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If it’s looking like a curled wood saw, it’s time for a new one

While walking close to the stern of my trailered boat in the drive yesterday morning, I felt a tug. My pant leg had hung up on the outboard’s prop, and for good reason. The edge of the offending blade looked like a curled wood saw.
    Fishing shallow water has its rewards, but it can be hard on boat propellers.
    You’re sometimes navigating where your skiff’s propeller is pushing through sand, silt or worse. You are inevitably going to hit a rock or two, possibly even a boulder.
    If you have a stainless steel prop on your outboard, you must be eternally cautious or have deep pockets. Stainless is expensive and doesn’t easily bend or deflect. While superb for deep-water cruising, stainless props will fracture, or fail when encountering rocks of size.
    Aluminum props are much more forgiving, bending and deflecting from collisions with the hard stuff in the shallows. My propellers for the last few decades have been aluminum for just that reason. Though they can eventually lose their operating efficiency when the blades become too rough or misshapen, replacing them is rather simple.

Know Your Propeller
    Next to the horsepower and torque of the motor itself, the propeller is the most critical link to moving through the water. The propeller and its shape determine, among other things, your top speed, fuel economy and how promptly your craft comes up on plane.
    An outboard prop’s performance essentials are identified by the numbers inscribed on the hub of the prop (which means you have to take the propeller off to determine what they are). These numbers indicate pitch (how far the prop theoretically drives through the water in one revolution, measured in inches) and the prop’s diameter (also in inches). It should also denote the direction of rotation (usually right or clockwise).
    If you are pleased by the past performance of your propeller and merely intend to restore lost efficiency (caused by dents, gouges and misshapen blades), purchase a new one with the same pitch, diameter and rotation direction as your original.
    At propeller-changing time, you can also modify any aspect of your craft’s general on-the-water performance. Choosing less pitch, or a slightly smaller diameter for your new prop can likely generate higher RPMs (engine speed) and a greater WOT (wide open throttle) speed. Expect, though, that the change (as long as the RPM increase is within the safe range of the engine’s specs) may also result in your craft coming up on plane a bit more slowly.
    If you are a shallow-depth dervish intending to cruise the shoalwaters and wanting your skiff to jump up on plane faster, choose a greater pitch or a bit larger diameter prop, recognizing you may lose a little top-end speed.
    One caveat: It is impossible to predict exactly how a different prop will affect your boat’s performance on the water. So when you decide to try a new setup, exercise care in unpacking, installing and running the new unit. If it doesn’t perform as you wish and the parts (and packaging) are still in new condition, you can return it in exchange for another better suited to your needs.
    Don’t discard a banged-up prop. It can come in handy as a backup. If you’re handy and have a hammer and a butane torch, you might restore a dinged aluminum unit to useful condition.

11 minutes a year can really add up

The moon wanes through late-night and early-morning skies this week, reaching last quarter Tuesday. The moon rises Thursday around 9pm, with the bright star Spica trailing about 10 degrees behind. Far to the west of the moon is Jupiter, the next-brightest object. Friday night Spica rises ahead of the moon, but now the two are less than five degrees apart.
    The moon rises just before midnight Sunday followed only minutes later by the red planet Mars, roughly five degrees to the southeast. As sunrise approaches Monday you’ll find them high in the south.
    The moon rises around 1am Tuesday, and now it’s six degrees to the left of Mars. Another red light, Antares, the heart of Scorpius, shines to the moon’s lower left, and it, the moon and Mars form a tight triangle. Ten degrees east of the moon is golden Saturn. The moon and Saturn are spectacular Wednesday before dawn, with the moon just two degrees above ­Saturn.
    Venus still glimmers low above the southeast horizon in the half-hour before daybreak. You may even spot Mercury lower still, though you may need binoculars.
    Monday marks Leap Day, that time every four years when we recalibrate our calendars to celestial time. You see, it takes the earth a little more than 365 days to orbit the sun, so we add a 366th day on each Leap Year to keep things in synch. You might think that Leap Year is a modern development. In fact, it was first enacted by Julius Caesar more than 2,000 years ago.
    Those early astronomers were able to track the earth’s annual passage around the sun to within 11 minutes — pretty good considering the telescope would not come along for another 1,400 years. While 11 minutes may seem insignificant over a typical year’s 525,600 minutes, it adds up to a full day every 130 years. By the 1500s, the vernal equinox fell on March 11 rather than the 21st.
    Enter Pope Gregory XIII, who in 1582 wiped from that year the days of October 4th through 15th. Further, he ordained that Leap Years would continue in years divisible by four except those ending in 00 — unless those 00 years were themselves divisible by 400. So back in 2000 we observed Leap Year, but in the year 2100 we will not. This reduces the difference between a solar year and our calendar year to 26 seconds, one day every 3,000 years!
    Again, pretty accurate computations at a time when the abacus was the most advanced mathematical instrument.

