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Hauling in jimmies cradling sooks

The big crabs were coming fast, furious and two at a time. My buddy, Mike Fiore, was in the bow holding a crab net crammed full of doublers. He was finding so many of the big males cradling females and clinging to the concrete bridge columns just below the water’s surface that he hadn’t time to shake one set out of the net before we were onto the next.
    “This is unbelievable,” he whooped in excitement. “I’ve never seen so many doublers.”
    Nor had I, and the fact that we hadn’t intended to go crabbing that morning made it more all the better.
    We didn’t have a basket on board to store the crabs, so Mike was simply dropping them onto the deck. There was soon scarcely room to move about in the skiff, with crabs two deep and scuttling in search of a return to the water.
    We had that net only because we intended to catch some big white perch. A crab net is the ideal landing device to ensure that a big heavy black back won’t be lost while over the side of the boat.
    The perch outing was a bust. Despite an early arrival, by mid-morning we had virtually nothing to show. The fish were not there, though we worked the likeliest areas with our best spinner baits.
    We exhausted Plan A and went into Plan B areas with no improvement. With a couple of peeler crabs and some bloodworms for a deeper-water Plan C, we headed for a not-too-distant bridge.
    As I eased my skiff up to a piling so that Mike could drop his top-and-bottom rig on the down-current side where we hoped some jumbo perch would be laying up (they weren’t), he blurted out, “Man there’s a couple of really big doublers hanging onto this column.”
    The baited top-and-bottom rig he had prepared never got wet as he laid down his outfit and wielded our perch landing device (the crab net) to bring the big jimmy and its date on board. Shaking them onto the deck, he leaned out and netted a second, then a third.
    “Dang, look, they’re all over the place,” he observed.
    The crabs kept coming.
    A successful angler can adapt to changing conditions. The conditions that day had changed drastically. We went from angling for white perch to harvesting blue crabs.
    I maneuvered our light craft close around each bridge support in turn, and Mike scooped up the doublers. After about an hour of working just a portion of the pilings, we had an astonishing number of crabs crawling the deck.
    Creating a couple of makeshift measuring devices marked at 5½ inches to ensure we didn’t keep any undersized crabs, we culled through the lot. Pitching the females plus all of the males even close to undersized, we still ended up with nearly a bushel of nice jimmies.
    Temporarily holding the keepers in our fish box while culling, we were then faced with another problem. A cooler is a poor place to store crabs as there is no air circulation. We had no other container and were almost an hour from home, so we dumped the keepers back onto the deck and began the run to the boat ramp.
    During the trip back, as I moved my flip-flop clad foot to discourage a big jimmy that was seeking shelter in my shadow, the motion was enough to trigger a typical crab response. It latched onto my big toe.
    With tears of pain and laughter running down my cheek, I held my foot still and the boat up on plane until the beast got bored and released my aching digit. The delicious crab feast we held that night was more than enough payback.

Holiday dates back more than 130 years

The first Monday in September marks Labor Day.
    “Labor Day is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers,” according to the U.S. Department of Labor. “It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity and well-being of our country.”
    Credit for the day of celebration is divided between Matthew Maguire, a machinist and member of the Central Labor Union in New York, and Peter McGuire, a carpenter and co-founder of the American Federation of Labor.
    The first Labor Day celebration was held by the Central Labor Union in New York on Tuesday, September 5, 1882. Ten thousand workers took unpaid time off to march from Market Hall to Union Square in the first Labor Day parade.
    Labor Day celebrations spread throughout the country, with municipalities, then states and finally the nation recognizing a holiday for working people. President Grover Cleveland signed the law designating the first Monday in September as Labor Day in 1894. His timing was practical, in response to a railroad strike that crippled rail travel. In response, the government deployed troops to Chicago to control the striking workers. Riots broke out and dozens were killed. Labor Day was recognized in hopes of repairing the relationship between government and workers.
    Through the 20th century, the power of labor unions rose. The American labor movement has become synonymous with values that Americans hold dear: a fair wage for a day’s work, safe working conditions for all, a labor force that is valued and protected from exploitation — and the weekend.
    In the 1980s, 30 percent of Americans were union members. Today, only about 11 percent of workers are represented by unions.

