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Here’s how to make it work for you

Chumming has always been an excellent way to catch rockfish in the Chesapeake. It’s not particularly demanding in technique or equipment, so just about anyone with a boat who is willing to invest some time can consistently score some really nice fish with this method. As a bonus, it can be easily done with medium-weight spin or bait-casting tackle.
    The basics are simple. Anchored up in a moving tide, the angler suspends over the side of the boat a mesh bag that contains a frozen block of ground menhaden. Also commonly called alewife and bunker in the mid-Bay, menhaden are the favorite food of rockfish.
    The ground menhaden thaws and disperses into the tidal current, attracting rockfish sometimes from great distances. Cut pieces of whole baitfish are then hooked and fished suspended on the bottom for the rockfish to discover and eat. It is a very simple yet effective technique.
    There are, however, strategies that can improve your chances. The first and most important is locating and securing a supply of really fresh baitfish. Top-quality is evidenced by a minimum amount of blood in the bag and the high sheen of silvery white fish that are firm and have a good odor.
    That’s not to say you can’t catch stripers with a bag of two- or three-day-old fish that are off-color and a bit soft. All of us have. But the fresher the bait, the better the bite. Plus your chances of scoring bigger fish increase.
    Keep that bait buried in ice. Menhaden degrade rapidly. If not kept well iced, they immediately begin to soften and spoil. Leaving bait exposed to the sun or warming on the boat is self-defeating. Keep your bait cold, always.
    Buy plenty of baitfish. This is not the place to save money. The first vertical cut of the menhaden, just behind the head, is the prime piece. It contains the internal organs in the body cavity. In the middle of that gut will be the heart. Put that gob on your hook first (with your hook through the heart), then add the piece of fish. You will be surprised how often this draws the first bite and the biggest rockfish.
    Rockfish are a school fish, and when one fish begins to eat, it sends a signal to all of them to eat as well. Change your baits every 20 minutes; by that time most of the scent will have been washed out. Rockfish will find your baits and eat them much quicker when their scent trails are clear.
    The chum bags available today are generally made with a mesh size too small. Cut a few extra holes (about an inch wide) in the bottom of the bag to let the bigger chunks of the chum wash out. You want to attract rockfish, not make the chum last as long as possible.
    The last tip is to use a large enough hook and leave the point and barb well exposed. Hook the menhaden, not too deeply, near the spine at the top of the piece of bait. A rockfish is used to feeling sharp things in its mouth. Just about everything it eats has spines or hard points so the incidental prick of a hook will not frighten or alert it.
    Early in the season (until mid-July at least) a size 5/0 to 7/0 bait hook is not too big if you’re seeking fish in the 30-inch class. After that, as the bigger fish leave for the ocean, gradually reduce your hook size to match the schoolies that remain.


Conservation News

    Natural Resources Police received a complaint on May 12 concerning a large number of dead fish floating near Town Creek, a tributary of the Patuxent. Searching the area, officers saw a commercial vessel, the McKenzie Leigh, unloading fish at a nearby pier. The vessel was holding about 14,000 pounds of croaker and other species. Officers from four counties were assigned to measure the entire catch in an effort that took 12 hours. Approximately 3,500 pounds (about 10,000 fish) were found to be undersized. Charges are pending.

