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A fat eel is the best winter bait

I could feel my bait strongly swimming downward next to the bridge piling. Judging its descent at a couple of feet off bottom, I thumbed the reel spool, both to keep it out of any rubble it might dive into and to incite its efforts to escape. It briefly struggled against the increased resistance. That was all that was necessary. Something powerful grabbed the bait then swam away.
    A five-count allowed about 25 feet of line to slip under my thumb. I slowly raised my rod tip, then lowered it to allow a little slack in the line. Hoping the rockfish had the bait well back in its jaws, I dropped the reel into gear and waited for the line to come tight. When it did, I struck back hard.
    My rod bent in a severe arc. I could feel the heavy headshakes of a good fish transmit up the line. Then the striper took off running, headed for the general direction of Baltimore. There was little I could do to stop it.

The Art of Eeling
    More than any other seasonal change, cold alters fishing tactics and baits for stripers. One of the better tempters, especially for large winter-run stripers, is the eel. Called big rockfish candy because the whoppers love them so much, eel is one of the surest bets for seducing a trophy rockfish this time of year.
    The one downside to eeling, as its more dedicated practitioners call it, is handling the slimy devils. Slipperier than a bucket of eels, is an old saying. They are impossible to grasp with a bare hand and a challenge to control if you do manage to get hold of one.
    Fortunately, there are solutions to these problems. Keeping the snakelike creatures restrained in a net bag in your live-well or an aerated bucket will allow you easy access to them. Using gloves or a piece of rough cloth simplifies holding them until you can manage to get them on a hook.
    One of the better alternatives I’ve found is to store them on ice. I use a small lunch-pail-sized cooler with a good layer of ice (or better yet reusable plastic ice blocs) on the bottom covered by a thick wet towel. The snakes become dormant when stored this way and will live for quite some time, days even, if maintained cold and covered by another layer of wet towels.
    They can be easily handled in this passive condition using just a piece of towel or a cloth glove. Once you’ve hooked them up and tossed them in the water, they quickly regain their vigor.
    Put them on your hook in a way rockfish favor. Because rock have very small teeth, they will usually attack a larger bait toward the head to immediately control it. Your hook should be toward the head of the eel, where the fish is likely to strike.
    Sliding the point through the corner of their eye sockets gives the hook a solid purchase. Some anglers prefer to hook them under the chin and out the top of the mouth, particularly if the eels are to be fished weighted on the bottom. Others, especially anglers drifting their eels suspended under release bobbers, hook them lightly under the skin at the back of the head. There is rarely a need to place a second hook farther back on an eel. In fact, using a second hook on this writhing critter will lead to an impossible-to-unravel tangle.
    Once a striper strikes, allow it to swim off with the bait. Give it time, a five-count at minimum, to subdue the prey and work it back in the throat in preparation to swallowing. Use a strong short-shanked hook, at least a size 4/0, that can withstand a good deal of pressure because your chances of hooking a really big rockfish will never be better.

Farewell Fish and Eel
    The rockfish headed toward Baltimore that day probably arrived within not too many minutes. Somehow, during that express-train run, the hook pulled free. I lost the fish, but my hands did not stop shaking for quite a few minutes, and it wasn’t from the cold.

