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Early-spawning crappie already on the move

The new fishing year is blossoming before us. Since the passing of the Winter Solstice (the shortest day of the year) on Dec. 21, 2014, our daily dose of sunshine has grown. January 8 gives us eight hours and 11 minutes, a trend in the right direction. We might not notice the accumulation of extra sunlight every day, but the fish do. It is one of the prime drivers of their urge to spawn.
    Crappie (properly pronounced with a broad a) are generally the first fish in the Tidewater to feel that stirring and start to move to the shallows. They are also known as calico bass, speck, speckled perch and, because of delicate mouth structure, paper mouth. That’s a point of anatomy to be considered when making the decision whether to derrick a hooked fish up out of the water or land it with a net.
    One of Maryland’s most overlooked fish, crappie are also good eating. Therein lies part of the problem of finding good crappie water: Their fans are loath to share that information. However, I can offer a few tips to get you headed in the right direction.
    Now is not too soon to start looking. Any day temperate enough to tempt you out will be a good day to try. Crappie tend to bite early and late in the day, so that’s the first thing to take into consideration. I recommend scouting sites starting in the early afternoon (when it’s warmer) and fishing early mornings only on locations that has proven productive.
    Light to medium-light spin tackle with six- to eight-pound monofilament will be sufficient. Specs will take minnows of all types, but smaller ones are usually best. Try to harvest the minnows yourself with a dip net or a baited minnow trap, particularly from areas close to where you’re fishing. Fish the baits under a bobber or on high-low rigs. Concentrate on water 10 feet or less in depth.
    Since crappie have a larger mouth than most pan fish, any hook size from a #6 to a #1 will work. Thinner diameter wire hooks are superior because they are easier on the smaller minnows and keep them lively longer. No leaders are necessary.
    Night crawlers and red wigglers are two more fine crappie baits. Fish them the same way you would the minnow, under a bobber or on high-low rigs. Crappie are schooling fish. When you hook up one, there should generally be others in the immediate vicinity.
    Concentrate along shorelines of the fresher areas of local tributaries, targeting downed trees, submerged brush or tangles of floating debris. Bridges, piers, docks and other constructed water structures are also prime holding areas. Target deeper water during low tides when fish tend to congregate in the river’s holes and pools. When the water warms up past 50 degrees, these fish will be more likely to take a lure. For now, live bait is best.
    Crappie are widely distributed in Maryland. On the Eastern Shore the Wye Mills impoundment — as well as the stream (and bridge) below the spillway — is a good place to look for big crappie. The Tuckahoe River is also a prime location, again both the impoundment and the waters below it.
    The Upper Choptank is a particularly good tributary for a hot bite in early springtime. Greensboro is a great place to try, especially if you have a small boat. Going upstream and targeting laydowns, tree stumps and submerged brush will generally get you some nice fish. Higher up the river at Red Bridges can also be excellent for shore-bound sports.
    The Pocomoke River near Snow Hill can be outstanding. One of the better fly and light tackle guides on the Chesapeake, Kevin Josenhans specializes in fishing that river just for crappie this time of year. Check out his blog at http://josenhansflyfishingblog.com/ for an early season report.
    On the Western Shore, the Patuxent is one of the better rivers. Starting at Wayson’s Corner and up to Queen Anne’s Bridge and Governor’s Bridge, you’ll find good spec territories somewhere along the way. Also try the Jug Bay Wetlands area for good fishing and scenery.
    Almost all of the upper reaches of the Western Shore tributaries can hold crappie, but these fish have a low tolerance for salinity so you will not find many farther downstream.
    There are also a multitude of freshwater impoundments in Maryland where crappie lurk, especially Urieville and Unicorn Lakes and spillways. Find a full listing of all the inland waters available plus listings of the species that frequent them at http://dnr2.maryland.gov/fisheries/Pages/hotspots/index.aspx.

