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The waterfowl hunter is a different sort of man — or woman

The sound of a half dozen rapid shots followed by a pause, then two or three more measured reports rolled in from the nearby Magothy River. I was drinking my first coffee that morning, still in my bathrobe and looking out the front window when I heard the gunfire. It was bitter cold, windy, overcast and an altogether miserable morning. The duck hunters must be in heaven, I thought.
    Foul winter weather drives migrating waterfowl down the Atlantic Coast. It also moves birds that have already arrived off open wind-riven waters to seek shelter and food along the shoreline coves and the tributaries. That’s where these specialized hunters wait, crouching in blinds or shivering in layout boats next to scores of decoys, fingering long, slender shotguns and waiting for their quarry to be attracted into range.
    Waterfowl hunters are not like normal people. During duck and goose seasons, spates of sunny days and moderate temperatures send them into irritable funks. Forecasts of storm warnings and gusting winds, snow or rain, overcast skies and plunging thermometers cheer them and lighten their step.
    Waterfowling is a sport only for the hardy, those inured to harsh, frigid conditions and ready to expend any amount of effort in preparing for their sport. They must also be immune to long days of inaction, for experienced gunners know well that often the birds do not come to the hunter.
    The sport requires specialized hard-weather clothing, tough waterproof coats and trousers with heavily insulated cores. All come in camouflage patterns designed to make the wearer as inconspicuous as possible to the migrating ducks and geese. Those birds have virtually telescopic vision.
    It takes strength and good physical condition because gunning the Chesapeake requires an inordinate amount of hard labor. Preparing blinds and duck boats, lugging any number of decoys, setting them out before sunrise and carrying bags of gear: That kind of effort will raise a sweat and exhaust many before the first shot is even fired.
    Challenges are often extreme. The hardy, long-traveling, powerful birds that test these gunners do not seem bound by the normal physics of flight.
    I remember gunning many years ago on Lake Erie. I was in a layout boat behind four-dozen decoys on a blustery day inside Presque Isle Bay. A string of a dozen canvasbacks had plummeted in from on high. I rose up to lead the first duck by at least a half-dozen feet. My shot struck the water just behind the trailing duck as they flew off. If those geese weren’t exceeding 100 miles an hour, I’ll eat my hat and yours as well.
    In spite of the challenges, this sport has long had a hard corps of dedicated practitioners. And make no mistake, it isn’t strictly a man’s sport. That shouldn’t surprise anyone, especially these days, when the women in our military are earning Army Ranger badges and queuing up to compete for the most exclusive areas of Special Forces.
    Woman or man, the waterfowl hunter is a different sort of individual.

The Great Winter Circle beckons

The cold crisp air that might otherwise keep you inside provides some of the clearest and darkest skies of the year, so even with this week’s bright moon, some major stars and constellations stand out against its glare.
    Sunset Thursday finds the near-full moon high in the east, between Betelgeuse, the shoulder of Orion, below, and the twins of Gemini, Pollux and Castor, above. From these two stars wends the stars the Great Winter Circle, more aptly called the Great Winter Hexagon, which contains seven of the 23 brightest stars.
    To trace this asterism, begin with blueish-white Pollux (17), then look to honey-orange Castor (23) higher in the north. From there shoot to the northeast to golden Capella (6) of the constellation Auriga the charioteer. Next, drop southwest to red Aldebaran (14), the eye of Taurus the bull. Now shift your gaze to Orion’s foot, blue-white Rigel (7). Farther south is the hunter’s great dog, Canis Major, marked by Sirius, the brightest star in the heavens. Back to the northeast you’ll find the Little Dog Canis Minor and its lead star Procyon (8). Return to Pollux and you’ve closed the loop. While not part of the circle, Betelgeuse sits right in the middle and is the 10th brightest star.
    As the sun sets Saturday, January’s full Wolf Moon climbs into the eastern sky, trailing Castor and Pollux and to the left of Procyon. By Monday the now-waning gibbous moon has left behind the Great Circle and is just a few degrees to the south of another stellar luminary, Regulus (21), the heart of Leo the lion. Tuesday the moon is midway between Regulus to the west and Jupiter to the east. Wednesday night through dawn next Thursday, the moon is 10 degrees below Jupiter.
    Brighter than any star, Jupiter rises due east just after 9pm and is at its highest in the south at 3am. By that time Mars, rising around 1:30am, will be well above the southeast horizon. Saturn rises just after 4am, followed 90 minutes later by Venus, brighter than all but the sun and moon. Saturn and Venus are about 15 degrees apart, but the Morning Star sinks lower day by day while Saturn inches higher. As the coming sun starts to glow in the east, see if you can spot Mercury low against the horizon; binoculars may help spot this last of the naked-eye planets.