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Dog vomit mold and artillery fungus are likely candidates

The abundance of rain this summer has created ideal conditions for the growth of artillery fungus and dog vomit mold. Gardeners who apply a fresh layer of mulch each spring are prime candidates for both problems. I have already seen one case of dog vomit mold, and I anticipate calls complaining that the color of their houses suddenly appears darker.
    Dog vomit is a slime mold that grows readily on organic matter such as hardwood bark mulch. Its name describes its appearance. It pops up in dark, shaded areas that can remain moist for several days. It will first appear as a bubbly dirty-white-to-pinkish blob five to eight inches long and two to three inches wide. Within a day or two, it will turn brown making it appear as if a dog dropped a load from the other end. Depending on how soon you discover it, it may have an odor.
    There are no chemicals you can use to rid the area of this slime mold and no chemicals you can use to prevent it. If you discover it in your landscape the only solution is to sweep it away with a rake and hope that it will not return. There is strong evidence that it is a more common problem where hardwood bark mulch is used and a lesser problem where pine bark mulch is applied. I have also seen it on colored mulches made from discarded pallets.
    Artillery fungus is the result of a saprophytic fungus releasing millions of black spores that are carried by a wind or a slight breeze. We have the proper conditions for artillery fungus to appear. Many years ago, extension agents on the Eastern Shore were overwhelmed with phone calls from people whose houses overnight changed in color from white to brown-black. In every instance, the homeowners had applied a fresh layer of mulch under and around their garden and foundation plantings. There appeared to be no differences among the types of mulches used.
    Those homeowners who took immediate action and power-washed the exterior of their homes were spared the expense of having to paint them. Those who allowed the fungus spores to dry on the siding had to scrape and sand before it could be painted.
    Both of these problems are unpredictable. But our recent weather — frequent heavy rains, high temperatures and high humidity — remind me of those years when both dog vomit mold and artillery fungus were problems. Beware.
    I have never experienced either of these on my property. I avoid them by not applying bark or wood mulches. I am a strong advocate for using compost as mulch. Bark contributes nothing of nutritional value to the soil, while compost provides nutrients. Plus the composting process kills disease-causing organisms and only beneficial organisms remain.

Heat Shock in the Garden

Q    Why are my green pole bean blossoms falling off? No beans in sight.

–Buddy Rapczynski, Lusby

A    It has been too hot. Cool the plants by misting them with water twice during the heat of the day.

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A hard fighter and incom­parable on the table

The previous two fish were a 10- and an 11-incher, but when I cinched this perch it was clearly a more formidable adversary. Boring for deep water in an extended, measured run, the perch then paused and just plain refused to budge. I lifted my rod and tried to pull him toward the surface but found it almost impossible to gain line.
    Having lost a number of big perch trying to out-muscle them, I patiently kept a deep bend in my stick. Eventually the fish began to move, steadily and away. I was at a loss for what to do next.
    The primary goal that morning had been to get some nice white perch for dinner. The secondary goal was to be off the water by 11am, when the August sun would begin to really throw its heat around.
    While I’ll launch my skiff in the wee hours before dawn when the water is at its coolest, I have never been a morning person. Luckily I didn’t have to rise early for these fish. The white perch is one species in the Bay that is almost immune to warm temperatures.
    The whitey is also as sporty as they come, a hard fighter, easy to lose and incomparable on the table, especially when fried. The only possible shortcoming is the perch’s modest size, but that can be remedied by matching the tackle to the fish.

