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Spring’s sirens are sounding

The chirping call of spring peepers, Pseudacris crucifer, is my favorite sound of spring. Perhaps it was my upbringing in swampy Louisiana that draws me to frog songs. I often find myself rolling down the windows as I drive home along Muddy Creek Road in southern Anne Arundel County to catch a wave of springtime from the marshes and wetlands along the road.
    The chorus of these tiny frogs is one of our first harbingers of warmer temperatures and longer days. You’ll hear them long before spring’s official arrival.
    “It’s that time of the year, getting a little warmer,” says DNR’s Glenn Therres. “We heard them a couple of weeks ago. Then the cold front quieted them down. Now they’re itching to jump out and start singing.”
    Peepers spend the winter in hibernation, to the point of being frozen alive. Surprisingly, they can survive up to a week after being frozen. Their blood contains a biological antifreeze that prevents immediate death. Peepers emerge from hibernation once temperatures being their annual rise.
    The song we hear is the males’ inflating their vocal sacs to attract the ladies. Biologists think the females prefer the loudest singers. Their calls have been compared to a refrain of sleigh bells, and that’s music to my ears.
    While they are easy to hear, I can’t recall seeing a spring peeper. Trying to sneak up on one is near impossible as this species is primed to jump for its life.
    These high-pitched amphibians are tiny brownish-yellow, olive or gray frogs with a dark X on their back. They are also small; one can fit on a fingertip.
    “Listen and look for them in shallow-water ponds without fish; otherwise tadpoles become fish bait,” Therres advises. “They show up in wet depressions in woods and fields, sediment ponds, in almost any shallow body of water that persists for a couple of months.”
    After Romeo has wooed his Juliet, tadpoles emerge in two to three weeks, meaning more peepers to sing us into next spring.
    They are probably Maryland’s most common frog species, Therres says, “and definitely the most vocal.”

Proper preparation prevents poor performance

You can never trust Maryland’s March weather. Another certainty is the march of time, which puts us only a couple of weeks from Trophy Rockfish Season, opening April 15. Cold or warm, snow, sleet, rain or sun, the striper season is fast arriving.
    So don’t make opening day your first day on the water. I take at least a week for a shakedown cruise or two plus scouting trips to get ready. That means now is the time to get going.
    My first act of preparation is to remove all my reels from their rods and examine them. Over a long winter, grease and oil can congeal, making the mechanical functioning of the reel stiff and uneven. This can also be true of drag operation. Check each reel and correct any problems.

The Scoop on Line
    Next I take all the reels spooled with mono to a sporting store and have the line replaced. The trophy season brings us into contact with the biggest rockfish of the year. Some of these guys will top 50 pounds. If this is my season to hook a fish of that size, I don’t intend to handicap myself with a line that may have been dragged across rough bridge piers, jetty rocks or pilings last year.
    I prefer to use fluoro-coated monofilament lines. There are all sorts of scientific explanations for fluoro’s superiority, from its invisibility to its superior hardness. I don’t believe any of them. If I can see the line in the water, it’s not invisible; nor will a harder finish keep a line from parting when a 30-pounder wraps you around a barnacle-encrusted piling and keeps on going.
    What I do believe is the test results of an old experiment. Berkeley Fishing Line Company strung a number of samples of mono- and fluoro- lines in a massive aquarium populated with large fish. The purpose: to count the number of times fish bumped into the mono lines vs. the flouro lines. The results counted twice as many collisions with fluoro as with mono.
    I’ve also found on my own when chumming that I can still catch fish with fluoro lines when the tidal current slows or stops. I rarely can get rockfish to bite in those situations with mono, and almost never with braid.

Tie a New Knot
    The next critical item on my opening day list is to cut off all knots in all lines and leaders and retie each one — carefully. If you wait till you’re on the water, the temptation to immediately begin fishing will be too great. Broken knots are the number one cause of losing big fish. A knot tied sometime last season is a prime candidate for failure.

Recharge Your Batteries
    You’ll also want to recharge all marine batteries. Then check them again the next day. Winter temperatures can be hard on battery cells. They may briefly charge to full capacity, but the faulty ones will lose that charge rapidly. Checking your batteries 24 hours after a full charge should identify the weak ones and save you from getting stranded out in the middle of the Bay.

