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The capacity of herons

The discovery that a heron was plundering my catch solved the mystery but did not end my ­curiosity. There was more to be learned.
    Apparently, herons are quite intelligent and know an easy meal when they see it. Almost immediately, a pattern became evident. If I was on the dock to use the boat or to check the crab traps, heron was nowhere in sight. As soon as I picked up my fishing rod, the bird would appear from nowhere and wait about 10 feet down the dock for my catch. At first I fiercely protected my perch. But heron was persistent and cute, and I gave into temptation, tossing an occasional fish. Eventually the bird was getting my first fish. Neighbors kidded me about having a pet heron, and when I gave him a name — Harry the Heron — I knew they were right.
    Having heard stories about adopting wild animals, I checked on potential dangers.
    My wife agreed. She thought I should see a shrink.
    But it was the bird I worried about. Dave Brinker, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources bird expert, told me blue herons cause the biggest trouble for the state’s goldfish and koi farmers, who must protect their fish from these predators. The stately birds are not picky eaters.  “If they can catch it and subdue it, they will eat it,” Brinker said. “While we usually think of them eating fish, they will eat frogs and voles and even small muskrat.”
    I was amazed they could eat perch up to eight inches, but their bodies are designed to stretch. Perch are a favorite food because the fish’s shape is conducive to swallowing. Herons are smart enough to know what they can handle, and a bird choking on a meal is very rare.
    Brinker confirmed it was not a good idea to keep feeding Harry, but not for the reason I thought. Once a bird learns to fend for itself, it never forgets and can always go back to self-sufficiency. There are, however, other good reasons to avoid the practice. First, these are smart birds. Once they find an easy meal, they will stick around. This can be problematic at migration time. If Harry decided to stay for the winter, and it was a bad one, it could be hard for either of us to find him food, even if I’m willing to brave sub-zero temperatures to fish for a bird. The second is one’s neighbors. While mine think it’s cool to have a resident heron, not all would agree. Especially fish pond owners.
    I have to sever relations with Harry, and I will in a few weeks. We’ll both go cold turkey. I will stop fishing from my dock; he will have to catch his own dinner. I’m not sure which of us will suffer more.


To see the video of the solved the mystery, go to YouTube and enter Bay Weekly Newspaper Missing Fish Mystery Solved in the search box.

Okra, for beauty and taste

Okra likes it hot.  Soon the cool-loving cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and kohlrabi will have been harvested, leaving a large empty space in the garden. Lots of nutrients still in the garden can be used for growing a crop of okra.
    To get a jump, start young okra plants in three-inch pots.  After filling the pots with potting soil, place two okra seeds in each. I prefer Clemson Spineless, but there are many varieties available. The seeds will germinate in five to eight days, especially if the pots are outdoors in full sun. Keep them well watered. After the seedlings are about three inches tall, take a sharp knife or nail clippers and cut out the smallest.
    As soon as the area in the garden is cleared, transplant the young okra two feet apart in rows at least three feet apart. Or plant them in your flower bed. Purple varieties produce very attractive foliage. As they can grow to a height of four feet, they are best used as a background plant. But make certain they are accessible for harvesting the pods.
    Okra is a member of the hibiscus family. The plants will start producing beautiful pale yellow hibiscus flowers with purple or red centers within three to four weeks after transplant­ing. Within two to three days after the flowers have wilted, some of the pods will be ready to harvest.
    To assure quality and tenderness, okra pods should be harvested three to four times weekly, especially during hot muggy days when the plants are flowering daily and growing rapidly. Pods longer than five inches will be woody and not palatable. But with some imagination, they can be dried and used in floral arrangements or Christmas tree decorations. Pods can grow to eight to 10 inches long.
    Okra plants will continue to produce pods into mid to late September. However, the later pods tend to become warty looking and are generally not tender.
    Okra can be breaded and fried, brushed with olive oil and baked for about 15 to 20 minutes in a 400-degree oven and sprinkled with salt, used in making gumbo, pickled or added to a tomato, hamburger and onion sauce. When using okra in sauces, always add the cut okra just before serving to avoid the slimy texture that results from over-cooking.
    I have grown okra in my garden in Deale for the past 24 years without failure. I could never grow it when I gardened in New Hampshire because the summers were too short and cool.


