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It’s the most important link between you and your fish

Working at sports stores has given me a long-term look at a critical and often overlooked item of tackle: monofilament fishing line. Taking your line for granted can lead to very unfortunate results.
    Monofilament fishing line was developed more than 75 years ago by DuPont Chemical Company as a spin-off of nylon, the first synthetic plastic. Those early efforts produced stiff, springy lines that had too much memory, tangled easily and were brittle.
    Braided lines made of linen (from the flax plant) or cotton were the overwhelming choice of anglers. These braids were strong for their diameter, supple and relatively easy to handle with the revolving spool reels used by most fishers of that period.
    Braided natural fiber fishing lines continued to hold sway over anglers for the next 20 years. Those lines did, however, have two distinct drawbacks: They tended to deteriorate if not dried properly, and they were visible to the fish.
    Eventually chemists solved all the technical problems with monofilament. In 1959, DuPont introduced Stren, a soft, pliable fishing line with excellent strength and very low visibility in the water. Over the same period, spinning reels advanced in popularity. The new monofilament line was embraced by spin anglers as the perfect application for their tackle.
    DuPont’s product was so successful that it was copied by many other manufacturers. Monofilament has been continually improved. It is superb fishing line: inexpensive, with great strength to diameter and with low visibility in the water.
    Its one drawback: It does not last forever.
    The ultraviolet rays from sunshine, fluorescent lighting and more will eventually break down the structure of monofilament, causing it to fail under stress. Knot strength is the first thing to suffer, while the line itself appears unchanged.
    If monofilament is unused and stored in a cool, dark environment it will last a few years. Outside in sunlight or inside exposed to the light of fluorescent bulbs and tubes, its life expectancy is limited. Manufacturers recommend replacing line every season.
    The life of line gets still more complicated. Because manufacturers do not date their products’ creation, consumers have no way of knowing the age of a newly purchased spool of monofilament. Nor do we know under what conditions that line was stored.
    Most tackle shops routinely rotate the inventory, so monofilament lines are constantly refreshed by newly manufactured supplies. But the buyer has to beware. A spool of line that has remained in a store’s inventory for long periods, especially if exposed to UV light, will likely fail under stress. The longer it has been retained, the more likely it is to break down.
    Purchase your line from reputable sporting goods retailers that frequently turn over their inventory. Higher quality lines are going to resist UV deterioration far longer than less expensive lines.
    One simple test of monofilament’s integrity is to tie an overhand knot in the line and give it a good strong tug. The overhand knot is not recommended for fishing because it cuts into itself. Fresh lines with this knot in them will still be difficult to break. However, monofilament compromised by age or UV exposure will fail at a mere fraction of its rated strength.
    Your monofilament fishing line is probably the least expensive component of all of your tackle. But it is the single most important link between you and your fish. Respect and replace it frequently.
    When not in use, store your tackle with reel covers that shield the line from UV rays. Or keep your tackle in a cool, dark room. Remember also that today’s energy-efficient compact-fluorescent bulbs produce UV rays.

