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It’s a crowded solar system

If you’ve been out before dawn you’ve likely seen Jupiter blazing in the east. Early Friday morning, the gaseous giant shines left of the waning crescent moon. The following morning you’ll find it above the moon and forming a loose triangle with the star Regulus, the heart of Leo the lion.
    The only other naked-eye planets visible are Mars and Saturn, low in the western sky in the darkening twilight. Saturn is fast on the heels of the setting sun, while Mars is farther to the east. Don’t confuse Mars for Antares, the red heart of Scorpius and roughly midway between the two planets.
    Mars has a close encounter Sunday, when Comet Siding Spring (C/2013 A1) passes within 82,000 miles of the red planet. For comparison, the moon orbits the earth by almost 240,000 miles, and the closest recorded comet to pass us was in 1770 at 1.4 million miles! While a collision isn’t predicted, the comet’s tail will likely engulf the red planet. Even with binoculars you’ll be hard-pressed to see Comet Siding Spring, but a telescope will reveal it above the red planet.
    We have our own close encounter with a comet — Halley’s Comet, no less — in the form of the annual Orionid meteor shower, which peaks late Tuesday and early Wednesday. The comet hasn’t visited the inner solar system since 1986, but each year at this time earth passes through the trail of debris left behind from its countless orbits around the sun. With the waning crescent moon rising shortly before dawn, you might see from 20 to 25 meteors an hour. They can appear anywhere in the sky, but if you trace back their path they radiate from the constellation Orion.
    The sun and moon have a close encounter of sorts Thursday the 23rd, resulting in a partial solar eclipse in the early evening. Be warned: Gazing upon a solar eclipse can cause blindness, and a partial eclipse is all the more dangerous, so look only with a solar filter.
    Just as it takes a full moon for a lunar eclipse like the one two weeks ago, a solar eclipse coincides with new moon, when it passes between sun and earth, blotting out the sun’s disc — or part of it in the case of this partial eclipse.
    Hereabouts the show begins at 5:52pm, with the greatest point of eclipse coming at 6:08, when one-third of the sun is blocked from view. Alas, the sun sets at 6:17 before the eclipse is over.
    Again, do not attempt to watch the eclipse without protective eyewear; use the coming week to find solar glasses or another proper filter.

Time to repot for life indoors

Fall is the time to repot houseplants. During the short daylight hours of late fall, winter and early spring, most houseplants don’t produce much top growth. This rule is especially true of plants that live outdoors during the summer.
    For a plant to grow in a container, it needs room for new roots. Plants are root-bound when their roots fill the pot. Root-bound plants generally stop producing top growth, and they often start blooming profusely. If the roots are left undisturbed, the plants often develop mysterious symptoms. If you ignore the symptoms, the plants deteriorate.
    Repotting does not necessarily mean putting plants into larger containers. Most house plants can be repotted by simply removing the root ball from the container, shaking it to loosen the roots, cutting out some roots and cutting other roots in half to make room for more rooting medium. The freshened plant can be returned to the same container.
    What’s in that new medium makes a big difference in the health of the plant.
    Most commercial potting materials contain mostly peat moss, perlite or vermiculite and milled pine bark. These soilless rooting media should not be called potting soil. They are generally amended with commercial fertilizers sufficient to support plant growth for six to eight weeks. Unless you fertilize these plants after two months of growth, they often show nutrient-deficiency symptoms such as yellowing or dropping bottom leaves.
    Amending commercial medium by one-third volume of compost, such as LeafGro, improves them and reduces your need to fertilize.
    You can achieve better results by making your own potting soil or soilless rooting medium.
    For a good soilless mix, blend equal parts by volume of LeafGro, peat moss and perlite. For every gallon of peat moss, add two heaping tablespoons of dolomitic limestone. Peat moss is very dry; moisten it well during mixing. Store the unused rooting medium in a plastic bag so it will remain moist.
    To make potting soil, mix equal parts by volume garden soil, compost from your garden or commercial compost and perlite. Place the blend in a microwaveable container and microwave at full power for 15 minutes for each gallon of potting soil. Cool before using.
    If more than one-third of your potting soils comes from the garden, repot in porous clay pots rather than glazed or plastic one. Unless soil is very sandy, it holds water and can rot roots without good evaporation.
    Plants potted in mixes containing garden soil don’t need as much water or fertilizer as plants growning in soilless media.
    In porous clay pots, plants growing in soilless rooting media will dry out more rapidly, thus requiring more frequent watering. More frequent watering takes more frequent fertilizing.
    Your plants do better when you give them the pot that’s right for their rooting medium.


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

The fish gods may just deliver

I was re-exploring some old territory higher up in one of our broader tributaries when the strike finally came. Working a quiet shoreline in the early morning, I cast out a half-ounce Saltwater Chug Bug near the broad entrance to a tidal pond.
    With just a soft twitch, the lure spit a bit of water, then sank from sight. I wasn’t sure it had been taken by a fish until my rod tip dipped and the line moved up current. Coming tight, I cinched the fish up, and the surface erupted, removing all doubt.
    Launching my skiff earlier that morning, I made a vague and silent promise of especially good personal behavior if the fish gods would only grant me a few rockfish. Later I realized I should have been a little more explicit.