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

Who dunnit?

It wasn’t quite the mystery of whether aliens landed in Area 51, but around Casa Melamud everyone was perplexed and spending considerable brainpower trying to solve the case of the missing fish.
    It is my habit to go out every evening after dinner and cast my pole from my dock, trying to catch fish for our lunch or to bait my crab traps. I have been consistently getting a handful of medium-sized white perch. Unhooking the fish, I’d tossed them on the dock. But when I went to pick my catch, there were fewer fish than I remembered. This was happening evening after evening. I heard nothing and saw nothing. The fish were just disappearing.
    My wife was sure I was miscounting; she called the missing fish a “senior moment.” Maybe the first time, but not night after night. It’s easy to remember whether you caught two or three fish.
    My daughter thought a feral cat was stealing the fish. This sounded reasonable, except that in the almost four years we have lived in this house, I had never seen a cat outside, feral or otherwise.
    For a better explanation I went to the mother of all knowledge: Google. Search results made the answer clear.
    Aliens are no longer slaughtering and abducting cows. They are eating healthier as they are now abducting fish. I found some compelling arguments, but I reasoned that if I were an alien looking for fish, I would be after sushi-grade tuna, not white perch.
    Finally, I posed the question on the fishing bulletin board I participate in. About 15 other members chimed in with their thoughts on our mystery. Seven said all fishermen are liars, so none of this was happening. Seven told me I was using the wrong lure. If I used the one they recommended, I would catch enough fish to not care about a missing few. One supported the alien abduction theory.
    I was resigned to living with my mystery. But one of the keys to success is luck and timing. About a week after the mystery first posed itself, I happened to turn my head at the precisely right moment, and I saw my answer.
    Who’s got my missing fish?
    See for yourself.

We found success in a pair of fat stripers at the Bay Bridge

Drifting next to the towering structure, I eased my bait over the side. With only a quarter-ounce weight, it took the chunk of soft crab a while to near the bottom. Thankful that the slow tidal current allowed us to work close on the massive piling, I lifted my rod to be sure that my rig wouldn’t get fouled on the old construction debris below. It was irritating to find that my bait was already solidly snagged.
    I pulled harder in hopes that the rig would break loose but with no effect. Easing my skiff up-current to try for a better angle, I realized that my line’s position in the water was changing faster than the boat was moving. I lifted the rod firmly to test my suspicion. That was when it really bent down. My reel’s drag sizzled as line poured out following something big and deep and now headed in the direction of Baltimore.

Our Last Choice
    The morning for once had started exactly as the weatherman predicted. Overcast skies, light winds and moderate temperatures made a perfect day for fishing the Bay. Armed with a fresh supply of menhaden direct from the netter and a frozen bucket of chum, we were as prepared as possible for a good day. But just for insurance, at the last minute I had also packed a half-dozen soft crabs.
    Arriving on-site with my partner Moe, we noted a friend had beaten us to the fishing. The location, at the mouth of a nearby river, had had a hot bite for the last few days, and we expected nothing less than that this morning. However, our friend did not, have good news. Though the conditions were still superb and he had been grinding chum over the side and set up with bait as fresh as ours, he had not had so much as a nibble.
    Cruising the surrounding waters with my eyes glued to the electronic finder, I confirmed his results. Baitfish galore lit up the screen, but we could mark no rockfish or anything that might have been a gamefish. We headed farther south with the assurance that our friend would call us if the fish showed.
    But there were no stripers at our next spot either, despite the presence of a scattered fleet of boats already anchored and fishing. Venturing even farther south and with similar results, we hadn’t so much as wet a line as the morning wore on.
    Off in the distance I saw the Bay Bridge was not yet clustered with boats, a surprise with the holiday weekend so near. The lack of boats meant that either the structure was still empty of fish or that an opportunity was finally upon us.