Earth’s 23.5-degree axis gives us summer, winter and everything between

As evening twilight settles Thursday, look to the western horizon for the nascent crescent moon. Above it are Venus and Jupiter. The bright star Regulus is up there, too, forming a line with Venus and Jupiter, each roughly a dozen degrees from the next. Keep an eye on the two planets as they inch closer together over the next two weeks before a spectacular end-of-month conjunction when they are within one-third degree of one another.
    Friday and Saturday the moon, Venus and Jupiter form a loose triangle. By Sunday the moon is far to the left of the planets but is just a few degrees below Regulus and the Sickle of Leo. The Sickle, which looks like an inverted question mark, outlines the head of the lion.
    While Venus and Jupiter glimmer above the western horizon, Saturn shines off to the east. By midnight it is at its highest almost due south. Don’t confuse its steady golden glow for the brighter red star Antares, which is a dozen degrees below. With greater magnification there’s no confusion: Saturn’s rings appear as a distinct bulge with even binoculars, and seen through even a modest telescope the rings themselves come into view.
    You’ll need binoculars to spot Mercury, which is emerging from the sun’s glare before dawn low in the east-northeast. Early Wednesday morning provides the best view of Mercury as it reaches its greatest eastern elongation, its point farthest from the sun in our sky, when it will peak 22 degrees above the horizon and remain visible 45 minutes before obscured by daybreak. Mercury is bright, but a couple degrees below it the star Aldebaran shines brighter still.
    Sunday at 12:38pm marks the summer solstice, when the sun reaches its northernmost position in the sky. ­Because the earth spins at an odd, 231⁄2-degree angle as it orbits the sun, the Northern Hemisphere is currently positioned to receive far more sunlight than the Southern Hemisphere. On the summer solstice, the sun appears to stand still above the Tropic of Cancer, which straddles the earth 231⁄2 degrees north of the equator. After the solstice, the sun will slowly shift southward from day to day until six months from now it is at its southernmost extreme over the Tropic of Capricorn, which is 231⁄2 degrees south of the equator. The sun shifting from one extreme to the other is what causes our seasons here on earth. Were the planet to spin upright like a top instead of tilted, the seasons would never change, with perpetual summer along the equatorial band and growing ever darker and colder the farther north or south you went.

There are better ways than mulch

Do you think the only method of controlling weeds is mulching?
    If so, you’re likely to add another layer of mulch every time you see weeds growing through the last layer. From there on, mulching becomes a habit.
    Mulches control weeds by suffocation and by shading the soil, thus denying the weed seeds the red waves of sunlight. The red wave band of the sun’s spectrum stimulates weed seeds to ­germinate.
    But thick layers of mulch also prevent oxygen, necessary for good plant root growth, from entering the soil. Thick layers of mulch also absorb the first quarter-inch of rain or irrigation, keeping it from reaching the soil.
    Never apply a layer more than an inch or two deep each per year. Before applying a new layer, always incorporate the previous year’s mulch into the surface soil. Where azaleas, rhododendrons and mountain laurels are growing, it is best to remove the old layer. Pine bark is the exception; incorporating it with a steel rake may be adequate.
    If the color of the old mulch is not satisfactory, consider spraying it with liquid mulch. Liquid mulches in the same dies used to color the raw wood chips are available from suppliers such as A.M. Leonard.
    If weeds are a severe problem, consider covering the ground with landscape fabric before applying mulch. However, if Bermuda grass, pigweed or nutsedge are present, these must be irradiated before applying the landscape fabric because they will grow through the fabric, making it impossible to remove.
    Avoid using black plastic around shallow-rooted plants. Unlike landscape fabric, plastic inhibits the movement of oxygen into the soil.
    Small weeds in the landscape can be controlled by spraying with horticultural vinegar. Horticultural vinegar contains 20 percent acetic acid and will kill weeds up to about three inches tall. It is also available from A.M. Leonard. If the acetic acid accidently comes in contact with the foliage of desirable perennials, it will not cause any permanent damage.
    Before you use an herbicide, know how it works. Preen, for example, is a preemergent herbicide you can use only on clean cultivated soil. As it contains only fluoride, it kills primarily germinating seeds of grass and only a few broadleaf weeds. So it is safe to use near and around ornamental plants, but it is effective for no more than six weeks. Always follow manufacturer’s recommendations when applying any herbicide.


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

With only one flounder in the cooler, it’s a good thing we could count on it for four fillets

Feeling the undulations of the sandy bottom telegraph up my graphite casting rod, I kept a cautious thumb on the reel spool. Our day drifting live bull minnows for summer flounder was starting slow. My son Harrison, his girlfriend Jerica and I had hoped to score enough fish for a family dinner. We hadn’t yet risen to the challenge.
    The fishing boats we had encountered had all given us the thumbs down when we inquired as to their luck, so we had redoubled our efforts. Jerica was particularly focused on hooking one. She had never caught a fish, nor even been fishing, and today she intended to rectify that void in her life.
    There is nothing on board luckier than a beginning angler, and a new woman angler is double lucky; it isn’t by accident luck is called a lady.
    I was ruminating on that thought when I saw Jerica’s rod dart down.
    She expertly lowered her rod (it’s always amazing when someone does something right the very first time) to allow the flounder to get the bait well back into its mouth. Then she raised the rod slowly and, when she felt resistance, pulled back hard. Fish on!

