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Managed right, planer boards are great for catching trophy rockfish

Fish on! Fish on!     
    The call rang out from the bridge, and we rushed out from the cabin to the stern to determine which of the 18 rods had hooked a trophy rockfish. Seizing a stout trolling outfit that was bent down by an obviously big striper, my friend Mike began to fight the fish to the boat.
    Managing to avoid any disastrous tangles, my buddy finally got the fat and healthy 37-incher on deck. It was the first of a number of catches made possible by planer boards.

Increasing the Odds
    The thrill of trophy rockfish season is getting control of a big ocean-running fish. Trolling many rods at once increases the odds of success. The challenge is avoiding tangling the active line with the many others still in the water. Because of the other rigs, the boat cannot stop lest there be even more disastrous tangles. So the victor has to overcome not only the rockfish’s strength but also the boat’s continued speed.
    A set of connected angled boards towed to either side of a craft as far back as 150 feet, planer boards let you tow multiple lines at various distances and depths without getting them tangled. The result has been an exponential increase in big fish caught, particularly during the trophy season when trolling is by far the most effective technique.

Between Ocean and Bay
    Most of the big striped bass that cruise the Atlantic Coast from Maine to South Carolina are born in our Chesapeake Bay (where we call them rockfish). They only live in the Bay for four or five years, then migrate to live in the Atlantic.
    The vast baitfish schools of the ocean feed our stripers to substantial size, often over 50 pounds and sometimes over 100 pounds. These migratory giants return to the Chesapeake once a year, during the early spring, to seek out their natal waters and reproduce. After they’ve spawned, they return to the ocean.
    Stripers begin spawning as early as February and, depending on water temperatures, can continue into May. But most are done by the third Saturday in April, when the trophy season is scheduled by Maryland law to open. Thus the season is scheduled to target fish that have already strewn their eggs.

On the Downside
    Planer-board fishing does have its downside. To rig and stream out so many outfits is a complicated affair requiring good teamwork and plenty of planning and preparation.
    Maneuvering a craft with a 300-foot-wide trolling footprint can be a big challenge. Despite the usual brightly colored flags marking a ­planer board setup, they can be hard for other boats to see, especially in choppy waters. Pleasure boaters not familiar with the fishing practice may not notice the devices in the water. The consequences of a collision with one of these towed arrays — even of an abruptly forced course change — can be costly in both time and money.
    Each individual trolling lure can include expensive, multi-lure umbrella and chandelier rigs. Multiply the individual lure cost by a dozen or more, and there is a significant investment in fishing gear. Plus a large mixup can take hours to untangle and re-deploy.
    Keep them out of trouble, though, and planer boards catch big fish.

Grow a patch of rhubarb

My old friend Bill Burton and I once discussed eating freshly harvested rhubarb as kids during hot summer days in New England, where every home had a rhubarb patch in the backyard. Bill raved about his mother’s rhubarb-custard pie, while I raved about my mother’s strawberry-rhubarb pie. I can still picture myself sitting on the back stairs of our home with a fist full of sugar in my left hand and a freshly harvested stalk of rhubarb in my right. Before each bite, I would dredge the base of the rhubarb stem in the sugar.
    Those were the days.
    Rhubarb is a vegetable, not a fruit, although we tend to limit its use to making desserts. One of the great features of rhubarb is that it can be blended with other fruit such as strawberries, blueberries, apples, pears and apricots as the rhubarb absorbs the taste of the fruit. In other words, you can make a tasty blueberry pie using only one cup of blueberries and two cups of chopped rhubarb.
    Rhubarb grows best in well-drained soil in full sun. It can tolerate partial shade, but it will produce spindly stems. Since you consume only the stem, the fleshier the stem the better. Never eat the leaves because they contain oxalic acid, which will cause swelling of the tongue.
    I have seldom seen rhubarb sold in a garden center, though it is commonly listed in seed catalogs. If you order rhubarb for your garden, you will receive in the mail what appears to be a dried-up brown stub. For best results, place it in a cup of water for five days before planting.
    There are various clones of rhubarb with stems ranging from green to various shades of green to red and red only. There is even a clone labeled Strawberry-rhubarb. I can assure you that it does not have a strawberry flavor.
    Rhubarb likes mildly acid soil with a moderate amount of organic matter. When planting rhubarb, I dig a hole the size of a half-bushel basket and add two to three shovels-full of compost and a handful of agricultural limestone, then mix thoroughly.
    Allow the rhubarb to grow without harvesting for at least two years before pulling your first stems. During your first harvest on the third year of growth, remove no more than half of the stems at any one time and allow one month between harvests.
    If you see a flower head develop in the center of the clump, remove it with a sharp knife two to three inches from the ground. Allowing the plant to produce seeds during the first three years of growth will weaken the clump.
    Never try growing rhubarb in a large container or in a raised bed. The roots are sensitive to high temperatures, which will cause the plant to die in mid-summer as rooting media rises in above-ground containers or beds.

