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For good sport and good eating, white perch deserve respect

The day was a success from the beginning. Son Harrison and I were on a perch outing, and the very first structure we targeted was rich with sizeable whities. Both of us were fishing six-foot light-action spin rods spooled with six-pound line and baited with one of the most productive lures in our box, spinner baits. Our tackle was constantly being strained to its limits.
    That’s not to say that a big white perch can pop six-pound test line. But fragile mouth structure makes it easy for the bigger fish to tear off if they’re reined in too tight. Plus after an hour or so of working the kind of rocky structures this bantam rooster of the bass family prefers, the thin mono usually accumulates nicks and stress fractures.
    We hadn’t fished together for some time as Harrison’s art career in Baltimore has taken much of his time for the last few years. Today, a Father’s Day promise was being made good — and making an occasion both of us will remember.
    Don’t dismiss white perch as a distant second-best after rockfish. When properly pursued, the species is both sporting and rewarding.
    The most numerous fish in the Bay, white perch are ample from the headwaters at the Susquehanna Flats almost to the ocean. The fish can reach 19 inches long, but in our waters 10 inches is usually tops, making an 11-incher a lunker, a 12 a-once-a-year occasion even for a devotee, and a fish 13 inches or over a Maryland citation and cause for extreme celebration.
    Despite its size, the white perch is also a sportfish in the best sense of the term. Its unguarded willingness to attack virtually any variation of lure and a wide variety of live baits makes it available to even the most inexperienced angler. When hooked, it gives an outsized performance in its bid for freedom. There is no minimum size or possession limit on white perch.
    The scarcity of fish over 10 inches makes the pursuit of the big guys a challenge, and the methods to target them are many. The primary strategy is a lot of throwbacks.
    Like-sized perch tend to school together, but concentrations most always include at least one big lurker. Employing larger-sized Super Rooster Tails or similar spinner baits in one-sixth, one-quarter and even the one-half-ounce sizes (or No. 12 Tony Accetta spoons) gives you a better chance at the bigger ones. Throwing Rat-L-Traps in the one-quarter-ounce sizes (with one of the treble hook shafts clipped off) can eliminate most midgets, giving your bait a better chance of finding a thick black back.
    Fishing areas that are out of the way or difficult to navigate is also a strategy for lunkers. Small creeks and tidal ponds with very shallow access and deeper backwaters discourage both commercial netters and sport anglers with lesser determination. So these can harbor some really big fish.
    In the deeper channels of more open waters, bouncing a small jighead trailing a three-inch or longer strip-bait cut from the belly of a perch or spot can be effective. Only the bigger fish can inhale the whole bait and get the hook, and the belly strips are tough and can withstand multiple strikes before they have to be replaced.
    At the end of the day, however, no matter what size fish you’ve caught, rolled in Panko flakes and fried in an inch or so of hot peanut oil, a crispy white perch fillet is the finest treat on the Bay.

Those talons are sharp!

As an aide at Battle Creek Cypress Swamp Nature Center in Calvert County for almost nine years, one of my duties was to feed the barred owl. The owl was blind, or nearly so, due to a collision with a car. Each morning I would take a couple of mice out of the freezer and put them on a plastic plate to thaw. Before closing I would take the now-thawed mice out back, enter the walk-in cage and touch the plate to the owl’s chin. The owl gobbled down the mice, whole, of course. I accomplished this simple task hundreds of times.
    If there were visitors, I invited them to join me for owl feeding. Among them was a group of excited Cub Scouts who packed, nose to wire, around the cage.
    That day the owl changed our routine. As I lifted the plate, he flapped right onto my head, gripping hard with those wonderfully adapted talons.
    I am nearly bald and I take blood-thinners. You can imagine the scene, including the bulging eyes and wide-open mouths of 15 gasping Cub Scouts.
    The bird promptly returned to his perch. I’m not sure if I gave him some help or not.
    The repair at the emergency room was simple. Some antiseptic, a few band aides and a couple of shots.
    That is my only claim to fame: An owl landed on my head.

