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This novice was hooked, even though her big fish got away

Her rod was bowed over with strain, the line hissing out against the drag and the muscles of her arms tensed with the force of a good fish running hard. Julie’s face, however, was bright with a smile. She was checking off a significant item on her life list and was enjoying every minute of it.
    Her fifth fish of the day would measure 31 inches. That was the closest we would get to landing a 35-inch keeper. But failing a keeper did not dampen her enthusiasm. “I’m hooked,” she said. “This is more fun than I could possibly imagine.”
    Julie Wheeler’s rockfish adventure started at a family gathering in the midst of one of last winter’s colder months. My wife’s cousin and the  same age, Julie was born in Baltimore but married and left Maryland with her husband for a New England life. For a time she skippered a 31-foot cruiser in the Atlantic, but she had never caught a striper.
    Having returned to Baltimore a few years ago to live closer to her family, Julie longed to catch a rockfish. I promised to help her as soon as the season opened.
    Our day on the water last week was one of the more beautiful so far this early season. The wind was a mere wisp, the water flat calm and the temperatures moving into the 80s. The trophy rockfish season is an ideal time to tangle with a larger class of fish.
    The bite was constant, with no more than 15 or 20 minutes between fish. While we waited we traded stories about relatives, the Chesapeake, rockfish in general and were entertained by the first of the season’s sailing spiders flying across the Bay, held aloft by long strands of silvery webbing that occasionally caught up our rod tips.
    We were chumming and chunking fresh alewife, and the four rods that we streamed aft southeast of Hackett’s green can were frequently hooked up, sometimes two at a time. The smallest fish we released that day was 24 inches. The largest we never got to measure.
    It was later in the day that Julie managed a straining rod out of its holder. “This is the big one. It’s really strong,” she said. She could hardly hold the rod vertical. Sitting down and planting the rod butt at her waist she began to slowly haul back, then wind the rod tip down, almost to the horizontal, then lift it again, stroking and gaining a little line each time.
    For a beginner, she was a fast learner who had quickly become comfortable with rod technique. “I’m not sure I can get this one” she said when all the line she had just gained went pouring back off the reel on another of the fish’s runs.
    “No, just take your time,” I assured her. “It’s not going to get away. Just keep the pressure on it.”
    It turned out that I was wrong. Just as she began another attempt to turn the fish back toward us, the rod sprang upright, “Oh, he’s gone!” she cried.
    “Keep reeling,” I said. “Maybe it’s coming to the boat.”
    But it wasn’t. It had somehow spit the hook.
    “Losing the big one is all part of fishing,” I assured her. “It wouldn’t be a sport if you got them all.”
    “Yeah, maybe,” she replied, unconvinced. “Let’s get that line back in the water. Maybe it will come back.”
    We finally pulled the plug after about seven hours of effort. All Julie could talk about on the ride to the ramp was how soon we could get back on the water for another try. She wanted to get some keepers, learn how to clean them and get them prepared for a meal. I’m guessing that the Bay has not seen the last her.