Mars and Venus together at dusk

An ever-so-thin sliver of moon appears low in the west at evening twilight Thursday briefly before sinking beneath the horizon. The Evening Star Venus blazes above and to the moon’s left, with much fainter Mars just above Venus.
    Sunset Friday finds the two-day-old crescent moon within two degrees of Venus and Mars, all so close they easily fit within the eyepiece of binoculars and modest backyard telescopes.
    Come Saturday evening, the moon is roughly 10 degrees above Venus and Mars. But now the two planets are less than one-half degree of one another, with Mars just to Venus’s upper right. Venus shines more than 100 times as bright as Mars, so much so that its light could obscure the red planet, in which case you’ll need those binoculars to discern it. After that, Venus climbs higher into the west and away from Mars.
    While Venus and Mars appear together this week, the planets are actually millions of miles apart. Closer to the sun, Venus completes one orbit in roughly 225 days, while Mars makes the loop in 687 days. From our fixed vantage point here on earth — which isn’t really fixed, as we, too, are always in motion around the sun — these planets cross paths several times each year. But with roughly 75 million miles separating the orbital line of one planet from the other, there’s a lot of variance, so a close conjunction like this is pretty rare. Venus and Mars haven’t appeared so close in our sky since 2008, and they won’t again for another two years.
    Jupiter is a fixture of the night sky. It appears in the east as twilight fades, and by 11pm it is almost directly overhead. By 5am it is low in the west-northwest and sets just before sunrise.
    If you’re up before dawn, look for golden Saturn to the south. It is traveling with the constellation Scorpius, whose return to the skies each year heralds the coming of spring. The red heart of the scorpion, Antares, shines almost as bright as Saturn and less than 10 degrees below and to the left.
    The last of the naked-eye planets is just eeking away from the glare of the sun. Look for Mercury just above the east-southeast horizon in early dawn. Binoculars will help you pinpoint it against the glare of the coming sun.
    Wednesday’s first-quarter moon shines amid the constellation Taurus the bull and is less than one-half degree from its glaring red eye Aldebaran. Above the moon a little farther are the stars of the Hyades cluster, and higher still those of the Pleiades cluster.
    Some of the brightest stars appear during these cold, dark nights. Orion the hunter stands above the southern horizon in the evening, the three stars of his belt pointing up to Taurus and down toward Canis Major and the brightest star, Sirius. Orion’s foot is marked by Rigel, while his shoulder is the red giant Betelgeuse, with Canis Minor and its bright star Procyon to the left. Above these stand the Gemini Twins, Castor the higher and brighter star and Pollux a little below it. Above and to the right of Gemini is Capella, the bright star of Auriga the charioteer, shining directly overhead at 8pm. To the east is Leo the lion and its bright star Regulus.
    Just east of Orion is the winter Milky Way, stretching from the southeast to almost directly overhead and then down to the northwest in the early evening.

Join the fight for dark skies

The waning crescent moon rises ever later in predawn skies this week. Friday it appears before 3am, and by 5am it is well placed above the southeast horizon, forming a tight triangle with golden Saturn to the right and red Antares, the heart of Scorpius, below. The ringed planet stands above the scorpion’s head, one degree of its uppermost, second-magnitude star Graffias.
    By Monday the moon is a thin crescent low in the southeast at 6am. If skies are clear and you have an open view of the horizon, you might be able to catch the reappearance of Mercury. Your odds will be better with binoculars. Look to the lower left of the moon’s outside arc. The next morning, the last remnant of the waning crescent rises within an hour of the sun, and now Mercury is just a few degrees to the right of its inner curve.
    Mercury never pulls far from the sun and does not climb high into the sky. Plenty of people may not even realize they have seen it when looking at an exceptionally bright “star” hugging the horizon at dawn or during evening twilight.
    You shouldn’t be as hard-pressed to spot our neighbors, Venus and Mars in the west-southwest at dusk. The two are only five degrees apart at week’s end, well within the field of view of binoculars or a telescope. By Wednesday they’ve cut the distance by half on the way to a one-half-degree conjunction on the 21st. There’s no confusing the two, as Venus blazes at –3.9 magnitude, while Mars smolders at first magnitude. In the exponential calculus of stellar magnitude, that means that Mars, as bright as your average star, is 99 percent dimmer than the Evening Star.
    Jupiter is a fixture of the night sky right now, rising in the east-northeast as twilight fades, almost directly overhead at midnight and clinging to the west-northwest horizon as daybreak approaches. To its right is the dim constellation of Cancer the crab, while to its left is the easy-to-identify Leo the lion.
    This week marks the latest installment of the Globe at Night campaign. Its goal is for ordinary people to record and submit their star counts. The target this time around is the constellation Orion, which is high in the south by 8pm. You can download star charts and instructions at www.globeatnight.org. Your results along with thousands from around the world help astronomers measure darkness and raise awareness about the threat of light pollution.