The new fishing year is blossoming before us. Since the passing of the Winter Solstice (the shortest day of the year) on Dec. 21, 2014, our daily dose of sunshine has grown. January 8 gives us eight hours and 11 minutes, a trend in the right direction. We might not notice the accumulation of extra sunlight every day, but the fish do. It is one of the prime drivers of their urge to spawn.
    Crappie (properly pronounced with a broad a) are generally the first fish in the Tidewater to feel that stirring and start to move to the shallows. They are also known as calico bass, speck, speckled perch and, because of delicate mouth structure, paper mouth. That’s a point of anatomy to be considered when making the decision whether to derrick a hooked fish up out of the water or land it with a net.
    One of Maryland’s most overlooked fish, crappie are also good eating. Therein lies part of the problem of finding good crappie water: Their fans are loath to share that information. However, I can offer a few tips to get you headed in the right direction.
    Now is not too soon to start looking. Any day temperate enough to tempt you out will be a good day to try. Crappie tend to bite early and late in the day, so that’s the first thing to take into consideration. I recommend scouting sites starting in the early afternoon (when it’s warmer) and fishing early mornings only on locations that has proven productive.
    Light to medium-light spin tackle with six- to eight-pound monofilament will be sufficient. Specs will take minnows of all types, but smaller ones are usually best. Try to harvest the minnows yourself with a dip net or a baited minnow trap, particularly from areas close to where you’re fishing. Fish the baits under a bobber or on high-low rigs. Concentrate on water 10 feet or less in depth.
    Since crappie have a larger mouth than most pan fish, any hook size from a #6 to a #1 will work. Thinner diameter wire hooks are superior because they are easier on the smaller minnows and keep them lively longer. No leaders are necessary.
    Night crawlers and red wigglers are two more fine crappie baits. Fish them the same way you would the minnow, under a bobber or on high-low rigs. Crappie are schooling fish. When you hook up one, there should generally be others in the immediate vicinity.
    Concentrate along shorelines of the fresher areas of local tributaries, targeting downed trees, submerged brush or tangles of floating debris. Bridges, piers, docks and other constructed water structures are also prime holding areas. Target deeper water during low tides when fish tend to congregate in the river’s holes and pools. When the water warms up past 50 degrees, these fish will be more likely to take a lure. For now, live bait is best.
    Crappie are widely distributed in Maryland. On the Eastern Shore the Wye Mills impoundment — as well as the stream (and bridge) below the spillway — is a good place to look for big crappie. The Tuckahoe River is also a prime location, again both the impoundment and the waters below it.
    The Upper Choptank is a particularly good tributary for a hot bite in early springtime. Greensboro is a great place to try, especially if you have a small boat. Going upstream and targeting laydowns, tree stumps and submerged brush will generally get you some nice fish. Higher up the river at Red Bridges can also be excellent for shore-bound sports.
    The Pocomoke River near Snow Hill can be outstanding. One of the better fly and light tackle guides on the Chesapeake, Kevin Josenhans specializes in fishing that river just for crappie this time of year. Check out his blog at http://josenhansflyfishingblog.com/ for an early season report.
    On the Western Shore, the Patuxent is one of the better rivers. Starting at Wayson’s Corner and up to Queen Anne’s Bridge and Governor’s Bridge, you’ll find good spec territories somewhere along the way. Also try the Jug Bay Wetlands area for good fishing and scenery.
    Almost all of the upper reaches of the Western Shore tributaries can hold crappie, but these fish have a low tolerance for salinity so you will not find many farther downstream.
    There are also a multitude of freshwater impoundments in Maryland where crappie lurk, especially Urieville and Unicorn Lakes and spillways. Find a full listing of all the inland waters available plus listings of the species that frequent them at http://dnr2.maryland.gov/fisheries/Pages/hotspots/index.aspx.