Give them light, but go easy on water and fertilizer

In winter’s short daylight hours and cooler temperatures, houseplants require less watering and fertilizing. But they don’t want to be neglected. In winter and early spring, give plants as much light as possible. Even placing them near a lit lamp during evening hours will help considerably in keeping good health. Incandescent bulbs consume more energy, but because they emit red light waves that can be absorbed by the chlorophyll in the leaves, they are better for plants than LED or florescent bulbs.
    Fertilize at least monthly at half concentration. Follow the watering rule when you apply liquid fertilizer, adding enough water so that some drains from the bottom of the container.
    Poor watering is a problem I see often in troubled houseplants. Frequently, only the upper half of the root ball appears to have been watered. The lower half is as dry as the Sahara Desert.  Often, there is a visible line of fertilizer salts accumulating between the wet and dry regions with concentrations sufficient to burn roots in the fertilizer zone.
    Never apply slow-release fertilizers in fall or winter, as they are engineered to release their nutrients during active growth. Adding slow-release fertilizers now will likely cause fertilizer burn as they release nutrients faster because the soil is constantly at room temperature during this period of low light intensity and poor growing conditions.
    Don’t put African violets near a window. African violets perform best in diffused light and near-constant temperatures. In windows, the plants are exposed to cooler temperatures in the evening and warmer temperatures during daylight hours. Unlike many plants that would benefit from such a temperature change, African violets will cease to flower and may even exhibit cold damage on the foliage. Place them in the middle of a well-lighted room for more constant temperatures.


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

Bird watching, fishing and hunting are all in season

Late January can be a great time for outdoor lovers, including bird watchers and waterfowl hunters. The arrival of colder weather has encouraged migrating waterfowl to finally head our way along the Atlantic Flyway. The Ches­apeake and its tributaries are ideal resting and feeding areas where these birds will linger, at least until additional foul weather convinces them to continue to warmer climes. Some will eventually travel as far as Mexico.
    Now’s the time to see some 250 species of migrating birds and waterfowl including tundra swans, snow geese, Canada geese, loons, wood ducks, canvasback ducks, widgeons, mallards, black ducks, golden eyes, buffleheads, old squaws and eiders.
    Great sites for viewing (and in some cases, hunting) these visitors are parks and refuges including Blackwater Wildlife Refuge (near Cambridge), Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge (near Rock Hall), Elk Neck State Park (near North East) and Wye Island Natural Resources Management Area (near Queenstown).
    Small-game hunters seeking a clever but tasty animal will find this is one of the best months for success in hunting Maryland’s prolific gray squirrel. Despite being sought by owls, hawks, weasels, foxes, coyotes and the like, the gray squirrel has continued to expand its range and numbers.
    Its wily nature in the forest can make it a difficult animal for hunters to approach. However, mid-January marks the beginning of the mating season, and romantic inclinations make them especially active. With the trees clear of foliage, squirrels are more vulnerable to quietly moving hunters than at any other time of the year.
    Squirrel meat was the primary wild game in the original Brunswick Stew (cooks.com/recipe/5h5f08i5/brunswick-stew.html) that fed Colonial America during the wintertime for nearly a century until the forests were eventually cleared and other game species (and domestic animals) became more numerous. Our state game management areas are ideal places to seek out this cautious but delicious critter. Try the DNR website http://tinyurl.com/MD-DNR-wildlife for more information.
    Anglers on the Chesapeake haven’t for quite some time had a winter rockfish catch-and-release season like the one now going on at Point Lookout at the mouth of the Potomac River. The Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel has also been having a good run, the best in the last few years, and there you can keep one fish over 28 inches.
    Crappie are schooling, as are yellow perch, and both should become available in the very near future as they begin to spawn, especially short warming spells continue. Six- to seven-foot medium-action spinning rods with six- to 10-pound mono are ideal for both of these delicious creatures. Best baits are minnows, grass shrimp, bloodworms, earthworms and wax worms, in that order. Fish them on a shad dart under a bobber or on a high-low rig on the bottom. Target along the shorelines at the high tides or the deeper channels during the low phases. Crappie and perch both like to hang out around submerged bushes and trees.
    Chain pickerel are probably the most reliable and aggressive game fish in both fresh and salt water in mid-January and into February. These fish seem to be energized by the colder weather. A toothy fish that can easily reach 24 inches (citation size), the pickerel likes to ambush its prey and can be usually found lurking around downed trees (laydowns), piers and docks (the older the better), floating rafts of leaves and debris and rock jetties. They will also follow the schools of yellow perch that are moving up to spawn in tributary headwaters.
    Hikers along the Bay’s shoreline should keep an eye out for the graceful lion’s mane jellyfish that show up in good numbers this time of year. Large brownish creatures of five pounds or more each, they are clearly visible on calm days pulsating along the clearer waters of the wintertime Chesapeake.