Due date gets earlier year by year

On the first day, he soars through the air in a rollercoaster dance, weaving the sky with his fish flight: the dance of courtship. On the second day, she is with him, perched comfortably in their solitary tower. The osprey have returned to Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary. This year’s return date was February 22.
    Isn’t that early? Don’t osprey usually arrive after St. Patrick’s Day?
    Not so, explains Greg Kearns, veteran naturalist at Patuxent River Park, across the river from Jug Bay. This year’s date is a reinforcing statistic in the steady, downward trend of the last 30 years. Just about every year, osprey have arrived earlier than the year before.
    Kearns may have the perfect explanation for this trend.
    “Birds are an ecological litmus paper,” said famous naturalist Roger Tory Peterson. Like those little color-changing strips for testing pH, bird behavior is a prime indicator of our changing environment.
    Osprey, in particular, are key adaptors. “They’ve been here for the last two to five million years, and they’ll likely still be here after we’re gone,” Kearns says. They know when it is the right time to soar on back to their summer stays. As our winters become warmer, the birds arrive earlier.
    And you don’t need to be concerned if winter weather returns for a few days. Osprey can withstand the cold, and their key food source, fish, have already begun spawning over this year’s warm winter months.
    To spot your first osprey of the year, head to the water. About 85 percent of the birds, recognizable by their brown and white plumage, nest in constructed towers close to docks and beaches.
    You’ll see them until late September, when they head back south.

White perch make good sport and better eating

March brings a springtime treasure that almost makes up for its treacherous weather: white perch. These tasty fish have just begun to show up in the creeks, though the winter storm that tormented the Northeast coast might delay the bulk of their numbers.
    A close cousin of the striped bass, white perch (Marone americana) are the most numerous fish in the Tidewater as well as the species most often caught by recreational anglers. They can reach 18 inches in length, but due to Maryland’s largely unregulated commercial netting in the Chesapeake, not many taken by hook and line are over 10 inches.
    The largest white perch on record anywhere was caught in 2012 in a Virginia private pond by Beau McLaughlin of Virginia Beach. It weighed three pounds two ounces and measured 17 ¾ inches. The previous record of three pounds one ounce was taken in 1995. The current record for the Chesapeake is two pounds 10 ounces.
    Living 15 or more years, white perch is a particularly prolific species. The male fish move upstream toward fresh water and await the arrival of females. The females arrive next, usually on an incoming tide, and move into the warmer shallows when they feel the urge to spawn. Each gravid female produces 150,000 or more eggs as she releases her roe in stages in tributary headwaters over one to three weeks from mid-March through May. The males follow, broadcasting their milt over the roe. The eggs will hatch out in one to six days. Fingerlings remain in the shelter of the headwaters for a year or two before descending to bigger Bay waters.
    Finally spent of eggs, the females return downstream to Bay waters while the males stay on station until the females stop arriving. After the spawn has been completed. The fish then regroup and move out to their preferred haunts. Some gather near the Bay shorelines or over shell bottom flats in about 10 to 15 feet of water, others prefer moving back into the estuaries in two- to five-foot depths.
    Fishing for white perch in the springtime is generally a shallow-water experience. A light-action spin rod with six-pound test mono is the optimum tackle. Tipped with a small, weighted casting bobber and a shad dart, a grass shrimp, a minnow or a piece of worm as enticement, the rig is cast out from the shoreline and worked back in a slow, twitching motion.
    When fishing from a boat, target shallow shorelines during the flood tide, particularly areas near submerged brush, fallen trees, rocky edges and around docks or bulkheads. As low tide approaches, the fish tend to retreat to the deeper water. Then a top-and-bottom rig with a one-ounce sinker is a better producer for both shore and boat anglers.
    There is no minimum size nor possession limit for white perch, but a fish much under nine inches lacks enough meat to warrant harvesting.
    Their table quality is unequaled, whether baked, broiled, fried whole or filleted, rolled in panko and crisped in hot peanut oil. If you haven’t tried them, you’re missing out on a Bay treasure.

