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While not a beautiful swimmer, the channel catfish provides the sweetest flesh a seafood fanatic can hope for

Pulling on my weather gear, I headed out in the morning gloom to hook up the skiff. The forecast was poor, but I had cabin fever and had to get out on the water.
    The white perch were up the trib shallows, I felt sure, and there is no better cure for poor weather than the promise of a good perch fry that evening. Now all I needed was the fish.
    Taking my lightest rods and an ample supply of Rooster Tails and Captain Bert’s spinner baits, I splashed my boat at the local ramp, double-checked my gear and headed out. I was the lone boat to launch that morning. Either I knew something that no one else did, or vice versa. It kinda turned out versa vice, but in the end it worked out.
    It took almost an hour to get the first fish. They weren’t hanging on the shoreline, as I had assumed, but were almost 25 yards out, scattered across the flats. A nine-incher started the game off, and I slipped it back over the side as too small. I soon regretted that move.
    The next fish was about five inches, the next six, and for about a half hour they stayed in that range. Then I lost a good one, at least it had felt like a good one. By then the sky was hanging heavy and the forecast for a day in the 70s looked like so much meteorological wishful thinking. I was getting uncomfortable, and the wind was freshening.
    Perch anywhere near frying size insisted on not showing up. But I persisted. With no Plan B, I did not have much choice. Throwing in the towel and heading in for a hot shower and a hotter cup of tea was crowding my options more than I cared to admit.
    Then my luck changed. At the end of a long cast, I got a firm take, a very firm take. The sound of a singing drag and a rod bent over to the corks, even on a light rod, can give a guy an instant lift, which is exactly what happened.
    You can’t really have a slam-bang battle with six-pound mono and a five-foot spin rod. But the fight can be as tense as any struggle with a trophy rockfish when dinner and the success of the day are at stake. As the fish surged one way then another, a notion took hold.
    If it was a big perch, then it was a really big one. The fish had not come closer in over five minutes of give and take. Plus, I doubted that a giant whitey would be lurking with all those throwbacks. If it was a striper it could mean trouble. It felt substantial, but I feared it would not be over the 20-inch minimum.
    On the other hand, even though it consistently took drag, it did not make a rockfish’s traditional long run in the three-foot depths of the flat. There was a lot of head shaking going on, and the fish stayed deep and fought in short, brutal rushes.
    Eventually the scrapper neared the boat, and I reached for the net. Through the dim, rain-stained waters I caught the first glimpse of my antagonist, a long golden flank flashed through the murk. I was overjoyed.
    The channel catfish is not a beautiful swimmer. It is, however, substantially constructed of firm flesh of the sweetest tooth a seafood fanatic can aspire to. Its tough, rubbery mouth, once punctured by a hook’s barb, does not often slip free. I was pretty sure this one was coming in the boat.
    As I deposited the fat, struggling 21-inch beauty in my fish box, I breathed a sigh of relief. I had my fish fry.
    To affirm that, within another 15 minutes the Chesapeake gave me a twin of the first fish, another fat golden channel cat. There would be enough for company.

He’s keeping the species alive

It’s a dark and stormy night, the moon is shaded by clouds. The only light streams from our headlamps and the revolving beam of a nearby lighthouse. The rain is pelting sideways, and the water is above our ankles. Tired and cold but hopeful, our trio trudges down a Calvert County beach at 3am, scanning the turbulent water for a prehistoric monster.
    Suddenly in the surf, someone spots a dark silhouette, like a rock … we draw closer, anxious with excitement. It is indeed what we’ve been searching for: a horseshoe crab. Park ranger Chelcey Nordstrom removes the sand around the base of the male, revealing a second larger female crab buried beneath.
    “Horseshoe crabs on shore should be left alone unless they need help being flipped back over. This is true especially when they are stacked on top of each other, which can sometimes be hard to see.”
    A species more than 300 million years old, the Atlantic horseshoe crab, Limulus polyphemus, seeks out the beaches of Delaware Bay and Chesapeake Bay to mate, lay their eggs and raise young in these shallow and protected waters. Horseshoe crabs can live 20 years or longer and can travel up and down the east coast. But the species is in trouble, due in part to predation and overharvesting. They are also used actively in medical testing because of their copper-based blood. However, little is known as to why they choose our beaches, where or why they travel or many other habits.
    Data gathered from our Anne Arundel Community College’s science class findings will be used in an ongoing study by college professor Paul Bushman to shed light on these unanswered questions. Last year’s student study group attached radio tags to crabs found, and hopefully collection of those same tagged crabs this year will reveal where they went, how far they traveled, how long they stayed in each location and other curiosities about these ancient creatures. Armed with this new information, advances can be made to further preserve this unique species.

