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Big fish love to eat them

It started with a comment by an angling buddy who had been fishing for white perch the day before. “I was getting them two at a time, but they were nowhere near big enough,” he said. “I had to search another three hours before I found any keepers.”
    Early the next morning, I was on that very same site with my trusty perch tackle: a light six-foot rig able to handle drifting a two-ounce sinker and a hi-lo rig in deep water. My No. 6 hooks, dressed with orange beads and a small spinner, were baited with nice bits of juicy bloodworm.
    Slowly cruising the area, I found promising marks on my electronic finder and lowered the baits to the bottom 20 feet below. Within a few minutes, I had a thrashing beauty to the surface and then in my hand: a five-inch white perch. Another 20 minutes resulted in a dozen more swimming in my live well. These guys were going to be perfect baits to live-line for rockfish.
    I racked the perch rig in the console rod holder, fired up my Yamaha, kicked the skiff up on plane and headed for my new destination at full throttle. There was not a minute to lose. This was going to be a morning bite — if there was to be any bite at all.
    The bridge I had in mind had not been very productive of late. Jig anglers who normally target the structure for rockfish had migrated. Throttling down and approaching at slow speed, I noted that I had no company.
    Being the only angler in a normally congested area can mean one of two things: Either I was going to be the first to discover a good bite … or everyone else already knew something I didn’t. Hoping for the former, I netted the smallest perch I could find from the live well, gently slid the 6/0 hook just under its skin in front of the dorsal and flipped it over the side close to a concrete pier.
    As the released perch headed for the bottom, I lightly thumbed my reel letting the spool spin freely as 20-pound mono followed the fish into the depths. With no weight and a light fluorocarbon leader, I was depending on the perch to get down to the proper depth where, I hoped, it would be ambushed by a rockfish.
    I did not have to wait long. First I felt the perch make a number of rapid dashes, then all movement stopped. Slowly, then more rapidly, my line began to move away from the structure, going deeper, then heading for the other end of the concrete pier.
    When a striper takes a white perch, it inevitably does three things. First it disables the baitfish with a crushing bite. Then, because of the perch’s sharp spines, it turns it head-first in its jaws. Only then does it swallow the baitfish. Hoping that the fish below had completed these steps, I put the reel in gear and struck.
    The satisfying bend in my rod indicated success as the fish below went wild, pulling line off my reel. I let it run while I shifted my quietly idling motor into reverse to pull away from the bridge.
    Thumbing the spool to add more resistance to the running fish, I slowly increased separation from the bridge and began to draw my adversary into more open water where I could let it run at will. Twenty-pound mono is no match for barnacle-encrusted bridge piers.
    A few minutes later, I led a fat, shining rockfish into my landing net. After measuring and admiring the 23-inch fish, I deposited it into my fish box and covered it with ice. I had dinner plans for this one.
    It took another hour before I could put its twin on ice as well. Releasing the remaining perch from my live well, I fired up my outboard and headed for home, well before noon.