Hoe them out and bury them — or eat them

Winter weeds have loved mild winter we’ve been having. Annual bluegrass, cardamine, chickweed, henbit and mares-tale, to name a few, are twice the size they were this time last year. Unless you eradicate them now, they are likely to cover the ground by the time you’re ready for planting. They may already be flowering and producing an abundance of seeds.
    Attack them without chemicals with a hoe or pull them out of the ground. Then collect them and bury them deep in your compost bin. If you leave them lying, they will most likely take root and resume growth. These cold-tolerant weeds can remain alive and capable of rooting even if they are all turned upside down. Their fibrous roots will retain sufficient soil to keep them moist and growing and the stems that will come in contact with the ground can form roots.
    Weeds are survivors, determined to thrive and reproduce.
    You can also eat them. Add some snap to your salad with cadamine. Common chickweed has a very mild lettuce flavor. Dandelions are quite mild providing there are no flower buds forming on the plants. Wild mustard should now be ready to be harvest, adding zest to any salad. If you like a vinegar taste, add a little oxalis to the salad blend.


No Sun, No Fruit

Q    We are hoping you can help us with a problem in a fruit orchard. The trees in question are Malus Spartan, Prunus armenica Harlayne, Prunus persica Red Haven
    They were planted about five years ago. They initially produce fruit early in the season, but the fruit ­doesn’t mature. At first the problem was assumed to be birds or other pests, but we’ve tried various bird barriers and still no luck. No amendments have been made to the soil recently. I know we don’t have a lot of information to offer, but perhaps you could provide some initial thoughts about what we should explore?
     Does it look to you like the trees are too crowded with underplanting? Or perhaps the surrounding trees are shading them out? Would it be recommended to move the trees to a different location?

A    You are trying to grow fruit trees under crowded conditions and in partial shade. Also the trees do not appear to have been properly pruned to allow sunlight to penetrate the canopy, which is necessary for fruit to ripen. Fruit trees must be grow only in full sun, and they must be pruned properly for the fruit to be exposed to a certain amount of direct sunlight for ripening.


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

If an extraordinary day comes your way, grab your gear and get fishing

Friend and neighbor Frank Tuma and I were enjoying a combination shakedown cruise and yellow perch outing on the Magothy River. At Beachwood Park, we noted a number of anglers milling about with about as much success as we were enjoying, which was none. No one seemed to care. It was enough to get out on the water.
    Tossing minnows, spinner baits and small spoons separately and in combination, then just about everything else in the tackle box, we worked over shoreline spots thoroughly. Targeting fallen trees, derelict docks, jetties, groins and anywhere either of us had ever caught a fish, we exchanged stories of successes and disasters.
    I worked my two favorite outfits. One is a five-foot-four-inch, extra-fast-action Loomis GL2 spin rod with a Shimano Sahara 1000 reel spooled with six-pound P Line. The other is a six-foot St Croix medium-power casting rod paired with a Shimano Calcutta 1000 DC-level wind reel, spooled with 10-pound Power Pro.
    My buddy, ever the more practical and pragmatic of the two of us, used his trusty six-foot-six-inch, ultra-light spin rod of unknown provenance and a mystery spinning reel spooled with 10-pound Spider Line. Frank caught all the fish.
    After working the Upper Magothy to little effect, we explored the nearby creeks lower down the river, trying to rescue the day with a pickerel or two. At about noon, Frank hooked up with a real scrapper on an orange-and-yellow spinner bait with a lip-hooked minnow. I assisted by netting the flashing pickerel for a quick picture.
    Quite near the same spot, Frank then had another smashing strike. His rod bent over, and I could hear his reel grudgingly giving up line in fits and starts as the fish refused to come closer. The battle went on for long minutes, and the water boiled as the fish came near the surface again and again — Never close enough, however, to identify except as a big one.
    Guessing a really big pickerel, then perhaps an early-spawning rockfish, Frank worked the fish gradually closer while I threatened him with disgrace if he lost it. As it finally neared the boat and I leaned over with the net, we caught a flash of a brown and orange flank. Then it was gone. The hook had pulled.
    After a moment of anguish we laughed. This was what fishing was like — and we would have let the rascal go anyway. Now we were free to interpret the brute anyway we felt. It could have been a big channel cat, or perhaps a thick and powerful carp heading to spawn. I suggested a wayward cobia. That was preposterous, but it had been a long day and we were both getting a bit addled after such a successful late-winter’s day on the water.