Coast Guard’s sea turtle rescue brings them Internet fame

It’s all in a day’s work.    
    The day was August 12, when a boater reported an entangled sea turtle 30 miles off New Jersey’s southern coast.
    Using the boater’s GPS coordinates, the Cape May Coast Guardsmen and staff of Marine Mammal Rescue Center set out on a rescue mission. Finding a turtle in the Atlantic could have been as hard as finding a needle in a haystack. But the coordinates led straight to an ensnared leatherback.
    The team got close enough to grab the offending gear — a floating marker on a long pole ending in a rope. Then, the Coast Guard team “used their bare hands to control the struggling 800-pound creature.” Amid the grappling, the line was disentangled and the turtle swam free.
    Videotaping actions is also in a day’s work in the modern Coast Guard. Over the last two weeks, YouTube viewers chose the Coast Guard’s Video of the Year from 10 action-packed sea rescues and adventures. The leatherback rescue earned second place. So in sweet symbiosis, the sea turtle saved by the Coast Guard makes the rescuers stars.
    See the Coast Guard’s Top 10 of 2014 at www.youtube.com/user/USCGImagery.

Knowledge makes power

The horticultural green industries — nursery, landscaping and greenhouse crops — are the second largest agricultural industry, second to poultry in Maryland and third in the nation. With home gardening the number one hobby, it is no wonder that the demand for trained horticulturists is so high.  
    Gardening is therapeutic, and those who partake in it realize great satisfaction from watching plants grow as well as enjoying the flowers, fruits or vegetables they produce.
    Nowadays, gardening is no longer limited to backyard plots. More than 80 percent of plants are grown in containers on decks, patios, balconies and windowsills or under artificial lights. Plastics have made it possible to design and manufacture containers that resist freezing and provide good drainage while looking attractive. Soilless light-weight rooting media, packaged in convenient-sized bags or boxes, are weed-free and engineered to satisfy the growing needs of most plants. Some containers can even keep the rooting media moist for several weeks.
    Advances in fertilizers in both organic and inorganic forms make it possible to limit the need to apply fertilizer on a timely schedule. Slow-release fertilizers are balanced to supply the needs of each nutrient based on well-established research.
    Greenhouses for home use were once expensive to build and maintain because they were covered with glass that was frequently broken by accident or by hail. Today’s small home-type greenhouses can be built inexpensively and covered with double-layer polyethylene or composites that can be shaped using a box cutter. These greenhouses are easily heated. Some of the plastic coverings can be used for several years, while composites have been known to last 20 years or more. Greenhouses allow you to start your own transplants for the garden and can be used to grow winter crops such as short-day onions, spinach, lettuce, radishes and Swiss chard with minimum heat.
    Many home gardeners are now starting to use low tunnels, small hoops 18 to 24 inches tall and 24 inches wide, in their gardens or raised beds. The tunnels allow them to start growing plants at least one month earlier in the spring and extend the fall growing season by at least a month. Clear polyethylene covers the hoops and is anchored to the ground by soil.
    A new method called Aerogation Green Wall Systems even grows plants on walls. These plants are grown in containers mounted to the wall; air from the room is forced through the rooting media, cleaning the air of impurities while humidifying and oxygenating it.
    Horticulture continues to evolve. When I joined University of Maryland’s Department of Horticulture in 1962, 80 percent of all nursery plants were grown in the ground. Container plants were mostly grown in greenhouses in clay pots. The rooting media consisted mostly of sterilized soil and peat moss. Plants were fertilized mostly with dry fertilizers such as 10-10-10 or 10-6-4 or liquid 20-20-20 using a hose-on-nozzle. Greenhouses were covered with glass and heated mostly by steam or forced hot water.
    Horticultural technology has made many dramatic changes and created many opportunities. The demand for trained horticulturists is greater now than ever before. Anyone can dig a hole, but it takes a good understanding of plant science to grow plants efficiently, protect them from insects and diseases and use them properly.


Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at DR.FRGouin@gmail.com. Please include your name and address.