Put yourself in its place

Oh, the stories I’ve heard of abuse to cactus. I’ve spent many afternoons and evenings in plant clinics where people wheel in large barrel or drum cacti with decaying centers. Often water was oozing from the bottom where it had begun to rot. One elderly lady arrived in a chauffeured limousine. She sent the chauffeur inside to bring me out to examine her plant, a three-foot-tall Saguaro cactus. Before she would allow me to examine her cactus, she requested my credentials.
    My first question to her, and to the other cacti owners I advised, was where the plant was kept at home. Most often, I was told, in the middle of the living room.
    Where do cacti grow? The desert.
    Cacti growing as houseplants need to reside in an area with full sun.
    Cacti are succulents and store large amounts of water in their cells. Because the epidermal layer is thick between the spikes and covered with a chitin like material, they lose little water by evaporation. In the home, most cacti should not be watered more than once a month and should only be fed with a liquid fertilizer once a year.
    They’ll need repotting every four to five years. The soil can be made by blending 10 percent garden soil with 90 percent sandbox or builders sand. To each cubic foot of cacti soil, add one-half cup of agricultural limestone and blend thoroughly. Heat garden soil at 200 degrees for one hour to kill weeds, insects and worms or grubs.
    Because most cacti have sharp spines, they are dangerous. To handle them, crumble many sheets of newspaper into large, tight balls. Put the paper balls over the spines, pressing firmly into place until you can no longer feel the sharp ends.
    To remove a cactus from its pot, slide a long sharp knife along the inner side the container and the root ball. Tip the container on its side and slide out the root ball. If the root ball does not slide easily, strike the bottom of the container with a rubber hammer or with a two-inch-thick board cushioning a carpentry hammer to prevent breakage.
    The new container should be at least three inches larger in diameter than the old and one to two inches deeper. Measure the depth of the original root ball and add soil to raise the top of the root ball to within one inch from the top of the pot. Stand the plant upright and lift into the middle of the new container. Wear thick gloves and get your hold on paper, not spikes. Use your repotting mix to partially fill the space between the root ball and the wall of the new container. Then wash the new soil into place with a steady stream of water. Add more prepared soil and water until the new soil is level with the top of the root ball.
    For large cacti, repotting will require several hours of intensive labor.


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

Yellow perch break winter’s fast

Things are looking up for Maryland anglers when the first runs of yellow perch are reported. Also called ring perch, neds or yellow neds, they are the first Tidewater fish to respond to spawning urges. Leaving their wintering grounds, they will now break up into small schools and migrate toward fresher tributary headwaters to lay eggs and reproduce.
    Waysons Corner where Rt. 4 crosses the Patuxent River is usually the place yellows first appear in our neck of the woods, and this year is no different. The run there started a week or so ago and is growing. Fish up to 12 inches are being taken, but with a nine-inch minimum size and a 10-count possession limit there can be lots of throwbacks.
    Other places will soon see these fish. Maryland Department of Natural Resoures lists some 40 springtime yellow perch fishing spots on its website: dnr2.maryland.gov/fisheries/Pages.
    You might not find them the first or second try, so don’t hesitate to change locations. But if you are persistent, you will score the first fresh fish dinner of the new year — and it will be a good one.
    The migrating schools of perch tend to move up the rivers and streams on the incoming tide, retreating to deeper water as the tide reverses. The best shoreline bite is usually some phase of that high tide. Focus on the brushy shorelines, especially near downed trees, bushes and sunken debris. During low water, try channels and deep pools.
    Small male yellow perch move up the tributaries first, the larger males arriving a bit later. Both remain upriver and near spawning sites as long as females keep coming. The roe-bearing females show on their own immutable schedule and then leave soon after they spew their eggs. Yellow neds also live in most freshwater impoundments throughout Maryland and feel the same springtime spawning urge.
    Yellow perch exude their roe in accordion-like sacks designed to foul on any submerged structure, holding the roe suspended. The eggs hatch in 10 to 25 days.