Keeping up, veggie by veggie

This has been a great year for asparagus. Spears are popping out of the ground daily, growing four to six inches in one day. I find it best to cut the asparagus just below the soil line and harvest spears that are at least six inches above ground. This allows you to snap the bottom of the stem, which guarantees they will be free of woody tissues. Keep asparagus beds free of weeds by hoeing weekly. To avoid promoting additional weed growth, scrape away the weeds with minimal disturbance of the soil.
    If your asparagus bed has been growing for three years or more, it is safe to harvest spears until early July.
    Within days after the last harvest, top dress the bed with either organic or chemical fertilizer, and cultivate the fertilizer into the soil to minimize the loss of nitrogen into the atmosphere. Soil incorporation of fertilizers is the only effective way of minimizing de-nitrification. To minimize weeding, mulch the asparagus bed with a layer of shredded paper about four inches thick.
    Soon broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, Chinese cabbage and kohlrabi will be ready to harvest. A good replacement crop to occupy this vacant space is okra. For a jumpstart on okra, sow individual seeds in two- or three-inch pots filled with potting soil. Place one seed per pot because okra seeds germinate 100 percent within 10 days. As soon as the seeds germinate, place the pots in full sun outdoors and water as needed. In three to four weeks, the plants will be ready to transplant 18 inches apart in the garden. Okra plants grow best when the weather gets hot. Plants started in a protected area will quickly establish themselves in the garden.
    If you planted garlic in the fall, be on the lookout for firm round stems growing from the middle of the whorl of leaves. These round stems are an indication that the plants are going to flower. As soon as you see swelling near the end of the round stem, cut just below the swollen area to remove the premature flower head. Allowing garlic to flower and produce seeds will result in smaller garlic bulbs and cloves.
    As soon as the foliage of garlic plants starts to wilt and turns brownish-green, it is ready to harvest. Soft-neck garlic can be braided at this time. Hard-neck garlic cannot be braided and is best stored by tying in loose bunches before hanging in a shaded and well-ventilated area.
    If you use stakes or cages to support your tomato plants, treat the cages and stakes with a solution of one part bleach to nine parts water.
    Watch the bottom leaves on your tomato plants. When they start to turn yellow-green, it is time to side-dress the plants with additional nitrogen. If you are an organic gardener, your best source of nitrogen is blood meal. If you are a traditional gardener, use calcium nitrate. Either way, apply one-fourth cup fertilizer per plant and cultivate into the soil.
    As soon as cucumbers, melons and squash start to produce vines, they should be given additional nitrogen if they are to yield their best crop. Vine crops also benefit from additional nitrogen when they are extending their vines and producing fruit at the same time.


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

Sometimes you need fertilizers

Am I an organic gardener? I’m often asked that question. I suspect that many who read this column conclude that my frequent reference to composting and compost in gardening means I must be an organic gardener. They seem shocked when I say that I use chemical fertilizers in addition to amending my soils with compost. My reasoning is that of a scientist.
    Before my research into compost, my primary area of research was mineral nutrition of plants. My research for the thesis for my master’s degree resulted in the development of a slow-release fertilizer marketed as Osmocote 18-6-12. The three-year study was conducted on yews, a narrow-leaf evergreen common in landscape plantings. At the time, the nursery industry was starting to grow more plants in pots. Nurserymen were using the same fertilizers as in field production. The two are totally different growing conditions. Plants growing in pots require more frequent irrigation, which washes more nutrients through the bottom of the pots. Plants grow faster in pots because of high rooting-media temperatures and better aeration. But the rooting media used for growing plants in pots do not store nutrients well.
    My research and reviews of the results of many other plant-nutrient experts convinced me that it can be very difficult to satisfy the nutrient requirements of plants at different stages of growth.
    My later work in the use of compost in the production of nursery and greenhouse crops reinforced the conclusion that it takes both organic and mineral fertilizers to achieve both plant health and high crop yields.
    In the spring when soils are cool, compost, animal manure and organic fertilizers are unable to generate sufficient nutrients because they require microbial activity to release nutrients. For spring-planted crops such as peas, cabbage, broccoli, onions and cauliflower, chemical fertilizers can provide those nutrients.
    Again when tomato and pepper plants are flowering and fruiting simultaneously, the demand for nitrogen is greater than organics are capable of generating. Plants drop bottom leaves because the nitrogen within them is migrating out of the leaves and moving up the stem. This makes the plants more susceptible to blight.
    In mid-summer when sweet corn is growing rapidly in advance of tasseling, organics are not capable of generating sufficient nitrogen for big, sweet ears. Thus the corn stalks drop their bottom leaves.
    We know from studies on the use of compost to grow bedding plants that the nutrient-supplying power of rooting media containing compost can supply adequate levels of nutrients for only about six weeks.
    Nitrogen is the element plants need in greatest abundance. Organic matter is incapable of supplying all that is needed. Numerous research studies have confirmed my initial research that most plants require five to six times more nitrogen that phosphorus and two to three times more potassium than phosphorus. As day length, moisture and temperature affect plant growth, using the combination of soils rich in organic matter with supplemental applications of chemical fertilizers gives you the best of both worlds.