Vertical mulch with Bloom

A mature tree not only increases the value of your home but also offers shade during these hot days of summer, thus reducing the cost of air-conditioning. Trees also provide branches for hanging swings and places for birds to nest and perch.
    However, your surrounding lawn does not provide the best conditions for keeping mature shade trees healthy. Soil compaction is often a problem, as foot traffic, riding mowers and often other vehicles compact the soil surrounding the roots.
    Fertilizing the lawn does not feed trees. Turf grasses are heavy feeders on nutrients, leaving little to nothing for the deeper roots of trees. Apply an excess of fertilizer under shade trees, and you are likely making the turf susceptible to diseases.  
    Fertilizer tree spikes don’t help much, either, as research shows they fertilize primarily the surrounding grasses. Deep-root feeder probes often go too deep as they’re designed to prevent the fertilizer solution from bubbling to the surface.
    There is a better way.
    In the early 1980s, the University of Maryland installed a water feature in the center of the campus mall. During its construction, heavy equipment compacted the soil beneath the canopy of willow oaks lining the mall. Within one year, the trees went into severe decline, with large branches dying.
    To save the trees, I augered hundreds of four-inch diameter holes 10 inches to a foot deep at two-inch intervals. We packed the holes tightly with LeafGro. Next spring, the trees were producing lush new growth on many of the dying branches. By mid summer, we could see that the treatment had made a difference.
    The University repeated my treatment every seven to eight years. Thirty years later, the trees are still thriving.
    The treatment was so successful that I was invited to the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, where the construction of a new library had damaged mature southern red oaks. Since the red oaks were widely scattered, I varied the system by using a trencher and dug four-inch-wide and 12-inch-deep trenches in a wagon wheel fashion around each tree. The trenches started 10 feet from each trunk and extended beyond the drip line of the branches. Mixed in equal proportions with composted yard debris, soil from each trench was used to fill them to grade. All of the treated trees resumed normal growth within two years.
    Just prior to presenting my research finding at the National Arborist Association, I named the process “vertical mulching.” Many arborists from across the country have since used it successfully.  
    Within a year after moving to Deale, I vertically mulched two large cherry bark oak trees that were declining in vigor. Using a six-inch power auger, I drilled holes 10 to 12 inches deep at three-foot intervals, then filled them with LeafGro. I have repeated the treatment every seven to eight years.
    This year I vertically mulched using Bloom with fantastic results.  My 150- to 200-year-old cherry bark oak trees are not only covered with dark green leaves but also with longer new growth than ever before. The lawn beneath the canopy of branches is better than ever, though I have not applied a drop of fertilizer in more than 10 years. Because it is cut tall and let fall, the grass clippings surrounding each hole filled with Bloom have fertilized the soil between the holes. The lawn in the shade of the trees is a uniform green and growing just as fast as the grasses near the augered holes.
    I continue to be awed by the plant-growth responses I am observing from different uses of Bloom — the superior soil conditioner produced at Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Facility from Class A biosolids.


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

But when half of all crabs are ­harvested each year, we’ve got to work to keep the population steady

After almost three decades of effort, Maryland’s treasured Chesapeake Bay crustacean, the blue crab, has achieved a major scientific benchmark. The number of spawning females has at last reached the minimum target level for optimum species viability: 215 million sooks.
    The 2017 Winter Dredge Survey put the female population at well over the minimum, 254 million, an impressive 31 percent increase from the prior year. This is an important moment, as just four years ago (and five years prior to that), the female crab population had been ­driven to dangerous, even population-collapse, levels.
    Only relatively recently has the female blue crab population been recognized as key to maintaining sustainable levels of our beautiful (and delicious) swimmers. Females were once assumed (by regulators and scientists) to spawn only once in their lives. Hence, when mature, they could be harvested without consequence. That assumption proved false.
    The one hiccup in this year’s accomplishment was the accompanying news that juvenile crabs had inexplicably nosedived by 54 percent. The blue crab is known for fluctuating numbers and varying spawning successes, so this is not a necessarily alarming happenstance. However, these early low numbers will have a definite impact on commercial crabbers later this year, and most certainly the next, when these crabs reach ­harvest size.
    To protect overall numbers, the Maryland, Virginia and Potomac River Fisheries Commission has proposed shortening the crabbing season and imposing stricter bushel limits on female crabs. No changes to male crab limits were proposed.
    Both Maryland and Virginia will have to decide this month on actions and restrictions to protect and stabilize the general crab population. The very real danger is the possibility that Maryland may once again expand the currently limited female harvest to cover the shortfall of males for commercial watermen. (Recreational harvest of females has been outlawed.)
    The legal season for harvesting blue crabs can run into December, but Maryland Department of Natural Resources has ended the season early upon reaching its targeted harvest levels. Last year’s season ended Nov. 30. The year before, Nov. 19. Each year almost 50 percent of all blue crabs in the Bay are harvested.
    This is the first year since record keeping began that we have reached the minimum female target level for species viability. As blue crabs spawn from May through October, this will also be the first of record with an adequate female population providing for growth.
    The commercial sector has been lobbying hard for changes that would increase their incomes, most notably keeping the legal size for jimmies at five inches instead of five and one-fourth inches. Will females be the next target?
    The excessive harvest of female crabs is the odds-on suspect in the many crab population crises that have occurred cyclically throughout the history of crab management.
    The blue crab deserves to be regulated for overall population health.