Yellow perch are climbing the rivers

The yellow perch run is on. It may seem early, but small male yellow perch have been caught in a number of locations around the state for over three weeks. That can only mean one thing: The bigger fish will show up any time — if not already.
    These yellow neds are on the move, swimming to the headwaters of Bay tributaries to spawn.
    Driven by increasing daylight and temperatures, the scent of their natal waters and mysterious Mother Nature, this species is the first of the year to appear in numbers in the fresher water of the Chesapeake.
    Minimum size is nine inches and the daily limit is 10 fish per day. They are particularly delicious, rivaling white perch for table quality. Fried and paired with sliced tomatoes, simmered greens and corn bread on the side, they make the finest meal you can serve this time of year.
    Light- to medium-weight spin tackle spooled with six- to 10-pound mono will do just fine for tangling with the neds, whose size can run up to 15 inches or more (a citation is 14 inches). They will eat earthworms, bloodworms, grass shrimp, minnows and even wax worms.
    With water temperatures this time of year generally under 40 degrees, the fish do not respond well to artificial lures. But when fish abound, they can be caught on shad darts, small Tony and Nungusser spoons, Rooster Tails, Mepps spinners and small jig heads with soft plastic curly tails.
    My preference is a five-foot-four-inch, light-action spin rod, six-pound line and a tandem rig with a gold number 12 Tony and a lip-hooked minnow on the long leg and on the shorter a 1/16-ounce shad dart tipped with a grass shrimp, all fished under a weighted bobber.
    Casting the rig out toward likely spawning areas such as flooded brush or downed trees in three to four feet of water, I twitch the rig back slowly, continually working over a large area until I locate fish. The bite is generally tide driven, with a falling tide just after the flood the best.
    When fishing a low tide, target the deeper areas in the center of creeks and rivers and fish your baits close to the bottom. Since the fish are constantly on the move, you never know when or where you’re going to find them, so moving around and trying one area after another, either from a boat or from shore, is the strategy for success.
    It is also a good idea to have on hand a big Mepps spinner in size 3 or 4, silver or gold, dressed with squirrel or bucktail. If your yellow perch action suddenly dies off or hasn’t yet materialized, try casting the larger lure. Quite often a large pickerel or two (which follow the schools of yellow perch this time of year) have moved into the area and queered the perch bite. The Pickerel will be suckers for the big Mepps and an exciting addition to your day.
    The Department of Natural Resources website maps a number of locations where yellow perch fish have been caught during the spring run on both the Western and Eastern Shores: http://dnr2.maryland.gov/Fisheries/Pages/maps.aspx.

Turn that manure into compost instead of applying it to fields

The new governor of Maryland has made a major error in allowing poultry farmers to continue applying their phosphorus-laden chicken manure on land that is already overloaded with phosphorus.
    What the chicken farmers and the governor are ignoring is scientific evidence that clearly identifies excessive levels of phosphorus in soils as the cause for phosphorus-induced trace element deficiencies, lower yields, lower nutrient values and Bay pollution.
    The smarter strategy is to grow soybeans one year then corn the next. Legumes like soybeans fix their own nitrogen and leave plenty in the ground to grow a crop of corn the following year. If this rotation were followed, farmers would only need to apply potassium when soil call for it. When the soil needs potassium, it can be added as either potassium chloride or potassium sulfate, both cheaper to apply than tons of chicken manure.
    Phosphorus is essential to plant growth. But too much causes other essential plant nutrients to bind to it, starving plant roots. Such essential trace elements as iron, zinc and copper are essential to plant growth, as are nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium and magnesium.
    In the mid 1970s I was asked by fellow University of Maryland faculty members who specialized in vegetable crops to review soil tests from fields of sweet potatoes near Salisbury. The total phosphorus levels in those soils were so high that they were reducing yields. I recommended they stop applying phosphorus and apply only nitrogen. This was a major change in culture for these farmers because they had been accustomed to applying tons of 10-10-10 before planting each season’s crop.
    So much phosphorus had been applied that it took several years with none before yields started to increase.
    In the early 1980s, rhododendron growers tried dosing their plants with lots of phosphorus to force them into flower under shade. It worked, but it also stunted growth and caused iron deficiency symptoms on the foliage. Full sun alone would have produced healthy tall plants with flowers.
    My conclusion from these and other studies is that plants do not need much phosphorus to be productive.
    Over-applying phosphorus not only leads to reduced yields and lower nutritional value. It also contributes to Bay pollution.
    Allowing farmers to make yearly applications of chicken manure on soils already saturated with phosphorus lowers yields of grain and forage crops. Since most of these farmers do not plant cover crops, their phosphorus-enriched soils erode into the Bay.
    There are other better uses for chicken manure, as compost or as a source of energy. The ornamental horticulture industry — the second largest agricultural industry in Maryland and the nation — is a ready market for quality compost. Yet Maryland has to import compost from as far as Maine to meet its needs. Maryland Environmental Services is well versed in the science and technology of making compost.
    Gov. Hogan, please encourage chicken farmers to form a co-op to manufacture and market compost.