Fishing Yellow
    Five- to seven-foot light or medium spin rods work well this time of year. Reels should be spooled with fresh four- to 10-pound test monofilament. Small hooks are generally best, with a No. 2 the largest for this time of year.
    Low water temperatures will limit the success of artificial lures, as this time of year most fish locate their food by scent rather than sight, and perch are no exception. Present fresh bait such as minnows, grass shrimp, bloodworms, earthworms, wax worms and butter worms on hi-low rigs. Use a sinker in deeper water and shad darts suspended under a bobber in the shallower areas.
    When fishing bobber-suspended baits, cast out and pop the bait slowly back to create sound and constant motion.
    I’ve had good results with a tandem rig with a gold No. 12 Tony Accetta spoon and a lip-hooked minnow on the long leg and a bright colored 1⁄8-ounce shad dart dressed with a grass shrimp or a bit of worm on the shorter leg. Casting this rig out to likely areas and slowly working it back will almost always draw strikes when yellow perch are around. It has the additional advantage of enticing any pickerel lurking about.
    When you locate perch in deeper water they will usually remain concentrated in that area for some time. But the neds in warmer shallow water are generally in spawning mode and constantly moving. As females begin to exude their egg sacks, groups of males follow them, bumping their sides and exuding milt to fertilize the eggs.
    Gravid females appear to be the meatiest of the perch, but most of their physical bulk is made up of the eggs. It is better to keep the legal, slimmer males and release the egg-bearing females to contribute to next year’s population.

Look for them together from dusk Tuesday to dawn Wednesday

Sunset Thursday and Friday finds the waxing moon high overhead in the company of Gemini’s Castor and Pollux above, Canis Minor’s Procyon below and Orion’s Betelgeuse off to the west. Come Saturday the moon is in the constellation Cancer, too faint to compete against lunar glare.
    Come Sunday, the moon has a new companion, the bright star Regulus trailing a dozen degrees behind. The brightest star in Leo, Regulus is also part of the asterism called the Sickle of Leo, which looks like a backward question mark, the star marking the dot at the bottom.
    Monday’s full moon — the Snow Moon and the Hunger Moon — trails Regulus, while bright Jupiter follows the moon by roughly the same distance. Finally, Tuesday evening the moon and Jupiter are within two degrees of each another, appearing as a tight pair until sunrise.
    Just two weeks shy of opposition, Jupiter is at its best and brightest, rising in the east around 7:30pm and shining high in the south at 1:30am and brilliant above the western horizon at dawn.
    Dawn highlights the other four naked-eye planets. Mars rises around 1:30am, and by 6am it is high in the south. The red planet is just beyond the head of Scorpius, and it is 15 degrees from the scorpion’s red heart, the bright star Antares, whose name means Rival of Mars. You’ll have ample time to compare them in coming weeks as Mars drifts closer to Antares.
    Contrast that to golden Saturn to the east, creating a skewed triangle with Antares and Mars. You’ll find the ringed planet in the southeastern sky as dawn begins to brighten the horizon.
    Venus and Mercury rise just before dawn. Venus blazes brighter than all but the sun and moon, and Mercury, just a few degrees lower, shines at a respectable magnitude –0.1); even so, you’ll need an unobstructed view of the east-southeast horizon and likely binoculars to spot them.