Citizen scientists join the search for other life forms

With summer comes longing for adventure. Motivated to engage with nature and be a part of something bigger, I signed up to study the parasite Loxo and mud crabs at Smithsonian Environmental Research Center.
    Small by any standard, the white-fingered mud crab, aka Atlantic mud crab, is “small as a flea” or large as an inch, according to Smithsonian scientist Alison Cawood. This small crustacean plays a large part in our Bay’s ecosystem. A key indicator species, it preys on oysters, barnacles and worms, at the same time serving as a snack for birds, fish and other critters.
    It is also the unwilling host of a “bodysnatching parasite,” an invasive species called Loxothylacus panopaei. A pointy headed member of the barnacle family, Cawood explains, Loxo burrows into the mud crab during its molt, when it’s most vulnerable, and hijacks its body. It does this dastardly deed by injecting fewer than 200 cells into the crab’s nervous system. Once in, these cells take over. The crab becomes “a barnacle in a crab suit.” Loxo even uses the crab to carry its offspring, parasitic larvae, in its external sack.
    With a five-minute instructional how-to and tiny forceps, our group of 12 pull mud crabs out of small milk crates filled with mud and oyster shells, all gathered from sample sites on the Rhodes River. The result of our intricate game of I Spy is a jar full of lively crabs to be further studied for zombification by scientists and lab-certified volunteers.
    Our final task is to check another team’s milk crate remains for missed mud crabs. These crabs would be not only examined for the virus but also cataloged by number and size for another ongoing study.
    We volunteers were the subject of that second study, our accuracy factored with age, time spent, educational level and previous field study experience. This is important for Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, which depends on some 6,000 hours annually of volunteer research in its ongoing studies.
    If you take the time to get scientific this summer, you will learn odd things and find it rewarding. For upcoming opportunities for citizen scientists, check Bay Weekly’s 8 Days a Week.

Don’t over-handle your onions

Onions are bulbing. Disturbing the plants now will reduce the storage life of the bulbs. Keeping your onion patch free of weeds is important, but from now until harvest you’ll want to weed by hand. An onion hoe may damage bulbs.
    The keeping quality of onions depends on strong and healthy plants. So you should irrigate your onions in drought. Since onions are generally shallow rooted, they should receive a minimum of one inch of water each week. I irrigate my onions twice weekly if we don’t get adequate rain. Use a rain gauge near your garden rather than depending on weather reports to measure precipitation.
    As soon as the majority of the onion tails turn yellow-brown-green, use the back of a steel rake to knock the tops down horizontal to the ground. Allow the tops to soften and start turning yellow-brown before harvesting.
    For maximum storage life, never remove onion skins from the bulbs. The outer layer reduces the transpiration rate of the bulbs, extending their storage life.
    I braid most of my onions, allowing the bulbs to remain attached to the tops. For storage, I hang them in an open garage, in the shade. The onions with the smallest necks are the best keepers and should be saved for later use. The first onions you should eat are those with fat necks, for they have a shorter shelf life.
    The bulbs of braided onions should be separated by gently pulling without disturbing the outer skin of the other onions.
    I store unbraided onions in small baskets hung from the ceiling of the garage. This allows air to circulate through the onions, minimizing rot problems. Check the baskets of onions every two to three weeks and remove any onions that are softening.


