view counter

Features (All)

When you can’t fish, practice casting

Looking out my front window on a beautiful January morning, I could see that the sun was shining brightly and the wind calm. My eyes settled on the skiff in the driveway, covered with its blue winter-weather blanket. I mused that with a little effort I could pull the cover, hook up the trailer and be on the water inside of 20 minutes. Then I mentioned the thought to Deborah, my long-suffering wife.
    “Great idea,” she said. “It’s all the way up to 35 degrees, and while you’re out there you might help DNR look for the guy that fell overboard near the Bay Bridge the other day. They haven‘t found him yet.”
    “I wasn’t serious,” I countered, “just wishing.”
    The real situation was that I was still recovering from abdominal surgery in early December and forbidden by doctor’s orders from activities that involved lifting anything heavier than a six-pack for at least three more weeks. Launching a boat was out of the question, and springtime had never seemed so far away.
    I reminded myself that the next best thing to fishing was playing with fishing tackle, and I had made promises to myself last season to improve a number of skills. One was my casting accuracy. Lawn casting is a low-impact exercise that would get me out of the house and keep me active.
    I especially needed to work on placing a bait under piers and docks where perch and rockfish hold during warmer months to beat the heat of the climbing sun.
    I had once thought that the fish moved from shallow-water structures to deeper water as the sun rose, especially with a falling tide. However, an accomplished skinny-water angler named Woody Tillery dispelled that idea. Woody’s strategy was based on his experience that, as the sun rose, the fish felt exposed and so tended to congregate in the cooler shaded areas under the piers and docks. The shade rendered the fish mostly invisible to marauding osprey and herons.
    Anglers, however, could cast into those shady refuges as the water level under the structures fell.
    Using that strategy, Woody’s score of white perch was impressive and often included a surprising number of keeper rockfish. It was quite a revelation at the time.
    But I found that method of casting was far from an easy task. An angler needs to practice to become adept, and that is not an on-the-water project. It is an old angling axiom that you can either fish or practice casting, but you can’t do both at the same time.
    I addressed my accuracy issue by constructing light, easily transportable ersatz dock structure with some PVC plumbing pipe and fixtures. Setting up the apparatus on the lawn or a parking lot, I practice casting to and under the target. It’s challenging. The wrist snap necessary to keep the lure trajectory low and accurate is not simple. However, I expect the practice to pay off once I’m back on the water.
    Other techniques for working under or close to these types of structure include flipping, skipping, pitching and shooting. All can be practiced on that same apparatus and are demonstrated in a number of YouTube videos (search on fishing docks). I plan on upping my score considerably next spring by this expansion of my angling repertoire.

The gods do not subtract from an allotted lifespan the hours spent fishing

There is hardly any human activity more restorative, calming, comforting and just plain relaxing than a day on the water attempting to convince a fish to bite your line.
    Lots of popular recreational activities offer competition, strenuous exercise, adrenaline surges and challenge. Fishing promises quiet contemplation, fine scenery and communion with nature — with the outside chance of scoring a healthy meal.
    It is not a particularly strenuous sport. Other than casting out your bait or lure, most of your time and attention is spent waiting for the fish to decide whether or not to eat it. That pretty much puts any pressure for success directly in the hands — or fins — of the fish, leaving your mind free to wander.
    Search the word fishing online, and you’ll get over a half-billion hits. The next most popular sport, golfing, scores scarcely five percent of that number. Not bad for a game that simply requires at its most basic, a pole, some string, a hook and a worm and a good-looking piece of water.
    Children take to fishing like few other activities, which is proof positive of its basically pure and simple nature. Older men revel in its intricacies and total absorption of the self. As the novelist Thomas McGuane said, “Angling is extremely time consuming. That’s sort of the whole point.”
    I have devoted a great portion of my life to chasing fish and have never regretted a single moment. In fact, I’m a firm believer in the adage, You can never fish too much; it just can’t be done.
    One of America’s favorite sons, the author and naturalist Henry David Thoreau, is often credited with saying, “Many men go fishing their whole lives without ever realizing that it isn’t the fish they are after.” That may be the reason that the sport is so consuming and restive. It gives opportunity for philosophical reflection without the actual decision to indulge in such highbrow activity.
    I’ve never slept better than after a day on the water; that alone is an important thing in this fast-paced civilization that we’ve created. Now more than ever, our health and well-being depend on finding ways to relax and take in life.
    The secret of a happy and content life: The best time to go fishing is whenever you can.