What will happen come May?

Cherry trees starting to bloom, tulip and narcissus bulbs sprouting foliage and forsythia starting to show yellow. The record-high December temperatures are raising questions about many plants. Hardly a week passes without concerned neighbors or Bay Weekly readers questioning me. My answer thus far has been to leave things alone and wait to see what happens in the spring.
    Some things are certain. Flowering cherry trees and forsythia will have fewer flowers come spring. Tulip and narcissus foliage will most likely grow very tall, if the winter low temperatures are not severe. If they are, it will be killed to the ground, and new foliage will replace it.   
    Unless normal winter temperatures come soon, apple, plum, peach, pear and cherry trees may not produce a normal crop. Such species must be exposed to temperatures between 40 and 32 degrees for 100-plus hours for their flowers to open and be pollinated in spring. These low-temperature requirements are called stratification; unless they are achieved, neither flower nor vegetative buds will develop normally.
    Plant growth this spring will be erratic. There will be more lateral than terminal growth. Narrow-leaf evergreen plants such as pine, spruce and fir trees will appear fatter and not grow as tall. Deciduous trees such as maple, oak and birch will often have long terminal stems and few side shoots.
    However, there have been many benefits to this warmer-than-normal December. We’ve all had lower heating cost. Gardeners who planted fall crops such as kale, broccoli, cauliflower, collards, turnips, Brussels sprouts, rutabaga and spinach have harvested bumper harvests. The broccoli has been extremely tender and has produced an abundance of large side shoots. Cauliflower heads have been eight to 10 inches in diameter and extremely tender. Kale and collard have not stopped growing tender, new, young leaves, and some of the rutabaga has produced bulbous roots four to six inches in diameter.
    If you planted garlic in the fall, you should have leaves 10 to 12 inches tall. If you mulched them well with compost, you will be harvesting nice big bulbs come June. From the looks of my elephant garlic plants, I anticipate one heck of a harvest come July.
    It will be an interesting spring to observe some of the effects of climate change on our native and introduced plants.


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

Watch the moon occult Aldebaran

As the sun sets, the hourglass shape of the great hunter Orion is already well positioned in the southeast. His foot, blue-white Rigel, is to the lower right, while his shoulder, red-orange Betelgeuse, is at the opposite corner to the upper left. The three stars of Orion’s belt point almost straight up from the horizon, and following them up and to the right leads you to Taurus the bull.
    Most prominent in Taurus is its fiery eye, the orange-red star Aldebaran. From there look for the bull’s face, marked by the V-shaped Hyades star cluster. Aldebaran is at one leg of the V, although not itself a part of the Hyades. Higher to the right marking the bull’s shoulder is the Pleiades Cluster.
    Monday the waxing gibbous moon sits at one point of a triangle with Aldebaran and the Pleiades, although you may be hard-pressed to spot the cluster against the glare of the moon.
    Tuesday after sunset look for the moon just right of Aldebaran and the Hyades Cluster. Then, just before 9:30, watch as the moon passes over the bull’s fiery eye, occulting it from view for almost an hour.
    In the hour before sunrise, clear skies in the southeast should allow you to see the four naked-eye planets currently visible. Closest to the horizon are Venus and Saturn. There should be no mistaking Venus, blazing at –4 magnitude. Saturn, roughly 10 degrees higher, is more than 60 times dimmer at magnitude +0.5. Don’t confuse Saturn with the nearby star Antares; the ringed planet shines with a steady yellowish glow, while the not-quite-so-bright star twinkles with a red hue. Antares, Saturn and Venus do, however, form a nice triangle.
    Imagine a line from Venus to Saturn, and extend it another 20 degrees or so to find Mars and farther still for Jupiter. Mars is not as bright as Saturn, while Jupiter is the next-brightest starlike object after Venus. You should be able to tell both from blue-white Spica a dozen degrees above Mars.
    You might be able to spot the last the naked-eye planet, Mercury, as early as Wednesday if you’re lucky. It will be even lower than Venus in the glow of the coming sun. You’ll likely need to scour the horizon with binoculars to first see this fleeting planet, which will present an easier target next week.