Be ready for fish with the year’s most appealing lures

High winds, dark days and 20-degree temperatures have limited anglers’ choices this ugly February. Enforced home time is just what you need to prepare for next season.
    Among good news last season was the appearance of vast schools of schoolie rockfish. Many proved under the 20-inch minimum size, meaning many will have grown fat and legal by the time fishing blossoms again.
    Be ready for these coming-of-age fish with the most appealing lures. You won’t want to see nearby anglers scoring cast after cast while your offerings are getting only minimal acceptance.
    On a quick and casual survey of tackle shops around the Chesapeake, I made a list of lures that should produce as the 2016 rockfish season commences on the Tidewater.
    An eclectic enterprise on Kent Island that prides itself on being first in identifying new trends in lure design had some interesting recommendations. Blueblue, a Japanese lure company with scant exposure here, has a couple of lures that have given their anglers particular success.
    They are the Blueblue Searide Jig and the Blueblue Snecon 130, a swim bait in green with an orange belly or yellow with a red belly. Both lures have a radically different noise and swim action from traditional rockfish lures, which may explain their effectiveness. Both are worth examining.
    An Annapolis tackle shop with a long tradition of handling excellent artificial baits offers some light tackle lures as well. Big (10 inch) BKDs in white or chartreuse are definitely favored on black one-and-one-half Mission jigheads for springtime trophy efforts. The Tsunami holographic soft plastic baits in bunker color in all sizes are also worth a look, especially on hardhead two-tone jigheads. They’re said to work equally well for casting, jigging and trolling.
    Five- and six-inch soft plastic, Saltwater Bass Assassins in Opening Night and Albino Shad have remained consistently productive, customers say. But Panhandle Moon- and Ripper-colored five-inch Saltwater BAs on one-and-one-half Mission jigheads were reported as superior for most of the second half of last season.
    Stingsilvers, especially when rigged with a dropper fly, continue to be among the better metal baits to work with in vertical jigging for rockfish. Silver is the most productive color followed by gold when fishing in overcast or stained water.
    A reliable Edgewater tackle store added that Mirrolure Popa Dogs, a top water popper with walk-the-dog action and a unique sound, was a surprising and overwhelming favorite last season. The redhead, white-body model was tops in sales, which numbered in the hundreds.
    Soft plastics by Bust ’em Baits, competing with BKD and BA lures, are also achieving local notice with a unique construction that delivers a more pronounced undulating action.
    Time will tell if they are worth making room for in your tackle box.

It’s time to start onions and peppers

Onion and pepper seeds are slow to germinate and slow in their early stage of seedling growth. So if you’re growing them from seed, you want an early start. Now’s the time.
    Sow the seeds in a sterile potting mix rather than garden soil to avoid sprouting weeds and contaminating your seedlings with soil-borne diseases. Fill the pots a half-inch from the top. Tap the pot on a bench several times to eliminate air pockets. Firm the potting mix by pressing three or four fingers across the top of the mix. Sprinkle the seeds across the smooth surface, and lightly cover with fresh potting mix. Use a rose bulb or a fine sprinkler to lightly moisten the potting mix until you see water dripping from the bottom of the pot.
    Germinate these seeds in total darkness at constant temperatures of 75 to 80 degrees. How to get those conditions?
    Once excess water has drained from the bottom of the pot, cover the top with plastic and put it on top of the fridge or near the furnace where temperatures are relatively constant. Check the pots daily to make certain that the potting mix does not dry. Moisten accordingly.
    Onion plants grow in their original pots until it’s time to move them into the garden. Sow their seeds a quarter- to a half-inch apart to give them room to produce thick stems and larger root systems to better survive transplant. Sown closer than one-quarter inch apart, onion seeds will grow thin and spindly seedlings too weak to survive transplant in the garden. To accommodate a good population of seeds, use a six- to eight-inch diameter pot three to four inches deep.
    Pepper seeds can be sown closer together because you’ll transplant the individual seedlings into separate pots as soon as their true leaves appear. The first leaf-like growths are not leaves but cotyledons that provide energy for germination and early growth. Do not transplant the seedlings until you see true leaves.  
    Using a pencil or other object, lift each seedling from the potting mix. Grasp the seedling only by the cotyledon. Grabbing the stem or leaves may harm the plant, but the cotyledons are temporary and will separate from the plant under the shade of the leaves.
    To produce strong, healthy plants for your garden, transplant into four-inch pots in the same potting mix the seeds were sown in.
    Check the potting mix bag to see if it contains added nutrients. If nutrients have been added and if compost is part of the blend, water the pepper seedlings until the excess drips from the bottom of the pots.
    If the mix is free of nutrients or compost, add half the amount of water-soluble fertilizer recommended by the manufacturer. Fertilize at the full rate as soon as active growth begins.
    The amount of nutrients generally added to potting mixes is adequate for approximately one month. After that, use a liquid fertilizer as recommended by the manufacturer.
    Give the young the plants full sun. Check daily to maintain proper moisture.