A healthy garden for a healthy life

Gardening is the most popular of all hobbies, and for good reason. Gardening gives you hours of relaxation and great satisfaction. It is good exercise. It forces you to go outside, bringing you closer to nature. It can be enjoyed by all ages. Getting children interested in gardening can have life-long consequences. On the other hand, you are never too old to start.
    Dorothy Frances Gurney, a poet of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, says it all in God’s Garden:
    The kiss of the sun for pardon;
    The song of the birds for mirth;
    One is nearer God’s heart in the garden;
    Than anywhere else on earth.
     In Maryland, ornamental horticulture is the second largest agriculture income-producing industry. In the U.S., it ranks third. Its popularity increases as we learn more about horticultural therapy and the benefits gained from eating fresh fruits and vegetables, especially growing your own. Organic gardening has also attracted many into the field.
    Gardens can range in scope from a few potted plants to flowers and herbs to vegetable gardens to an entire landscape. Whatever it’s size, your garden — and satisfaction — will thrive if you recognize that gardening is a science. Many problems can be avoided by following proven practices and by applying the knowledge gained by controlled scientific studies.
    As you imagine your garden over winter, keep a few of those proven practices in mind. Vegetables, fruits, many annual flowers and ornamentals want sun, so locate your garden where it will receive full sun. Nothing — not fertilizers, compost nor pruning practices — can substitute for full rays from the sun.
    Consider your soil, as well. Very few horticultural plants can grow in poorly drained soils. Acid or very alkaline soils are also factors, as many species have very particular preferences.
    Nutrition is as important to the success of growing plants as a proper diet is for our wellbeing. The benefits of organic matter not only include nutrients but also improved soil potential. Chemical fertilizers cannot always substitute equal benefits.


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

Eagles mark a turn toward the ­season of birth

Editor’s note: Bay Weekly readers voted wildlife artist and journalist John W. Taylor, of Edgewater, Best Bay Artist this year. A keen observer of nature, Taylor believes that spring begins here on the winter solstice, December 21, when daylight begins its six-month, minute-by-minute stretch. His book Chesapeake Spring collects his observations and paintings of that season, from which we reprint the first of those observations.


West River, December 26
    The sun had the afternoon sky to itself but for a lone swirl of high cloud, pale against deep azure. The river rested unruffled, touched with the same blue. Across its broad reaches near the far shore, a raft of ducks relaxed, most of the sleeping heads tucked into back feathers. A closer look revealed a gathering of squat little ruddies, tails cocked skyward. Beyond, gulls loitered on wharf pilings. (Gulls always seem to have plenty of time to stand around, doing nothing.) And half a dozen swans tipped peacefully in the shallows.
    A shrill cackling from above shattered the calm. I looked up just as an eagle folded its wings and plummeted earthward. After falling several hundred feet, it threw out its legs and flared up into the path of another eagle. The two tumbled together awkwardly for a moment, then recovered composure as they gained altitude. Tracing slow, lazy circles in the blue, they came together several times, almost brushing wings.
    From that height they could look down on all of West River and on their eyrie, an accumulation of sticks and small branches in the highest fork of a white oak. Half of the mass had been dislodged during a recent storm and had fallen into the lower portions of the tree. Repairs will have to be made within the next few weeks, before egg laying begins.
    The eagles did not call again, nor show any courtship activity, but that brief bit of interplay marked a turn toward the season of birth and renewal — toward spring. Yet by the calendar it was winter that had just begun.

Control winter weeds now, as they’ll be bigger come spring

Winter annual weeds tend to sneak up on you.
    Have you looked at your garden lately? When you do, don’t be surprised if you see a green carpet being woven by winter annual weeds. Annual bluegrass, chickweed, cranesbill and henbit are pretty small now. But if you don’t get out there and control them, they will be much larger next spring.
    It takes more than hoeing to bring them under control. If you simply hoe them out of the ground and leave them lie, they will soon generate new roots and resume growth. After hoeing, rake them up and put them in your compost. Adding weeds provides compost with much-needed nitrogen. The weeds are also succulent and full of water, and the little bit of soil attached to their roots provides inoculum to help in degrading leaves. You need not worry about winter weeds contaminating your compost pile with seeds because these weeds are still in their juvenile form and have not started flowering, which they must before they can produce seeds.
    If you prefer not to disturb the soil by hoeing, use horticultural vinegar, to which these weeds are very sensitive. However, you have to spray the foliage thoroughly to obtain good results. Chickweed takes repeated applications because its foliage is very dense with many overlapping leaves. The first application of horticultural vinegar will only kill the exposed leaves. Make a second application after the first layer of leaves has disintegrated.
    Winter weeds will grow all winter long. They can even grow under snow cover. Trying to kill them with organic mulches is a waste of time. I have seen these weeds grow under the cover of mulch. It is surprising how little light they need to survive. However, covering them with black plastic or tarpaper is effective. Avoid black landscape fabric; it has sufficient pin holes to allow them to continue growing.
    Get a jump on spring gardening by controlling winter weeds now.


