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It shouldn’t be hard to outsmart a creature with a brain the size of a marble

The gentle temperatures of May were welcome after April’s cold winds and rain. But then a friend and I fished all day Friday under near-perfect conditions, chumming with fresh menhaden that tempted hardly a single bite.
    I tried to rationalize the failure by reminding my partner that bait fishing is frequently unreliable while the rockfish remain in spawning mode. But reports of fellow anglers boating keepers to our south (we were up around the Baltimore Light) only emphasized the odor of a second straight skunk this trophy season.
    I’ll be gearing up again, and my hopes remain high to score a couple of trophies on light tackle before the big migratory fish are gone. Reports of egg-bearing female stripers continue to dominate, so it’s a pretty good guess that we’ve got two to three weeks yet to get a few big ones in the box.

Well-Equipped
    I had gone over much of my tackle during winter, giving the bearings and drags of my reels some much-needed maintenance and replacing all of the lines. Both my buddy Moe and I switched to fluoro-coated monofilament for our bait fishing this season.
    Last year full fluorocarbon lines produced a slightly better bite than mono, but after a couple of weeks the fluoro lines turned stiffer, had a lot of memory and were not pleasant to use. I’m hoping the coated lines deliver the more reliable softness and low memory of mono while retaining the reduced underwater visibility of fluoro.
    We’re sticking with sliding fish-finder rigs, two-ounce sinkers and 7/0 J-hooks for most fishing days. But we’re prepared to jettison them for circle hooks the minute undersized throwback fish appear.
    For the first time, we’re also experimenting with chumming high and low, a bag sunk to within a dozen feet or so of the bottom and another bag at surface level. That should attract the rockfish cruising higher in the water column this time of year as well as those hunting the bottom contours. We have to drift a bait back weightless, or nearly so, to fish the upper waters. It will be interesting to see how many rock (if any) we score that way.
    Both my friend and I continue to use the round Abu Ambassaduer 5600 four-bearing casting reels, equipped with line-out clickers. The extra control of a revolving spool, the superior drag and the handiness of the line-out alarm overshadow the irritations caused by an occasional backlash.
    Six-foot-six-inch medium and medium-heavy rods remain my favorites for both chumming, live lining and jigging.
    Despite our poor start this year, I am hopeful for the balance of the trophy season. The motto I follow is Find out what makes you come alive and do it because what the world needs is more people who have come alive. For me that means being on the waters of the Chesapeake and trying to outsmart a fish with a brain the size of a marble. Even though the fish continue to win that matchup an embarrassing percentage of times, the adventure of the activity never wears on me. Even after two skunks. Really.

You don’t have to wait until 2061 to delight in its offspring

A thin sliver of the waxing crescent moon rises Thursday evening just after sunset, its tips pointing almost straight up. Look a few degrees below its outside curve for Aldebaran, the orange eye of Taurus the bull. High above the moon is Jupiter, shining brighter than any star-like object.
    Friday evening the moon has halved the distance from Jupiter, which is 20 degrees — two fist-widths held at arm’s length — straight up. To the moon’s left is Betelgeuse, the shoulder of Orion. Far to the south is Sirius, the brightest star. Sunset Saturday reveals the growing moon just 10 degrees below Jupiter in the west. Betelgeuse is almost equidistant below the moon. By Sunday, the moon is less than 10 degrees to the south of Jupiter.
    Far to the east of Jupiter is Mars. Shining at magnitude –1.2, the red planet is brighter than any star except Sirius. Compare it to Spica, in the constellation Virgo, 10 degrees to the east. At 11pm Mars is at its highest and is due south. It sets around 4:30am.
    Saturn, the dimmest of the naked-eye planets, trails well behind Mars. But as the ringed planet nears opposition May 10, it puts on its best face. Look for it rising in the east around sunset, a steady golden glow amid the much dimmer stars of Libra. The rings are opened at roughly a 20-degree angle, and are easy to discern in even a modest telescope.
    As the darkness begins to fade, Venus rises in the east, blazing at magnitude –4.2. The Morning Star is so bright that you can still find it in the east an hour after sunrise.
    If you’re up waiting for Venus, you may spot a streak of light crossing the heavens. This is the annual return of the Eta Aquarid meteor shower, which peaks Monday and Tuesday. This should be a good showing, as the first-quarter moon sets just after midnight. The meteors appear to emanate from the constellation Aquarius, but they can appear anywhere on the celestial dome. The best viewing is in the nether hours between midnight and dawn, when it could rain up to 30 meteors an hour. While not likely to produce a great storm, the Eta Aquarids are steady, stretching out a couple weeks before and after the peak.
    Twice a year the earth passes through a stream of debris left in the wake of Halley’s Comet. While the famed comet only visits the inner solar system every 75 years, it has been doing so for millennia, leaving ring upon ring of jetsam with each passing. These countless bits of ice and dust date to the formation of the solar system, and as earth plows into them, they ignite upon contact with our atmosphere. At the other side of the sun, earth crosses Halley’s path again in the fall, resulting in the Orionid meteor shower.