At Thanksgiving, this year’s garden continues giving

This year’s garden was one of my most productive in recent years, despite its late start as I recovered from a fall last November. With help from family members, including grandchildren, the garden was planted in mid-May.
    Even so, we harvested nearly a bushel of onions, which were braided and hung in the garage until recently. This year’s turkey stuffing will contain those garden-grown onions. The Crocket snap bean crop was outstanding, as was the harvest from the yard-long Gita pole bean plants.
    My 14 tomato plants were so productive that in addition to feeding the children and their families, I delivered many half-bushel boxes to the SCAN food pantry at St. James Parish in Lothian.
    I shared my ample okra crop with fellow Ruritans, who also enjoyed harvesting my Gita beans, tomatoes, cucumbers and melons while I vacationed in Maine in late August and early September.
    From six separate plantings of sweet corn, five harvests were better than expected. The last was not ready until early October; its ears were only partially filled and small.
    There were a few disappointments. Cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower were small due to being planted late. My garlic crop was thin because I was unable to keep up with the weeds. Peppers under-produced, too. A granddaughter came to help me transplant, but because I could not convince her to tear the roots of the transplants, the plants never fully established and produced only a few peppers each.
    This late in the year, the garden will bless our Thanksgiving table with fresh as well as frozen and canned vegetables. Fresh from the garden we’ll serve roasted Brussels sprouts, kale chips and raw salad of shredded carrots and kohlrabi — plus peas from the freezer and stewed tomatoes from the canning library.
    Leaves of kale will be spritzed with olive oil and baked at 400 degrees until crisp, approximately 10 to 15 minutes, then sprinkled with onion or garlic powder. This kale is the product of my successful experiment growing in the bales of straw, where both organic and chemical fertilizers did well.
    The Brussels sprouts will be cut in half, brushed with olive oil and baked in a covered dish for 15 minutes at 400 degrees, then baked uncovered for an additional 10 to 15 minutes or until the edges of the cut surface turn light-brown.
    The salad is made by shredding and blending together equal amounts of carrots and kohlrabi to be drizzled with real maple syrup made by my brother in New Hampshire.
    Peas harvested in October were blanched for five minutes in the microwave, chilled and bagged for the freezer. On Thanksgiving Day, they will taste as if they had just been harvested from the garden. We’ll put them in a Corning dish, microwave for five minutes and, as soon as they’re removed, sprinkle with Butter Buds.
    When tomatoes were plentiful in August, I peeled and processed 28 pints, each with a teaspoon of salt. On Thanksgiving Day, several pints of stewed tomatoes will be dumped into a large bowl with two tablespoons of light brown sugar per pint and a generous portion of fresh dill from the garden blended in, then microwaved for only three or four minutes before serving.
    Grow a garden, and you’ll eat this well at Thanksgiving and all year long.

Constellation joins moon and Jupiter, hosts meteors

As twilight gives way to darkness, look for Mars low in the south-southwest. At first magnitude, the red planet is no brighter than your average star, so scouring the horizon with binoculars may help you find it. Can you make out the teapot shape of Sagittarius below? Mars is just above the handle, while the spout points toward the now-set sun.
    Jupiter rises in the east-southeast a little before midnight, and by 6am it is almost directly overhead. Early Friday morning it is less than 10 degrees above the last-quarter moon. Saturday the moon is just below Aldebaran, the heart of Leo the lion. Sunday Jupiter, Regulus and the moon form a near-straight line, each roughly 10 degrees apart.
    The following nights, the moon shifts eastward compared to Jupiter and Regulus, until Wednesday a thin crescent rises before dawn with blue-white Spica just three degrees away.
    The waning moon shouldn’t interfere with the peak of this year’s Leonid meteor shower in the wee hours Tuesday morning. With clear, dark skies you may see 15 to 20 meteors in a given hour. The meteors can appear anywhere in the sky, but traced back they appear to emanate from the shower’s namesake, Leo.

If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem

Think again if you think shade trees pretty much care for themselves.
    In the forest, where trees care for themselves, fewer than one percent of seedlings grow to become marketable trees.
    What do you know about how the crotch angle, crossing branches and branch spacing affect tree health? Allowing narrow crotch angles on branches and stems to remain on young trees will result in premature tree damage. Rot is another common problem with narrow crotch angles. Branches that rub against each other result in early breakage. Young trees need to be trained to proper branch spacing.
    Nursery-grown trees raised in containers tend to develop girdling roots as they mature. Most girdling roots can be seen above ground or at the ground level. Look for roots circling or partially circling the trunk. Often the roots are embedded or being absorbed by the trunk. Cut such roots away with a sharp chisel or ax and remove them.  
    Parking your vehicles beneath the branches of the trees, do you consider the 800 to 1,500 pounds of pressure exerted by each tire? Ninety percent of trees roots can be found in the upper 10 feet of soil. The weight of cars and trucks compacts the soil, as do the tires of lawn mowers and the feet of people, including those who enjoy the shade of the branches during the summer.
    The roots of plants cannot grow in soil with 85 percent compaction or more. If you cannot poke a sharp dowel or digging shovel into the ground six inches or more, the soil is too compacted for roots to grow.
    Every year at this time, you rake away the leaves that fall to the ground. In the forest, fallen leaves return both organic matter and nutrients to the soil, hence to the tree.
    Nearly all fertilizer applied in the shade of branches is used by the turf. Very little nutrient from that fertilizer leaches down to the roots of the tree. Applying excessive amounts of fertilizer to satisfy the needs of the tree roots will result in fertilizer burn of the turf.
    Are you your shade trees’ friend or enemy?