Break the rules and root vegetables won’t grow

A Bay Weekly reader complained that most of the carrots, radishes, turnips and salsify he harvested from last year’s garden had branched roots. My immediate diagnosis was that he must have added a lot of compost to the soil before planting. When root crops are planted in soil rich in freshly applied compost, they tend to produce branched and fibrous roots.
    According to his description, he had applied only two wheelbarrows of compost to a garden approximately 30 feet wide and 50 feet long. Since most wheelbarrow tubs hold between two and three bushels, that amount of compost should not have caused the problem.
    I next asked what kind of compost. LeafGro, he said, incorporated into the soil with a rototiller. Had he had his soil tested? Yes, and I had made recommendations for him based on spring soil tests.
    Stumped so far, I asked how he planted his garden. As soon as he told me that he had sown all of the seedlings in trays and transplanted them in the garden, the problem was solved. Direct sowing is recommended on the seed packets, but he wanted all of his seedlings evenly spaced so that he would have perfect rows.
    Never, never, never transplant root crops. Seeds of carrots, parsnips, salsify, radish, beets, turnips, rutabaga, etc., should always be sown directly into the garden soil. Any disturbance to the roots once the seeds have germinated will cause branching.
    A couple of years ago, another Bay Weekly reader said he could no longer grow carrots and parsnips in his garden. Since he lived in Deale, I stopped by his home and walked into the garden. I sharpened a half-inch diameter piece of broom handle and tried to push the sharpened end into the soil. Four inches was as far as it would go.
    I asked what he used to till the soil. He showed me the Mantis tiller he had used to prepare this same garden bed for at least a dozen years. That was the problem. Repeated tilling had formed a plow-pan, a compacted layer of soil caused by the bottom pressure of the tines of the tiller. Farmers have the same problem from repeated use of plows.
    To solve his problem I recommended that he apply three to four cubic yards of LeafGro per 1,000 square feet and rent a hefty rototiller with six to eight horsepower. After spreading the compost evenly over the garden area, he was to set the tiller to dig as deeply as possible. Soil testing told him what else was needed to make plants grow better.