Floundering Again
    We have been going to a beach house in Bethany every summer for more than 30 years. In the earliest days I fished frequently, but that was during the time of the big trout, bluefish and flounder runs. Fishing slowed down after that, mostly from commercial overharvest, and so did my oceanside efforts. With my wife and me, three kids and many of their friends, the amount of gear got to be too much. It had been a long time since I fished the back bays of Ocean City.
    This year turned out to be different. The boys had grown and were coming down on their own, so my wife and I had to pack only for ourselves. Life had become simpler.
    I decided to fish again, particularly for flounder, for there are mighty few fish that can compare on the dinner plate. The flounder is also an interesting fish. A member of the flatfish family, it is born looking quite like every other fingerling with an eye on each side of its head and swimming upright. But soon it turns to swimming on its right side. That side of the fish becomes its bottom, and the right eye gradually migrates next to the left, now top, side of its head. Its new belly becomes stark white while the upper side takes on a mottled, dark green hue that the fish can modify at will to match the surrounding terrain.
    On our bait-fishing rods were flounder rigs composed of an in-line sinker, three feet of No. 20 fluorocarbon leader, a 4/0 Kahle flounder hook and brightly colored bucktail attractors. Then we lip-hooked a bull minnow on each rig, lowered it to the bottom and drifted on a smartly running tide.

Jerica’s Fish
    I didn’t want to be remembered as the guy who lost Jerica’s first fish, so I took great care in netting that flounder, especially since they can also swim backwards. Once safely on the deck, it measured well over the 16-inch minimum and went quickly into our cooler.
    A few minutes later Harrison and I hooked up with skates that had us both fooled for big flounder right up until they were at the net. We threw them back, then caught a few shorts. Then the brief bite died.
    Lucky thing a flounder has four fillets.

The sun follows its own clock

As darkness falls, first Venus then Jupiter pop into view in the wake of the setting sun. Venus blazes at magnitude –4.4, exponentially brighter than Jupiter at magnitude –2, which still outshines any star. The two planets are inching closer on their way to an end-of-month rendezvous. This week the gap between the two shrinks to 10 degrees — close enough to obscure both with your fist held at arm’s length.
    Keep an eye on Venus this weekend. It is near the center of the dim Y-shaped constellation Cancer, which in itself is not that interesting, boasting no star brighter than 3.5 magnitude. In fact, were it not placed on the ecliptic, the path of the sun, moon and planets as they circle overhead, Cancer would be a minor constellation, certainly not a denizen of the zodiac or even an astrological sign. Cancer’s claim to fame is no star but what appears as a faint, fuzzy patch of light to the unaided eye, M44, the Beehive Cluster.
    Viewed with binoculars, however, the Beehive comes to life with dozens of stars, and with a telescope it swarms with hundreds of stars. Friday and Saturday Venus is less than one degree from the Beehive in the western sky at nightfall and visible for at least an hour after sunset.
    Friday marks our earliest sunrise of the year, almost 10 days before the solstice. The discrepancy is the result of several factors, but in short, our clocks keep different time than the sun. While the clock measures a day with the passing of each 24 hours, a solar day is measured from the time of one high noon to the next. Hereabouts on the 12th, that is 24 hours and 15 seconds. Prior to the solstice this temporal slack is made up for at dawn, while after solstice the difference is at sunset. So while the summer solstice is June 21, our earliest sunrise is always some 10 days before, and the latest sunset another 10 days after solstice. In winter, the same phenomenon is at play, only reversed, and more pronounced, with nearly two weeks between earliest sunset and solstice and solstice and latest sunrise.