Tree Help Needed

Q    In the spring I planted several fig trees. They  seem to be very slow growers and are now only maybe one foot high. I want them to live this winter. Any suggestions on what I should do?
    –C. Buchheister via email

A    If your fig trees are only a foot tall after growing for one year, your soil is deficient and poor. Your fig plants should be four to five feet tall at the end of the first growing season. Have your soil tested. With their limited root system, I doubt if the trees will survive the winter no matter what you do.

Q    Can you advise on how to eliminate the black soot or mold that is covering the leaves on my Nelly Stevens holly trees?
    –Lauren Avery, Millersville

A    The black on your Nelly Stevens holly is sooty-mold. I suspect your holly may be infested with scale insects. Inspect the undersides of the leaves and stems. The scale insects may be white or yellow-brown like small drops of wax. If your hollies are under maple or tulip poplar trees, it could be that the scale is feeding on the trees and the honeydew has drifted on the holly causing the sooty-mold to grow. Sooty-mold is best removed with a strong jet of water from a garden hose or power washer.



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

The fast, bouncy motion of the lure brought me fish

My original plan was to get a few big perch for a family fish fry on the weekend. I also hoped to capture smaller ones to live-line for rockfish later in the day at the Bay Bridge. It didn’t quite work out that way.
    With a healthy supply of grass shrimp and some razor clams for the perch, I splashed my skiff and made the short run out to the river channel. Slowly cruising a pattern, I looked for the big school of perch I had successfully worked over the previous week. It had been a mixed bunch of big whities plus a fair number of the little fellas (three to five inches) that might prove tempting for rockfish.
    My clever strategy for the day succumbed to reality. The perch were no longer in residence. Drifting and fishing the grass shrimp and clam and searching hard over a wide area, I discovered that the river’s channel as well as its edges were as empty as Old Mother Hubbard’s cupboard.
    Heading out into the Bay I decided to try the Bay Bridge for rockfish anyway. Though my hopes of catching a supply of bait perch had been dashed, I had a fallback. I always carry a box of various sized jigs.
    The fishing jig is named after the dance. Folk dances performed with fast, bouncy motions are called jigs (i.e. the Irish jig), and that is how this lure is worked in the water. Its sudden, jerky movements imitate a small fish in panic.
    Nearing the center bridge span, I was greeted by a heart-warming sight. Birds were whirling, screaming and picking off small baitfish being forced to the surface by the feeding stripers under them.
    I hurried to tie on a quarter-ounce BKD in chartreuse, eased up to casting distance just outside the frenzied flock and pitched my lure. Within seconds, I was tight to a rockfish that put up quite a feisty battle. Netting the fat but undersized fish, I unhooked it and flipped it back over the side.
    Another dozen casts resulted in more small throwbacks, so I paused to reconsider my options. Switching out the BKD for a two-ounce Stingsilver with a small dropper fly attached above, I tried working the bottom, 50 feet down. There is sometimes a larger class of fish under those breaking on the surface.
    This time I hooked what I thought was a much heavier striper. As I drew it close to the boat it turned out to be a double hookup, neither of which was remarkable in size. But then I noticed that one of the struggling fish was a perch. While a 14-inch striper is not particularly impressive, a fat 10-inch perch definitely is.
    Swinging the pair on board, I flipped the rockfish back over the side and the winter-thick perch into my cooler. Subsequent drifts netted more heavy perch and more undersized rock.
    I had to be careful when bringing in these fish. You can horse a schoolie rockfish in quickly for release, but if you try that on a big perch it will too often result in a lost fish. The perch’s mouth structure is much more fragile that the striper’s. Each hookup became a guessing game. I gently fought the fish to the surface, but what fish? Was there a big fat perch on the hook or another throwback striper? Or both?
    After an hour of constant action the sky darkened, the wind picked up and a bit of rain spat down. Declaring victory, I racked my gear and headed back for the ramp. Despite my poor start, I could feed my family. All that good fortune came from dancing a jig.