Catching this rockfish was one great feeling

I hadn’t been set up long. Fishing big chunks of cut fresh alewife on the bottom in 40 feet of water, I saw the rod in its starboard holder quiver, then dip. I reached over and slid the reel’s clicker off so there would be no resistance on the line. The spool started up, then stopped, then started up again … ever so slowly.
    Picking up the bait-casting rig and thumbing the spool lightly just to be sure the movement wasn’t due to tidal current, I was rewarded by the feel of a fish moving off. I allowed a bit more time for my quarry to get the piece of alewife back in its jaws. Then I put the reel in gear and began to take up slack. Nothing.
    The fish had dropped my bait. Disappointed, I continued retrieving line until I realized it was moving back toward the boat faster than I was cranking. The rascal was still on. Lowering my rod tip, I gathered slack with the reel until the line was almost straight down at my skiff’s stern. Then it came tight. I lifted the rod firmly and felt good resistance. Then I lifted harder.
    This time it came really tight and a fish began to shake its head and move off deliberately. My drag, which was firmly set for the 20-pound mono, hissed as the fish ran about 100 feet, then stopped. More head shaking. I had fished the day before and got a couple of heavy throwbacks. This one felt larger, but I wasn’t sure it was going to be legal sized, over 35 inches.
    Having learned the hard way never to prejudge an unseen fish, I kept the pressure on, lifting and gaining line only to lose it as the fish bulldozed away. As I was alone and had three more rigs in the water, I didn’t put a lot of extra rod strain onto this guy as long as it stayed off to the side and away from the other rigs. The surest way to lose a good fish is getting lines crossed.
    At something past the 10-minute mark, I decided to challenge the fish with some significant effort. With my thumb locking the spool, I lifted until the rod was bent over, almost to the corks, trying to force it to the surface.
    The fish shook its head and ­headed out and away, again with no hesitation, pulling line steadily until my thumb was scorched. At this point, I decided that it was quite likely a keeper — if I could get it to the boat.
    Another long 10 minutes of tense back-and-forth action finally brought the fish near the surface and provided a first glimpse of my adversary. The size limit was definitely not going to be a problem.
    Grabbing the net, I watched the beast make another determined run. I bided my time and let it have its head. A patient fight has one definite advantage in the last moment of the battle. Though the longer the struggle the greater the chance of losing, at the moment of truth when the net is in the water, the fish is usually so exhausted that there is no last-minute explosion.
    Such was the case this time as I brought the brute to the surface again. Managing it into my skiff at last, I had quite a handsome trophy rockfish, my first of the season.


Light-Tackle Fishing
    I’ll be teaching a course on Chesapeake Bay Light-Tackle Fishing at Anne Arundel Community College Saturday, May 6, 9am-2:30pm (course AHC 36): 410-777-2222.

Others need warm soil to germinate

It just takes a few warm days for some gardeners to decide it’s time to plant the garden. Depending on what you plant, you may suffer for your haste.
    Some seeds will germinate in cool soils, but others will only germinate after the soil warms to 70 degrees. When those seeds are planted in cool soils, the seeds will often rot before they get the warmth they crave. Read seed packets for suggested germinating temperatures.
    Beets, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, collards, kale, kohlrabi, lettuce, parsnips, peas, radishes, rutabaga spinach and turnips can germinate in temperature as low as 55 degrees. However, beans, corn, okra, peppers, and tomatoes require soil temperatures of 70 to 75 degrees to assure uniform germination.
    To get an early start on warmth-loving seeds, some commercial producers pre-germinate the seed, priming them in a warm water bath of 80 degrees with air bubbles flowing through the water. As soon as the first root, called a radical, emerges from the seed, starch is added and the seeds sowed in soil. Once germination begins, growth continues. Growth is slow at first, but as the soil warms, the well-established plants have a jump start on seedlings that emerged from seeds sown after the soil warmed.
    You can prime your seeds in an open container with an inch or so of water. Place the container on top of the refrigerator, where the heat from the compressor will keep it warm, or on top of the hot water heater. Shake the container of water and seeds at least twice daily to add oxygen. When nearly all of the seeds have a small white root protruding through the seed coat, drain the water and place the seeds on a moist paper towel. Using a pair of tweezers, carefully transfer the germinated seeds into the prepared garden soil. Plant the seeds very shallow and only lightly cover them with soil. Do not allow the soil covering the seeds to dry. Keep the soil moist until the seedlings emerge.
    By pre-germinating seeds, you can gain at least two weeks in harvesting that first snap bean or ear of corn.
    Another method of obtaining an early ear of sweet corn is to sow the seeds in plug trays using a commercial potting mix. Many seed catalogs offer plug trays containing 60 to 100 cells. Each cell has a capacity of one-eighth to one-fourth cup of rooting medium. After filling the cells, press a single corn seed into each. Moisten the rooting media well and place the tray in a warm room or greenhouse. As soon as the seeds germinate, place the tray in full sun. The seedlings are ready to transplant into the garden when the plants are six to eight inches tall. Gently remove the seedling from the tray and transplant.
    Don’t try this with beans, as their roots cannot be disturbed once they are established.