One Big Pair
    Our first two tries at drifting soft crab among the pilings were blanks, but our next was golden. After finally spotting some good marks on our screen and dropping our baits, Moe was soon fast to a 25-inch striper. Five minutes later at the same spot, my rod was bent to the corks as my own powerful fish headed away deep.
    It took quite a while to get the fish under control and to the boat. At the last minute, it even looked like our net was too small. But Moe managed the hefty striper in and over the side. After that we boated two or three more rockfish that, while over the minimum legal size of 20 inches, looked meager compared to the beauties we already had in the box. We foolishly released them, hoping for more of the big guys.
    That was when a school of white perch arrived and began gobbling up our supply of softies. With our 6/0 hooks intended for stripers we caught few perch, but within 15 short minutes we were out of crab.
    Though we subsequently attempted to fill out our rockfish limits using our fresh menhaden, it was not to be. The bite proved dead wherever we tried. But with a really nice pair of stripers in the cooler it was hard to be disappointed.

Help these fruit trees recover from two bad winters

The winter of 2013-’14 killed the stems of most of the figs in southern Maryland. However the roots were still very much alive and generated an abundance of new stems from the ground. The robust roots produced stems that were able to produce a few figs. But most stems produced no fruit. They would have this year, except for another killing winter this past year.
    At the northernmost range for growing figs, we have to face the fact that extremely cold winters can mean no fruit.
    Don’t expect to harvest any figs this summer. If the winter of 2015-’16 is equally severe, it is unlikely that roots will be able to generate new growth.
    If your fig plants were killed back again overwinter, by now you should see an abundance of new sprouts originating from the roots. Help your fig recover by pruning out dead stems as close to the ground as possible. To encourage the development of strong sturdy stems, break off all weak, thin stems growing from the roots. It’s better to break off the stem than to prune it. If you cut away the stem with pruners, chances are a vegetative bud will develop in the axis of the stump of the stem and the root, resulting in the growth of a new stem. Allow at least ___ feet between the best-growing stems.
    To break a stem from the roots, I use a four-inch-wide board that’s three to four feet long. I place the end of the board near the weak stem and kick it. This causes the weak stem to shear from the roots, making it highly unlikely that another stem will grow in the same area. Do this while the young stems are green. The roots will be pushing up new stems, so you’ll have to repeat at least twice monthly to remove the previous weeks’ spindly stems.
    Once the stems have started to grow, they will benefit from an application of fertilizer at the rate of approximately one pound per 100 square feet. I generally do not recommend fertilizing figs because it makes them grow too tall, producing less harvestable fruit.
    Plant fig trees on a slope facing south or against the south wall of a building to provide maximum winter protection. I have all of my figs growing again the south wall of a brick house. This exposure provides more warmth from reflective heat from the building and early warming of the soil, especially when the ground is not covered with snow. The soil in a slope facing south always warms sooner than the soil on a slope facing any other direction.