Calvert Marine Museum’s new baby cephalopod

True names rise from a creature’s character. That’s the Native American way. Cats, too, have true names, but theirs are inscrutable to humans, according to poet T.S. Eliot in the poems that became Cats of musical fame.
    Octopi are as curious as cats, certainly as inscrutable and maybe as intelligent. These creatures of the deep can change both the color and the texture of their bodies to disappear into their environment. They use their eight tentacles to explore, and in captivity, where food may be presented in jars to test their skill, they’ll take lids off and pull out what’s inside.
    Calvert Marine Museum’s new River to Bay exhibit welcomes a pint-sized octopus from Virginia’s offshore waters. The pound-and-a half cephalopod is “very inquisitive,” according to keeper Linda Hanna.
    “It’s fascinating to work with an animal who can tell you’re there and wants to interact with you,” Hanna says. “Every time she’s fed, she has to get her food out of something. We’ve used jars, toys, even Mr. Potato Head. When you try to take something out of the tank, she’s like a two-year-old who wants it back and will grab onto it so you can’t take it out.”
    Such a creature can’t just be called the octopus.
    To find her true name, the museum invites you to enter its Name Our Octopus Contest.
    You’ll have to see her to discover what that name might be. Visit through January 30, pick a name and drop your suggestion in the ballot box in the museum store.
    The octopus herself will choose the winner on Tuesday, February 10. All names are also entered in a drawing to win a basket full of octopus-related goodies.

A different rockin’ new year

We are going to have a good year in 2015. That’s what I’m predicting, despite continuing reports of rockfish population problems.
    I must disclose, however, that when it comes to predicting what Tidewater anglers can expect in the year to come, the last few seasons I’ve built up close to a 100 percent accuracy rating — 100 percent wrong.
    My prediction for 2013 was for a disappointing year for rockfish. That season turned out to be the best in memory, with lots of big fish that stayed around all season. Catching was phenomenal.
    My prediction for 2014 was based on the falling rockfish population scenario, soon confirmed by an Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission survey. I was sure a mediocre season would follow. But Bay fishing again proved excellent.
    Making a prediction for 2015 in light of these failures posed a real challenge. The Commission has officially confirmed falling rockfish numbers as well as anticipating a spawning female population crisis. Thus a 20.5 percent harvest cut for the Chesapeake has been mandated for 2015. How can Tidewater anglers have another great year in the face of that pronouncement?
    I was again tempted to go with the science-based opinions that we are bound for a disappointing year in 2015. Then I consulted an old friend, one of the more knowledgeable Bay watermen I’ve known.

Leo James’ Prediction
    Leo James has been fishing the waters of the Chesapeake almost daily for over 71 years.
    “The problem with government officials figuring the rockfish numbers is that the fish have fins. They can move miles from one day to the next,” he explained.
    “Early last April, setting my nets for white perch day after day, I caught so many six- and seven-inch rockfish that had to be released that I stopped setting. Now where did those little rock come from? They couldn’t have been spawned that year; they were too big. [A six-inch rockfish should be about six months old.] There were thousands and thousands of them.
    “All these government officials that say they know what’s going on out there are full of it. Especially about the Chesapeake. They really don’t know what’s happening; they’re just guessing and they can guess wrong. I can tell you from what I know and what I’ve seen, the Bay is going to have a good season in 2015. There’s plenty of fish out there.”

He’s Not Alone
    Some DNR officials may agree with James, at least about a portion of the rockfish problem. In arguing against the Commission’s 20.5 percent reduction for the Chesapeake rockfish harvest to protect the spawning female stocks, DNR argued in part that our Bay fishery is primarily for male stripers. Most of our females become migratory and leave for the Atlantic. Perhaps our Bay numbers are better than Marine Fisheries Commission data indicate.
    James offered one caveat: “I can tell you another thing from my 71 years of experience. There has never been two years in a row that have ever been the same. They are always different, and usually way different.”
    So my final prediction is that we’re going to have another good rockfish season in the coming year, but it won’t be anything like last year. So be ready to adjust your game.