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

In May, it could be full of worms

The second rockfish season opened just days ago to mock my expectations of another great fishing year.
    Day one saw me headed to just below the Bay Bridge Western Shore rockpile, where the fishing had been gangbusters on the opener the last two years. Finding a dozen or so boats scattered there did not bother me. That early bite had been no secret, and I saw good marks on my finder throughout the area.
    Anchoring up, dropping my chum bag over the side and baiting up with some fresh menhaden chunks, I awaited certain action … and waited and waited. All around me for over two hours others were doing the same before leaving one by one.
    Finally, I too pulled anchor and searched south until arriving at Hackett’s green can, where another fleet of boats was holding steady. Despite good fish marking all around me, I found another slack bite there, too. My best effort was a 19-inch throwback. I saw no other fish caught.
    Day two, partnering with my regular sidekick, Moe, we tried again at Hackett’s. Moe’s uncanny luck held out as he landed a nice 25-inch fish within the first hour. I managed to score only a fat blue catfish, my first from the Bay. Then the action died. We held out until slack water but it did not resume.
    Day three I partnered with another long-time fishing buddy, Mike, who suggested a better spot, south of Hackett’s.
    This time we pulled out all of the stops. Anchoring in 35 feet of water, we put a chum bag at the surface behind the boat and another weighted bag about 20 feet down. Starting out with big chunks of menhaden on 5/0 hooks with two-ounce sinkers, we also presented medium-sized chunks, small chunks and gut balls, all down deep. Within the first half-hour, I had a good fish hooked up.
    The 27-incher was game the whole way to the boat, and I let the scrapper do its stuff. Patiently waiting for it to tire, I drew the reluctant fish toward the side until Mike finally slipped the net under it.
    After a picture to verify my official entry into the second season, I then iced it down in the skiff’s cooler, all the while imagining its filets, browned in butter with just a sprinkle of lemon juice and dill. Within the next half-hour Mike broke his season in with a fat 22-incher that gave a distinct impression of a much larger fish all the way to the net.
    Our intense effort included frequently changing baits and cutting the changed-out baits into smaller pieces to add the chum slick. Its third victim was a twin of my first. As Mike netted it and it lay thrashing on the deck, the solution to the recent days’ slow bite was revealed. The fish started spitting up May worms.
    May worm hatches are the curse of the rockfish bite this time of year. Resembling miniature bloodworms, the worms live in the oyster lumps and the shell-strewn bottom of the Chesapeake until they rise up en masse during May, and often into June, in their mating dance. All a rockfish has to do is open its mouth wide and swim through the thick underwater clouds of worms to easily swallow hundreds of the protein-rich little critters.
    With their appetites satisfied, most rockfish then continue to hold in loose schools and casually loiter, awaiting the next worm feast. Meanwhile, boatloads of eager anglers float about on the surface trying to get their attention.
    Mike hit our limit an hour before noon with the biggest of the day, a fat fish just a hair under 28 inches.

Soon these pullets will be laying eggs

Right about now spring chickens are no longer the cute, fuzzy bundles they were just five weeks ago. Just like human children, they have begun maturing — at first by bits. Now they look like mini adult chickens.
    So it’s a good thing most chick purchases are not for cuddly cuteness but for modern homesteading.
    For now, new chicks are still dependents, requiring extra attention food, shelter and water. Chicks must maintain a body temperature of at least 90 degrees when brought home, with diminishing temperatures after that. They are pullets, the proper name for hens of this transitioning age, no longer chicks but not yet laying.
    Novice chicken farmer Susan Nolan of Lothian has six chickens in her developing flock, two Barred Rock, two Red Stars, one Andalusian Blue and one New Hampshire Red.
    From now until early fall, she gives them two heaping scoops of feed a day. Just like the kids at home, the chicks are messy eaters, leaving more on the ground than in their bellies.
    By early June, they can leave the shelter of Nolan’s home to live in their own residence, the coop.
    Around September, they’ll be feeding Nolan and her family approximately three to five eggs a week per chicken.
    Read more on raising egg hens at:
www.bayweekly.com/node/17991.

Death by herbicide is the first step toward no-till farming

This spring, Chesapeake Country meadows turned from green to the color of straw. It’s been a strange sight and one you’ll see more of in coming years. No, it’s not a symptom of climate change. It’s a step in no-till farming.
    No-till farming offers many advantages over conventional farming.
    Plowing, disking and cultivating destroy soil structure and organic matter and cause soil to compact and to lose moisture, thus requiring ever more energy and more powerful equipment. Turned soil is exposed to wind and water erosion. Dormant weed seeds, which infest our soils, are exposed to sunlight, which can give them the push to germination in a few seconds.
    No-till farming, on the other hand, promotes the accumulation of organic matter. With more organic matter, soil needs less fertilizer, keeps its moisture, avoids compaction and is protected from erosion. But the first step, conversion from conventional to no-till, requires greater dependency on chemical weed killers called herbicides.
    The quick spring change from green fields to gold means the vegetation was sprayed with Gramoxin. Gramoxin is a restricted-use herbicide used to kill either annual weeds or a cover crop of winter rye or wheat. The applicator must be certified to use Gramoxin.
    A more gradual change of color over seven to 10 days suggests the chemical herbicide was glyphosate, pioneered as Roundup by Monsanto. This chemical is used most on peren­nial weeds.
    Weed killers in agricultural use generally have a short lifespan. They are applied in ounces per acre and decompose by light, heat and microbes. As no-till promotes the accumulation of organic matter, there is an increase in microbial activity, which helps keep soil productive.
    In no-till farming, the only soil disturbed is a thin slice where both the seeds and fertilizers are injected into the soil. With less soil disturbance, the weed population diminishes with time, thus reducing the need to apply weed killers in the future.
    The immediate advantage is most noticeable during drought years. No-till crops are more drought-tolerant because the soil retains more water.
    It takes about three years before farmers begin to measure the full benefits of no-till farming. As organic matter accumulates, there is less fertilizer needed to optimize crop yields. With less soil compaction, the roots of crops are able to penetrate deeper for water and nutrients.


