we know of is around 500 years old,” Steele says. This tree can’t be seen from the main boardwalk, but you can visit it on an annual guided hike (calvertparks.org).
    Bald cypress trees are interesting in that they are deciduous conifers, meaning that they have needles like an evergreen but drop those needles in the fall just as oaks and maples lose their leaves. Cypress also grow knees, root system knobs that grow up out of the soil rather than staying underground.
    “The function of these growths is something of a mystery,” according to the Arbor Day Foundation, “although some believe it is a way to help the roots get oxygen.”
    Cypress provide valuable habitat to many creatures, especially the prothonotary warbler, a small yellow bird that likes to nest in the trees’ knees.
    As for the name, Battle Creek is the small stream that flows through the park, named in honor of the town of Battle, England, the ancestral home of the original owners of the land.


Has a sight stymied you? Does an oddity bewilder? Your curiosity may be featured in an upcoming column. Send your questions to chesapeakecuriosities@gmail.com.
 

The story of the Chessie

 

The Chesapeake retriever originated in Maryland, developed to suit the climate and the waters of the Bay.
    In 1807, a British ship wrecked off the coast of Maryland. Among the crew and cargo saved by another ship were two Newfoundland puppies. These pups turned out to be great retrievers and were bred with flat- and curly-coated retrievers as well as other dogs to create our Chessies.
    “They love the water and can swim in the coldest conditions,” says Dawn Logan, statistician and historian for the American Chesapeake Club. “They have been bred to have the ability to hunt many hours in the icy waters of the Bay. Today, they maintain the coat, structure and determination to do what their ancestors did.”
    Today’s Chesapeake Bay retrievers are much the same as the first Chessies.
    “When you look back in breed history, photos and drawings of the first Chesapeake Bay dogs, you see they look very much like today’s Chesapeake Bay retrievers,” Logan says.
    The Chesapeake Bay retriever is a relatively rare breed, with only some 2,000 registered with the American Kennel Club.
    “Because of its intelligence and loyalty, it is not a dog for everyone,” Logan explains. “They do not have the love-everyone attitude of a Labrador retriever or golden retriever. They are known to be stubborn and to think for themselves, which can be a challenge in training. Also, they tend to be more protective than other retriever breeds.
    “They were bred to hunt for hours on end, and that is maintained today, so they do best with a job, whether it be hunting, obedience, agility, daily walks — they need something to do,” Logan says. “We want to maintain the heritage and original capabilities of this unique breed.”


Has a sight stymied you? Does an oddity bewilder? Your curiosity may be featured in an upcoming column. Send your questions to chesapeakecuriosities@gmail.com.

Chesapeake Curiosities

A small building in the Rhode River is built up over the water like a duck blind. But it doesn’t quite look like one, and it’s surrounded by Smithsonian Environmental Research Center land. What is it?
    The structure, an instrument shed, was built in the 1970s, according to Kristen Minogue of Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. Initially it was one of a series of similar stations that monitored the Rhode River. The stations provided data on water chemistry as well as the flow of sediments, nutrients and water. This location is no longer a monitoring station, but others in the network still provide long-term data on the health of the river.
    While it was a monitoring site, the shed housed equipment that operated automatically. Scientists picked up samples weekly. In the 1980s, Smithsonian scientist Tom Jordan spent 24 hours conducting a study from a boat tied to the shed.
    The shed now holds equipment for other projects. It’s recently been used to house hydrophones — underwater microphones — that track fish movement.
    “We use hydrophones in our tagging projects to track how different animals in the Bay move. We attach ultrasonic tags to fish and crabs, and the hydrophones enable us to listen and record the signals those tags emit. One of our postdocs is also using them to listen to the sounds animals make underwater,” said Minogue.
    “The little shed is a testament to almost 40 years of tracking the health of a single river,” Minogue added. “ And the fact that it’s now used by osprey is a symbol of hope. Back when it was built in the 1970s, osprey in the Chesapeake had just hit an all-time low, and now we see them all over.”


Has a sight stymied you? Does an oddity bewilder? Your curiosity may be featured in an upcoming column. Send your questions to chesapeakecuriosities@gmail.com.

Just passing through

A big mother of a terrapin the size of our cast-iron frying pan lumbers from the swamp beyond the small garage, up the stones and through the poison ivy and, without stretching her long neck for a glance backward over her carapace, heads non-stop across our lawn toward the far woods to lay her eggs.
    She is my first sighting of this summer, already August, and in recent years all turtles have been scarce.
    She will dig a hole in the lawn or by the swamp at the edge of the locust trees, maybe two or three holes to confuse us, then pump out eggs like ping pong balls.
    No foxes seen this year, and, oddly, no raccoon or possum has yet to show. So this year none might dig the eggs, and within a couple of months, while waving off the bald eagles, I can escort the hatchlings to the cove.
    For a minute I turn away; when I look again, no sign of her.

Crop rotation keeps you harvesting into winter

If you planted potatoes, you could already be harvesting. Since potatoes are grown in wide rows, the ground they occupied will be ideal for planting a fall crop of peas and snap beans.
    If you have harvested cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and kohlrabi, use the space vacated for okra. If you planted a spring and early-summer crop of snap beans, the free space can be used for planting fall and winter crops of carrots, beets, kale, collards, turnips, rutabaga, radishes and ­lettuce.
    Please note that the replacement crops are different from those planted in the spring. This practice, known as crop rotation, is a very effective means of minimizing disease problems.
    As soon as the first crop of sweet corn is harvested, consider planting large Ford Hook lima beans. Leave the corn stalks in place, with the lima bean seeds planted between them so the emerging seedlings will use the stalks to climb on, making the harvesting of the lima beans easier on the back. Lima beans grow best during the warmest part of summer.
    If you are not a fan of lima beans, consider using the area for growing cabbage, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, kohlrabi or radishes after the corn stalks have been removed. In place of pulling out the corn stalks, cut them down as close to the ground as possible and push the lawnmower over the stumps. Transplant the seedlings between every third or fourth stalk.
    Fall and winter vegetable crops absorb residual nutrients from the soil. Plants do not utilize all of the nutrients applied at planting time and as side dressing. Unless these nutrients are absorbed by the roots of plants, they will leach down into the groundwater. If you don’t plant a fall crop to absorb those residual nutrients, you should sow a cover crop of winter rye at the rate of three pounds per 1,000 square feet.
    Fall crops tend to be sweeter than spring and summer crops. The combination of warm days and cool nights promotes the translocation of and accumulation of sugars in the edible portions.
    Fall-grown peas can be harvested until the first killing frost. Carrots and beets can remain in the garden all winter long and harvested as needed providing the ground is not frozen hard. If you plant three different varieties of Brussels sprouts — such as Churchill, Oliver and Diablo — you can enjoy eating fresh Brussels sprouts from early October until January.
    To maintain the organic matter concentration in my garden soil, I sow winter rye between the rows in late September, before mid-October. The late planting of winter rye minimizes competition for water and nutrients and does not shade the crop but protects the soil from erosion and allows you to walk in the garden when the soil is wet without getting mud on your shoes.


Ask The Bay Gardener your questions at DR.FRGouin@gmail.com. Please include your name and address.