Welcome Back to Fishing

    Maryland Department of Natural Resources wants to woo back Marylanders who have not bought an annual nontidal or tidal fishing license since 2011. If that’s you, buy before Jan. 31 and save 50 percent.

Put these tools — not useless ­garden gadgets — under the ­Christmas tree

I hope you had a laugh over my column on useless garden gadgets two weeks back. This week I’m turning serious, suggesting useful tools the gardeners on your holiday shopping list will want and use.
    The Garden Bench and Kneeler is great, especially for us older gardeners. Getting down on your knees is easy; getting up is hard. The Garden Bench and Kneeler pad is easy on the knees, and the handles are a great help in getting up. I have had mine for years. When you get tired, turn the kneeler up and you have a bench to sit on.
    The Garden Stamp or Dibble Board is ideal for maximizing garden space as it provides the proper spacing for transplanting or sowing seeds. Different boards are made for different crops. Rake the garden smooth before pressing the board into the soil. Then sow seeds or transplant in the indentations made by the stamp. I have made them for my own garden using old broomsticks, dowels and scrap lumber.
    Gator Bags or Arbor Rain Bags are very effective for transplanting trees and shrubs and for keeping young trees alive, without wasting water, during drought. Installed around the base of newly planted trees or shrubs and filled with water, the bags release the water slowly into the soil for days so the root ball stays moist until new roots grow out into the soil. They’re also easy to fill.
    The Garden Weed Torch is a great way of killing weeds growing in the cracks of sidewalks, in gravel-mulched beds and along ditches without having to use weed killers. A quick flash from a flame kills weeds without damaging concrete or stones, and it doesn’t leave any residue.
    Okatsune Shears, made from the same process used for making Samurai swords, are great for cutting plants. Long handles make them easier to use.
    Pruners and loppers by Felco and Corona keep their cutting edge with very little sharpening. For pruning branches eight to 12 feet above your head, use long-reach pruners. Carry hand pruners in a sheath attached to your belt to prevent injury.
    The Soil Knife is a great tool for dividing perennials, for digging holes when transplanting and for lifting seedlings from the soil. Mine is a Japanese gardener’s knife with a blade about two inches wide and cupped for digging, so it can be used in place of a trowel for planting. One edge of its blade is saw-toothed, while the other can be sharpened. Also purchase the sheath for carrying it.
    Soil thermometers are useful in determining when to start planting certain crops. For instance, corn seeds should not be planted until after the soil is 60 degrees or warmer. A long-shank thermometer is helpful in monitoring microbial activity in compost piles. An active compost pile should read 130 to 140 degrees. When temperatures drop below 100 degrees, it is time to turn the compost.    
    The Weed Stick and Weed Wick are safe and effective for applying herbicides with minimal environmental impact. The Stick and Wick apply the herbicides only in a limited area, thus preventing potential problems associated with sprays. Apply the chemicals based on manufacturer’s recommendations.
    The Weed Bandit hoe is my favorite because of its long rake handle and stainless steel head with a corrugated blade that stays sharp. I like the small Weed Bandit for hoeing onions and closely planted plants, and the medium blade Weed Bandit for all other weeding work.


Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at DR.FRGouin@gmail.com. Please include your name and address.