More about Bloom

Q    I really like the results I am seeing using Bloom after reading your article. Should I be concerned about heavy metals coming thru to be absorbed in my vegetable garden produce?

–Jan Fergus, via email

A  Bloom is a class A biosolid. Class A biosolids do not contain heavy metals. Today 85 percent of all biosolids generated in the U.S. are class A. The only heavy metals we are concerned with are lead and cadmium. Metals such as iron, copper, zinc, ­nickel, chromium and manganese are essential plant nutrients or needed by soil organisms.

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

Our battle against heavy winds, stalled tide and slack current paid off

Small-craft advisories and a forecast of 15- to 20-knot winds made canceling our planned outing a no-brainer. For those who chose to disregard the warnings, however, that day proved to be a placid beauty with five-knot winds, a slight overcast and a red-hot rockfish bite almost all day long off Hackett’s Bar.
    Re-assembling the next day, this time for promises of a five-knot westerly breeze and a strong falling tide, we motored out of Sandy Point and headed south. I had shoo-shooed my buddy Moe into leaving his foul weather gear in his truck (“no rain possible,” said I), only to have him inform me, a bit after we came up on plane, that he was getting drenched from bow spray.
    That westerly breeze had turned into a wind. I had to stop and give him my stowed waterproof, perhaps about 10 minutes too late. Remaining in the lee of the nearby Western Shore for the journey south, we were going to be in for a rough day.
    Throttling down and cruising out past the green can at Hackett’s and into the chumming fleet anchored there, we marked no fish. Continuing on our southerly heading, within a half mile we encountered a few promising marks on the finder. They were scattered fish, probably stripers, though I was unsure of their size.
    Setting our anchor in 35 feet of water, we swung with the wind, pointing our stern at the Eastern Shore. The full-moon high tide was to have peaked at 6am that morning. Since we launched about two hours later, I was sure we would have a firm, outgoing current.
    Dropping the chum bag over the stern proved me wrong, as the chum sank straight down. We baited and cast our rigs only to watch as the lines listlessly drifted back to the boat.
    Rockfish are generally loath to bite on a slack tide. We were stalled at full flood with no discernible current, the wind sending an occasional wave slapping chop over our stern. The over-sized bilge pump, intended for just such a situation, kept us safe and dry. But the hull buck and the side-to-side rock made it hard to keep an eye on our rods.
    The situation was not good. It was too early to quit and go home, but the wind gave no sign of laying down. Our only hope was to wait for the tide to fall, which might get the fish feeding. An hour later, we were still waiting.
    Then I noticed a rod tip bouncing a bit more enthusiastically than the others. Picking up the rig, I felt some life at the other end. Since the conditions were so abominable, I glanced back at my finder screen to see what possibly could be down there. Holy moly!
    The screen was lit up like the Fourth of July. What that school of rockfish was doing there I have no idea. They might have wandered right under the boat and encountered the falling chum. Or we had somehow blundered upon their favorite lair. In any case, below us was a crowd with marks of all sizes. We were into one fish after ­another for the better part of an hour.
    A goodly number were schoolies that proceeded to delight in seizing a bait from under the boat and screaming off to filch it at a distance or to suddenly drop it out of perfidy. There were, however, a few in the 24- to 29-inch range that encountered the sharp, 5/0 hooks and were eventually wrestled on board.
    Then, mysteriously, that wretched wind died, the seas calmed and the crazy bite was over. With a lovely limit of fat stripers on ice we pulled the anchor and headed home over now-gentle waters.

This year, the winged swimmers are protected

One sunny afternoon with no breeze and the air hot and sticky, fishing was becoming a drag. We were ready to pack it in when the line zinged. With a leap of excitement, I grabbed the reel and began the labor of dragging the catch in. This would be no easy feat as the line doubled over.
    We were both tired when I lifted up my prize: a tiny baby cownose ray.
    This majestic giant of the Chesapeake is near and dear to my heart. As a girl, I have fond memories of watching their tips break a still surface of the morning water, like dancers. These schooling brown rays make our backyard their home when they arrive in early spring to mate and eat, through fall. Bottom feeders, rays do eat clams and oysters but not to the extent once believed.
    Because they were thought to be hungry hazards to some of our favorite resources on the Chesapeake, including crabs, rays were targeted for hunting and harvesting. Bow-fishing for rays became a niche sport.
    Now these creatures are protected by a moratorium through July 2019, passed unanimously by Maryland senators. The moratorium is timed to allow scientific observation and study of the species to see what effects these rays actually have on the aquatic ecosystem.
    When you’re out on the water this summer, catch a look at their effortless glides. If you happen to hook one, enjoy the fight, then carefully release it. Rays are strong and slippery with whip-like tails.