The lonely star swims with the fishes

Thursday’s full moon is known as the Beaver Moon or the Frosty Moon. It rises around sunset and sets around sunrise. Friday and Saturday the moon is with Taurus, the bull’s red eye Aldebaran high to the left and the Pleiades star cluster higher still. Monday night look for the moon near the Gemini twins Castor and Pollux.
    Mercury is at the tail end of its best pre-dawn appearance of the year. The innermost planet rises in the east-southeast around 5:30 at week’s end and is 10 degrees above the horizon as daybreak approaches. Mercury outshines any nearby stars, but that doesn’t make it easier to spot, but binoculars will help you find it tight against the horizon. Don’t confuse it with Spica a bit higher and to the right or with golden Arcturus much higher and to the left.
    You shouldn’t have any trouble spotting Jupiter before dawn. The gaseous giant rises before midnight and is almost directly overhead before sunrise. The bright star to its lower left is Regulus, the heart of Leo the lion. With Venus hidden behind the sun, only the moon outshines Jupiter in our night skies. You can compare the two between sunset Wednesday and sunrise Thursday the 13th, when the waning gibbous moon is within 10 degrees of Jupiter.
    The only other planet visible is Mars low in the southwest as evening twilight gives way to darkness.
    Early November marks the peak of two meteor showers, the South Taurids November 5-6 and the North Taurids November 11-12. Neither is a prolific shower, and both suffer the moon’s bright glare. But they both have staying power, producing a meteor here, a meteor there for days. Better yet, every now and then these slow movers burst aflame, crossing the sky as fireballs.
    Glance to the south after sunset this time of year and you’re not likely to see much except one bright, blue-white star known as the Lonely One. Fomalhaut appears all the brighter due to the company it keeps. Part of Pisces Austrinus, the Southern Fish, Fomalhaut is the only first-magnitude star amid autumn’s dim, ethereal, water constellations. Only after your eyes have had a chance to adapt to the darkness will you see the creatures within this celestial aquarium: Pisces the fish, Cetus the whale, Aquarius the water carrier, Capricornus the sea goat and Delphinus the dolphin.

With catches cut by 20 percent, the species could rebound in two years

You’ll hear the same story from most anyone who fishes recreationally for rockfish (aka striped bass) in Chesapeake Bay along the Atlantic Coast: There are not nearly as many fish today as there were 10 years ago.
    Science agrees. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission — whose task it is to manage the striped bass population — conducted a benchmark stock assessment in 2012. It found that the total population of striped bass has fallen some 30 percent since 2003 with the numbers of spawning age females at a dangerously low level.
    Technically, over-fishing had not yet occurred, the commission allowed, but it was coming.
    On Halloween, fisheries managers from coastal states from Maine to North Carolina met in a 10-hour marathon at Commission headquarters in Mystic, Connecticut. Included were Chesapeake states — Maryland, Delaware, Virginia and Washington, D.C., and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission.
    The managers heeded recommendations from recreational fishermen along the Northeast Coast (where catches have fallen as much as 80 percent) and the Chesapeake. The result: recreational and commercial Atlantic Coast harvests were cut by 25 percent; Chesapeake Bay recreational and commercial harvests by 20.5 percent.
    This landmark decision bodes well for the future of our rockfish.
    The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission succeeded where states have failed. Bay jurisdiction efforts to make smaller reductions in much smaller increments were ­rejected by the other states’ fishery representatives.
    In Maryland recreational fishing, Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Service director Tom O’Connell expects the 2015 Chesapeake Bay Trophy Season minimum size regulations to increase from 28 to 36 inches, still one fish per angler. The season is anticipated to open, as before, on the third Saturday in April and continue to May 15.
    The regular recreational rockfish season for the Bay will also remain the same: May 16 through December 15. But the minimum size is planned to increase from 18 to 20 inches.
    On the commercial side, the Chesapeake Bay quota for rockfish will drop to 1.471 million pounds (down from 1.925 million pounds). The minimum size for the commercial fishery is expected to remain 18 inches.
    Atlantic Coast recreational fishery limits will drop from two fish to one; minimum size remains 28 inches.    If the plans works, the species could be declared recovered in two years.