Fishing in a chill rain is better than not fishing

As my cast settled, the streamer curved down and across the dark current. As the line straightened out at the shadow line, an unseen rockfish slammed the fly hard. I struck back and lifted. My nine-foot rod bent all the way to the cork handle, and my line came tight to the reel. “They’re here,” I informed my friend up in the bow, “or at least one of them is, and it’s a good one.”
    The night had turned cold, a lot colder than I expected. Drops of icy rain had begun to splatter my foul-weather coat, and that wasn’t expected either. George Yu, an old fishing buddy, and I were taking a long shot, trying to get in one last bit of action before rockfish season closed. It looked like our effort — and discomfort — just might pay off.
    Our skiff was anchored a long cast up current of one of the piers of an area bridge, a reliable rockfish hangout in seasons past but one we hadn’t visited in a while. It was a nighttime-only bite and dependent on tidal current, moon phase and a fair bit of luck.
    We had decided to try it earlier in the day. One problem, originally, was the moon. It was close to full, and that much light at night almost always scatters the fish. Near total darkness is necessary to allow the bridge lights to cast a distinct shadow line. There the rockfish like to concentrate and ambush bait.
    However, a good, solid overcast had formed and was projected to remain heavy throughout the night. The 10-day forecast promised few other chances at catching a last fish before the season ended. We decided to chance it.
    The next problem was timing. My friend couldn’t get out of his office until late, putting us on the water at 8:30pm, well after dark, with a tidal current predicted to slacken at 10:30. That left a pretty short window for success.
    To make the effort more difficult, we were using fly rods and hi-density sinking lines to try to coax the stripers into eating. We’d been successful using this technique before. But it did mean we would be dealing with a right-hand wind.
    A right-hand wind tends to push the backcast (assuming a right handed caster, like myself) across behind the angler’s body. Hence, the forward cast can easily stick the fly’s hook through your ear. Only a slight breeze had been predicted. But if you put much faith in a marine wind forecast you haven’t fished the Bay much.
    The first fish, when it came, proved a spirited fighter. I had forgotten how much colder water enhanced a striper’s ability to resist capture. I expected to see a 23-incher come alongside as I struggled to bring the fish near the boat. This one measured scarcely 18 inches, though it was as winter fat as a football.
    “We can do better than this,” I said, slipping the fish back over the side. By then my partner was hooked up and struggling with his own fish.
    “Get the net,” he called out.
    “It’s going to be smaller than you think,” I replied. “Relax. It’s not going anywhere.”
    When the fish broached alongside us, I scrambled for the net. It wasn’t a giant, but it was definitely a keeper. A few minutes later George slipped the heavy 21-incher into the fish box. In another couple of casts, I was tight to its near twin.
    Deciding to endure our good fortune, we hooked and released small and just-keeper rockfish for well over an hour, holding out for a pair of heavier critters to reach our limit. Then the current began to die and the wind picked up.
    “I think I’ve enjoyed about as much of this as I can stand,” I said after too many minutes of no fish, my teeth chattering and my fly whistling too close to my ear.
    “Anytime you’re ready, I’m ready,” George said. “We got in one last trip.”

Its bite can kill a horse

Beware the brown recluse.    
    The spiky-legged brown recluse grows as long as three-eighths of an inch. A violin shape marks its back. Its bite is devastating. I know because I’ve seen it firsthand.
    A big, warm-blood, show horse on my Southern Anne Arundel County farm was bitten on the leg by a brown recluse. After more than two months of treatment, she had to be put down.
    In animals and humans alike, the characteristic signs of this spider bite are blistering and swelling at the bite site and surrounding area, followed by skin necrosis and peeling, leaving a deep, exposed area that may need skin grafts to heal. Treatment can go on for weeks, as Philip Angell of Annapolis found out.
    About a decade ago, Angell was tidying up a woodpile in his yard in early May. He wore long pants but only clogs on his feet, allowing a brown recluse to bite him on the ankle. He didn’t know he had been bitten until he noticed a red, hard spot as he was showering. He applied hot compresses until it was time to go out that evening. By the next day, the spot was redder and harder, and by the third day, infection was setting in, prompting an emergency room visit.
    At the hospital, the doctors recognized the spot as a brown recluse bite. The wound was lanced, then drained and scraped, then Angell was put on intravenous antibiotics in the hospital for several days. Before going home, he was fitted with a contraption that he kept on for 10 days, enabling twice-daily drips of antibiotics, each session lasting an hour. The treatments were successful, and today Angell has only a small scar to show for his experience.
    The bite of the brown recluse is distinctive, but it’s best if the spider is seen and captured for identification. Wounds may be wrongly attributed to a snake or black-widow spider, and treatments may vary.
    I found my horse killer in a pile of towels and saddle pads waiting to be laundered, near the horse’s stall. After killing the spider, I slid it into a plastic bag to await identification.
    Sarah Gorczyca of Home Paramount Pest Control confirmed the identification. Encounters seem to be trending, she reports, with calls concerning brown recluses coming in from Edgewater south through Calvert County.
    Maryland is not these spiders’ natural habitat. They concentrate in the central and southern United States but may hitch rides on vehicles.
    Wherever they settle, brown recluses build irregular, loosely constructed nests in dark undisturbed areas. Their nest serves only as a retreat and a place for the female to lay her egg sacs. As their name implies, they are reclusive and do not like to come out of their webs except at night to hunt for food. Thus they may reside in close proximity to people and animals and never cause problems. While not aggressive, they will bite if accidentally touched or pressed against.
    Look for these spiders in shoes and boots, in piles of clothing or laundry lying on the floor, in basements and garages, and under leaves and mulch.
    Human bites remain infrequent. This year, neither Calvert Memorial Hospital in Prince Frederick nor Anne Arundel Medical Center in Annapolis has treated humans bitten by brown recluses. In prior years, both have treated a few, including Angell’s.
    Small animal veterinary clinics have reported a few cases, some very serious. In one home where a dog was bitten, exterminators discovered hundreds of brown recluses nesting in the garage. The dog survived after months of treatment.
    For animals, prevention is difficult. They are at the mercy of Mother Nature. Call the exterminator if a brown recluse is seen.