Fickle Fall
    “It’s not all that difficult to catch a rockfish,” a friend of mine once opined. “What is difficult is catching them the way you want to catch them.” He was talking about top-water fishing in the shallows, and his words are ringing especially true this season.
    Surface fishing in the skinny water is a fall activity and generally best at high tides in early morning or evening. Rockfish don’t feel comfortable feeding around a shallow shoreline unless they have low light and a little extra water under their bellies.
    But my recent efforts had been complicated, and mostly thwarted, by wind, too much of it for comfort or consistently from the wrong direction. If the weather was fishable at all, the stiff autumn breezes tended to either hold up an incoming tide (leaving too little water), push it out too early (same effect) or thrash the area too much for working surface plugs.
    Additional complications were the wild temperature swings and the recent full moon. Those two forces seemed to scatter both the bait and the feeding game fish, making finding them difficult. All of these conditions combined for more or less the same results: very few fish, especially top-water types.

Answered Prayers
    This morning, luck seemed heading my direction. Playing the striper gently, I led it to the side of the boat, lifted it in and took its picture. It was my first landing in days, and I wanted solid proof.
    Throwing back out to the same place resulted in an immediate and enthusiastic reception, but I missed the hook set. Working back to the other side of the inlet, I let the area rest a few minutes before throwing another cast back into the sweet spot. It was rewarded by an instant attack and a fish much bigger than the first.
    This guy zigzagged all over the place, throwing water and raising a ruckus before I won. Then I gave the inlet a good 10 minutes to calm down. Suspecting a good gathering of fish, I didn’t want to flush them out with too much activity all at once.
    That proved wise, as after a decent interval I hooked another fat rockfish, then another. I spent a pleasant time on that one site, hooking a striper, fighting and landing it, then waiting until things calmed down before I resumed casting. Six fish landed and three lost seemed like an excellent return as well as one of the more productive outings I’ve had this fall.
    After the morning’s shallow-water bite died off, I kicked the boat up on plane and headed out to deeper water to find some channel edges to fish.
    In my early morning prayer, I had asked to catch rockfish, and indeed I did. The fish measured only 12 inches, the smallest five.

Its far side is always dark to us

The dark hours at week’s end are still brightened by the glow of the waning Hunter’s Moon, which rises mid-evening and dominates the night sky until daybreak. On clear days this week, you may even see the moon in the west after sunrise.
    Over the weekend, the moon travels with the constellation Taurus. Friday it is 10 degrees to the right of the Pleiades star cluster while the bull’s red eye Aldebaran is a little farther below the moon. The brightests stars of the Pleiades form a small but distinct dipper, which makes up the bull’s back. Saturday the moon is much closer to Aldebaran and the Hyades star cluster, which makes up the bull’s face. If the moonlight is too much to discern these stars, wait a day or two until the waning moon has shifted to the west.
    Just like here on earth, half the moon is always illuminated by the sun and the other half facing away from the sun. But as the angle between the sun, earth and moon changes, so does the portion of the moon’s illuminated face that we can see. With the moon waning, the angle is closing, obscuring more of the lunar surface behind earth’s shadow. This darkened section of the moon still faces earth and should not be confused with the so-called dark side of the moon. Better to think of that as the far side of the moon, which faces away from earth. The far side is still bathed in sunlight — we are just never in a position to witness it.
    The moon rotates on its own axis, with one side facing the sun for about two weeks and then facing away from the sun the next two weeks. Over billions of years, earth’s stronger gravitational pull has slowed the moon’s rotation to the point that it spins in synch with its pace around the earth. As a result, one side of the moon faces earth only during new phase, when it is between us and the sun, obscured by the light of day. So we never see the far side of the moon.
    Mars and Saturn pop into view in the wake of the setting sun. Saturn is sinking fast and is visible for less than an hour. Mars is well to the east of Saturn but not quite as bright. Don’t confuse it for the similarly hued star Antares, the heart of the Scorpion wriggling below.
    Jupiter rises around 2am and is high overhead in the east as morning approaches. Over the next month this gaseous giant climbs higher and grows brighter in our pre-dawn sky.