You don’t have to wait until 2061 to delight in its offspringHill in compost to enjoy potatoes early and late

There is nothing like going into the garden and digging a nice big potato with a thin skin for dinner. A freshly harvested white potato from a plant still actively growing guarantees you not only great satisfaction but also a vegetable that is filled with vitamins because you don’t have to remove the skin to eat it.
    If you plan ahead, you need not wait for the potato plant to die back to the ground before you start harvesting.
    It’s common to grow potatoes by hilling them with soil, which stimulates the plants to generate rhizomes on which the potato grows. Part of that way of planting is to wait to harvest the potatoes until after the plants have died back to the ground. Late-harvested potatoes store better. But you have to wait to eat freshly dug potatoes. That’s a delicacy I enjoy as early as possible in the summer, so I hill my potatoes using compost made from leaves raked the previous fall. The compost still contains a large percentage of partially decayed leaves, but it is rich brown, light and easy to handle. I apply six inches of the compost as soon as the plants have grown a foot tall. Lift the bottom leaves of each plant so they don’t come in contact with the ground but are supported by the compost.
    As soon as the plants have grown another 10 to 12 inches, I apply another six to eight inches of compost, again lifting the bottom leaves from the ground and firmly applying compost along the stems. Another application of compost is made after the plants have grown another foot, which generally occurs when the plants are beginning to flower. By the third application of compost, the mounds surrounding the plants are about 18 inches high. After the third round, I hoe a thin layer of soil over the hills of compost to help keep it in place. Covering the compost with soil also helps to keep it moist so that it will continue to decompose while in the garden.
    Since the compost remains loose, it is easy to sneak your hands down around the roots of the plants and harvest a potato or two without disturbing the plant. Harvest no more than two potatoes from each plant this way.
    After the tops of the plants have died back to the ground, the potatoes are easy to dig because most will have grown in the mound of compost, though some of the larger potatoes will have grown in the soil beneath the mound of compost.
    The area where the potatoes had been growing can now be raked smooth and lightly roto-tilled in preparation for planting the fall crop of cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower or rutabaga.
    Over the years, I have found fewer potato beetle problems when using this method. Other compost-hill growers have reported similar results.


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

Learn what you need to know, take what you need to have

If you don’t have some type of watercraft — be it canoe, kayak, skiff, sailboat, sailboard or motor yacht — you’ll miss out on enjoying our largest public playground: the vast, 4,500 square miles of the Chesapeake Bay.
    A boat is your magic carpet for roaming the Bay and its tributaries while fishing, sailing, crabbing, clamming, oystering, photographing or cruising and paddling about in the natural beauty of the Chesapeake.

Fish-finder

  The rockfish trophy season is following its traditional schedule. Opening week was great. But springtime weather and the stripers’ natural inclination to elude anglers have taken a toll. Larger rockfish continue to move on their own spawning-driven, immutable and impossible-to-anticipate timelines. In better weather, good trophy fish have been taken all around the Chesapeake. But no one location or pattern has emerged to help anglers concentrate efforts. The spawn is especially late this year, evidenced by the high percentage of roe-laden females boated. So the migratory giants will, in all likelihood, remain available well into May.
  The white perch run is mostly over, as is the hickory shad run. The hickories will be running back to the ocean, while the white perch will wander slowly downstream, then school up and head back to their accustomed hangouts. Some will return to reside in shallow water structures of the Bay and its tributaries, others to the medium depths of the Chesapeake where they will all feed up to regain the body mass lost during spawning. Until the weather warms up and the perch settle down, they will be difficult to locate.
  A few more sunny, 70-plus-degree days will be needed to get the bass and bluegill on their spawning beds. That is sure to happen soon. If you haven’t caught a bluegill (or a bass) on a fly rod and a popper in shallow water, you haven’t lived your angling life to its fullest. This is a good time to correct that oversight.