Ask The Bay Gardener your questions at Please include your name and address.

Goshen Farm, powered by grassroots

“The grassroots is the source of power. With it you can do anything,” wrote Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson of the wattage behind his bright idea.
    Is it shining still?
    Take an Earth Day No. 47 visit to Goshen Farm, and you’ll see the light.
    From the grassroots, a community rose to save the last Colonial-era farm on the Broadneck Peninsula. Its work has created a hidden oasis of 22 undeveloped acres, surrounded by Cape St. Claire and Walnut Ridge on the Broadneck Peninsula.
    “I became slightly obsessed,” Barbara Morgan, told Bay Weekly of her discovery that a ramshackle neighborhood property was settled in the mid-17th century.
    From Morgan’s obsession, the Goshen Farm Preservation Society rose to save the old house from demolition by the Anne Arundel County School Board, which owns the property.
    It took four years, from 2006 to 2010, for the Society to gain its renewable lease. Then came a Sharing Garden, the offshoot of Nicole Neboshynsky’s dream. Like the Goshen Farm Preservation Society, the garden found many hands.
    More dreams and more hands followed. Volunteers and visitors range from neighbors to school children to scientists to Midshipmen.
    “We’re integrating the concept of environmental awareness into their daily life,” says Society president Lou Biondi. “It’s not just something they learn, it’s something they do.”
    Visit to see for yourself three gardens, a tunnel greenhouse, an orchard and apiary, all producing food for the Sharing Garden’s 60 families plus local food banks and Goshen Farm festivities. The Colonial Kitchen Garden and the Henson-Hall Slave Garden honors 12 slaves known to have lived and labored on the farm; namesakes, Jack Henson and Nace Hall, are recorded by surname in the Maryland State Archives.
    Four more preservation sites feature tobacco, cotton and a grove of white oaks, Maryland’s state tree. The oddest, the Goshen Farm Soil Health Pit, was dug by the U.S. Naval Academy Midshipmen Action Group as a classroom on sustainable soil.

Celebrate Calvert Marine Museum’s favorite mammal

A trip to the Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons is only complete once you have visited the resident river otter, Squeak.
    Squeak plays in an 8,000-gallon freshwater tank that features windows both indoors and outdoors. Since the death of his companion Bubbles, Squeak has been the only otter at the Marsh Walk exhibit. That’s about to change.
    Chessie Grace (top) has long whiskers, silky gray fur and chirps like a bird. The 10-week-old female river otter was abandoned by her mother in Ohio but now lives the good life in Solomons, bottle-fed every four hours and going home with her foster family at night.
    Gracie, as she is known to the aquarists behind the scenes, makes a public appearance next week but does not join the otter habitat until after the exhibit renovations are complete in May.
    To catch an early glimpse of Gracie, whose stage name is Bubbles per museum tradition, visit the museum for OtterMania.
    Museum-goers revel in all things otter during this annual event. Children can dance the Swim with otter mascots, discover where otters live throughout the world and learn what makes the species special.
    Visitors pretend to be biologists and learn what otters like to eat by examining stomach contents, then get tips on how to capture a photo of Squeak in action.
    Feel otter fur, discover why swimming outside all year is great for these water weasels and hear fascinating tails of otter adventures.
    Otters, like children, love to frolic and play with their favorite toys. The mammals are well suited for life in and around the Chesapeake Bay.
    Otter lovers are invited to use the hashtag #ISpyOtters to share ­wherever you find these elusive ­creatures in the wild.