What’s good and bad for what

Never use colored mulches near annuals, shallow-rooted trees and shrubs or herbaceous perennials. These mulches are made using raw wood that serve as a source of food for microorganisms once it comes in contact with the ground. Microorganisms are better able to absorb nutrients in wood than are the roots of plants. As a result of the competition, plants — including weeds — starve and die. 
    Use colored mulches only around well-established deep-rooted trees and shrubs, for making pathways, sitting areas and playgrounds.
    Use hardwood bark mulches with caution.
    Unlike pine mulches, hardwood bark mulches contain up to 60 percent cellulose, which means they will decompose and rob nutrients from plants. They will also raise the pH of soils, making them less acidic. Repeated applications of hardwood bark can also result in the accumulation of manganese. When this occurs, the roots of the plants lose their ability to absorb iron and plant growth declines. Over the years I have seen numerous instances where the manganese and pH levels in the soil were so high that the only solution was total replacement of the soil.
    As you shop for pine bark mulch, be aware that not all bark mulches contain 100 percent bark. Some are made by blending one part pine bark and two parts wood chips. These blends are kept moist and turned periodically until the entire mass turns brown like bark.
    The truth is revealed if a piece of its wood reveals a yellow to light-brown center when broken. Once applied, fake bark mulches are more easily identified: After they have weathered a few weeks, the tannin-treated raw wood begins to lose its dark brown color.
    If that’s what you’ve got, the brown-colored raw wood will feed microorganisms, not plants.
    I was once called to investigate problems resulting from a mulch sale sponsored by a grocery chain. A large trailer load of double-shredded hardwood bark mulch had been trucked in and sold at cost. Buyers were immediately returning the mulch, complaining that it was killing their plants instantly.  Inspecting the load of mulch remaining in the trailer, I found it contained wood alcohol. I proved the presence of alcohol by cutting open a bag and throwing in a lighted match. The mulch immediately caught on fire. The mulch had been bagged while it was composting under anaerobic conditions, resulting in the formation of wood alcohol.
    Marble chips should not be used around plants that require acid soils. Marble chips are essentially chunks of limestone rich in calcium oxide, which will result in making the soil less acidic and eventually alkaline. That will be the death of acid-loving plants such as azaleas, rhododendrons, mountain laurels, andromeda, skimmia and Japanese hollies.
    Marble chips are safe around alkaline-preferring plants such as junipers, yews, pines, spruce and cherry laurel.
    Avoid using bluestone. I have seen numerous cases where plants have been killed after bluestone mulching. Like marble chips, bluestone contains high levels of calcium oxide. It may also contain metal contaminants, including nickel. The symptoms often go undetected for several years, by which time the damage is irreversible.


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

Seach the sky for Berenice’s hair and Ariadne’s crown

The moon wanes to last-quarter Tuesday, rising more than a half-hour later each night, providing an increasingly darker backdrop for sky-watching.
    As the evening sky begins to darken, the first lights to appear are the planets Venus and Jupiter high in the west. Then you might notice golden Saturn aglow in the southeast. The next brightest object to appear is Arcturus, almost directly overhead.
    Arcturus is the third brightest star in the heavens and is the lead star in the constellation Boötes. It is a red giant 36 light years away burning more than 100 times brighter than our sun. Its name is derived from the Greek word Arktouros, meaning guardian of the bear. Boötes follows Ursa Major along the ecliptic, while behind it is the constellation Hercules. Closer to either side of Arcturus, however, are two lesser-known constellations.
    To the east of Boötes shines a semi-circle of severn stars, Corona Borealis, the northern crown. By about 11pm, this constellation is almost directly overhead. In Greek mythology, this is the crown Dionysus gave to his bride Ariadne. Celebrating after their wedding, Dionysus threw the crown into the sky, where the jewels turned into stars and the crown became a constellation. The lead star in Corona Borealis is Gemma, almost as bright as the North Star.
    To the west of Arcturus is Coma Berenices, or Berenice’s Hair, most notable by three not-so-bright stars making a 90-degree angle. The legend of this constellation dates back to Queen Berenice II of Egypt, whose husband Ptolemy III Euergetes was away in battle. Praying to the goddess Aphrodite, Berenice swore to cut off her long, blonde hair if Ptolemy survived. Upon his return, the queen kept her word and placed her locks on an altar in Aphrodite’s temple. The next morning the hair was gone: the goddess of love was was so pleased with Berenice’s beautiful hair that she placed it forever in the heavens.
    Venus is at its best this week, ­Saturday reaching greatest eastern elongation — or in layman’s terms, its farthest from the sun, 45 degrees as seen from our earthbound vantage, and thus at its highest point in our sky. As the sun sets, look for the Evening Star high in the west. Hereafter, Venus ever so slowly inches toward the setting sun. By mid-August, Venus disappears behind the sun, reappearing in the pre-dawn sky a couple weeks later.
    Jupiter shines a dozen degrees to the upper left of Venus. The two planets are closing in on each other on the way to a close conjunction at the end of the month.
    Sunset reveals Saturn in the southeast, and by midnight it is high in the south. Even a modest telescope will reveal the planet’s famous rings, which are right now tilted at their best angle for viewing. Roughly 10 degrees below Saturn is orange Antares, the lead star in the constellation Scorpius.