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

Lovejoy awaits at the edge of sight

Lovejoy awaits at the edge of sight

The waning gibbous moon rises around 8pm Thursday, with Jupiter high above it. Between them is the blue-white star Regulus of Leo the lion. Sunday the moon rises around 11pm, with the white star Spica 10 degrees beneath it. As daybreak approaches Monday morning, the two are even closer together high in the southwest. That evening the moon rises just before midnight, and now it is the one trailing Spica. Before dawn Thursday the 12th, the now-crescent moon shines within 10 degrees of golden Saturn, with Antares, the red heart of Scorpius, a little farther toward the horizon.
    The waning moon leaves the evening sky bereft of its powerful glow, making these next two weeks your best chance to spot  Comet Lovejoy before it’s gone forever — or at least the next eight thousand years. The fifth magnitude comet hovers at the border of naked-eye visibility between the constellations Perseus and Andromeda.
    Binoculars will bring it into view as a faint, oblong smudge, while even a modest telescope will reveal its brighter coma and trailing tail. You might even be able to discern the green-glowing head of the comet and its blue-hued tail. These colors are a tell-tale sign of the comet’s molecular composition, the green from diatomic carbon and the blue from carbon monoxide, both being charged by interstellar ultraviolet radiation. In contrast, naked-eye comets appear white, a result of sunlight reflecting off particles of dust and debris.
    Technically titled C/2014 Q2, the comet is named after amateur astronomer Terry Lovejoy, of Australia, who discovered it last August. Lovejoy has identified four earlier comets.
    Night by night, Comet Lovejoy is inching north, from the feet of Andromeda toward the outstretched arm of Perseus. By this time next month it will be one, if not two, magnitudes dimmer and much harder to find as it heads to the outer solar system.
    Closer to home, Venus and Mars hover above the west-southwest horizon at twilight on their way to a fabulous conjunction later this month. They are maybe a half-dozen degrees apart this weekend, the size of your fist held at arm’s length. And Jupiter shines from sunset to sunrise.

Getting to the roots of woody plants

Did you know that when the stems of an oak tree are growing in the spring, the roots are not growing? Conversely, when the top of the plant has stopped growing and has stopped producing new leaves, the roots initiate growth. It’s the same with most woody plants. Most are unable to grow at both ends at the same time.
    In the spring, the stems and leaves are elongating and unfolding, while the roots are busy providing them water and nutrients. At maturity, the full-sized leaves begin sending down compounds such as carbohydrates, hormones and other metabolites used by the roots to produce new roots. In some plants, this cycle repeats itself. Many deciduous species will produce two or more flushes of top growth with brief periods of root growth. In other plants such as pine trees, there is usually only one flush of growth.
    Plants need to grow new roots because nutrients are absorbed only at the tips of roots. Nearly all nutrients are absorbed by root hairs, and these only occur on newly formed roots. As soon as new roots begin to form, the root hairs deteriorate, and that part of the root is covered with suberin, a sugar-like substance that enables the root to absorb only water.
    In other words, most of the roots of plants function as pipes, carrying nutrients and water to the stem when the tops are growing, then carrying metabolites to their own tips when roots are growing.
    This is knowledge you need to transplant trees and shrubs successfully. To assure better survival, growers root-prune plants a year or two before transplanting. To root-prune, make a circle of deep cuts at the plant’s drip line, severing the roots with a sharp spade.
    Wait until after woody plants have stopped producing new leaves in the first flush of growth. Root pruning during shoot elongation and leaf growth often results in severe wilting and loss of foliage, thus weakening the plant. Late-summer root-pruning has another advantage. More buds have formed, resulting in the maximum production of natural hormones that stimulate new roots.
    Annual plants are another story. In annuals, tops and roots grow simultaneously. This is possible because these plants have the advantage of growing only during long days and warm weather.
    Understanding root growth also helps you care for potted plants. Plants grown in containers have limited space for root growth. Keeping the plants in the same container for too long results in root-bound plants. There is no more room for roots to grow. Root-bound plants deteriorate or may flower profusely, wilt frequently and stop growing. Those are signs that it’s time to repot. When repotting, slash or tear apart the root ball to stimulate new roots to grow.