When you can’t fish, practice casting

Looking out my front window on a beautiful January morning, I could see that the sun was shining brightly and the wind calm. My eyes settled on the skiff in the driveway, covered with its blue winter-weather blanket. I mused that with a little effort I could pull the cover, hook up the trailer and be on the water inside of 20 minutes. Then I mentioned the thought to Deborah, my long-suffering wife.
    “Great idea,” she said. “It’s all the way up to 35 degrees, and while you’re out there you might help DNR look for the guy that fell overboard near the Bay Bridge the other day. They haven‘t found him yet.”
    “I wasn’t serious,” I countered, “just wishing.”
    The real situation was that I was still recovering from abdominal surgery in early December and forbidden by doctor’s orders from activities that involved lifting anything heavier than a six-pack for at least three more weeks. Launching a boat was out of the question, and springtime had never seemed so far away.
    I reminded myself that the next best thing to fishing was playing with fishing tackle, and I had made promises to myself last season to improve a number of skills. One was my casting accuracy. Lawn casting is a low-impact exercise that would get me out of the house and keep me active.
    I especially needed to work on placing a bait under piers and docks where perch and rockfish hold during warmer months to beat the heat of the climbing sun.
    I had once thought that the fish moved from shallow-water structures to deeper water as the sun rose, especially with a falling tide. However, an accomplished skinny-water angler named Woody Tillery dispelled that idea. Woody’s strategy was based on his experience that, as the sun rose, the fish felt exposed and so tended to congregate in the cooler shaded areas under the piers and docks. The shade rendered the fish mostly invisible to marauding osprey and herons.
    Anglers, however, could cast into those shady refuges as the water level under the structures fell.
    Using that strategy, Woody’s score of white perch was impressive and often included a surprising number of keeper rockfish. It was quite a revelation at the time.
    But I found that method of casting was far from an easy task. An angler needs to practice to become adept, and that is not an on-the-water project. It is an old angling axiom that you can either fish or practice casting, but you can’t do both at the same time.
    I addressed my accuracy issue by constructing light, easily transportable ersatz dock structure with some PVC plumbing pipe and fixtures. Setting up the apparatus on the lawn or a parking lot, I practice casting to and under the target. It’s challenging. The wrist snap necessary to keep the lure trajectory low and accurate is not simple. However, I expect the practice to pay off once I’m back on the water.
    Other techniques for working under or close to these types of structure include flipping, skipping, pitching and shooting. All can be practiced on that same apparatus and are demonstrated in a number of YouTube videos (search on fishing docks). I plan on upping my score considerably next spring by this expansion of my angling repertoire.

The gods do not subtract from an allotted lifespan the hours spent fishing

There is hardly any human activity more restorative, calming, comforting and just plain relaxing than a day on the water attempting to convince a fish to bite your line.
    Lots of popular recreational activities offer competition, strenuous exercise, adrenaline surges and challenge. Fishing promises quiet contemplation, fine scenery and communion with nature — with the outside chance of scoring a healthy meal.
    It is not a particularly strenuous sport. Other than casting out your bait or lure, most of your time and attention is spent waiting for the fish to decide whether or not to eat it. That pretty much puts any pressure for success directly in the hands — or fins — of the fish, leaving your mind free to wander.
    Search the word fishing online, and you’ll get over a half-billion hits. The next most popular sport, golfing, scores scarcely five percent of that number. Not bad for a game that simply requires at its most basic, a pole, some string, a hook and a worm and a good-looking piece of water.
    Children take to fishing like few other activities, which is proof positive of its basically pure and simple nature. Older men revel in its intricacies and total absorption of the self. As the novelist Thomas McGuane said, “Angling is extremely time consuming. That’s sort of the whole point.”
    I have devoted a great portion of my life to chasing fish and have never regretted a single moment. In fact, I’m a firm believer in the adage, You can never fish too much; it just can’t be done.
    One of America’s favorite sons, the author and naturalist Henry David Thoreau, is often credited with saying, “Many men go fishing their whole lives without ever realizing that it isn’t the fish they are after.” That may be the reason that the sport is so consuming and restive. It gives opportunity for philosophical reflection without the actual decision to indulge in such highbrow activity.
    I’ve never slept better than after a day on the water; that alone is an important thing in this fast-paced civilization that we’ve created. Now more than ever, our health and well-being depend on finding ways to relax and take in life.
    The secret of a happy and content life: The best time to go fishing is whenever you can.