Now’s the season, so do it right

Mistakes made when planting shade trees grow up to haunt you.

Mistake 1: Choosing the wrong tree for the wrong place.
    Research the nature and habits of the species you want to plant. Do those qualities match the place you want to plant it and the job you want it to do?

Mistake 2: Planting too close to buildings, driveways, sidewalks or driveways.
    Plant the tree where it will provide shade in areas desired and as a backdrop for the landscape. Avoid planting trees where branches will rub against structures or interfere with traffic. Avoid planting shallow-rooted trees next to sidewalks, roads and driveways. As the tree roots expand away from the tree trunk, shallow-rooted trees will damage walkways and road surfaces. This result is commonest in heavy silt or clay loam soils.

Mistake 3: Planting in heavily compacted soils.
    If you are not able to dig the planting hole with a shovel, the soil is most likely compacted. If you need a crowbar, pick or jackhammer to loosen the soil to dig the hole, it is a waste of time and money to plant the tree. To solve the problem, you need to sub-soil the area and incorporate four to six cubic yards of compost per 1,000 square feet. Roots cannot grow in soil with 85 percent or more compaction.  

Mistake 4: Mistreating roots of bagged and container-grown trees.
    Trees grown in containers develop circling roots. Unless they are disturbed or cut, they will continue to grow in circles. As the trunk of the tree increases in diameter, it eventually makes contact with the girdling root, which has also increased in diameter. To prevent girdling and choking, cut roots near the surface of the root ball. When you see dead and dying branches at the top of a tree — or a tree growing lopsided — the damage is most likely caused by girdling roots. By then it is often to late to salvage the tree.  
    When transplanting trees grown in root-controlled bags, remove the bag. Unless all the fabric is removed from the root ball, the tree will not be able to develop sufficient roots to keep it upright.
    This is also true for trees that are sold as bagged and burlapped (B&B). If the burlap lining the wire basket has a green tint, it means that it is treated with a rot inhibitor. The rot inhibitor will prevent the burlap from decomposing, and the roots within the root ball will not be able to grow in the new soil. The burlap should either be rolled down below to the bottom of the root ball or removed before filling the planting hole with soil.

Mistake 5: Leaving tags on trees and shrubs.
    After planting, remove nametags and marking tapes from stems and branches. Allowing these to remain after the tree is established and growing rapidly will result in girdling and death to the stem or branch.

Mistake 6: Failing to stake.
    All trees 10 feet and taller should be anchored using either ground ties or stakes on either side of the trunk. Pad string or wire with tree ties or pieces of garden hose to protect stems and branches.

Mistake 7: Pruning just before or after planting.
    Plant hormones needed to generate new roots are produced in the buds that grow on the branches. Pruning away the branches at the time of planting will eliminate the source of plant hormones, thus delaying the development of new roots. Delay pruning away branches until after the tree is established. You can determine when a tree has become established by looking for a high proportion of normal sized leaves on each branch.

Mistake 8: Overwatering.
    Newly planted trees should be irrigated only once or twice a week. Irrigate thoroughly or use Gator bags that allow slow irrigation. When using Gator bags, irrigate the trees only once each week until the plants become established. Water established trees less frequently. Never water daily.


Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at DR.FRGouin@gmail.com. Questions will appear in Bay Weekly. Please include your name and address.