    But being on the water is not without risk. Every year people are injured and lives lost. Safe boating depends on proper preparation. Step one is following the rules, requirements and guidelines set out by the Department of Natural Resources for boating safety.
    Find Maryland’s recreational boating safety equipment requirements at www.dnr.state.md.us/boating/pdfs/recreationvessels.pdf. Or call DNR and request a copy of the Boat Maryland textbook.
    The most imperative requires that every watercraft of every type, size and location — Bay, pond, creek, river or lake — must have a wearable life jacket or personal floatation device (PFD) of appropriate size for each person on board. All children under the age of 13 must wear their PFD while aboard any craft less than 21 feet in length.
    Boats of 16 feet and over must likewise have, readily available, a type IV floating, throwable device (for man-overboard situations) such as a certified floating cushion or life ring.
    Finally, to operate sailing or motorized craft, all boaters born after July 1, 1972, must take an eight-hour Maryland Basic Boating Course and possess and have on their person a Maryland Boating Safety Education Certificate.
    Classes are listed in Bay weekly’s 8 Days a Week calendar of events. Natural Resources Police Safety Education also lists classes: 410-643-8502; www.dnr.state.md.us/boating/safety/basiccourse.asp.
    You can also find online courses at:
• www.boatus.org/onlinecourse/
Maryland.asp
• www.boat-ed.com/maryland/
• www.BOATERexam.com/usa/
maryland
    Find a handy checklist of all boat-safety items required under Maryland law at the DNR website or on page 21 in the Boat Maryland textbook. Failure to possess these required items while operating your boat can cost you a significant fine plus, in some cases, being ordered off of the water until the shortcomings are rectified.
    There is also a list of suggested items that make a lot of sense. These include a VHF radio, cell phone, extra fuel, a boat hook, charts and a compass, a flashlight and batteries, food and water, mooring lines, tool kit, spare anchor, binoculars, extra clothing, foul weather gear, a searchlight, sunscreen, insect repellant, hand towels, a First Aid Kit and a spare paddle.
    If you venture into distant, sparsely populated areas, consider an EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) and a satellite phone.
    Squalls, thunderstorms and other violent weather conditions — as well as mechanical breakdowns and unavoidable accidents — are always unpleasant possibilities on the water. Keep the DNR emergency response hotline on your speed dial or, at least, in your list of phone contacts: 410-260-8888 or 877-224-7229.
    If you spend enough time on the water, eventually things will get dicey. If you’re prepared, the incident will only result in a good yarn. If you’re unprepared … well, don’t let that happen.

This pollution is endangering our night skies

We all know of Earth Day, but what about Dark Sky Week?
    “I want people to be able to see the wonder of the night sky without the effects of light pollution,” says Jennifer Barlow, who came up with the idea of Dark Sky Week as a high school student in 2003. “The universe is our view into our past and our vision into the future … I want to help preserve its wonder.”
    We’re in the midst of this celebration of darkness, which has grown into a global movement, leading to downward-facing streetlights, low-glare outdoor bulbs and a greater understanding of the value of darkness.
    “Once a source of wonder — and one-half of the entire planet’s natural environment — the star-filled nights of just a few years ago are vanishing in a yellow haze,” warns the website for Dark Sky Week’s parent organization, the International Dark-Sky Association. “Human-produced light pollution not only mars our view of the stars; poor lighting threatens astronomy, disrupts ecosystems, affects human circadian rhythms, and wastes energy to the tune of $2.2 billion per year in the U.S. alone.” Learn more at www.darksky.org.
    Find your piece of darkness and a view to the east before daybreak Friday and Saturday, when the waning crescent moon hovers within 10 degrees of dazzling Venus.
    Tuesday’s new moon provides the backdrop for this week’s installment of the Globe At Night campaign, which fits hand-in-glove with Dark Sky Week. Your fisthand sightings help map what’s visible — and not — in the night sky all around the world. It’s easy to take part. Log onto www.globeatnight.org to download a star map of Leo the lion, see how many and which of the stars you can spot on a clear night, and return to the website (or the mobile app) to upload your results.
    For parts of South Africa, Australia and Antarctica, Tuesday’s new moon lines up just right between the earth and sun to create an annular solar eclipse. In an annular eclipse, the moon is too far from earth to fully obscure the sun, instead covering only the corona and creating a ring of light outlining the darkened moon. While you’ll likely have to settle for on online view of this one, we’ll have front-row seat for October’s partial solar eclipse.