Rabbits make a fine test for hounds and hunters alike

On a cold, crisp morning, ice crinkled underfoot in the brushy field. Clear, dense air carried the clamor of some 25,000 snow geese feeding on a field a half-mile away.
    Then, over that waterfowl music, a hound’s howl broke out about 25 yards in front of me. My guess was that it was Junior, a five-year-old beagle that was part of my good friend Charles Rodney’s experienced pack of rabbit dogs.
    Seconds later, Junior’s soulful wail was joined by his four pack-mates, Slim, Copper, Lou and Jack. The sudden urgency of their baying told us that if they hadn’t seen the rabbit, its scent was red-hot.
    From the midst of the thick stuff, Charles motioned me to move out to the side and ahead to a clearing to try for a shot at the cottontail as the dogs pushed. I arrived promptly and the hounds trailed through, indicating the rabbit was well out in front of us all.
    Don Coleman, the third in our hunting party, had positioned himself a ways behind us in case the cottontail doubled back. At six-foot-five-inches, Don moved easily through the thigh-high grasses. The 83-year-old still pursues rabbits with the passion of his first hunt as a six-year-old in Beloit, Wisconsin.
    This bunny was also experienced and laid a convoluted spoor for the dogs to follow and a drama to unfold. The pack lost and found the scent as we moved along, positioning ourselves but never getting a shot. Finally, out of the corner of my eye I saw a streak of grey-brown fur break out behind Charles heading the opposite way, back into the thicker cover.
    We called out there he goes, there he goes! and moved toward openings that might allow us a shot. But the rabbit was long gone. Rallying the beagles to where we had last seen movement, we began anew.
    The rabbit now circled all the way back to where the dogs first scented him and started to lay a new trail. It takes a seasoned hound to follow the scent of an animal that has crossed over its previous path.
    We waited while the dogs untangled the route, repositioning ourselves from time to time to intercept the wily animal. A disturbed rabbit will run quite a distance, but it is generally hesitant to leave its home territory and tends to circle back. This one had been running about in a 200-by-300-yard swath of cover. We intended to keep it there. If it broke out, it would most likely head for a groundhog hole, and we would lose it.
    Charles, the hunt leader and youngster of our party at 64 (I’m 72), was relentless in powering through the thicker areas along the rabbit’s path to ensure it hadn’t jumped aside and sat. Constantly encouraging his beagles, he directed Don and me to new positions as the dogs moved the rabbit (or the rabbit moved the dogs) through one area and into another.
    At the half-hour mark, the cottontail made a mistake. It hadn’t seen Don move to a new position at the edge of the field and almost blundered into him. Then streaking back into heavy brush, it broke out in front of me. Don and I both had a safe line at it — but only for an instant. Shots echoed out but the rabbit vanished back into the high grass.
    Running to where the cottontail had disappeared, I found only some tufts of fur. It was hit but still on the move. The dogs caught up and continued trailing the rabbit as I followed in hope that it would be lying somewhere nearby. Within about 100 feet, the pack stopped baying and started milling.
    As I neared, Junior emerged from the grass with a furry parcel in his mouth. I accepted the dog’s offering, held it up high and called out we got it! Don and Charles closed on us to congratulate the hounds.
    We had four more chases that morning, each nearly as intense as the first, with only one trickster giving the dogs and us the slip.

Can you spot the naked-eye five?