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

Chesapeake Curiosities

Daughters of the American Revolution erected the first roadside markers in 1927 and 1928 to rally support for a coast-to-coast national road. The Daughters’ Madonnas of the Trail were 18-foot-tall statues dedicated to the women pioneers who had crossed the country in covered wagons. One of these markers stands in Bethesda (on Wisconsin Ave. across from Metro), with 11 others across the country.
    As car travel became more popular, roadside markers gained support. In Maryland the DAR and the State Roads Commission collaborated in the early 1930s to identify and mark sites of historical significance. The Maryland Historical Trust now oversees about 800 historical markers on our roads.
    In Maryland, these include a series of markers placed in 1932 to mark General’s Highway, according to Nancy Kurtz, National Register Coordinator for the Maryland Historical Trust.
    Did you know the significance of that name?
    It’s the route of General Washington’s journey, December 3 to 23, 1783, from New York to Annapolis to resign as Commander-in-Chief of the first American army.
    Each state has its own marker program.
    If you know of an interesting historical place not marked by a roadside sign, you can propose a new marker to the Maryland Historical Trust: http://mht.maryland.gov/
historicalmarkers/Propose.aspx.
    “It can take from 12 to 18 months for a marker application to be reviewed, revised, ordered, cast and installed,” Kurtz says. It takes eight to 12 weeks to cast and ship a marker.


    Chesapeake Curiosities investigates regional oddities and landmarks to increase understanding of our unique local culture and history.
    Has a sight stymied you? Does an oddity bewilder? Your curiosity may be featured in an upcoming column. Send your questions to chesapeakecuriosities@gmail.com.

Chesapeake Curiosities

What are the dilapidated buildings in the woods near Beverly-Triton Beach at the end of the Mayo Peninsula?
    Most likely, they are the remains of picnic pavilions at the popular beach complex and tourist attraction.
    Before the Bay Bridge was built in 1952, people from Washington and Baltimore and the surrounding suburbs would take the relatively short trip down to Chesapeake Country to get out of the city during the sweltering summer months. Mayo Beach, Beverly Beach and Triton Beach were all resorts that catered to the influx of summer residents.
    “People from D.C. and Baltimore owned summer cottages in the area. Women and children would stay longer, while the husbands worked during the week and joined them on weekends,” explains Lara L. Lutz, author of Chesapeake’s Western Shore, Vintage Vacationland.
    The complex at Beverly-Triton Beach was sprawling, with huge pavilions, slots machines, mechanical animals for children, concessions, rental stands and picnic areas.
    “I was told that Beverly Beach was the young people’s hangout, where teens went to meet and mix with teens. Mayo Beach was the family beach, and Triton Beach opened later and was mostly used for corporate picnics and other group events,” said Lutz.
    Half a century later, there are woodland trails and limited access for boat launches. Anne Arundel Department of Recreation and Parks is working toward reopening the beach for swimming next summer.
    “There are some erosion and some major safety issues we want to address,” said Recreation Supervisor Wendy Scarborough. “We need to know what we need to do to bring it up to code for additional usage.”
    Meanwhile, the Lost Towns Project is working with Central Middle Schoolers to explore and research the park. This summer and fall, you’ll be able to visit and learn about the good old days’ unique history: www.losttownsproject.org.


    Chesapeake Curiosities investigates regional oddities and landmarks to increase understanding of our unique local culture and history.
    Has a sight stymied you? Does an oddity bewilder? Your curiosity may be featured in an upcoming column. Send your questions to chesapeakecuriosities@gmail.com.