Tackle Tips
    My favorite rods for tangling with these spunky fish, especially in shallow water where they can really show off their stuff, are a pair of light, Loomis five-footers with full-length cork grips and Shimano Sahara 1000 reels spooled with four- to six-pound mono.
    I throw a variety of lures, and each can be superior depending on the circumstances. Spinner baits are, overall, the most productive class of lures. A 1/6-ounce Super Rooster Tail in Clown Coach Dog or Chartreuse Dalmatian are superior for water up to four feet deep and have been the most popular perch lures in the mid-Bay for the last half-dozen years or so.
    A more recent addition, the Capt. Bert’s Perch Pounder in orange and black (Jamie’s Halloween) is fast overtaking the Roosters in terms of fish catching. These baits also work well in deeper water up to six feet and feature a single, fixed, super-sharp Gamagatsu hook that resists bottom fouling and makes de-hooking the fish a great deal easier.  Deeper water lures include the Kastmasters and the P-Line Laser Minnows.
    White perch of all sizes can usually be found in the shallows around rock jetties, piers and docks, fallen shoreline trees, any kind of rip-rapped edges and any deeper underwater structures such as bridge supports, rock piles, oyster reefs or sunken boats. The more remote, hard-to-find or difficult-to-access structures have the best chance of holding larger fish.

Back to the Fish at Hand
    It took some long and anxious minutes before my monster finally began to tire. Early in the battle I was suspicious that the rascal was a rockfish in disguise but its steady, determined runs and thumping head shakes convinced me that it was an old, thick shouldered, black back.
    Netting the beast as it finally emerged from the depths, I was still astonished by its size. Measured from the fork in its tail to the tip of the nose, it registered a solid 13¾ inches, my personal best in 35 years of fishing the Chesapeake. As contrast, it would take a rockfish of more than 36 inches on light tackle to equal the thrill of landing this outsized perch, indeed a trophy.
    Six perch that day easily provided dinner for me and my wife. I filleted the fish (the big one turned out to be a male), then cut each into finger-eating-sized portions. Rolled in panko crumbs, fried to a golden-brown in peanut oil and served with fresh, Eastern Shore sweet corn and sliced tomatoes, it was a meal to remember.

Why is this the state sport?

Maryland is the first state to have a designated state sport. Jousting became our sport in 1962, when State Sen. Henry J. Fowler Sr., a jouster from Southern Maryland, proposed the bill. The General Assembly passed the bill, and Gov. Millard Tawes signed it into law. Jousting became Maryland’s seventh state symbol, following the state flag, flower, song, tree, bird and seal.
    In 2004, Lacrosse became our official team sport. We now have 26 state symbols. The most recent, our state dessert, Smith Island Cake, and state exercise, walking, were approved in 2008.
    Jousting is the oldest equestrian sport, dating back to medieval times, when jousters tried to knock an opponent off a horse. The jousting practiced in Maryland is called ring jousting, with jousters trying to lance a series of ever-smaller rings hanging from arches down the field. The rings range from one-and-three-quarters inches to one-quarter inch in diameter.
    Jousters range in age from kids to seniors, many trying out the sport after seeing a tournament.
    “There are about 85 to 100 jousters in Maryland, living in all areas of the state, says Vicki Betts, president of the Maryland Jousting Tournament Association.
    She cites four prominent clubs: Maryland Jousting Tournament Association, The Western Maryland Jousting Club, The Amateur Club and The Eastern Shore Jousting Club.
    August 27 marks the 150th anniversary of the Calvert County Jousting Tournament, started in 1866 just after the Civil War. The sport is also part of the Maryland Renaissance Festival, opening this weekend. See 8 Days a Week.

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If you use this powerful herbicide, be sure you use it right