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

Mack the Lab is Maryland’s chief apiary sniffer

Cybil Preston and her bee dog Mack the Lab are official heroes in the state of Maryland.
    Like all heroes and superheroes, Mack rose from a troubled past. He was a puppy in a dissolving family where three small children took up all the time the mother had to give. Preston came to the rescue, sensing Mack had the brains to pick up new skills. He did.
    Preston, Maryland’s chief apiary inspector, needed a new sharp-nosed dog to continue the nation’s longest — and only — canine apiary inspection program. The most famous of the five dogs who held the Maryland job was Klinker, who was featured in a National Geographic segment before retiring in 2014.
    Bee dogs, as the apiary inspectors are known, can sniff out a killing disease. The American foulbrood bacterium kills both pupae and pre-pupae in bee colonies. It spreads in a vegetative form as well as through spores, which means if a hive is infected, any tools used even, potentially, the hive itself may have to be destroyed.
    American foulbrood gets its name from the country in which it was discovered and its foul smell, “like chicken manure,” Preston says. The human nose can detect the scent only if the hive is opened, Preston says, “while Mack need only walk past.”
    He stops and sits to signal an infested hive.
    Mack works only in the cold, below 52 degrees, when bees are dormant, so he isn’t stung. One sting on the nose taught handler and dog that lesson. Mack works on the Preston family farm in his free time, at his master’s side, sidetracked only by a game of Frisbee.
    Quick, cost effective and extremely accurate, bee-sniffing dogs are a key part of Maryland apiculture and agriculture, keeping bees at work pollinating crops.

Mack’s sensitive nose helps Maryland’s chief apiary inspector Cybil Preston find bee hives infested with American foulbrood.

With resident rockfish season, ­fishing becomes catching

Trophy rockfish season ends Monday, May 15. On Tuesday, May 16, the second Chesapeake Bay rockfish season begins. At the change, the size limit changes from one fish of over 35 inches to two fish 20 inches or larger, only one of which may be longer than 28 inches.
    Legal fishing areas are limited to the main stem of the Chesapeake from the Hart-Miller Island Dike south to the Maryland-Virginia line plus Tangier Sound and Pocomoke Sound; and the Chester, Choptank and Patuxent rivers and their tributaries. No rockfishing in other rivers, tributaries or creeks, bays or sounds. The geographical limits protect rockfish that continue to spawn in these waters into June.
    Making the transition to angling for resident fish, which will now mostly measure under 30 inches, will mean shifting both equipment and technique.
    This time of year begins light tackle heaven. As rockfish forage in shallower water, they can be pursued on medium-weight spin and casting rods. With the spawn mostly done, patterns emerge as to where the fish can be found.
    As the average size fish will now be about 23 to 24 inches, in tackle drop down to hooks 5/0 and under, leaders 20 to 25 pound or less and lures six inches and under.
    More specifically, trollers should begin dropping back to six-inch sassy shads on their bucktails and parachutes as well as using smaller spoons and swimming plugs. As waters warm, fish begin holding deeper, so additional weight may be needed to present the baits at the necessary depths.
    Chumming, chunking and bottom fishing produce better, as stripers form larger schools, hold in one location much longer and start the post-spawn feed. Alewife, menhaden and bunker (all the same baitfish under different names) continue to be the prefered bait for rockfish. Shore-bound anglers can also rely on bloodworms — jumbos if they can be found — to tempt better-sized fish.
    For now, shore-bound angling is limited to locations that border the Bay proper, among them Sandy Point, Matapeake and Point Look Out state parks. Note that Jonas Green Park and Romancoke Pier, both popular fishing areas, will not be legal until June 1.
    Resident rockfish will now also begin holding on structure such as bridge piers, jetties and along the deeper (five to 10 foot) points and rocky shorelines. This will make them accessible to jerk baits such as Bass Assassins, BKDs, Rapala X-Raps, Rat-L-Traps and similar swimming plugs. At first and last light they will be susceptible to top water baits in the areas along these same structures.