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

Delmarva Peninsula fox squirrel rises from endangered to thriving

It’s another win for the wildlife. One of the first animals on the endangered species list, the Delmarva fox squirrel is now a conservation success story.
    Last month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed the squirrel from the list after 48 endangered years. The animal is no longer at risk of extinction thanks to a half century of federal protection and conservation, such as closing hunting and expanding its habitat.
    The fox squirrel’s habitat differs from the home grounds of the more familiar common gray squirrel. Fox squirrels prefer the quiet forests of the Delmarva Peninsula, not suburban or urban areas. With more than 80 percent of the squirrel’s home range on private land, this animal has thrived on the rural, working landscapes of the peninsula, where mature forests mix with agricultural fields.
    Delmarva fox squirrel numbers fell sharply in the mid-20th century when forests were cleared for agriculture, development and timber harvesting. Hunting also contributed to the loss. Today the squirrel’s home range is up from four to 10 counties. Population is as high as 20,000, federal biologists say.
    This silvery gray species is larger than other squirrels, with a wide fluffy tail, short stubby ears and a wider head. The forest-dwellers eat nuts, seeds, acorns and sometimes flowers, fruit, fungi and insects. They spend a lot of time on the ground. Rather than jumping from tree to tree, Delmarva fox squirrels will climb down a tree and travel on the ground to the next tree.
    Keep an eye out for them in places like the Blackwater Wildlife Refuge and the remote forests of Dorchester and Talbot counties. Report your sightings to the Chesapeake Bay Field Office to support the continuing study of our wildlife: fws.gov/chesapeakebay.

From boxwood to white pine, you have many evergreen choices

Here in Bay Country, we have an abundance of evergreen plants to choose from. Many — but not all — narrowleaf greens will hold their needles if you treat them right, while adding beauty and aroma to your home. For long-lasting holiday greens, gather arborvitae, Canaan fir, Douglas fir, junipers, Nordman red cedar, red pine, Scots pine and white pine.
    Many broadleaf evergreens will also hold up throughout the holidays. Choose from American holly, cherry laurel, Chinese holly, English holly, English ivy, mountain laurel, pachysandra, periwinkle, rhododendron and southern magnolia. Japanese hollies are plentiful, but their foliage does not stay as attractive for as long as the other varieties.
    A few species don’t retain their needles and should be avoided, among them hemlock, Norway spruce, Cryptomeria, red cedar and Japanese privet.
    You need not worry about damaging your ornamentals by pruning them this time of year, when the plants are dormant. If you limit your pruning to stems one inch or less in diameter you will not stimulate them into growth or make them more susceptible to winter injury.
    Boxwoods, another long-lasting holiday green, take another pruning approach, borrowed from Colonial times: breaking off branches for making decorations. In cold weather, boxwood branches become very brittle and can easily be broken from the main stems. This may seem crude, but it is a very effective method of pruning boxwood and making maximum use of the prunings.
    Boxwood branches have many decorating uses, such as in making wreaths, sprays, kissing balls and centerpieces. To increase their longevity in the home, carry along a pail of hot water, about 100 degrees, and immediately place the broken end of the branches in the water. The cold stems will absorb the hot water readily.
    By breaking branches 12 to 14 inches long, you punch holes through the boxwood canopy, allowing light to penetrate into the center of the plant. Breaks made when temperatures are low are clean and will heal quickly come spring.
    Another advantage to pruning boxwoods by breaking branches during winter months is you have more time, so you can do a better job. Winter pruning also gives you a head start on spring pruning.
    Still another advantage of breaking branches is that you reduce the chance of spreading canker diseases from plant to plant. Pruning boxwoods during summer months with hedge or pruning shears increases your odds of spreading these diseases from plant to plant with the tools.
    Increase the life of decorative greens by cutting one to two inches from the base of the stem as soon as you bring them indoors and immersing them in 100-degree water. Change the water at least every other day.
    Spraying the foliage with Plant Shine after it has been in warm water for about an hour will improve the appearance and help reduce the need for water. Plant Shine is just as effective but less messy than Wilt-Pruf or Vapor Gard.