Roundup has its uses, but before you consider spraying the herbicide, you should know what it’s good for — how damaging it can be and where it does no good, even ill.
    Roundup kills plants by degrading the mitochondria in the roots. I began studying Roundup in 1976, when it was called glyphosate. Our research established rates of application, best time of application, plant response and phytotoxicity on desirable plants. Since then, we have learned a great deal more about Roundup and the care you should exercise when using it.
    • Never spray when the target weeds are under drought stress. To achieve effective control of weeds, the foliage should be mature. Leaves give a good indication of maturity. If 50 percent or more of the leaves on the weeds are fully grown, the Roundup will be absorbed and migrate down toward the roots. If fewer than half the leaves are mature, the Roundup will only burn the top growth. The weeds will generate new top growth from the crown or roots.
    • Never spray on smooth-barked tree trunks. Smooth bark can absorb the glyphosate, resulting in severe yellowing of the foliage, even death to the young tree
    • Avoid using Roundup to spray around raspberries, figs and other desirable plants that generate rhizomes. Roundup will travel through rhizomes to plants that have not been sprayed. This is why Roundup is so effective in controlling Bermuda grass or wiregrass.
    • Roundup should never come in contact with the roots of plants, including roots extending from the bottom of plant containers. Aggressively growing plants often send roots out through the drainage holes. The spray may affect and kill visible roots.
    • Roundup is not effective in controlling waxy foliage plants such as English ivy and vinca — unless fortified with either ammonium sulfate or household ammonia. The wax covering the leaves keeps the spray from penetrating into the leaf tissues. A teaspoon of ammonium sulfate or one tablespoon of household ammonia per gallon of spray enables the Roundup to penetrate into the leaf tissues and migrate down the vines to the roots. For best results, spray both English ivy and vinca in September.
    • Kudzu and bamboo are best controlled by spraying Roundup amended with ammonia or ammonium sulfate in mid- to late October before the first frost.
    • Brambles, honeysuckle and other weeds can be killed by using half to one-quarter the package-recommended concentration of Roundup in late September and early October. When sprayed late in the growing season, all the Roundup migrates down to the roots.

Share Your Harvest
    Vegetable gardens are feast or famine. Don’t let those zucchinis grow to baseball bat size or green or yellow beans form seeds in the pods, only to be discarded. Your local food pantry will gladly accept fresh fruit and vegetables. Food pantries as well as food banks are an excellent point of distribution that will benefit many. Many local churches operate food pantries. I give my surplus to the South County Assistant Network (SCAN), which operates a food bank every Thursday and Saturday from 8am to noon at St. James Episcopal Church on Rt. 2 near the intersection with Rt. 258 in Lothian.

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Trotline your way to a pickin’ party

Heading out from the ramp in a late morning sortie for white perch, I encountered a solo crabber’s boat at the edge of the channel. He was pulling in his trotline from the stern and looked up as my skiff approached.
    Seeking info on the crab catch, I gave him the sign language gesture asking how he was doing (arms open and a questioning look on my face). Shaking his head. he indicated problems. I killed my engine and drifted closer.
    “My line got tangled first thing; It took almost an hour to get it cleared. Then the side of my basket broke open,” he indicated with a flip of his head toward the shattered pieces of a wooden bushel in the bow. “The crabs got out and they’re crawling all over the boat. I’m going home.”
    “Bad day then,” I answered.
    “No, a great day,” he replied. “I got almost a bushel already. I’m just tired of them trying to crawl up my legs.”
    I gave him a thumbs-up as I restarted my motor. He flashed a big grin and resumed retrieving his line.

Do It Yourself    
    Finally, a good year for crabbing. After three years of Maryland Department of Natural Resources promising that crab numbers were improving, they are. Bouncing back from the slow recovery of a female population once again driven into near collapse by commercial over-harvest, the recreational crabbing season is proving a good one.
    Recreational crabbers can once again expect to get a family crab dinner with their own hands in a reasonable day’s effort, though DNR continues to add constraints on recreational crabbers: no female harvest, reduced trot line length and delayed starting time (all to favor the commercial sector). There’s no better crab than what you yourself provide.
    Feasting on succulent blue crabs a mere two or three hours out of the water is one of the finest epicurean experiences a Marylander can have. Just about anyone can catch their own, with a minimum of equipment, although a boat of some kind (even a borrowed kayak) is required to get the job done with a trotline.
    The trotline is the best, most effective device for catching crabs in any quantity. Six hundred feet is the current legal maximum for one crabber. If you fix a chicken neck bait every four feet on your line, that’s 125 baits (about 10 pounds of necks).
    Motoring, paddling or quietly pulling yourself down the crab line and netting each crab as it lifts up from the bottom, you can now expect to fill a basket in under a day. Starting early is the key as the crabs will usually stop moving to feed by about 11am and won’t start up again until later in the afternoon. On cloudy days, the bite may stay steady.
    Anchored on either end and marked by identical buoys, the trotline is kept on the bottom by about three feet of galvanized chain on each end. Constantly running the line with a wire-basket net will maximize the catch you will accumulate in the traditional split-wood bushel basket. The current minimum size for a male crab is 5¼ inches.
    Choose a day with a good tide running right from the start, for crabs move with the tidal current, and you need a steadily moving crab population to keep your trot line producing.
    If you’re not catching and the tidal current is moving, try another location. The one you’re at is probably not going to work.
    Area sports stores or crabbing stores offer the most affordable supply of line for crabbing and can fill in the details of just how to set it up, how to tie the slip knot for the chicken necks and the current depth where crabs are being found (right now it’s between six and 10 feet). They’ll also have a ready supply of chicken necks and the proper nets, anchors and floats.
    Crabs inhabit just about every body of water that feeds the Chesapeake. As long as you’ve got a good run of water (i.e., 600 feet) of the proper depth you have an excellent likelihood of catching Mr. (but not Mrs.) Blue Crab.