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

If you want to catch fish, you can’t wait for a perfect conditions

Even as we headed out, the day already looked challenging. Wind predicted at eight knots was easily twice that, and my small skiff was rocking and rolling under overcast skies. Donning foul weather coats, we soldiered on, ignoring a chill spray blowing down the port side onto both of us.
    The day before in perfect weather, my short morning scouting run met defeat. In my hour cruise over recently productive areas I had marked nothing, no bait and no rockfish. Running out of time (I had to ferry some house guests to catch their planes that day), gloom settled over me. Where had all the fish gone?
    Now we were trying a more northerly area, heading out just after sunup with a good supply of chum and bait. At our target location, we saw that if the weather got any worse, we would have to pull the plug. Instead, it stayed only miserable.
    I had seen widely distributed marks on my fish finder as we arrived, but the boat was heaving about so that the screen got little detail. Were those marks scattered baitfish, rockfish or both? Were they even fish? I couldn’t even guess.
    The alternatives were simple: Keep looking for better marks or hunker down in the snotty weather (did I mention it was beginning to rain?) in hope the stripers would come to us. We threw in our lot with staying put.
    We finally got the anchor set, the chum bag over the side and our four rods rigged and baited and trailing out nicely in the swift tidal current. As usual of late, the currents seemed to be running at least four to five hours later than the printed schedules indicated.
    It took a long and uneasy half-hour for the first striper to find our baits. My rod tip dipped, then plunged down, and line began pulling off my reel. With the clicker making merry sounds, I dropped the reel into gear. My rod bent nicely as I set the hook. Within a few minutes we had a fat, healthy, 22-inch rockfish in the net. Breathing a sigh of relief, we declared the looming skunk banished.
    It didn’t take long for the next fish, but it was too close to the minimum size, 20 inches, to trust in the cooler (they shrink some once iced, and measuring was difficult in the heaving boat), so it went back over the side. Another throwback, then another came on board. Were we going to be swamped by shorties?
    The next fish answered that question. It was another 22-incher, followed quickly by a 23, then another 23 and we were done, two quick limits.
    Now getting our gear cleared became the problem. We had three rigs still in the water after netting the last fish, and two were bent over from fish running with our baits.
    Struggling to boat the extras, we had to face a disquieting trend. The rockfish now coming over the side were bigger than the ones in the box.
    Exchanging a rockfish already in your possession for a larger one more recently caught is called culling and is outlawed by Maryland Department of Natural Resources. It is also a death sentence for the fish. A significant percentage of fish released in this practise, even if they appear vital, expire from the stress, especially with the warmer water of summer.
    Shrugging off temptation we released the interlopers and headed for the ramp in victory.
    That’s when the sun broke through the overcast, the rain stopped and the wind died to a gentle breeze. As we arrived at the ramp there ­wasn’t a trace of the miserable weather we had endured. It was now a balmy, bluebird day.

Osprey and falcon chicks thriving, with a little help

True to the saying it takes a village, it has taken the help of many friends to ensure the health and success of the on-cam osprey and peregrine families.
    Two years of broadcasts on Chesapeake Conservancy’s Osprey Cam have shown Audrey the Osprey as a model mother. She has stayed on her eggs in sweltering heat and storms, shielded her chicks from pouring rain and defended the nest from intruders.
    Thus it was even more devastating when this year’s eggs did not hatch. Audrey refused to give up and continued to incubate her clutch of three into the second week of June.
    A new male usurped original Tom early this season (www.bayweekly.com/
node/27495). New pairs sometimes do not lay viable eggs, as viewers have witnessed this year.
    Audrey’s determination to be a mother inspired osprey biologist Paul Spitzer, the Conservancy’s expert on the nest, to suggest her as a foster mother.
    Spitzer and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service raptor biologist Craig Koppie helped identify foster candidates.
    An osprey family on Poplar Island was raising four chicks, a lot of mouths to feed. To better ensure the survival of all, the two largest chicks were removed and resettled in Audrey’s nest on June 17.
    After what was surely a surprise, Audrey and Tom accepted the chicks and are proving model parents.
    Watch this new family grow: chesapeakeconservancy.org/Osprey-Cam.