Even with compost you can overdo it

Recently a Bay Weekly reader complained she could not grow cauliflower or broccoli. The plants grew big and lush but never produced edible heads — all this despite the large amount of compost she added to her garden soil each year.
    My response was too much of a good thing. Compost is a good source of not only long-lasting fiber but also slow-release nutrients. For every percent of organic matter in soil, an acre of soil generates 10 pounds of nitrogen each year. If your soil contains five percent organic matter, that translates to 50 pounds of nitrogen per acre per year.
    Growing a good crop generally requires between 100 to 120 pounds of nitrogen per acre per year. If your soil contains 12 percent organic matter, you should not have to apply any nitrogen fertilizer to achieve optimum plant growth — providing all other nutrients are present at optimum levels. If your garden soil contains 15 percent organic matter or more, plants are likely to produce super-lush growth. Leafy plants such as lettuce, cabbage, spinach, Swiss chard, celery and fennel should produce bumper crops. Cauliflower, broccoli, tomatoes, peppers and okra will likely produce large vigorous plants but limited fruit.
    This same problem occurs when you apply too much nitrogen fertilizer. Several years ago a Bay Weekly reader complained that his tomato plants grew like trees but hardly produced any tomatoes. As I was not able to diagnose the problem, based on our discussion over the telephone, I invited him to Upakrik Farm and requested he bring the bags of fertilizer he used. He brought a bag of 10-10-10 and a bag of urea. He said he used urea and not calcium nitrate as I had recommended in one of my Bay Gardener articles because the store manager said calcium nitrate was not available but urea would substitute. Urea contains 45.5 percent nitrogen while calcium nitrate only contains 15.5 percent nitrogen. In other words, the excessive amount of nitrogen from the urea caused the tomato plants to remain vegetative rather than producing fruit.
    Monitoring organic matter content in your soil is another good reason for having periodic soil tests, which also measure pH and nutrient levels.


Are Strawberries Perennial?

Q If you want to get several years of picking strawberries from the same plants, would you leave them alone after picking or would you mow the top leaves off? I know that the commercial guys plow them under each year and replant for the next year, but I had a decent crop this year and hate to till them in.

–Frederic Ames, Shady Side

A    The traditional method of growing strawberries is to rototill under the mother plants, leaving the daughter plants to produce next year’s crop. By doing so, the same bed can produce berries for three to four consecutive years. However, crown mites, often called cyclamin mites, cause crop failure on the fourth year.


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

Firefighters save Lassie look-alike Siri

Anne Arundel County Firefighter Brian Doyle and his team were out on the water training when they got the call. A dog trapped down a hole near Edgewater needed rescuing.
    His Special Operations Confined Space Rescue Team jumped into action, splitting up so that some could get their special rescue rig from the Jones Station firehouse while the rest headed to the scene.
    In what appeared to be a collapsed well, Siri was trapped. At eight feet, the hole was too deep for the collie mix, a Lassie look-alike, to crawl out. Complicating the special operation, the rain-drenched soil was too soft to hold weight directly. To rescue Siri, they would have to get creative.
    First, they cleared brush. Then, avoiding power lines, the team strung a ladder over the hole at about a 45-degree angle. In a harness and rigging line, Doyle was lowered into the hole.

    “It was a tight fit going down,” said the broad-shouldered fireman. The bottom was cavernous, so Doyle had to scan the dark hole to locate the dog. Even stuck in the mud, Siri happily wagged her tail. Good thing, for Doyle had to secure her in webbing, then hold her in a big bear hug while the pair were hoisted to the surface.
    “The owner was smart to call in professionals,” Doyle said. “It was definitely a team effort.”
    For their effort, the team was honored by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which rewarded them with a plaque, The Engine 2 Diet vegetarian cookbook and a tin of vegan cookies.