As the sun sets, look to the southwest for Venus. With a clear view of the horizon, you might spy Mercury below and to the right of Venus at week’s end, but the innermost planet’s viewing days are numbered. Roughly 15 degrees above Venus, look for the ruddy glow of Mars.
    Thursday and Friday evening the thin crescent moon joins the throng, somewhat between Venus and Mars the first night and above Mars, forming a horizontal line with Venus the next. Venus sets within an hour of the sun, while Mars sets around 8pm. But night by night, Venus is gaining about a minute of visibility, closing the gap with Mars in the process and leading to a conjunction of the two later next month.
    As these twilight planets set in the west, another rises in the east. Jupiter is hard to miss, as it is the brightest object in that part of the sky. By 9pm it is high in the east, at midnight is near the celestial zenith, and as dawn nears it is ablaze above the west horizon. A dozen degrees below the giant planet is fainter Regulus, which marks the dot of what looks like a backwards question mark. This asterism is called the Sickle of Leo and makes up the head of the larger constellation Leo the lion. A triangle of stars to the left of the sickle marks the lion’s haunches, the brightest being Denebola, which in Arabic means the lion’s tail.
    Saturn rises in the wee hours of the morning, and by 6am it is well-placed in the southeast. Its rings are tilted our way so that they stand out against the planet’s surface when viewed with even a small telescope. Saturn sits at the head of the constellation Scorpius, with its red heart Antares 10 degrees below the planet and the creature’s body trailing away toward the horizon.
    The moon waxes to first-quarter phase Monday, when it is almost directly overhead at sunset. Wednesday after sunset it is just a few degrees above and to the left of Aldebaran, the glaring eye of Taurus the bull, and the Hyades star cluster. Higher still are the stars of the Pleiades cluster, the Seven Sisters. While the moon’s light may make both clusters appear as fuzzy spots, simple binoculars will reveal many distinct stars in each.

The underground story

Did you know that your bare garden soil is losing its nutrients to winter?
    That’s just what’s happening in your vegetable garden unless you planted a cover crop last fall. And in your flower garden, unless it’s planted with perennials or woody plants.
    Here’s the underground story.
    During the growing season, plants do not utilize all soil nutrients, whether applied as fertilizers or released from animal manures or compost. Nutrients such as nitrogen, potassium, magnesium and boron, to name a few, are quite soluble. Unless they are absorbed by roots of plants, they leach downwards into the water table, into streams and eventually into the Bay.
    A good garden soil is biologically active all year long except when soil temperatures drop below 34 degrees. At that temperature microbial activity stops, nutrients are not as soluble and most things stay in place. However, as you penetrate deeper in the soil, temperature rise and nutrients that have penetrated to that depth continue to leach downwards. Thus you want all soluble nutrients to be absorbed by roots before they seep too deep where roots do not penetrate.
    The physical movement of soil particles during periods of freezing and thawing causes soil particles to move about, creating crevices, thus facilitating the downward movement of soil particles as well as nutrients in solution. Established roots help to stabilize soil and prevent particles from either blowing away in drought or washing away through erosion. Both cover crops and perennials absorb available nutrients. When the cover crop is plowed or rototilled under in the spring, its roots, stems and leaves will decompose, and those nutrients, like compost, will be slowly released in the soil.
    While soil temperatures are above freezing, roots are absorbing nutrients. Roots of some species are capable of growing in soil temperatures as low as 36 degrees. Roots can grow all winter as long as the soil does not freeze. Unlike the top of plants, which stop growing when they begin to go dormant in late August and early September, roots continue to grow and absorb nutrients and water.
    I tested this concept in the mid 1970s by transplanting young dogwoods between the greenhouses at the University of Maryland in College Park. Half of the dogwoods were transplanted above a buried steam pipe. Snow there never lasted more than a few days, while between adjoining greenhouse the snow stayed in place. In the spring, I dug up the dogwoods in each area. The root system of the trees where the snow melted rapidly were two to tree times bigger and more fibrous than the roots of the dogwood trees from where the snow remained and were then five to six times larger.
    Never allow land to remain fallow without vegetation. Keeping the soil covered with growing plants not only protects the Bay but also maintains biologically productive soil for you to grow crops. Nutrients belong in the soil and not in the Bay.


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