Meanwhile, high above Baltimore City, Boh and Barb falcon hatched their first eyas, the name for peregrine chicks, on May 18. Over the next several days, two more eyases came into the world.
    Boh and Barb have been diligently feeding the chicks, which once huddled together but now fearlessly explore their balcony. On June 28, at just over a month old, one took the big leap, flying into the larger world. Airborn, the eyasses will learn to hunt before leaving the nest.
    When the eyases were a few weeks old, Craig Koppie paid them a visit. An expert on peregrine falcons, Koppie has worked on recovery since 1979 and bands the chicks at 100 Light Street each year.
    While placing identification bands on the three eyases, he saw that the youngest, a male, appeared to have a cold and be dehydrated. Koppie took the chick to Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research where he received some fluids and a bill of good health. After a few days away, the little guy was reunited with Boh, Barb, and his two sisters.
    The eyases have been named Cade, Burnsie and Koppie after Tom Cade, William Burnham and Craig Koppie, three great leaders in the falcon recovery efforts, by vote of 1,500 cam viewers.
    Tune into the Peregrine Falcon Cam: chesapeakeconservancy.org/peregrine-falcon-webcam.


The Chesapeake Conservancy, an Annapolis-based non-profit, hosts the Osprey and Peregrine cams. Both average 8,000 views a day, from all 50 states and more than 100 countries.

It’s harvest time

If you planted garlic last fall, the tails should be at least 24 inches tall, and you should be seeing the tops of the bulbs by now.
    If you, like me, planted elephant garlic, flower heads will now be developing at the end of its tall cylindrical stem.
    Most German, Italian and other soft-neck garlics do not flower. 
    On hard-neck garlic, look for swelling and a pale ring forming near the tip. As soon as the swelling appears, remove the flower head using a sharp knife. A friend removed the flower buds by giving the tail a quick snap. In so doing, he pulled the bulbs partially out of the ground, causing his elephant garlic to produce only small cloves. The cloves and entire bulbs were no larger than those of the Italian white garlic growing next to the elephant garlic.
    As soon as the foliage starts turning yellow-green, push it to the ground using the back of a rake or by dragging a log or timber over the plants. This will help prevent neck rot, which can result in substantial loss in storage.
    Whether hard-neck elephant or German, Italian and other soft-neck varieties, garlic can be harvested for cooking at any time after the stems have fully developed. Cloves will be smaller when harvested early.
    Garlic will be fully developed as soon as the foliage starts turning from yellow to brown. If you intend to store some, delay harvesting until most of the foliage has turned brown.
    Braid soft-necked garlic and hang for drying. It is impossible to braid hard-neck garlic, so it is best to tie the stalks in bundles of three and create a chain of them to hang for drying. I hang my garlic in a shady area in an open garage so air can circulate freely. Allow three or four weeks for drying before placing them in storage.
    All garlics are short-day plants, which is why they have to be planted in the fall when they can be exposed to short-light days after initiating growth. If you wait to plant garlic in the spring, you won’t harvest much of a crop.
    Poor crops are why this will be the last year I try growing short-day onions. Over three years, I’ve found the harvest unworthy of the expense, time and effort. Last fall, I planted some in an outdoor bed, some in a cold frame and some in my greenhouse. Only the plants in the cold frame produced decent-sized bulbs.
    Our winters are much too cold for growing short-day onions outdoors without some protection. A deep cold frame or tunnel is required. Nor do short-day onions perform well in a heated greenhouse. My recommendation is to grow long-day or intermediate onions, planting in the spring and harvesting in August.
    If you planted either this spring, the tails should be at least 12 inches long and growing.
    Of the long-day onions, I find Copra to be the best keeper. Our crop of Copra harvested last August lasted through March. Candy and Superstar are sweet and mild but not good keepers. Big Daddy is the best variety for onion rings.
    As with garlic, push the foliage to the ground to prevent neck-rot and help your crop store better. After harvest, braid the onions and hang — mine are in the garage with the garlic — until the weather turns cold in the fall.


Neck Rot Strikes

Help please! The stems of my garlic and of a friend’s have fallen this year and are lying limp on the ground.

–Bill Lambrecht, Fairhaven

 

The garlic should have been harvested as soon as the stems started turning yellow green. It has a bad case of neck rot. Harvest the garlic ASAP and separate the cloves from each bulb, dry them at room temperature and store them in the top shelf of the fridge.


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

Here’s how to make it work for you

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


Conservation News

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

There are better ways than mulch

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


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