High in calcium and potassium, it keeps lawn and garden soil balanced

Wood ash belongs in the garden or on the lawn, not in the trash can or in the compost bin. Wood ash is basic in nature and an excellent source of calcium, potassium and trace elements. This means ash can be used as a substitute for limestone. A five-gallon pail of wood ash will treat approximately 100 square feet of a garden or lawn with a pH of around 6.0.
    I have divided the vegetable garden into three zones and treat each zone with wood ash once every three years. The wood ash has done such a great job of maintaining the pH of the soil that I have not had to apply lime or potassium on the garden for the past 25 years.
    Select a calm day for applying wood ash, as it is easily carried away by the slightest breeze. I use a trowel to spread the ash from the pail, applying it until the ground appears covered like a heavy frost.
    Wood ash won’t supply magnesium, an element often low or deficient in Maryland soil. Without magnesium, chlorophyll’s efficiency in converting carbon dioxide to sugars is considerably reduced. Since wood ash does not contain magnesium (though limestone does), I also apply Epsom salts at the rate of five to 10 pounds per 1,000 square feet depending on the soil test results.
    Don’t dump wood ash in the compost pile. Wood ash is basic in nature, and the microorganisms involved in composting perform best in an environment that is mildly acid. Adding ash will stop the composting process.
    Never use a paper, cardboard, wooden or plastic container to carry wood ash. Ash may appear cool when you remove it form the fireplace or stove, but hot embers can remain buried and when exposed to air can ignite. Put your ash in a metal container and store it outdoors in a sheltered place a couple of days before spreading in the garden. I can remember my grandfather removing ash from the parlor stove and spreading it in the garden only to turn around to see dried corn stalks smoldering.
    Here’s another use for wood ash that’s now largely forgotten. My grandmother dumped wood ash from the kitchen stove into a wire basket in the shed. She then flushed the ash with dishwater several times, collecting the water to make lye soap. Do you remember Grandma’s lye soap — or the old popular song by that name?

Irrigate Your Garlic
    Your garlic plants are thirsty. Neither rain nor snow has provided them with water. February’s extra-warm, sunny days have activated the garlic plants into wanting to grow. Without adequate water in the ground, the tips of the leaves are showing yellowing and brown crispy tissues. Irrigate them now for bigger cloves of garlic at harvest.  Italian, Polish and German garlic is not planted as deeply as elephant garlic, making them more susceptible to drought damage. Soaking the soil with water now also makes the ground less likely to freeze deeply should the weather turn cold again.


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

Filmed in their natural habitat

Legendary in Chesapeake tributaries are spring spawning runs, especially of the season’s harbinger, yellow perch.
    See for yourself, with wonder, a video of spawning yellow perch in pristine water in the Upper Magothy River, documented this year by Magothy River Association volunteers and photographed by Chesapeake Bay Program’s Will Parson.
    The spawning run began on Monday, February 27. In hours, hundreds of fish swam up a narrow, clear stream called the Upper Magothy River in Pasadena, between Catherine Avenue and the Lake Waterford dam/fish ladder.
    The male yellow perch arrived first to locate spawning sites, and the females followed. Several dozen long egg sacks, called egg chains, were photographed in this part of the stream. Each egg chain contains 5,000 to 20,000 eggs.
    Yellow perch have been threatened by development runoff that degrades water quality in many of the tributary streams and creeks on the Magothy River. The Maryland State Habitat Protection Area law requires each county to protect yellow perch spawning habitat. It also requires the counties to improve water quality and limit development in HPA areas.
    “The tragedy is that this should have been declared a habitat-protected area years ago under the Critical Area Law,” says Paul Spadaro, president of the Magothy River Association. “Anne Arundel County chose not to, and now this spawning creek, perhaps the last in the county, is under attack by development.”
    Fishing is prohibited in the tributaries during the spawning months of February, March and April, and Maryland Department of Natural Resources Police have been enforcing this policy along the Upper Magothy River.
    To see the photographs and videos of the spawn, visit the Magothy River Association Facebook page or www.dropbox.com/s/7u9i43bwpjn6aoc/20170227-YellowPerch.mp4?dl=0.