Otherwise, you’re planting trouble

Every year, readers complain to me that some of their plants are flowering either poorly or not at all. That junipers, Japanese hollies and other shrubs have dead branches or worse. That their plants are so leggy. That tree roots have cracked their sidewalks. Last year, a reader asked what would cause the cement block in his basement to crack and bulge.
    As plants grow, they require more room. Some plants grow more vigorously than others. Many people plant without planning or knowing anything about the plants they have purchased. All kinds of trouble results.
    Crowding is one the consequences. Few gardeners can afford to purchase mature plants when landscaping their home or planting their flowerbeds. Most of the trees and shrubs sold in garden centers are one-tenth to one-quarter their mature size. This is also true for bedding plants and vegetable transplants. Because the plants are small, there’s a tendency to plant them close together to fill the space as rapidly as possible. The problem is that plants quickly grow together and compete for light. Some of the more vigorous species, especially when planted on the south, begin to shade the slower-growing plants. The better prepared the soil, the quicker the growth.
    Crowded plants are forced to grow tall and spindly with weak stems. The thickness and strength of a plant stem is directly related to the frequency of bending and the number of branches or leaves originating from the stem. Plants that are crowded do not sway with the wind as those that are more exposed. Crowding also prevents side branches and leaves from developing on the stem. As a result, the stem does not increase in diameter and remains weak. Crowding also inhibits flowering.
    Many flowering plants such as azaleas, rhododendrons, roses, crape myrtle, lilacs and Korean dogwoods produce the maximum flowers when planted in full sun. The plants may have been planted in full sun initially, but surrounded with a more vigorous or a taller-growing species, they extend their shade over the slower-growing flowering species. As the flowering plants are exposed to more shade and less sun, their ability to produce flowers is reduced.
    Other species of ornamentals will grow only in full sun. Junipers, Japanese hollies, pine, spruce, fir, arborvitae, chamaecyparis and others deteriorate when planted in shade. As these species are exposed to more and more shade, the plant’s branches die back. Many gardeners associate the dieback with disease and do not realize that the branches are dying from insufficient direct sunlight.
    As the roots of trees grow in diameter, the force that is generated can lift concrete walkways. For planting near walkways or foundations, select trees that will produce deep roots and plant them at a sufficient distance to develop without damaging structures. Trees should never be planted closer than 20 feet from a foundation. I have seen cement block foundations crack and bulge from the pressure exerted by expanding tree roots.
    Before purchasing plants, take time to read the information about each species, select those that best meet your needs, recognize their mature size and make certain that the plants you select will receive the amount of sun they need.


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

The big fish are here, with anglers on their tails

As our boat, Downtime, approached the Bay Bridge spans, I glanced back at the trolling setup just in time to see the portside rod slam down hard in its holder. Tim Levandoski, an eager angler visiting from upstate New York, rushed to grab the straining outfit. He could barely hold it vertical while line poured off the reel against the drag.
    Welcome to the Chesapeake, I thought, as a broad smile illuminated the face of an angler accustomed to the pull of the five- and six-pound freshwater bass of his home state. Fifteen minutes later, but only after considerable effort, he hoisted up a muscular 36-inch, 20-plus-pound rockfish for some photos.
    That handsome catch was made the last practice day before trophy rockfish season. A stellar opening day followed on April 19. The last half-dozen years, opening day has been plagued by nasty winds and wretched seas. This year’s version was sunny and calm, and the catches impressive.
    Success spread over a wide area including Love Point, the Bay Bridge, Gum Thickets, the mouth of Eastern Bay, Bloody Point, over to Hackett’s and down to Chesapeake Beach, then to Solomons. Our waters are full of migratory stripers, and they are hungry.
    Early reports included a couple of 50-plus-pound fish. A 47-incher (that took a white bucktail) was caught by Jim Aherns on the Pollyann to win the 13th Annual Boatyard Bar & Grill Opening Day Tournament.
    Nice-sized fish seem to dominate the storyline all over the Bay.
    Angler’s Sport Center has weighed in quite a few hefty stripers for citation (40 inches or over), more than I ever remember, and I’ve heard of no throwbacks.
    Trolling typically dominates the early season tactical scenario with boats working the main stem of the Chesapeake. Larger lures such as parachutes rigged with nine- and 12-inch sassy shads (white or chartreuse) are taking large fish, while big umbrella rigs in the same colors have accounted for a few giants.
    Fishing the top 20 feet of the water column is key during the early season, but dragging a few baits deep for insurance makes sense. Working across the cavernous shipping channels all the way past the shallower edges and keeping trolling speeds to under three knots are also part of the drill. Early morning hours are usually heavily weighted with success as daytime boat traffic eventually scatters the fish or drives them deeper.
    Bait fishing is taking increasingly larger numbers of trophy stripers as well this early season as the method continues to become more popular. Fishing fresh-cut bait or bloodworms on the bottom has been surprisingly effective in the same areas that have traditionally been productive only later in the year. The most productive spots are around the mouths of the major tributaries for boat anglers; Matapeake and Sandy Point state parks, or any accessible shoreline on the Bay proper, for land-based sports.
    The opening day of Maryland’s Rockfish Trophy Season is designated by state law as the third Saturday in April. The timing is planned to avoid large female fish still trying to reproduce.
    The result of our unusually long and cold winter, however, is that many of the trophy-sized females landed so far this season are still bulging with roe. Because of the unusually low water temperatures, the spawn has been delayed and extended.
    Prudent anglers will refrain from harvesting these gravid fish, releasing them and choosing to take only the males and spawned-out females. Returning big roe-bearing fish — easily carrying a half-million eggs — to the Bay to complete their spawns will benefit future rockfish populations.