I’m dreaming of Florida fishing

Rockfish season ends December 15, just days away. That is also the end, at least for the next few months, of the focus of my sporting life. Since last April, my schedule has been planned largely around the hunt for stripers and related marine forecasts, the timing of proper tides, desired wind direction, the 10-day outlook, the maintenance of my skiff and for the last few weeks, favorable temperatures. All of that will be over soon.
    But wintertime fishing is not hopeless.
    Lately, I’ve been considering some bad-weather traveling. There is always a good bite somewhere. Travel far enough south, and good things can happen.
    Since my oldest son and his family have moved to southern Florida, I’ve become acutely aware of the winter sailfish run that starts every January just off Miami. Some sailfish have been hooked from local fishing piers. Miami is just the focal point; the bite extends quite a distance both north and south.
    It was improbable to me that an exotic pelagic fish that rarely gets any closer than 30 miles off the coast of Maryland would be cavorting within almost a stone’s throw of a more southern city. But the warm, northward flowing Gulf Stream Current that closes with Florida’s southeastern coast does just that. It also brings dolphinfish (mahi mahi), wahoo, king mackerel and various species of tuna. These are just the sorts of finny critters that can help a serious angling addict through Maryland’s two most intemperate months.
    Last year I sampled this fishery on board the sportfisherman Thomas Flyer out of Miami. Within a half-hour, we hooked up our first of five sailfish for the day. A little later, we were slammed by a number of mahi up to 10 pounds. We lost one or two much bigger fish sight unseen. I immediately wanted to do it again.
    Florida has plenty of charter boats and fishing guides as well as public boat ramps all along the coast. The salty (and delicious) Gulf Stream gamefish are often found so close to the coast that, assuming a judicious selection of wind conditions, a relatively small craft of 18 feet or so, trailered down or rented onsite, is enough to get you to the fish.
    The technique for hooking is simple: slow trolling (also called bump trolling) live baits. Pinfish and pilchards can be bought at tackle and bait shops or caught by jigging Sabiki rigs resembling small bunches of tiny shrimp. These baitfish often concentrate around navigational structures just off of the shoreline; look for early morning charter boats gathered for the same purpose.
    With a supply of live bait on hand, the usual strategy is to stream your lines with the baitfish hooked through both jaws out behind the boat and move at the slowest speed that keeps the baits trailing to the stern but doesn’t allow them to wander very much to one side or the other (and tangle with other lines). Search youtube.com for bump trolling for more information.
    You won’t need heavy blue-water tackle to tangle with the critters; most will be under 40 pounds. Any medium-heavy six- to seven-foot rod with a good quality reel with at least 200 yards of 20-pound mono will be adequate.
    Sometimes, though, you might hook up a behemoth (there’s the occasional blue marlin at more than 500 pounds) that will strip your reel of line and break off. That possibility only adds to the excitement.
    Even if the fishing is slow, you’ll be warm. Temperatures in southern Florida during January and February average in the mid 70s.
    Winter action for sails, wahoo and mahi usually lasts into early March.