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

Bloom is the best thing to come out of D.C in a long time

The demand for organically grown food continues to increase. Because chemical fertilizers cannot be used in its production, growers must depend on natural sources for nutrients, such as animal manures, compost and green manure crops. The demand for compost is so great that it exceeds the supply.
    The problem may soon be solved by recent developments in processing biosolids.
    Biosolids are the solid materials derived from wastewater processing facilities, also known as sewage-treatment plants. Yes, you know what I’m taking about.
    Yet wastewater treatment has advanced so far that 85 percent of the biosolids in the U.S. satisfy EPA Class A standards. Class A biosolids can safely be use in the production of agricultural crops.
    The Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant in Washington, D.C., is the largest plant of its kind in the world. The biosolids generated there are rich in Capital Hill bull @#!$. Now plant engineers have perfected a method of converting biosolids into Bloom, an organic matter rich in nutrients.
    First the biosolids undergo anaerobic digestion. Then excess water is removed, and the biosolids are dumped into a giant pressure cooker that is heated to more than 200 degrees. The pressure is released instantly, causing the tissues in the biosolids to rupture, thus releasing their nutrients. Anaerobic digestion degrades all organic compounds, including toxins. The pressure cooker treatment renders Bloom sterile. After the processed biosolid is removed from the pressure cooker, it is dried. The finished product looks black and has an earthy odor.
    I dedicated over 20 years of my career to research on composting. I have studied its value in nutrition and in controlling soil-borne disease. I have used compost on a great variety of plants, from growing garden vegetables to growing forests in abandoned gravel mines to blending rooting media for growing plants in containers.
    Compost has solved many problems, promoted recycling and has created new industries. Yet I have never achieved with any compost the results I am getting from Bloom.
    My method is blending Bloom with compost to combine the superior qualities of both products. I use a rooting medium containing equal parts by volume of peat moss and compost (made at Upakrik Farm) with 25 percent by volume Bloom. Because it contains seven mmhos/cm of soluble salts, it must be applied sparingly. My tests indicate that the maximum is 25 percent in combination with regular potting medium.
    I am testing it in growing broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, lettuce, onions, peppers and spinach. I have also used it as mulch on half of the garlic plants growing in the garden. Garlic plants mulched with Bloom in late February are darker green and taller than garlic growing in the same bed without Bloom as mulch.

    Pictured above are cabbage and pepper plants growing for eight weeks with no additions but water as needed. The pepper plants that I have been growing are dark green while the cabbage and broccoli plants are a rich blue-green.
    We recently vertically mulched the large oak trees near my home by augering 320 six-diameter holes a foot deep, starting 10 inches from the trunk of each tree to the drip line of the branches. Each hole was filled with Bloom. Within two weeks, the grass surrounding each hole turned dark green and was growing rapidly. I can’t wait to see how the trees respond. I have vertically mulched these trees with compost every seven years with great results. I feel confident these mulching results will be even better.
        Bloom is not only producing excellent results but is also a consistent product day to day, month to month. What’s more, the Blue Plains process can be completed in days. In comparison, composting biosolids takes months from start to finished product.
        If every wastewater treatment plant that generates Class A biosolids were to include this new technology, growers would be better able to meet the demands for organically grown food. Homestead Gardens in Davidsonville is in the process of establishing facilities for drying and processing Bloom.


