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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:

Aquarium names baby loggerhead

No, it’s not Yertle. By popular acclaim, the National Aquarium’s baby loggerhead turtle has been named Sheldon.
    Turtle fans offered more than 20,000 entries during the Aquarium’s competition to name the newcomer. Sheldon joined the Maryland Mountains to the Sea exhibit in December thanks to a partnership with the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores’ Loggerhead Head Start program, which rescues and rehabilitates imperiled hatchlings.
    Each of the five names selected as finalists has a story.
    Boh borrows the nickname of Baltimore’s favorite beer, National Bohemian.
    Two finalists honored notables who died in 2016: Snape for actor Alan Rickman’s Harry Potter villain and Ziggy for singer David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust persona.
    Kai is Hawaiian for sea.
    Sheldon, alluding to Jim Parson’s character on CBS television’s comedy The Big Bang Theory, won 27 percent of the vote. Ziggy was the runner-up with 22 percent. Snape came in third with 18 percent.
     “We’re so happy Sheldon has found a home at the Aquarium and very pleased that the public was so involved in naming our loggerhead,” said senior aquarist Elizabeth Claus.
     Three other rescue turtles at the Aquarium became Ed, Franklin and Henry, taking names submitted by family and friends in memory of recently lost loved ones.
     Sheldon can look forward to a year of residency at the National Aquarium before being released into the wild.
     Sea turtles, a fundamental link in marine ecosystems, cultivate sea grass beds, helping to maintain their health. They also eat jellyfish.

Here’s how I know which to trust

In winter’s grip, there is nothing like a good nursery and seed catalog, full of colorful pictures of thriving plants, to put you in the mood for digging in the soil. These books may even encourage you to build a small greenhouse or hot bed to get started early.
    Which is why mailboxes fill up with seed and nursery catalogs this time of year.
    I receive many more catalogs than I keep because I discard those with altered images or illustrations to describe what they have to offer.
    There’s a difference between an honest-to-goodness nursery or seed producer and the books sent by wholesale distributors. Most wholesale distributors publish thin-paper catalogs full of pictures that have been enhanced using intensive colored ink or have colorful illustrations of plants and fruit. They also tend to run specials such as two to three plants for the price of one or two to three packets of seeds for the price of one.
    On the other hand, a quality nursery or seed catalog business will most often provide a business history, including location and the number of family generations involved. They will also include information on breeding and propagating practices and photographs of their fields and staff. Most of this type of information is missing in catalogs of wholesale distributors.
    Did you know that by law, catalogs that advertise plants must include in the ad the scientific Latin name of the plant, including genus and species. This is because the English name of plants can change from one part of the country to another, while the Latin name never changes.
    I save good seed and nursery catalogs for at least three years, using older ones as references. All nursery and seed catalogs have sensational new introductions every year, most often posted on the first few pages. To learn if the variety has survived the test of time, I locate the new and improved variety that appeared three years earlier and see if it appears in the 2016 catalog. If I find that variety in the 2016 catalog with even more glorious description, I know that it has gained good reviews and they are bragging. If the description has not changed, it means that the variety is still under study.
    Seed and nursery companies are in business for making money. Their intent is to offer only what sells. Since thousands of dollars are spent in developing new varieties, they cannot afford to carry varieties that do not sell.

Ask The Bay Gardener your questions at Please include your name and address.

Now at home in Maryland Zoo

He wasn’t a fish out of water, but just the same, he was not where he should be. The young sandhill crane was discovered in western Maryland, walking down the center lane of a highway and hanging out in a Home Depot parking lot.
    The tall, gray birds with long necks and legs are normally found this time of year in the southern portions of the U.S. and northern Mexico. They are not endangered, and populations thrive in their natural range, sometimes in huge flocks. They are infrequently seen this far east, although Maryland Department of Natural Resources reports that their range is gradually spreading east. Last summer one breeding pair nested in Garrett County. Perhaps they were the parents of this wanderer?
    “Our response team received multiple reports of the crane before we were able to get our hands on him,” says Karina Stonesifer, associate director of Maryland Wildlife and Heritage. “Every time we would get to the site, he’d be gone. We finally met the bird about a week later, and he was pretty funny, coming toward us as if wanting to be acknowledged and then quickly dipping off and running. This was the first time any of us had ever handled this species in the wild.”
    The 18-month-old bird, named Garrett for the county of his discovery, was eventually captured and brought to the Maryland Zoo for medical ­attention.
    Healthy but thin, the bird appeared unafraid of zoo staff, opting to follow them rather than keep his distance. The bird was probably being fed by humans, according to Jen Kottyan, avian collection and conservation manager at the Maryland Zoo. Thus Garrett cannot be released into the wild.        
    The zoo has given him a permanent home in its Maryland Wilderness Marsh Aviary.
    “We have a wide array of native birds in the aviary,” says Kottyan, “and Garrett seems to be settling in nicely.”

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 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 ( 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 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.

Why do these home-bodies endure the ­rigors of a northern winter when they could fly south?

All birds are migratory to some extent. Some may travel great distances twice annually, from North to South America. Others may regularly move, as the seasons turn, from Canada to Mexico and farther. A few species merely move southward as cold weather advances. Still others wander about in search of a good food supply.
    A smaller number do not travel much at all. They may spend their entire lives within a mile of their birthplace, expanding their range only as the population increases. The cardinal is one of these stay-at-homes.
    Why do these colorful birds, which one would expect to live in the tropics, stay with us all the year? Why do they endure the rigors of a northern winter when they could fly south?
    The answer is buried deep in the evolutionary past, within the climatic changes and continental drifts that have occurred through the ages.
    Cardinals are well equipped to endure the north winter. Their strong, thick bills can readily crack the large seeds that persist through winter and on the bulky sunflower seeds we feed them. They overcome the shortening of winter days, too, by staying up late. They visit the feeder until it is quite dark, long after the other birds have retired.
    At one time, however, to picture cardinals in snow would not have seemed appropriate. Basically a southern bird, the cardinal has the center of its abundance in Dixieland, in the Carolinas and Gulf States. (Audubon painted them among a spray of magnolia flowers.) Since then, the bird has been spreading its range northward, a process much enhanced by global warming. Unknown north of New York City in Colonial times, the cardinal is now established along the Canadian border.

Bay Weekly readers voted John Best Artist on the Bay in the 2015 Best of the Bay readers’ poll.

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 Please include your name and address.

National Aquarium adds baby loggerhead to its family

A loggerhead turtle hatchling from North Carolina is now living the good life at the National Aquarium, free from the dangers facing the threatened species.
    While loggerheads are less likely to be hunted for their meat or shells than other sea turtles, they are seriously threatened by bycatch — the accidental capture of marine animals in fishing gear.
    This new addition joined the Maryland Mountains to the Sea exhibit last month thanks to a partnership with the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores’ Loggerhead Head Start Program, which works to rescue and rehabilitate imperiled hatchlings.
    The little loggerhead will live in the exhibit for one year. Once it has met certain growth and health criteria, it will be tagged and released along the North Carolina coast to be followed by satellite.
    “Sea turtles lead a challenging life and we’re so happy to help give them a better chance at survival,” says Beth Claus of the National Aquarium. “We are proud to be a part of this program and hope the story of this baby loggerhead will help carry home our key messages to the public.”
    Only one challenge remains for the perfect ending to this turtle tale: a name for the hero. You can help. Through January 22, you’re invited to submit suggestions to the aquarium staff. Finalists will be chosen and their names put to a public vote. The winning name will be announced February 1.
    Make suggestions at Or join Bay Weekly’s campaign for Yertle, in honor of the Dr. Seuss classic.

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.