Halloween falls right in between

The waxing moon reaches first-quarter Thursday, and as darkness falls on Halloween, it shines high in the south, with the bright star Fomalhaut almost straight below.
    As a holiday, Halloween stretches back thousands of years, but not as a day of costumes and trick-or-treating. It coincides with earth’s path around the sun, falling midway between autumnal equinox and winter solstice.
    The Celts of pre-Christan Britain called this cross-quarter day Samhain, celebrating both the end of the harvest and the end of the year. On this night, the veil between the world of the living and the realm of the dead was thought to be especially thin, so people lit bonfires and lanterns from hollowed-out gourds to ward off spirits.
    As Christianity spread, it merged its own holy days with the pagans’ cross-quarter holidays. Imbolc became Candlemas, now better known as Groundhog Day; Beltane gave way to May Day; Lugnasad became Lammas. And Samhain was absorbed into All Saints Day or Hallowmas, marked on November 1, with the night before Hallow’s Eve.
    Now the cross-quarter day coincides with another ritual, setting our clocks back an hour in the return to Standard Time at 2am the first Sunday of November.
    The first week of November provides the best view of Mercury before dawn. The innermost planet reaches greatest elongation November 1, its farthest west of the sun and its highest in our sky. An hour before sunrise, look for it not quite 10 degrees above the east-southeast horizon — roughly the size of your fist at arm’s length. At magnitude –0.6, Mercury is brighter than any nearby star (all but Sirius, in fact), but binoculars may help locate it in the glow of twilight. Don’t confuse the bright planet for Arcturus higher in the east-northeast.
    You shouldn’t have any trouble finding Jupiter. The gaseous giant rises around midnight, and as dawn approaches it is high in the southeast, bluish Regulus and the other stars of Leo the lion stretched out below it.
    Mars is the only planet visible in the evening, shining no brighter than your average star but still a distinct orange-red. Look for it low in the southwest as darkness settles, where it will remain the rest of the year.
    Early November marks the peak of the South Taurid meteor shower. The higher the constellation Taurus, the more meteors you’re likely to see, although the waxing moon will limit you. Still, the Taurids can deliver the occasional fireball.

Straw-Bale Gardening Works

Re: www.bayweekly.com/node/23750

Siberian kale grows happily on bales of straw.
    This summer, I experimented with soilless gardening in bales of straw. The trick is priming the bales with fertilizer. I used 21⁄2 cups per bale of high-nitrogen lawn fertilizer minus all herbicides, testing both organic and inorganic.
    I prepared the bales in mid-August, inserting a long-shank thermometer and irrigating two to three times weekly. Priming initiates the composting process. The thermometer monitors temperature, which rises during active composting. When inner temperature again matched that of ambient air, in mid-September, I scattered seeds of Siberian kale over the bales.
    The seedlings grew equally vigorously on bales treated with the organic and inorganic fertilizers.


Save Gita Bean Seeds for Next Year

Re: www.bayweekly.com/node/13348

If you grew Gita beans this summer, by now some of the pods may be three feet long. Harvest those long brown pods and extract the seeds. For the past two years, I have tested saving seeds of Gita and comparing them to seeds purchased every spring for planting. Thus far I have found that the seeds saved are of equal quality to those purchased.
    After harvesting the seedpods, I lay them on a shelf and allow them to dry. When the pods are dry, they split easily and the beans are easily extracted. I then store the seeds in a small plastic, zipper-lock bag in the refrigerator along with the rest of my leftover seeds.
    Gita bean seeds are some of the more expensive you can buy, so saving them from year to year can result in a substantial savings. Last fall I failed to harvest all the bean pods. Gita bean seeds that fell to the ground germinated and grew. Clearly these seeds are quite cold hardy.


White Pines Don’t Like Wet Feet

Q    I live in a townhouse community. The trees in the community are 20 to 25 years old. This last year I have noticed that many pine trees are turning yellow and dying. Any idea of the cause and if we can prevent their deaths?
      –Greg Welker, Bowie

A    I strongly suspect poor soil drainage. We had a very wet growing season, and the soil in Bowie is mostly clay. White pines cannot tolerate poorly drained soils.
    The yellowing symptoms are also due to poor soil drainage. Yellowing of old needles is common, but this season’s yellowing is a symptom of root loss due to excess water.

Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at DR.FRGouin@gmail.com. Questions will appear in Bay Weekly. Please include your name and address.