Chesapeake Curiosities: Battle Creek Cypress Swamp is the northernmost of its kind

A habitat unique in Maryland flourishes just south of Prince Frederick. Battle Creek Cypress Swamp is one of the nation’s northernmost naturally occurring stands of bald cypress trees.
    “It’s actually a bit of a mystery why the swamp is here, as we don’t see similar stands of trees in other low-lying swampy areas of the county,” says Shannon Steele, Calvert County naturalist.
    In 1957, the Nature Conservancy purchased 100 acres of land to protect the unusual ecosystem. Today, a boardwalk brings you into the habitat, crossing about 10 acres of the swamp. The park encompasses most of the remaining cypress stand, but some trees remain on nearby private property.
    Delaware has another stand of cypress trees on the Eastern Shore in Trap Pond State Park.
    Some of ­Battle Creek’s cypress are ex­tremely old. “The oldest tree we know of is around 500 years old,” Steele says. This tree can’t be seen from the main boardwalk, but you can visit it on an annual guided hike (
    Bald cypress trees are interesting in that they are deciduous conifers, meaning that they have needles like an evergreen but drop those needles in the fall just as oaks and maples lose their leaves. Cypress also grow knees, root system knobs that grow up out of the soil rather than staying underground.
    “The function of these growths is something of a mystery,” according to the Arbor Day Foundation, “although some believe it is a way to help the roots get oxygen.”
    Cypress provide valuable habitat to many creatures, especially the prothonotary warbler, a small yellow bird that likes to nest in the trees’ knees.
    As for the name, Battle Creek is the small stream that flows through the park, named in honor of the town of Battle, England, the ancestral home of the original owners of the land.

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Plan B might be your score

I lifted my rod tip to strike and felt a solid resistance. The small rod bowed. About 30 feet from the boat, I saw the swirl of a fish breaching just under the surface. Then my drag started to sing. We were in the skinny water just off of a rocky Bay shoreline and throwing Capt. Bert’s Perch Pounders.
    There was either a really big white perch at the end of my line — or a lurking rockfish had fallen victim to my black-and-orange spinner bait. After about 50 yards of line had sizzled off of my small spin reel, I was guessing rockfish. It headed into open water and had my thin six-pound mono stretched tight and singing with tension.
    It was becoming a long run, even for a striper. Since less than half my line remained on the spool, I raised the Power Pole anchor to chase the speedy devil. Starting up the Yamaha, I eased out from shore and followed the fleeing fish. It finally slowed and allowed me to put some line back on my reel.
    Lifting and reeling, I brought the fish nearer until it decided it didn’t like that development and took off running again. Within a few short seconds, my line supply was again reduced. I put the motor back in gear and resumed pursuit.
    That I was enjoying the situation was an understatement. I hadn’t had such a tussle in weeks, and the fact that it was on a light five-foot rod didn’t diminish the experience. Determined not to lose this torpedo, I kept the rod pressure moderate, constant and off to the side.