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

Leo James knows better than most what’s swimming down there

In gauging the chances of a successful fishing season, I have learned to distrust the forecasting of state and conservation officials as fraught with politics and self-interest. Worse, my own guesses have proven wrong so often that I’ve learned to stop making them. There has been, however, one source I rely on year after year.
    I’ve come to think of this fellow with his thick mane of white hair as the Oracle of Mill Creek.
    Leo James has again and again captured the essence of the unfolding seasons more accurately than I thought possible. Living on the same Mill Creek waterfront property that his family has held over the last 100 years or so, this mostly retired waterman still rises at 3am this time of year to set nets for fresh bait. He fishes, tends to his marina and shares his knowledge of the Chesapeake with anyone who doesn’t irritate him. Luckily, I sometimes fit that qualification.
    “More rockfish than I’ve seen on the Bay in a lot of years,” was his first take this year. “The fish were so thick out there in February and March that they ran all of the alewife up into the creeks. Then more rock showed up this month, lots of big ones, too.”
    His prediction: “We’re going to have a good many fish for the trophy season this year, even better than last. And the regular season should be just as good.”
    Being on the waters of the Bay almost every day over the last 70 years has given James a prescience that eclipses the attempts of many highly educated scientists. The strenuous life he’s led has also left its mark on him. To say he’s fit is an understatement.
    The daily schedule as he moves about on the water and in his marina would put most of his age group (myself included) in the hospital.
    “But I can’t work into the night then be back on the water by 3am any more,” he confessed recently. “Guess my years are catching up with me.”
    In our conversation, he also reminisced to back in the day when 50- and 60-pound rockfish chasing fleeing alewife would slam into his bait nets.
    “They’d rock the whole boat. You almost couldn’t stand up some days. A rock tail two feet across would come up out of the water so it took your breath away. I remember one fish so big that it just tore through the whole net, never even slowed down. On one or two days, we had to quit setting. The fish just ran us right off the water.”
    Hyperbole? I’m not so sure. I’ve read and heard similar stories and caught glimpses of too many really big fish moving through Bay waters to discount any of the Oracle’s recollections.
    Part of the beauty and mystery of the Chesapeake is that you never really know what’s beneath. Of course, Leo James has a pretty good idea.

Trouble’s brewing below the surface

Mother Nature mulches in the fall by dropping leaves from her trees and by laying the blades of grasses or the leaves of herbaceous perennials over the soil. She covers the ground only with the waste she produces.
    We, on the other hand, buy bags of ground bark, chipped wood scraps or colored wood waste from only God knows where, pile it over the soil and call it mulching. I see mulch piled so deep trees seem to emerge from volcanic cinder cones. Roots of shrubs gasp for air and die from suffocation. Dense mulch absorbs most of the rain before it can penetrate to the soil, and plants suffer in drought.
    The leaves that fall to the forest floor in autumn serve as a blanket of insulation, allowing the soil to remain warmer longer and roots able to absorb water longer. The longer roots absorb water, the more resistant they become to damage by freezing temperatures. The leaves will decompose during the growing season, allowing nutrients to return to the soil for roots to absorb.
    Ground bark sold as mulch, on the other hand, contains very few nutrients. Decomposing, the mulch leaves behind clay-like particles called colloids. As colloids accumulate from repeated applications of ground bark, a slime-like layer forms over the soil, reducing air movement. Roots need oxygen, and they generate carbon dioxide. A thick layer of mulch over a colloidal layer can cause a toxic accumulation of carbon dioxide.
    Hardwood bark decomposes faster than pine bark, creating a colloidal layer sooner. Double-shredded hardwood bark mulch decomposes within a year, leaving behind fine organic colloids.
    Repeated applications of hardwood bark and especially double-shredded hardwood bark also raise the pH of soil and accumulate manganese. Since manganese is not very soluble, it accumulates to toxic levels within seven to 10 repeated applications. When the manganese levels in the soil exceed the levels of iron, copper and zinc, roots are unable to absorb iron for photosynthesis. Thus repeated use of hardwood bark mulch is a double-edged sword.
    Novice home gardeners like hardwood bark mulch because it is dark, keeps that color and does not easily wash away. But out of sight, trouble is brewing. Early signs of manganese toxicity are a gradual decline in growth, iron-deficiency symptoms on the newly emerged leaves, stunted growth and extensive branch dieback.
    Often, the only solution is removal and replacement of plants and soil.
    Repeated application of hardwood bark and composted wood chips recently forced one commercial ­blueberry grower to dig up an acre or more of plants. Manganese had accumulated to nearly 400 pounds to the acre, killing the formerly well-established and productive plants. Lowering the manganese from toxic levels took plowing the fields to a depth of a foot to dilute surface soil by blending in sub-soil.