A healthy garden for a healthy life

Gardening is the most popular of all hobbies, and for good reason. Gardening gives you hours of relaxation and great satisfaction. It is good exercise. It forces you to go outside, bringing you closer to nature. It can be enjoyed by all ages. Getting children interested in gardening can have life-long consequences. On the other hand, you are never too old to start.
    Dorothy Frances Gurney, a poet of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, says it all in God’s Garden:
    The kiss of the sun for pardon;
    The song of the birds for mirth;
    One is nearer God’s heart in the garden;
    Than anywhere else on earth.
     In Maryland, ornamental horticulture is the second largest agriculture income-producing industry. In the U.S., it ranks third. Its popularity increases as we learn more about horticultural therapy and the benefits gained from eating fresh fruits and vegetables, especially growing your own. Organic gardening has also attracted many into the field.
    Gardens can range in scope from a few potted plants to flowers and herbs to vegetable gardens to an entire landscape. Whatever it’s size, your garden — and satisfaction — will thrive if you recognize that gardening is a science. Many problems can be avoided by following proven practices and by applying the knowledge gained by controlled scientific studies.
    As you imagine your garden over winter, keep a few of those proven practices in mind. Vegetables, fruits, many annual flowers and ornamentals want sun, so locate your garden where it will receive full sun. Nothing — not fertilizers, compost nor pruning practices — can substitute for full rays from the sun.
    Consider your soil, as well. Very few horticultural plants can grow in poorly drained soils. Acid or very alkaline soils are also factors, as many species have very particular preferences.
    Nutrition is as important to the success of growing plants as a proper diet is for our wellbeing. The benefits of organic matter not only include nutrients but also improved soil potential. Chemical fertilizers cannot always substitute equal benefits.


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

Turns out the jolly old elf is a ­gardener himself

T’was the night before Christmas and all through the yard
The branches were bare and the ground frozen hard.

The roses were dormant and mulched all around;
To protect them from damage if frost heaves the ground.

The perennials were nestled all snug in their beds
While visions of compost danced in their heads.

The new-planted shrubs had been soaked by the hose
To settle their roots for the long ­winter’s doze.

And out on the lawn, the new fallen snow
Protected the roots of the grasses below.

When what to my wondering eyes should appear
But a truck full of gifts, and all ­gardening gear.

Saint Nick was the driver — the jolly old elf —
And he winked as he said, “I’m a ­gardener myself.

I’ve brought Wilt-Pruf, Rootone and gibberellin, too —
Father can try them and see what they do.

To help with the weeding I’ve brought a Weed-Bandit
And to battle the bugs a floating blanket.

To seed your new lawn, I’ve a patented sower.
In case it should grow, here’s a new power mower.

For seed-planting days, I’ve a trowel and a dibble
And a role of mesh wire if the rabbits should nibble.

For the feminine gardener, some gadgets she loves
Plant stakes, a sprinkler and waterproof gloves.

A fungus agent for her compost pit
And for pH detecting, a soil-testing kit.

With these colorful flagstones, lay a new garden path
For the kids to enjoy, a bird feeder and bath.

And last but not least, some well-rotted manure.
A green Christmas year round these gifts will ensure.”

Then jolly St. Nick, having emptied his load,
Started his truck and took to the road.

And I heard him exclaim through the motor’s loud hum;
“Merry Christmas to all, and to all a green thumb.”

–An anonymous gardener’s  take on Clement Clarke Moore’s 1823 classic