Feed new plants or warm the soil

Like air, soil is slowly warming. When soil temperatures are below 60 degrees, soil microorganisms are rather inactive and plants have fewer nutrients to absorb. As the soils warm, the microorganisms become active and more nutrients become available.
    The conventional gardener can readily solve this problem by side-dressing with a water soluble fertilizer such as Miracle Gro or by sprinkling calcium nitrate, ammonium sulfate or a complete fertilizer near the plants and cultivating it into the soil. This practice will stimulate the plants into early growth. Never allow granular fertilizers to remain on the surface of the soil if you want your money’s worth, for some of the nitrogen will be lost into the atmosphere.
    The solution to cool soil is more complicated for organic gardens, where growth depends on the microorganisms in the soil digesting the organic matter and releasing nutrients.
    Organic gardeners can solve the problem by blending blood meal or fish oil with the soil prior to planting. Another method is to cover the area one to two weeks before planting with a sheet of clear plastic, anchoring the edges of the plastic into the ground. The clear plastic will provide a greenhouse effect and warm the soil. At planting time, remove the clear plastic and cover the row to be planted with black plastic strips 12 to 18 inches wide. Using a sharp knife, cut an X and transplant through the plastic, which will help keep the soil warm and smother weeds.
    I rely on soil test results in making fertilizer recommendations. However, testing is done at room temperature, so soil may contain adequate amounts of nutrients that may not be available in cool soils. This is why water-soluble starter fertilizer is recommended when transplanting in early spring. Water-soluble starter fertilizer provides instantly available nutrients that early spring-planted crops need for optimum growth.
    If you are transplanting plants grown in peat pots, tear away the top of each pot before planting. Allowing the tops of the peat pots to protrude above the soil will result in water being wicked away from the root ball. Plants can die of drought despite the soil surrounding the peat pot being moist. I prefer tearing away the entire peat pot to ensure that the garden soil makes direct contact with the root ball.
    If you are transplanting plants grown in plastic pots or cell packs, examine each root ball before planting. If the roots cover the entire outside edge of the root ball, crush the root ball to disrupt the root system. By crushing the root ball, you will be forcing new roots to grow into the garden soil. Allowing the roots to remain undisturbed often results in delayed establishment or stunted plants.


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

Bats have a colony of mothers

Who knew that bats make excellent mothers? You and I do, thanks to Maryland Department of Natural Resources bat biologist Dana Limpert, who speaks highly of the brown bat.
    “They take excellent care of their young. If a baby falls out of the roost or is injured, the mother will recognize its calls and rescue it.”
    Myotis lucifugus is small, about three and a half inches with a wingspan of nine to 11 inches and weighing less than half an ounce. Their name comes from their long brown fur. Brown bats live throughout Chesapeake Country, especially near water for drinking.
    A female bat gives birth to one or two pups every spring, late May to early June, with twins common hereabouts. During pregnancy and after birth, mother and pups reside in a “maternity colony” that can range from five to several hundred of the winged mammals. Think about a Yaya sisterhood on an animal level.
    Babies not yet able to fly attach themselves to mom immediately after birth and feed on her milk for the first few weeks. When momma bat gets hungry, she leaves her pups in the colony cluster and goes out to hunt for bugs. Upon return she licks faces, recognizing her pups by scent and call.
    In a month or so, pups join their mother in catching and eating bugs.
    Recent developments in gene identification have shown that all members of a colony are related. Colonies live in tree trunks, caves and barns. Eventually — in the fall for females and a year later for males — the pups leave their mothers’ sides to start their own families. The mothers will rejoin their male counterparts in forming a bigger colony to mate, hibernate and begin the cycle anew.
    DNR wants to know if you see bats to help in population studies and preservation of the species, which is under fungal attack: https://tinyurl.com/DNR-bats.