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

Use light-tackle techniques for the fairest fight

If you want the best odds for hooking up and landing the most and the biggest migrators in the early trophy rockfish season, then troll. A wide spread of big baits with multiple heavy-action trolling rods spooled with 30- to 50-pound line will give you a definite edge.
    For many anglers, however, the trophy-sized rockfish deserves to be challenged on light tackle. There is nothing certain about tangling with a giant ocean-running striper on medium-weight spin or casting tackle with line testing 20 pounds and under. You’ll not only have to be at the top of your game but also a bit lucky to land a keeper, minimum size 35 inches.
    For the true sport, that’s exactly how it should be. Right from the start it will be a man-versus-fish battle with not much connecting you other than a slender rod and thin, delicate line. A trophy rockfish hooked and landed on light tackle is indeed a trophy.
    As the fish are traveling in the warmer top 15 feet of the water column this time of the year, you don’t need a lot of weight to get the lures to the proper depth. Thus trolling is a viable option. The lighter test and thinner lines on your tackle will allow a medium-sized swimming plug to get down to the proper depths.
    The hottest swimmers for this type of operation are the Rapala X-Raps, Mann’s Stretch Series Plugs and Bomber Long As. For filling the water with sound and vibration to get a big fish’s attention, add Rat-L-Traps.
    Traditional buck-tail jigs in small to medium sizes dressed with skirts and adorned with Bass Assassins, Sassy Shads or similar soft bodies will provide larger silhouettes and interest larger fish. Paddle-tail variations will add noise and vibration to your spread.
    Be wary of especially large hooks. Their thicker diameters, regardless of how sharp they are, can make penetration problematic, especially with the harder mouth structure of older stripers. When you do get a good strike, set the hook firmly and more than once. A big striper can simply hold a lure in its jaws and prevent hook penetration. That’s one of the few drawbacks of using light tackle.
    When boat noise drives the fish down from the top of the water column or they’re feeding near the bottom strata, you can still use light tackle by jigging. Once you marked a pod of big stripers holding deep, metal jigs such as a Crippled Alewife, Stingsilver or Little Jimmy can get down to the sweet spot and induce strikes. Seven- to 12-inch soft plastics like the BKDs and Bass Assassins will also get results when matched with jig heads of proper weight, three-quarters to two ounces.
    Using ultra-thin braided line such as Power Pro, Spiderwire or Fireline gives you a definite advantage. There is less resistance in the water so you get deeper with less weight. And as there is little to no stretch with these lines, you can troll your lures far behind the boat or jig deep water without fear of getting good hook sets on any fish that tries to eat your lures.
    The third and final technique for trophy season light tackle fishing is simply old-fashioned bottom fishing. The best baits right now are fresh menhaden and jumbo bloodworms. The addition of chum to your presentation can also attract attention. The only problems will be the unpredictability of the fish and the fact that they are in small groups and constantly on the move. So as you are committed to one location, patience and persistence will be key.
    The prime locations for presenting these baits will be near the mouths of the larger tributaries where the migratory stripers will tend to stage before moving upriver to spawn. That’s also where they are likely to pause and feed post-spawn in preparation for the journey back to the ocean. Bay shore areas such as Sandy Point State Park, Matapeake State Park, Tolley Point and Point Lookout offer public access where the odds of encountering a giant are also good.
    The trophy season is the ideal time for encountering the biggest rockfish of the year, so be prepared. Make sure your line and leaders are fresh, your knots tight, your hooks sharp and your drags set properly. These migratory giants will test every part of your tackle and all your angling skill.
    Good luck as we welcome the 2017 rockfish season!