It’s not there just to look pretty

Good mulch should be dark brown, persist for at least one growing season, be compatible with all the plants in the landscape and control weeds by suffocation only. Superb mulch does all that plus providing slow-release nutrients to feed the plants it is mulching.
    Mother Nature provides us with an abundance of mulches every fall. Fallen leaves and pine needles are excellent mulches satisfying every standard except being dark brown.  I have never purchased a bag of mulch in my life. Leaves are my mulch. When they decompose, nutrients are released into the soil, thus feeding the roots of mulched plants.
    Bark mulches do not contain any of the major nutrients used by plants except for calcium. But bark can contain essential trace elements, such as manganese, that can accumulate in the soil and cause problems. Thus it is important to choose mulch that is compatible with the species of plants being mulched.
     If you insist on purchasing brown mulch, I recommend pure pine, spruce or fir bark mulches. These contain 90 to 100 percent lignins, a source of carbon not easily digested by microorganisms. Thus they do not decompose readily and last on the surface of the ground one to two growing seasons. These mulches also contain polyflavanoids, which are beneficial because they help make essential trace elements available to the roots.
    Pine bark is available as nuggets, ground or as pine fines. The nuggets and ground mulches are the most preferred. Pine fines are generally only recommended as a soil amendment to increase the organic matter and help in lowering the pH of soils. Pine mulches are acidic in nature.
    Pine needles can be used as mulch but have a limited life, lasting only two to three months.
    Pea stone makes good mulch providing it is laid over landscape fabric. Brick chips, volcano slag or crushed granite are also usable mulches. But because of their density, they will sink into the soil unless they are placed over landscape fabric. 
    In the vegetable garden, straw — not hay — works as mulch. Even newspapers can be used, applied in 10 to 15 layers and soaked with water immediately to stop them from being blown away. I use shredded paper because it is easier to spread and, once soaked with water, remains in place better than sheets of newspaper. You need not worry about the ink because most black ink is made from soy while the colored inks are organic. I would prefer the old zinc ink because most of our soils here in the East are low to deficient in zinc, a mineral important in our diet.
    Shredded cardboard also makes good mulch. The advantage of using straw, newspapers, shredded paper and cardboard is rapid decomposition without creating nutrient stress. As they are opaque, they control weeds by the shade they create.
    Black plastic and landscape fabric also make good mulch. Black plastic mulches prevent the loss of water by evaporation. But these must be removed at the end of the growing season. Landscape fabric has another drawback in that weeds such as Bermuda grass, pig weed and nut sedge can grow through the fabric, making it impossible to pull them without damaging the fabric. Removing the fabric at the end of the season is also harder because of weeds that have grown through it.
    Next week, I’ll give you more reasons to avoid other mulches.