OtterMania: Tues., Apil 26, 10am-4pm, Calvert Marine Museum, Solomons, $9,

Their clock is set to the dogwoods

My first cast met with instant success and, as my slim rod bent down, a flashing, silver missile erupted vertically in the middle of the stream, arced over, splashed down and then grayhounded across the roiling current. Hickory shad had returned.
    I knew it was time earlier that morning when I saw the first signs of dogwood blooms in my front yard. With their emergence the hickories had to be on their way.
    Collecting some shad darts in bright colors and some small three-way swivels as well as a couple of bobbers, I chose my two favorite five-foot spin rods and a pair of warm neoprene boots and set off for the upper Choptank on the Eastern Shore.
    Hickory shad arrive each spring to spawn throughout the Bay’s tributaries, with some returning multiple times in their 10-year lifespan. The harvest of all shad and river herring (a close cousin) has been prohibited in Maryland since 1981, as their population has declined due to unwise agricultural practices, urban development and damming. Catch and release, however, is allowed, as cool water temperatures keep the mortality rates low.
    About an hour later I was rewarded by another good fish, and soon another. As the sun warmed the waters, the bite improved. By mid-afternoon I had notched a rewarding number. The best one, an estimated 20-incher, gave me six nice jumps before it came unbuttoned. Hickory shad is one of the more sporting fish that visits the Chesapeake.

Catching Them
    My technique of fishing a pair of shad darts linked by a three-way swivel 18 inches below my bobber is a site-specific rig, chosen to keep the darts just off of the rocky, shallow river bottom and to hold the lures free from snags. Generally it is best to fish the darts — two always seem to draw strikes much better than one — bobber free so you’re able to explore the deeper waters where these fish also lurk. The hook wire on the shad darts is pliable enough to bend back to the proper shape, so be sure you do, otherwise you’ll not be able to keep a fish on your line for more than a second or so.
    I prefer one-sixteenth- to one-eighth-ounce black-tipped orange or chartreuse shad darts, dressed with yellow or white calf tail. But a one-eighth-ounce curly tail jig in bright green is also popular on the Choptank.
    An 18-inch hickory shad is a big one. Four-pound test line is plenty, but six-pound allows the additional luxury of prying a rock-fouled dart off by pulling hard enough to bend the hook.
Spring Fishing Extra
    This time of year you may also encounter late-run white perch and early-run rockfish. The stripers must be released in all rivers, no matter what their size, until June 1. White perch, however, can be kept for the table and are absolutely delicious, with no minimum size or catch limit.

A successful harvest depends on the right bulbs for our hours of light

Onions are good for your health, and generally they are easy to grow. Let me give you some advice on growing them successfully.
    Plant onion sets and you’ll harvest only green onions. Most sets you buy are short-day onions, which produce bulbs only when grown during the winter months with 10 daylight hours or less. Planted in the spring, as daylight hours grow longer, they produce only onion tails, your green onions.
    To grow onion bulbs, you must buy either long-day or intermediate, aka day-neutral, onions. They are shipped in bundles of 75 or more seedlings. Unless you are familiar with a particular variety, I suggest planting two or more varieties. Harvesting will be easier if you keep each separate in the garden, as they’ll mature at different times.
    Onions perform best in high organic soils with a nearly neutral pH.
    The spacing between onion plants is based on the mature bulb size. The most desirable bulb size for kitchen use is one and a half to two and a half inches. For those sizes, use a four-by-four-inch spacing. Bermuda and Walla Walla-size onions need more space; plant them in six-by-six-inch spacing. Those spacings allow room for the bulbs to grow and for you to cultivate between the plants without damaging the bulbs.
    Fertilize two to three weeks after planting and monthly thereafter. Don’t let the soil dry out; onions have a very limited root system, and there is a high population of plants in a limited area.
    Neck rot of onions can be a serious storage problem. Avoid it by knocking the foliage to the ground just as the bulbs begin to mature in late July and August, depending on the variety. Do so as soon as the color of the foliage begins to fade and the tops of the onion tails start turning brown. I use the back of a garden rake.
    Leeks want four-by-four-inch spacing as they do not produce bulbs but do produce thick stems. They have the same growing requirements as onions.
    Garlic planted last fall is now in need of fertilizer. Like onions, garlic plants have a limited root system and respond well to fertilizer and water. Remove the flower buds as they begin to form, mid- to late June, depending on variety. If the garlic plants flower and produce seeds, both bulb and cloves will be smaller. For large cloves of elephant garlic, early removal of the flower stem is doubly important.