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

Winters’ luminaries are giving way to those of spring

As dusk gives way to darkness around 6:30, the sky comes alive with the constellations of winter and some of the brightest stars in the sky. High in the south stands Orion, facing west toward the bull Taurus. Behind the hunter come his hounds, Canis Major and Minor. Above Orion are the stick-like figures of the Gemini twins, and to their east is a loop of stars forming Auriga the charioteer. The luminaries of these constellations themselves loosely form the Great Winter Circle, in which the waxing gibbous moon sits right in the middle Wednesday the 17th.
    While the winter constellations dominate the evening sky, those of spring are gathering to the east. At midnight, Leo the lion shines almost directly overhead, with Virgo and Boötes high in the east. As dawn draws near, Scorpius sprawls above the southern horizon.
    The pre-dawn skies are also host to all the naked-eye planets.
    Highest of the planets is Jupiter, rising around 9pm and midway between the bright star Regulus of Leo and Spica of Virgo. This is the best time of year for watching Jupiter. Even a modest telescope will reveal the gaseous giant’s equatorial bands and Great Red Spot as well as the planet’s four largest moons.
    The next planet in line, Mars, doesn’t rise until 1am, as far to the east of Spica as Jupiter is to the west. Over the next few months, the planet rises earlier and grows brighter nearing its closest approach to earth in late May.
    Saturn rises around 3am and is over the south-southeast horizon near dawn. Antares, the heart of the scorpion, is less than 10 degrees to the lower right. While the planet doesn’t climb especially high, its rings are tilted at a good angle for telescope viewing.
    The coming sun begins to bleach the eastern sky by the time Venus crests the horizon, but she shines so bright she easily cuts through the glare. But you may have to scour the skyline to find Mercury, which is less than four degrees below the Morning Star at dawn Saturday.

Small gardens can yield big rewards

Short on space or sun but longing for your own fresh vegetables? You can garden with as little as a square foot of space. Dwarf varieties of vegetables grow successfully in limited space, including planter boxes. You can find them in the seed catalogs arriving by mail this time of year.
    Small or not, all vegetables need full sun. For that, no amount of fertilizer can substitute. So watch where the sun falls now, remembering that in full summer it will take a more northerly path. When you find your sweet spot, let its space dictate your garden size.
    When planning, double-cropping will maximize your growing space. For instance, Bibb lettuce and green onions can grow together. In one square foot of space, you can grow four Bibb lettuce plants and eight green onions planted between the lettuces. As soon as you harvest the lettuce, be ready to plant more. As the season will have advanced, this time choose Summer Time lettuce. This variety is heat tolerant, but because it grows larger than Bibb lettuce, only two plants can be grown in one square foot of space.
    You can grow one miniature cabbage plant and eight radishes in a single square foot. The radishes will be ready for harvest in 24 to 30 days, leaving plenty of room for the cabbage to grow.
    Also available in miniature form are bush-type cucumbers and summer squashes. Hot pepper plants by nature tend to be small and highly productive.
    A small-space garden can also have tomatoes. Cluster varieties produce an abundance of fruit in a limited amount of space. The Tiny Tim variety takes up little room in a garden and produces excellent fruit.
    If you yearn for snap beans, consider growing pole beans. Grow them on a trellis, but make sure bean leaves don’t shade the rest of your vegetables. To ensure they don’t block sunlight to other foliage, plant beans on the north side of your garden or make use of a nearby wall using coarse string for them to climb.
    Little Marvel is a delicious shelling pea that grows only 18 inches tall and produces well. I have even seen it grown in flower boxes with the vines hanging down, loaded with pods.
    Whatever you choose to grow, gardens in a limited space need well-prepared soil. A blend of equal parts compost and gardening soil will provide approximately 50 percent of the nutrient requirements. To maintain the soil, supplement with fertilizers at two- to three-week intervals. For container gardens, add about 25 percent sand by volume to the soil mixture for proper drainage.
    Keep your small garden properly irrigated. Water well and deep, avoiding daily watering except in wilting sun.