But not so great for forests

Robins and sparrows sing the praises of our unending rain. Their beaks and bellies are filled with wriggling worms.
    Earthworms surface as wet conditions make easy work of relocating. No, worms don’t come up to escape drowning. They are capable of surviving several days submerged.
    The vibration of raindrops sounds like the predatory rumble of moles looking for a snack, causing the worms to head for the surface, where fishermen and hungry birds find them. Some birds have shifted to eating an earthworm-only diet.
    Gardeners also appreciate the nutrient-rich deposits our red wrigglers leave in our compost and soil. But their presence is causing a bit of havoc in our forests.
    “Every one of those earthworms you see on the sidewalks and driveways after a rain is an invasive,” Melissa McCormick says.
    McCormick is a research scientist with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, where she studies the interaction of plants with fungi. Including how invasive earthworms are changing the forest environment.
    “We still have a few native earthworms, but the vast majority are non-natives from Europe and Asia,” she says. It is possible that some of these visitors arrived as early as the first European settlers on this continent.
    As with human invasions, these wormy tourists have pushed out native species and caused trouble in the new land.
    “Forests are adapted to work with native earthworms and fungi to support late successional trees,” McCormick explains. Alien worms eat through leaf litter more quickly, baring soil to invasive plants. By affecting the nutrient cycle in the forest, invasive worms give bacteria and more aggressive fungi a favorable environment.
    The Smithsonian research team looked at populations of earthworms at test sites, digging trenches in blocks of soil and using electroshock to coax the worms out. They then planted tree seedlings to see what fungi grew and how the soil affected their growth. A healthy forest has many diverse layers and ages of trees.
    “Most native plants and trees are dependent on their association with fungi to get their nutrients,” McCormick says. “These large populations of invasive earthworms basically bias the soil against the fungi the trees rely on, especially late successional.”
    The experiment proved that oak, hickory and beech trees did not grow as well with lots of invasive earthworms around. Tulip poplar and red maple — both early successional species — grew just as well if not better.

If you want to amuse the fish gods, announce your plans

It was the simplest and most delicious of meals. A thick rockfish fillet anointed with olive oil and sprinkled with coarse-grain salt, fresh-ground pepper and dill and broiled long enough to brown both sides. Served with the fish were the first ears of Florida Silver Queen corn, boiled for only four minutes, plus thick slices of fresh tomatoes also treated with olive oil, salt and pepper and sprinkled with chopped basil.
    The dinner had taken a little over 20 minutes to prepare. The complete operation, however, involved many difficult hours. There’s an old saying to the effect that if you want to give the fish gods a chuckle, announce your plans.
    Foolishly I had proclaimed how good the bite would be on the opening day of the second rockfish season May 16 and just how readily I would procure large and tasty fillets for a springtime meal that very evening.
    When I peered out my window that Monday morning, I saw that opening day was going to be a washout as a drenching rain would fall all day. My plans were as sodden as my newly planted raspberry bushes, at that moment threatening to float down the driveway.
    My angling efforts during the latter weeks of the trophy rockfish season had resulted in lots of close calls. We had caught and had to release a surprising number of fat stripers up to 32 inches but landed few of the legal 35-inch minimum. I expected a superb bite when the minimum size fell to 20 inches.
    The day after the deluge dawned with great weather. But much to my surprise, the areas from above the Bay Bridge to below Hackett’s were pretty much rockfish desert. The thousands of marks I had seen on my finder in previous weeks were no longer there.
    Oh, there was a blip here or there. But the fish-rich scene painted by my angler sonar in early May was no longer there, though I searched from the Baltimore Light down south past Tolley’s Point. Questioning fellow anglers later that day confirmed my experience. There were lots and lots of long faces on the second day of the second season.
    The problem with stripers, an old waterman had confided, was that the rascals have tails. They can and will often be many miles away within a short time. As there was also no evidence of the gatherings of baitfish that had previously teemed in the mid-Bay, I could only surmise that right around opening day the baitfish had left with the stripers following.
    Still, I persevered. Jigging some areas and fishing cut bait in others, I worked for more than six hours to get a single bite. That lone 23-inch rockfish was it for the day.
    The meal my wife and I shared that evening was worth every moment it took to acquire it. There is nothing to compare to dining on a rockfish caught the same day.
    I managed to score some nice fish later in the week, though rockfish still have not returned in their previous plentitude. I am confident, however, that fishing will continue to improve — but not so confidant that I will tempt the fish gods again by flaunting my plans.