Decking your halls, from trees to poinsettias

Buy a Fresh, Safe Christmas Tree
    For the freshest Christmas trees, buy locally from a Christmas tree grower’s lot or cut your own. Otherwise, you could be buying an imported tree cut in late October or early November.
    Fresh-cut Douglas fir, Scots pine and blue spruce are the most fire-safe Christmas tree species, ranked by the State Fire Marshal based on research conducted by the Bay Gardener in cooperation with the Maryland Christmas Tree Growers.
    Fraser firs are not fire safe. Do not buy them.
    Once you bring the tree home, cut an inch from the bottom of the trunk and place in a bucket of 100-degree water. Keep the tree and bucket in the shade until you are ready to bring it indoors. When you bring it in, cut another inch from the trunk and immediately place it in water. Make certain there is always water in its stand. A good Christmas tree stand should hold at least one gallon of water.

Wreaths and Roping, Too
    Most of the Christmas wreaths and roping sold in big-box stores, grocery stores and many garden centers are made in New Mexico, North Carolina, New Jersey, the West Coast and Canada starting in October. Few of these facilities have climate-controlled cold storage for keeping greens fresh prior to shipping. Most are stored on the floor in sheds and barns and sprinkled with water when they appear to be drying. By the time they reach Maryland, they have already lost a high percentage of their moisture.
    At Upakrik Farm, I wait to make wreaths and roping until Thanksgiving week to assure freshness. I store them on the barn floor in stacks no greater than 10 deep to prevent compression and to assure adequate moisture. I sprinkle the wreaths and roping daily to keep them moist and cool to maintain freshness. Because I sell only freshly made wreaths and roping, I have many repeat customers at the Riva Road Farmers Market. There is no substitute for freshness.

Gather Greens in Your Garden
    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.
    Increase the life of greens by cutting one to two inches from the base of the stem as soon as you bring them indoors and immerse them in 100-degree water. Change the water at least every other day.

If You’ve Got Winterberry Holly, Bring It In
    Winterberry shows at its best this season, inviting you to cut it for Christmas decorating. The native deciduous forms of holly grow as shrubs six to eight feet tall. At this time of year, the ends of the branches are filled with clusters of bright red berries.
    Use extreme care when cutting the stems to minimize shedding berries from the stem. Once they are cut, do not put them in water. Since the berries shrink very slowly, they will remain attractive for a month or more indoors. Thus, they’re ideal for making dry arrangements or for decorating the Christmas tree.
    Holly berries are not poisonous, though neither do they taste good.

Keep Poinsettias Pretty
    The brightly colored bracts and dark green leaves of poinsettias make them the ideal Christmas plants. Varieties are better now than ever before. Now available in many shades of red, white, pink and speckled, they retain their bracts and leaves longer with minimal care.
    And no, they are not poisonous.
    Keep your poinsettia fresh looking by careful watering. Check the growing medium daily for adequate moisture by pressing your finger into the medium halfway between the stem of the plant and the wall of the pot. If the medium feels cool and moist, there is adequate moisture. If the medium feels warm and dry, water thoroughly.
    Add water until it flows through the bottom of the pot. If water flows immediately through, the medium is too dry to absorb water. Soak the pot in a basin or pail of warm water for 30 minutes to an hour. Drain the plant before returning it to its place.
    Avoid overwatering. Poinsettia roots are very susceptible to rot.


Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at DR.FRGouin@gmail.com. Please include your name and address.