Fishing Against the Tide
    This had turned out to be a fine day.
    Low tide was to have been at 5am on the charts, so when we splashed the boat at 7:30am we felt the current should be on the point of reversal, if not solidly incoming. However, the water at the Sandy Point boat ramp was just under the finger piers, hardly low-tide conditions.
    Arriving at one of our favorite Bay Bridge supports, we found no current. The water was flat calm, and my finder was blank of any fish marks. In anticipation of the imminent arrival of the current along with Mr. Rockfish, we began to live-line small spot down around the supports
    An hour into our efforts the water was still as dead as the bite, not surprising since rockfish are always reticent to actively feed unless there is current. The Bay, unfortunately, often runs its own tide schedule regardless of the printed versions. This was just another incidence of its fickleness.
    Should we continue live-lining and hope — or resort to Plan B? Having been at the mercy of tideless days on the Chesapeake, we had included in our tackle arsenal a couple of perch rigs, a supply of Bert’s Perch Pounders and some of our favorite Rooster Tails. Thus we voted for Plan B.
    After a quick run to shallow water, our fortunes improved. Thick and hungry white perch were hanging on almost every rocky erosion jetty that came out from the shoreline. They attacked our lures with gratifying vigor regardless of the lack of tidal current. There were a lot of nine-inch fish, but there were also some heavy-shouldered black-backs that passed the ten-inch mark.
    Then along came that Olympic-level rockfish. Eventually, I managed the marathon sprinter into my net. Surprisingly it measured just barely 20 inches; I had assumed it to be larger from the way it had resisted capture.
    Once on ice, it might shrink below the minimum size. I decided this particular fish’s fighting genes should be passed on to as many offspring as it might manage, so I eased it back over the side.
    By 10:30, the sun was getting oppressive, and we had enough big perch on ice to supply dinner for six.

There may be a fungus in your soil

Every year, a number of readers complain that their garden did not produce as much as last year’s.
    If your garden is on poorly drained soil, you can blame some of the problem on wet feet. All vegetable-producing plants demand well-drained soils. Soils that tend to remain wet for several days after a hefty rain can cause roots to rot, thus reducing crop yields.
    Or your problem could be a fungus.
    If your garden is small and you are unable to rotate crops every year, there is a good possibility that certain fungi are accumulating, resulting in poor root growth. Four soil-borne diseases commonly affect roots: Fusarium, Pythium, Rhizoctinia and ­Phytophtora.
    The most effective method of preventing these diseases is to rotate where you plant crops each year. Crop rotation breaks the cycle.
    If your garden is too small to allow rotation, you can try any of three other methods of solving the problem of soil-borne diseases.
    One is to heat-sterilize the soil once every three years. In early July, rototill or spade the soil and moisten thoroughly before covering the area with a sheet of four-millimeter, clear plastic, sealing the edges to the ground. The clear plastic will create a greenhouse effect, causing a heat buildup sufficient to kill most of the disease-causing organisms. The plastic should remain in place well into early August. In addition to disease-causing organisms, most of the weed seeds and rhizomes will also be killed. However, this means that you will not be gardening on the third year.
    Another method of control is to incorporate, just before planting, a one-inch-thick layer of active compost like LeafGro, lobster compost or homemade compost from the previous year. Compost must be fresh for the naturally occurring beneficial organisms to neutralize the disease-causing organisms.
    The third method is to plant a cover crop of winter wheat or winter rye in late August, while tomatoes are still being harvested. The cover crop will also absorb residual nutrients, prevent soil erosion and improve the soil.
    Your cover crop must be actively decomposing before planting in the spring. The rapidly decomposing organic matter will promote the establishment of beneficial organisms that help control the disease-causing organisms.
    So next spring, you must keep the soil moist and rototill or spade the area two to three weeks before planting.
    Isn’t nature marvelous?

Harvest the Sweetest Corn
    If you like eating truly sweet, sweet corn, harvest the ears before the sun rises and refrigerate immediately. Better yet, dunk the ears in ice-cold water before placing them in the refrigerator.
    If you harvest sweet corn in the heat of the day, the kernels will be filled mostly with starch. During the heat of the day, the sugars in the kernels are converted to starch. The sugars produced in the leaves during the day are translocated to the kernels during the cool of the night.

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