Trophy season opens in just a week

The trophy rockfish season is fast upon us.
    These migratory trophy-sized fish are in spawning mode. First they move up the Bay to their natal headwaters. Then, having spawned, they move back down the Bay, returning to the Atlantic. They move in pods unpredictably. Thus fishing in a fixed spot or targeting a specific area is not the most productive strategy. Constantly moving and presenting baits continually over an area as large as possible is the better method. That’s trolling.
    For these big fish, you’ll be dragging a lure 12 or more inches long. Its size tends to discourage undersized rockfish, less than 35 inches, but it does not eliminate them, as even 16-inch fish will attack and get hooked.
    While the spawning rockfish are almost impossible to anticipate in their movements, some considerations can be helpful. Because of the Coriolis effect caused by the earth’s rotation, a stronger (and saltier) incoming tidal current occurs on the Eastern Shore of the Bay, with a correspondingly greater outgoing tide on the Western Shore. Thus stripers tend to ride the incoming flow up the Bay on the eastern side and leave on the Western Shore’s stronger ebb.
    The keyword is tend because there are other variables at work. The availability of forage fish is equally important as stripers feed throughout the spawn. If the baitfish are congregated on the Western Shore, the rockfish will soon be there as well. If the stripers’ natal water is a Western Shore river, that’s where they will eventually be.
    The migrating pods of striped bass will also transit along the deeper channels of the Bay because that’s where the tidal currents will be the strongest. The temperature comfort zones this time of year will be in the top 15 feet of the water column. That’s the depth where trophy-sized fish can usually be found — unless they are not.
    Boat noise will drive the fish deeper, and a lot of boat noise will put them right on the bottom.
    Feeding fish can also be found down deep unless they’ve keyed on schools of bait higher up in the column. Keeping an eye on the fish-finder will establish where most of the bigger fish are. Adjust your trolling weights and lure type accordingly to target those depths.
    Color also has a part to play in your trophy-fish solution. The traditional selections are chartreuse, white and yellow in fluorescent or standard colors or combinations. There are also days when purple, black, green or red are catching the fish. The only consistent color consideration when fishing the early season is that, inevitably and ironically, the biggest fish will want the color you don’t have. So be prepared and change colors frequently, especially if you are moving over fish that aren’t responding.
    To present your baits over as wide an area as possible, avoid traveling in a straight line, especially directly down or up current. Instead move diagonally, and change course frequently until you find some pattern to the presence of fish. They may be on the edges of deep channels, in the middle of the channel or over a specific depth.
    Finally, keep your boat’s speed on the slow side. Three to four knots is about right, but don’t hesitate to vary your speeds a little to find the speed at which the fish want the baits presented. Rockfish will often take bait moved very slowly, but they’ll rarely hit one being trolled faster than five knots.
    Have you got all that? Is your boat shipshape and your tackle set? Then you’ll be ready to go April 15.