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

Not too cold, please, these penguins beg

Winter is creeping up, leading us through frost to cold to ice and snow. That’s weather that will chill the newest penguin residents of the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore as much as it will you and me.
    As African penguins, the newly hatched pair prefers moderate temperatures like those predicted for this week, between about 41 and 68 degrees. So the zoo’s main conservation center building, where they nest comfortably with their parents Mega and Rossi, has controlled temperatures.
    “With African penguins, both the male and the female take turns sitting on the eggs,” said Jen Kottyan, avian collection and conservation manager. “Once the eggs hatch, parents take turns caring for their offspring; they each protect, feed, and keep the chick or chicks warm for two to three days, then switch off.”
    The downy grey juveniles will soon learn how to swim. Then they will slowly meet the rest of the penguin colony.
    The month-old siblings are the first chicks to hatch this breeding season. Penguin chicks spend 38 to 42 days in the egg before hatching. In zoos, keepers monitor development of the eggs by candling them about a week after they are laid to see if they are fertile and developing. The eggs are then reunited with the parents.  The chicks’ parents supply their early diet of regurgitated fish.
    At about three weeks, keepers begin hand rearing chicks to acclimate them to humans as their source of food. 
    The Maryland Zoo has been ­invested in penguins since 1967. Since 2009, African penguins have been endangered in the wild.
    At the zoo, you’ll see the largest African penguin colony in North America, with over 60 birds in the new “highly dynamic” Penguin Coast exhibit.
    Expect a noisy place, as African penguins have loud, braying calls that earn them the nickname jackass penguin.
    You won’t be able to visit these chicks until they’re several months old, but you can follow their growth and development online: ­www.marylandzoo.org; ­www.facebook.com/marylandzoo.

Gardening tools you can count on

Shopping for a gardener? Don’t skimp on price; buy quality tools that last.
    These are my long-time favorites:
    A Japanese gardener’s knife is especially valuable for dividing perennials in the spring. The blade, about two inches wide, is cupped for digging. I also use my Japanese gardener’s knife in place of a trowel for planting. One edge of its blade is saw-toothed, while the other can be sharpened. I carry it in a sheath attached to my belt.
    The Garden Bandit hoe has a long rake handle and stainless steel head with a corrugated blade that stays sharp. I use the small Garden Bandit for hoeing onions and closely spaced plants and the medium blade Garden Bandit for all other weeding work.
    My seven-tine manure fork turns the compost pile, then loads and spreads compost in the garden. I also use it to load plant waste to be deposited in the compost bin.
    Felco and Corona pruners and loppers are tops. They keep their cutting edge with very little sharpening. To prevent injury (and keep them sharp), store hand pruners in a shear case attached to your belt.
    Long-reach pruners eliminate the need to climb ladders as they enable you to reach branches eight to 12 feet above your head.
    Okatsune shears, made from the same process used for making Samurai swords, are the right tool for shearing plants. Long handles make these sharp shears easy to use.
    Edger/cultivators: My favorite for cultivating the vegetable garden is an old 409 one-wheel cultivator with Nebraska blades. It provides great exercise and does a better job of killing small weeds than my Troy-Bilt edger/cultivator. The Troy-Bilt, however, works well for edging the gardens and loosening the vegetable garden when it becomes too compacted for the old 409.


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

I’ve got a couple more big rockfish to catch before December 20

The last of the rockfish season is a particularly difficult time for me.
    As always, I’m hoping for one last good day on the water. I’ve caught a fair number of rockfish the last few trips, including a great 30-inch fish on a recent afternoon under the birds off of Poplar Island. Yet none has given me the feeling of that last hurrah. For that you need a couple of big fish.
    All around, friends tell me of 28- to 36-inch fish brought to the boat on days I’ve been absent. Tales of sea lice and bright, thick rockfish have keep me up at night while I scheme to get back in serious action despite the nasty winds and rain that have plagued my scheduled days.
    Taking a couple of weeks off in late October and early November to do some bird hunting cost me dearly. I lost touch with the bite and with fish movement. Even now I’m pretty much clueless as to finding the fish, the good fish anyway.
    My error has been in chasing rumors and planning only short trips with a simple Plan A but no B or C. That’s not a new story. Spending a couple of days searching and fishing a logical pattern should solve that problem. The remaining problem now is getting those days.
    The late mild weather has been very encouraging. Looking at the most recent forecasts, I’m guessing if I stay ready there will be good opportunities with temps in the 50s for long stretches. Rain will be the only impediment, and that can always be worked around.
    Reports from anglers fishing bait have been alarmingly good for this late in the season. I may have to try. Fresh menhaden remains available at some sports stores. Most of the success stories, however, have come from trollers. In trolling the key to success is finding the fish, and that takes persistence.
    The white perch scene is also promising and tempting. Fishing near Poplar Island last week, we noticed perch on our electronic finder at 50 feet, stacked up thick off the bottom. Reports have similar gatherings around the Bay Bridge and around the deeper channels of the tributaries.
    So I am gathering up my Bomber Rigs. The Bomber is a bright, feathered, two-ounce, metal jig rigged on a leader with a smaller dropper fly about 12 inches above.
    Fished vertically just off the bottom, this setup is deadly on perch. Down deep, big lurking rockfish have been known to smack it hard.
    I could use a couple more Ziplocks filled with perch fillets to get me through the next few months, and a few extra rockfish are always welcome.
    In the last few days of rain, I’ve used the time to clean up my tackle and prepare for one last assault. With luck, I will be able to face the last day of rockfish season, December 20, with a smile.
    Otherwise, well, there will always be next year. And, of course, the yellow perch will start running in just a couple more weeks.