Bright planets and shooting stars dazzle this week

As the sun sets, Jupiter shines high in the southwest, smack-dab in the middle of the constellation Gemini, its bright stars Castor and Pollux a few degrees away toward the celestial zenith. By midnight the king of the planets hovers above the horizon and sets within another hour.
    By that time, Mars is high in the south. Just days past opposition, the red planet is visible from dusk until dawn. It is also at its closest to Earth in six years. If you have a telescope, you’ll want to aim it at our planetary neighbor, which won’t appear so large in a view-piece again for two years. Mars shines in the constellation Virgo, with its blue-white alpha star Spica trailing by 10 degrees. As daybreak arrives, they are low against the west horizon.
    In the hour before sunrise, Venus dominates the east, brighter than anything but the sun and moon. The Morning Star doesn’t climb high above the horizon, which only adds to its splendor as its light shimmers and sparkles like a kaleidoscope as it passes through Earth’s atmosphere.
    The dark hours between Tuesday and Wednesday mark the peak of this year’s Lyrid Meteor Shower. The best viewing is between midnight and daybreak, when you might spot up to 20 meteors an hour, some with long trails burning for several seconds. The waning crescent moon rises around 3am and could dampen the showing. But keep your eyes peeled through the week when errant meteors could still streak across the sky.

Bright planets and shooting stars dazzle this week

As the sun sets, Jupiter shines high in the southwest, smack-dab in the middle of the constellation Gemini, its bright stars Castor and Pollux a few degrees away toward the celestial zenith. By midnight the king of the planets hovers above the horizon and sets within another hour.
    By that time, Mars is high in the south. Just days past opposition, the red planet is visible from dusk until dawn. It is also at its closest to Earth in six years. If you have a telescope, you’ll want to aim it at our planetary neighbor, which won’t appear so large in a view-piece again for two years. Mars shines in the constellation Virgo, with its blue-white alpha star Spica trailing by 10 degrees. As daybreak arrives, they are low against the west horizon.
    In the hour before sunrise, Venus dominates the east, brighter than anything but the sun and moon. The Morning Star doesn’t climb high above the horizon, which only adds to its splendor as its light shimmers and sparkles like a kaleidoscope as it passes through Earth’s atmosphere.
    The dark hours between Tuesday and Wednesday mark the peak of this year’s Lyrid Meteor Shower. The best viewing is between midnight and daybreak, when you might spot up to 20 meteors an hour, some with long trails burning for several seconds. The waning crescent moon rises around 3am and could dampen the showing. But keep your eyes peeled through the week when errant meteors could still streak across the sky.

Here’s the right way to till the garden

Just because you have a rototiller or a Mantis doesn’t mean you have to till your soil until it is pulverized into dust. The more you till the soil, the more damage you do to its structure. The finer you pulverize the soil, the faster its organic matter is destroyed.
    Here’s how to do the job right.
    Pray for perfect conditions, as soil should never be tilled when too wet or too dry.
    Till the soil no more than twice before planting vegetables in the spring. One shallow tilling in the fall is all that’s needed before planting cover crops. If your soil has a cover crop of rye or wheat, mow it as close to the ground as possible to pulverize the vegetation. To till, set the tines at a depth of three inches for the first pass through the garden to kill the roots of the cover crop and expose the soil to the drying sun and wind. Allow three to five days before the second tilling, hoping it doesn’t rain during this drying-out period.
    Before tilling the garden a second time, set the tines to a depth of five inches and till the garden perpendicular to the direction of the first tilling. This pattern ensures a more uniform tilling and reduces the potential of compacting the pan layer of soil below the tilled layer.
    If your soil test recommendations call for amending with limestone, compost or fertilizers, apply them prior to the first tilling. As limestone is very slow in reacting in cold soils, the first tilling should be done as early in the spring as possible and the second tilling delayed one and a half to two weeks. This technique allows for the lime to react and begin correcting the pH.
    Care in tilling the soil reduces the loss of organic matter. Increasing the organic matter requires the addition of compost or animal manure. Many garden problems can be avoided by maintaining your soil’s organic matter concentration at five percent or above.


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