Attack overgrown plants before this year’s growth starts

If you have overgrown plants that are smothering the house or taking over the landscape, now is the time to strike. Hollies, yews, viburnums, forsythia, azaleas, rhododendrons and many more take well to hard pruning. Butterfly bush should be pruned very hard, to within inches of the ground, every year.
    The only plants you can’t prune severely are conifers such as junipers, cedar, pine, spruce and fir. These species do not form adventitious buds, nor do they have latent buds capable of sprouting after all other buds have been removed.
    Brutal pruning to lower the height and spread of plants is best timed when the plants are dormant, meaning several weeks before the soil begins to warm. Well-established vigorous plants have extensive root systems in the ground with an abundance of reserved energy. Early pruning directs that reserved energy to the most viable vegetative buds in the stems. Thus the earlier plants are pruned hard before growth starts, the more new growth they will generate.
    If you are cutting azalea stems the size of your index finger, as soon as temperatures rise you will see hundreds of green buds emerging from under the bark up and down that stem. Each of those buds is capable of producing branches. While the buds are still soft and green, wipe away at least half of them with your fingers. If you allow all of those buds to produce branches, the stems will look like a bottlebrush.
    When pruning forsythia and weigela, always remove branches that have gray bark near the base of the plant. Prune as close to the ground as possible to promote new vigorous stems to emerge from buds at the soil line. Remove all stems smaller than a pencil in diameter. These weak, flimsy shoots will generally not flower and will only droop with the ends of the stems touching the ground and rooting in.
    When pruning lilacs, inspect the larger stems for borer holes. Lilac borers generally attack stems one-and-a-half to two inches in diameter. Cut infected stems near the ground, and either burn or send them away with the trash. Allowing those infested stems to remain will only result in younger stems becoming infested before they approach maturity. You don’t want that because lilac flowers are produced on second-year wood.
    Do not try to rejuvenate any plant whose stump is larger than two inches in diameter by cutting it back to the ground. Stumps are capable of sprouting, but the sprouts will topple when the center of the old stump, which is mostly dead tissue, begins to rot, two to three years after it has been cut.
    To maintain generally well-behaved plants, prune after flowering when the petals are dropping to the ground.


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

Check out Calvert Marine Museum’s new otter and otter cam

They are otterly adorable. The two North American river otters, 14-year-old Chumley (aka Squeak) and year-old Chessie-Grace (aka Bubbles), love to romp and play throughout their habitat at the Calvert Marine Museum. Now you can see what’s going on behind the scenes in their indoor habitat when you can’t see these furry mammals in-person.
    A newly installed otter cam lets you experience remotely what’s up with these museum favorites seven days a week. Log in to get a peak: http://www.calvertmarinemuseum.com/375/River-Otter-Live-Cam.
    “Visiting in-person is always best, as the new lodging area includes a feeding panel that allows guests to get face-to-face with the otters while they dine,” says Dave Moyer, curator of Estuarine Biology. “When you need to get your otter fix, remember a great time to view the cam is during feeding times.”
    The indoor holding area where the otters reside has been updated with new nesting dens, play yards, an infinity pool and LED lighting.
    Plus a newly rescued otter from Louisiana has joined the exhibit.
    “He was extricated from an aquaculture pond,” Moyer explains. “On a fish farm, it is bad for business to have otters eating all your profits.”
    After acclimating and getting a clean bill of health from the museum veterinarian, What’s His Name may join Chumley and Chessie-Grace.
    “It will depend on the animals as to whether he stays separated,” Moyer says. “Personalities and social dynamics play huge roles.”
    Chumley, also rescued as a pup, came to the museum via Clearwater Aquarium in Florida. Chessie-Grace was hand-raised and bottle-fed after her mother failed to care for her pups.
    Guess the newcomer’s name and win a one-hour behind-the-scenes tour with the otters and animal care staff.
    Otter Name Game clues appear each Wednesday at noon on the Otter Cam website and the museum’s Facebook page.