Test your soil to put them to work

Horticulture is a science, not a guessing game.
    I can remember my pipe-smoking, tobacco-chewing grandfather putting garden soil in his mouth to taste if it was sweet or sour. I was impressed at the time, but looking back on his method of testing soil, I know it would have been impossible for him to make any determinations of the pH or of nutrients by taste.
    Just as doctors rely on blood tests as guides to their patients’ health, in agriculture, we rely on soil test results. Soil testing supports both the health and nutrient value of plants. A deficiency of one or two essential soil nutrients reduces not only yields but also the level of nutrients within plant tissues that will be ingested by humans or animals. Soil that is deficient in zinc, copper, iron, magnesium, calcium, etc. will produce plants that are equally deficient, which will have a direct effect on your health.
    If you have applied 10-10-10 fertilizer on your garden or lawn for many years, it is likely that your soil has too much phosphorus. That excess can, in turn, result in reduced crop yields and plants deficient in zinc, iron, copper and manganese. The excess phosphorus binds these nutrients, making them unavailable to the roots of plants.
    This is the problem farmers experience from repeated applications of chicken manure, which is rich in phosphorus. In that case, the excess phosphorus in the soil is making the soybeans or corn grown there deficient in essential elements. Humans or animals eating those grains will not get a nutritionally balanced diet.
    Too much phosphorus causes still more problems. When soil erodes and enters Bay waters, phosphorus attaches to clay particles. When these clay-laden soils penetrate silt fences and enter the Bay, the phosphorus is released, adding to the water’s nutrient-concentration problems.
    Another element, boron, is also secretly at work in your soil. If you are gardening in a sandy loam or loamy sand, boron deficiency is likely. Plants do not require much boron, but its deficiency affects yields and storage life. You have likely seen the result without recognizing it. The brown punky blotches you sometimes see beneath the skin of an apple tell you that the fruit was grown on boron-deficient soil.
    Without soil testing, you won’t know the invisible forces at work in your soil.
    I can now give you a choice of two laboratories for your soil testing:
    • A&L Eastern Agricultural Laboratory, now known as Waypoint: www.al-labs-eastern.com (804-743-9401; 7621 Whitepine Dr., Richmond, VA 23237).
    • AgroLab, Inc.: www.agrolab.us (302-566-6094; 101 Clukey Dr., Harrington, DE 19952). Request a soil-testing kit, including instructions on how to take qualitative soil samples.
    Include my e-mail address (dr.frgouin@gmail.com) on the information sheet to have results sent to me for interpretation. Include your own e-mail address as well so I can forward you my recommendations.
    Good recommendations depend on a good sample. To represent your current soil conditions, take at least five core samples to a depth of six inches in six different locations in your lawn or garden. Mix the core samples thoroughly in a clean container. Remove about a cup of soil for testing. Spread the sample on a clean piece of newsprint to dry overnight before mailing. On the form, identify what’s to grow in that area. Results are typically returned within a week.