The misnamed Jerusalem artichoke supplies both

The Jerusalem artichoke is a sunflower cousin that gives both flowers and food. In late August and into September, bright yellow flowers cover its tall stems. Below ground, it is growing tuber-like structures on its roots that resemble pachymorphs of the bearded iris. The tubers are edible.
    This North America native is invasive and must be grown in an aboveground container to prevent it from spreading. I grow my Jerusalem artichokes in a plastic half-barrel with the base partially buried to prevent it from tipping over. They like a rich organic soil that is well drained.
    Plant the tubers in spring. Once started, you will never have to replant — unless you harvest 100 percent of the tubers, which is nearly impossible. Abundant lumpy yellowish-white tubers grow from near the base of the stem to as deep as 18 inches below the surface of the soil. The tubers may be individual or clustered.
    Harvest the tubers in the fall after the stems have died back, using a digging fork so as to not damage them. Start digging from the inside walls of the barrel toward the center. The tubers will be scattered at varying depths. Remove as many as you can find.
    After you have finished digging them up, blend two parts by volume existing soil with one part compost and refill the planter. Plant four to six of the smallest tubers about two inches deep for next season’s crop. Many stems will emerge in the spring.
    Eat the tubers raw or cooked. First scrub them thoroughly with a stiff vegetable brush. Then, working underwater, scrape the corners with a sharp knife to remove the brown areas and soil. The tubers do not have to be peeled. They can be steamed or boiled and mashed like potatoes. Or they can be eaten raw like a radish or shredded and added to salads.
    Go slow at first. Although the tuber is mostly starch, Jerusalem artichokes contain a natural compound called inulin that is not absorbed by the digestive system. It acts like a mild laxative to some people. Before substituting them for mashed potatoes, start with a small sample both raw and cooked.


Spot-Planting Grass

Q    I need to plant grass in bare spots. What is the best procedure?

–Paul Lefavre

A    Use a steel rake or potato digger to loosen the top two inches of soil. Rake an inch-thick layer of compost into the soil and smooth the surface. Sprinkle grass seed into the top layer of soil-compost blend. Water using a fine mist. Sprinkle a thin layer of straw or shredded paper over the seeded area to create about 30 percent shade, then mist again. Mist daily until the seed germinates, reducing to one misting every two days for the first week, then twice weekly until the new grass seedlings develop their dark green color.


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

Proper preparation prevents poor performance

You can never trust Maryland’s March weather. Another certainty is the march of time, which puts us only a couple of weeks from Trophy Rockfish Season, opening April 15. Cold or warm, snow, sleet, rain or sun, the striper season is fast arriving.
    So don’t make opening day your first day on the water. I take at least a week for a shakedown cruise or two plus scouting trips to get ready. That means now is the time to get going.
    My first act of preparation is to remove all my reels from their rods and examine them. Over a long winter, grease and oil can congeal, making the mechanical functioning of the reel stiff and uneven. This can also be true of drag operation. Check each reel and correct any problems.

The Scoop on Line
    Next I take all the reels spooled with mono to a sporting store and have the line replaced. The trophy season brings us into contact with the biggest rockfish of the year. Some of these guys will top 50 pounds. If this is my season to hook a fish of that size, I don’t intend to handicap myself with a line that may have been dragged across rough bridge piers, jetty rocks or pilings last year.
    I prefer to use fluoro-coated monofilament lines. There are all sorts of scientific explanations for fluoro’s superiority, from its invisibility to its superior hardness. I don’t believe any of them. If I can see the line in the water, it’s not invisible; nor will a harder finish keep a line from parting when a 30-pounder wraps you around a barnacle-encrusted piling and keeps on going.
    What I do believe is the test results of an old experiment. Berkeley Fishing Line Company strung a number of samples of mono- and fluoro- lines in a massive aquarium populated with large fish. The purpose: to count the number of times fish bumped into the mono lines vs. the flouro lines. The results counted twice as many collisions with fluoro as with mono.
    I’ve also found on my own when chumming that I can still catch fish with fluoro lines when the tidal current slows or stops. I rarely can get rockfish to bite in those situations with mono, and almost never with braid.

Tie a New Knot
    The next critical item on my opening day list is to cut off all knots in all lines and leaders and retie each one — carefully. If you wait till you’re on the water, the temptation to immediately begin fishing will be too great. Broken knots are the number one cause of losing big fish. A knot tied sometime last season is a prime candidate for failure.

Recharge Your Batteries
    You’ll also want to recharge all marine batteries. Then check them again the next day. Winter temperatures can be hard on battery cells. They may briefly charge to full capacity, but the faulty ones will lose that charge rapidly. Checking your batteries 24 hours after a full charge should identify the weak ones and save you from getting stranded out in the middle of the Bay.