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

It’s the critical link to your fish

In my considerable exposure to big fish stories over the years, I’ve noticed that many failures and disasters focus on one recurring cause: tired fishing line. That is unfortunate, especially as the cost of replacing the line on most reels is less than a six-pack.
    How do you know when it’s time to replace your line?
    If you’re asking yourself that question, the answer is yes. When in doubt, replace.
    Monofilament can degrade rapidly with exposure to ultra-violet sunlight and fluorescent lighting, eventually from wear, changes in temperature and humidity and sometimes from simple age.
    New monofilament has a particularly lovely shine on the reel spool. With time and use (especially in saltwater), that shine disappears. Eventually the line becomes chalky. A flat finish is suspicious; chalkiness is definitely bad. Both are signs that vital components of the mono have leached out.
    Braided line, brands like Power Pro and Berkley Fireline, is much more resistant to age and wear than mono, but it is not immune. Extreme use and repeated exposure to the elements eventually cause that line to fail as well.
    When a line begins to lose its integrity from age or use or both, knot strength is the first thing to go bad.
    Next, try the knot test. On lines of indeterminate age and from 10- to 20-pound breaking strength, tie an overhand knot and give it a hard jerk. If it breaks, get rid of the line.
    When lines below 10-pound fail the test, you face a judgment call. Are you ready to chance a good fish?
    Replace your line regularly. Every season is best for monofilament, and every three to five years you should replace braided line.

Line-Shopping Guide
    When buying new line, do not look for bargains. A low or steeply discounted price may indicate old stock or questionable quality. Both mean trouble.
    I have a fishing buddy who cannot resist a bargain. He had chanced into a small out-of-the-way shop selling spools of a popular line at such a low price that he bought a lot. After the start of the rockfish season and the third inexplicable break-off in just the first couple of trips, that line disappeared from his reels and that bargain was never again mentioned.
    Since spools of fishing line do not bear a discernable manufacture date, you never know how old they might be. Thus knowing your supplier is another good rule in buying line.
    Many low-cost lines are excellent, though not superior. Higher-quality lines are monitored for uniform breaking strength. Manufacturing methods are routinely upgraded, with the latest (and usually most expensive) softeners and lubricants added, resulting in better longevity, suppleness, ease of use and knot strength.
    Unless you don’t mind losing gear and fish to break-offs, buy the best you can afford. Purchase your line from a reputable dealer that rotates stock and sells a lot of the product. If you are having your line spooled at the store (always wise), ask to see the bulk spool. Inspect the line for age (if mono, it should be shiny), and don’t hesitate to give it the knot-and-pull test.
The 20-Foot Solution    
    Before the start of each season, discard the first 20 feet of line off each of your reels. Repeat after every half dozen or so trips, particularly if you enjoyed a lot of action. The first 20 feet undergoes the majority of the wear and is most likely to fail under high stress. Landing your next big fish may depend on it.


Conservation Alert

Maryland Governor Hogan’s administration plans to suspend Bay oyster restoration. They are also opening to commercial harvest many oyster reserve areas that have been off-limits. Oysters have been driven down to the last one-half percent of their historic population levels, and these actions, while popular with the commercial sector, are bound to push this vital Chesapeake resource closer to exhaustion. All Bay-lovers should respond to these misguided actions: http://takeaction.cbf.org/p/dia/action3/common/public/?action_KEY=18053.