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

One of gardening’s incomparable pleasures



There is nothing like sneaking into the garden in mid to late July after the potato plants have finished flowering and stealing a few thin-skinned potatoes. If you hill your potatoes with compost in place of garden soil, you can harvest potatoes without disturbing the plant. At the final harvest, you get the added benefit of potatoes that are almost dirt-free.
    Freshly dug potatoes have a flavor all their own. Mashed, they are nice and fluffy; French-fried, they are always golden and absorb very little cooking oil; baked, they are outstandingly delicious. They bring all these advantages because they are nearly 100 percent starch. As their thin skin needs no peeling, they are packed with vitamins that concentrated immediately under the skin. If you like hash brown potatoes with onions, your garden can provide both because the long-day onions you plant this spring will be bulbing at about the same time you start taking potatoes from the plants.
    Hilling potatoes with immature yard-debris compost in place of garden soil has many advantages. First, it forces you to generate an abundance of compost because it takes a lot to hill potatoes. By the time the potato plants are two feet tall, you will have had to hill them at least three times. For a row 80 feet long, that’s at least five wheelbarrows full. Purchasing that much compost would cost you a pretty penny. Furthermore, the compost you purchase is finished and heavy to handle. Immature compost from the composting bin that you filled last fall has a large amount of partially decomposed leaves mixed with more fully decomposed materials, making it less dense and easy to transport and apply.
    Second, by hilling the potato plants with compost, you can easily push your hands in until you feel an edible potato. As long as you gently remove the potato from the rhizome, you do not retard the growth of the plant.
    Third, as immature compost does not absorb much water, even the smallest rain will penetrate down into the soil where most of the roots that feed the plants are located.
    Fourth, potato beetles do not appear to be as problematic on potatoes hilled with unfinished compost. Entomologists tell me that adult potato beetles are not good navigators. They have no problem taking off, but when it comes to landing, they often miss their target. Instead of flying back to the plant they missed, they walk on the soil. They appear not to like walking on rough surfaces such as unfinished compost. Thus, when hilling with unfinished compost, keep the leaves of the plants from touching the ground.
    There are many years I have not had to spray for beetles. A daily walk through the planting to remove the beetles by hand, dropping them into a container, is all that has been necessary.
    Fifth, by hilling with compost you have added to the organic matter of your garden soil. By rotating my potato planting every year, I manage to apply a uniform layer of compost over the entire garden every five years.
    All that and delicious young potatoes, too.


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

A partnership of late dinners

It was getting dark. Exhausted and stinking of menhaden, I fingered a reel, feeding more line into the dwindling tidal current. I had fished since morning and caught at least three or four rockfish mere inches short of the 35-inch minimum, so calling it quits without a keeper was difficult.
    Earlier in the day, I had warned my wife I was intending to fish well into the afternoon.
    “That means you’ll be out there until after nine or so, right?”
    “No. I hope to be home at seven, certainly by eight.”
    At half past eight, I was still fishing and at least an hour from home. Deb, I knew, would not be upset or even surprised, even if I was a good deal later.
    My spouse understands this sort of thing. She is a sculptor. When we first met, I feared the extreme behavior of an artist would fatally complicate our relationship. Instead, it seems to have inured us to each other’s excesses.
    Back in those days, Deborah might be incommunicable for days, pulling endless all-nighters to get ready for a show, despite the slight chance of financial reward.
    She didn’t find it maddening that I spent all my vacation time, and not a little money, flying with our two German shorthairs clear across the country to chase chukar partridge, valley quail or some equally obscure game bird along ridges and mountainsides so steep and remote that many questioned my sanity.
    In our different pursuits, we were almost identically compulsive. We both intrinsically understood the irrationality of our efforts but accepted them in each other.
    Later, as she found success and became even busier, devoting countless hours in her studio, I had expanded mine to pursuing bonefish in the Bahamas, Mexico and eventually down into the Caribbean.
    To further complicate, in the middle of all this we had three sons. That put limits on our scope of adventure. Though much more home-bound, we still followed our passions. I mostly limited mine to hunting and fishing around the Chesapeake. Deb began to teach, restricting her shows to one or two a year, while we raised the boys.
    Our sons are now adults, two in businesses in Florida and the third a sculptor living and working in Baltimore. Outside teaching hours, Deborah has created a loyal following of collectors who occupy her with their constant demand for her work. I’m still a fervent, outdoor enthusiast.
    Which brings me back to the dwindling light as the last of the sun outlined ripples in the current. On a similar night just a few years ago I enjoyed an insanely intense bite of stripers at near midnight not too far from this spot.
    Then I picked up one of the four rods trailing aft. Cranking in line, I unhooked the chunk of menhaden bait and tossed it into the current. Securing the hook and racking the rod, I did the same to the other three outfits. I was packing it in and going home.
    Sitting down to a late dinner and conversation with my wife seemed like a reasonable alternative to spending another few hours trying to seduce a big rockfish. The idea, however, was a little startling. Was I getting old? Or finally growing up?