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

So many variables are at play it can sometimes be baffling

We arrived at our fishing spot at 9am, two hours after the predicted low tide. Consultations with tide and current charts told us that at our location about a quarter-mile below the Bay Bridge, the incoming tide would just be starting. It ­wasn’t; the current was still going out.
    Anchoring and expecting the change at any moment, we set out our chum bag and flipped our baits over the side. After an hour with no tidal change and no action, we headed farther south, reasoning that the outgoing tide would be starting earlier there. Again we were wrong.
    We debated going down the Bay farther still but decided to stick it out. Our fish finder was showing a substantial population in the waters around us. Logically, we concluded that all that we needed was a tidal change and an increase in current to get the stripers feeding. After all, the tide sooner or later would have to change, right?
    Undoubtedly that was true. Yet four hours later it became clear that it was not going to change while we were there. With the tide still inching out and our baits going untouched, we headed home.
    Tides are the result of the gravitational pull of the moon as it orbits the earth. Ocean tides are regular and predictable. It seemed inconceivable that in the Bay an outgoing tide could continue for over 12 hours.
    I decided to renew my acquaintance with how the tidal functions in our great estuary can behave so erratically. The Chesapeake, I was reminded, has a unique and vastly more complex tidal operation than the ocean.
    The moon sets up the basic tidal rhythm of two high tides and two low tides during a typical 24-hour period. But those tidal surges have to travel the length of the Bay, 200 miles. Much can happen in that distance, and many variables can impact the flow of tidal water.
    One of the more important variables is caused by density differences between heavier saltwater coming up from the ocean colliding with lighter freshwater from the Bay’s tributaries. Because of the Coriolis Effect, generated by the turning of the earth on its axis, the incoming tide is always stronger (and saltier) on the eastern side. The fresher water exits the Bay on the western side’s stronger outgoing tides.
    This difference between salt and fresh creates a stratification of Bay waters and generates a secondary circulatory current with the heavier saltwater tending to sink to the bottom as it moves up the Bay and the lighter freshwater tending to float on top and moving south to exit the estuary.
    There are also secondary currents and eddies created as the water moves over different depths. More than 25 percent of the Bay is less than six feet deep, but the channels coursing down its length often average 50 to 60 feet deep.
    Wind is another factor. Sustained high winds can delay, accelerate or even cancel tidal phases. Northwest winds associated with high-pressure areas can push water away from the Atlantic Coast, resulting in very low tides. Northeast winds and high pressure can create exceptionally high tides.
    The interactions of these many variables can also generate seemingly impossible effects. Occasionally currents flow in one direction on the bottom of the Bay and the opposite direction on the top. An outgoing tide that seems to continue for 12 hours can be caused by conditions some distance away and invisible to those experiencing the phenomenon.
    Considering all these forces, the overall accuracy achieved by our tide and current charts is remarkable. It wouldn’t surprise me if the old saying Just go with the flow was coined on the Chesapeake.

Our atmosphere tints summer moons

The moon waxes through the weekend, reaching full phase Tuesday, June 2. This time of year the moon follows a low, lazy arc above the southern horizon. At such a low angle to the horizon, before reaching our eyes the moon’s light must cut through much more of earth’s atmosphere than in winter, when the moon shines high overhead. Gases and trapped moisture within the atmosphere combine to tint the image we see a red, orange or yellow, which explains the names of June’s full moon: the Strawberry Moon, the Rose Moon and the Honey Moon.
    Friday night, the moon is joined by Spica, the blue-white first-magnitude star of Virgo, which is just a few degrees below and to the right of the moon.
    Saturday the moon has pulled westward and is midway between Spica to its right and Saturn to its left. Sunday the moon is less than 10 degrees to the left of Saturn, and Monday it is just two degrees to the the left of Saturn with red-orange Antares a few degrees below.
    Having just reached opposition, its closest point to earth and dead-opposite the sun, Saturn rises as the sun sets, is high overhead at midnight and sets with daybreak. Shining at zero magnitude, Saturn is brighter than it’s been in eight years. Better yet, its rings are positioned to allow the best possible viewing and appear all the brighter so close to opposition.
    Saturn isn’t the only planet visible after dark. Sunset reveals Venus high in the west and Jupiter 20 degrees higher still. Night to night, Venus is gaining ground on Jupiter leading to a grand conjunction in late June. Monday Venus forms a near-stright line with the Gemini twins Pollux and Castor.
    By late-evening the stars of the Summer Triangle are perched above the east horizon. Farthest west is the brightest and the fifth-brightest star, Vega, of the constellation Lyra. Off to the southeast of Vega and almost as bright is Altair of Aquila the eagle. Closing the triangle is first-magnitude Deneb, the head of Cygnus the swan.