Ask The Bay Gardener your questions at Please include your name and address.


From osprey to elephants, it’s must-see TV

Everyone loves watching wildlife. Taking a break to see nature in action is a wonderful change of pace when you are stuck at your computer all day. Perhaps your children want to really know what a peregrine falcon sees from way up high. Wildlife cams make it happen.
    Get to know some of the cameras keeping an eye on the wilds of the Bay. It’s must-see TV.

Osprey Cams

    Chesapeake Conservancy, Stevens­ville: Calico Tom and Audrey have returned to the nest on the Eastern Shore. Watchers are waiting anxiously for an egg to drop:
    Severna Park High School: A pair has settled in and may be sitting on eggs:
    Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Annapolis: The male osprey’s nest was relocated with some help from BG&E from atop an electrical pole. Watch as a good mate joins him on his new platform:
    Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, Cambridge: The osprey pair have yet to lay eggs, but it could be soon:


    U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service/The Outdoor Channel/Friends of National Conservation Training Center, Shepherdstown, W.Va.: See two eaglets that are almost a month old be fed and eventually fledge:
    Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, Cambridge: The eagle eggs were abandoned by parents and eaten by predatory birds, so there may be nothing to see here until the next mating season:
    National Arboretum/American Eagle Foundation, Washington, D.C.: Bald eagles Mr. President and The First Lady have two growing eaglets, both born in late March. Watch for feeding and eventually fledging:
    Earth Conservation Corps, Anacostia River, Washington, D.C.: At least two eaglets in this nest are growing fast:

Peregrine Falcon

    Chesapeake Conservancy, the TransAmerica Building, Baltimore: Falcons Boh and Barb await the hatching of their four eggs. Falcons have been nesting here for more than 35 years:
    Delmarva Ornithological Society, Wilmington, Del.: Trinity and Red Girl have laid a clutch of five eggs, due to hatch this week:
    Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, Harrisburg: This camera changes angles every few seconds, giving great views of Mom sitting on her four eggs, due to hatch any day now, and Dad delivering meals atop the 15th floor of the Rachel Carson State Office Building:
Great Blue Heron
    Chesapeake Conservancy, Eastern Shore: This new camera takes you inside a rookery in the tops of loblolly pines. Rell and Eddie are taking turns incubating their eggs, due to hatch this month. The other nest on camera is a supply closet for the herons, with many stopping by to take sticks to their own nests: http://

Black Vulture

    Tristate Vulture Cam, Newark, Del.: Watch two adult black vultures take turns caring for their recently emerged hatchling and waiting for the second egg to hatch this week:

Brown Pelican

    Virginia Living Museum Peli-Cam, Newport News: This camera watches pelicans and other feathered friends in the coastal aviary:

National Aquarium, Baltimore

    Visit Blacktip Reef, where sharks, stingrays, tropical fish and Calypso the turtle make a great live screensaver:
    Pacific Coral Reef features puffins, anemones, clownfish and black guillemots:

National Zoo, Washington, D.C.

    ElephantCam: Watch inside the elephant enclosure:
    LionCam: Prepare to see a lot of napping:
    PandaCam: Mei and Bei Bei loll, nap and chow down on piles of bamboo on-camera. Choose from two cams, one inside the nursery and one in the enclosure:

For more cameras, visit Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s map of web cams around the region:

April is Adopt an Owl Month

Do you give a hoot about owls?     
    Having declared April as Adopt an Owl Month, Calvert County Parks is asking you to step up to protect the raptors, specifically the northern saw-whet owl and the barn owl.
    Maryland Department of Natural Resources puts the northern saw-whet owl on its list of Highly Imperiled species in the latest state Wildlife Action Plan. Barn owls are listed as High Risk of Extinction.
    The northern saw-whet has always been a rare breeder in our region. Not so the barn owl.
    “The change in the barn owl’s status is more significant,” according to Gwen Brewer of DNR’s Wildlife and Heritage Service. “We compared counts from a volunteer breeding bird atlas in 1983 to counts in 2006 and saw a 72 percent decline in the numbers. It is one of the largest declines of any breeding species in our region.”
    The tiny saw-whets nest in Garrett County but winter in the forests of the Eastern Shore. When the nomads pass through Chesapeake Country during their annual migration, park staff and volunteers are watching.