Dry fall following wet summer makes a good show

This year will bring spectacular fall foliage coloration — provided it stays dry.
    That’s what I told the Bay Weekly reader asking for my prediction.
    More rain means that more of the leaves will remain green for a longer period of time, thus reducing the intensity of the red, orange and yellow. If we have a dry fall, a higher percentage of the leaves will turn color at the same time. But because of drier conditions, the foliage will not last long.
    This prediction is made based on our abundance of rain that kept the foliage lush all summer long. Thus, the leaves of deciduous trees have generated an abundance of carotene and anthocyanins, the pigments that generate the red, yellow and orange colors in leaves. Those compounds are present in each leaf but masked by chlorophyll. That chlorophyll deteriorates as days cool and daylight hours shorten, and nitrogen — a major component of chlorophyll — migrates from the leaf tissues down the petiole to accumulate around the vegetative bud at the base of each leaf. 
    In years with a dry growing season, foliage is less lush, and deciduous trees have less foliage. If a dry growing season is followed by a dry fall, the foliage will be bright but of very short duration. If the growing season is dry and we have a wet fall, the foliage will be muted but slow dropping from the branches.
    Not all tree species generate the same colors. Maple trees are known for their bright red and orange colors, while the ash tree is easily recognized by its yellow fall color. A hill in New Hampshire is called Red Hill because most of the trees growing there are sugar and red maples. That hill is highly visible; many make a yearly pilgrimage to see it.
    In southern Maryland, we are lucky because we have an abundance of dogwoods that often begin showing their red colors in late summer. Near wetlands, we have sweet gum and black gum, which contribute red to purple-red colors and are most plentiful. Red maples provide a splash of red to orange-red in both wetlands and on hillsides.
    If we have a dry fall, the scarlet oaks should be spectacular with their deep red leaves. Most of the other oak species provide only a limited amount of yellowing before dropping their leaves. 
    Enjoy.


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

The fishing is great; the ­dangers of hypothermia grave

Finally I had to face it; with morning temperatures in the low 50s, socks are a necessity. With regret, I moved my fishing shorts and warm-weather shirts into winter storage last week. Hauling my insulated long-sleeved undershirts and heavyweight long pants from the back of the closet broke the final link with summer. It’s going to be pretty much a cold-weather game from here on out.
    The good news is that the fishing is getting more exciting. With rockfish and bluefish gathering and feeding up for the winter, breaking schools are going to become more and more common. Tossing lures into a cauldron of feeding game fish always provides exciting memories to hold us over until next spring.
    However, there is a serious downside to the colder weather, especially on the water. Hypothermia is a medical term that describes the condition that occurs when your body begins losing heat faster than it can produce it. It’s a dangerous condition. About 1,000 people in the U.S. die from hypothermia every year.
    We are warm-blooded mammals, and our bodies operate under an optimal temperature of approximately 98.6 degrees. Our internal organs — particularly the heart, liver and blood vessels — generate and regulate heat. But if our core body temperature drops more than three degrees, we experience physical and mental dysfunction. From lethargy and confusion, eventual unconsciousness and even death can follow.
    The very old and the very young are at particular risk of hypothermia, the elderly because their bodies have lost some ability to regenerate and regulate heat, the very young because their small body mass can lose temperature rapidly. Extra care must be taken when they are on the water during cold weather.
    During summer months the spray blowing onto us from a moving boat is a refreshing way to cool off, but in the winter that experience invites trouble. The body loses heat much faster when it becomes wet, 25 times faster when immersed.
    A sudden rainsquall in October is no longer just inconvenient and uncomfortable. It now becomes dangerous. Worse is falling overboard. Immersion in 45-degree water can result in loss of dexterity and onset of confusion within five minutes, unconsciousness within 30 minutes and death within an hour — if the victim has not drowned first.
    Waterproof, windproof and heat-retentive clothing are our primary defenses against hypothermia. Foul-weather coats and pants are not only proof against rain and sleet; they are also protection from the wind and help retain body warmth. Fleece, synthetic insulators and wool are ideal heat retainers. Down should be avoided because once it becomes wet, it loses its insulating qualities.
    Don’t ignore gloves and footwear. Although our extremities are not critical to our inner core temperature, getting cold hands or feet is extremely uncomfortable. Both neoprene and wool are excellent materials in harsh marine environments. Always wear a warm hat. It is a myth that the body loses 90 percent of its heat through the head — but not if that’s your only unclothed part.
    Warm beverages give our inner core an extra shot of warmth. Hot cocoa, coffee, tea or plain hot water are effective antidotes to the onset of chill. Avoid or minimize alcohol intake. Alcohol actually promotes body cooling by dilating blood vessels, while giving the illusion of warmth.
    Bring extra clothing on board. When a person gets wet, get them immediately into warm, dry clothes. A Mylar or space blanket is an inexpensive, compact and effective item in your cold weather emergency kit. The blanket is waterproof and significantly reduces heat loss.
    Once ashore, the quickest way to restore the body’s core temperature is a warm (not hot) bath or shower. Avoid exposure to any form of extreme heat. The skin becomes very insensitive during episodes of hypothermia, and burn injuries are much more easily incurred than they would be otherwise.
    Cold-weather fishing on the Chesapeake is often fantastic, even better than in more temperate periods. Go prepared for good experiences and great stories. Ignore the accompanying danger at your own peril.

Earth’s shadow blots out this week’s full moon

With sunrise now after 7am, perhaps you’ve seen an exceptionally bright light in the south before dawn? Looking up, did you see the constellation Orion? That’s Sirius, the brightest star in the heavens, known as the Dog Star for its place amid Canis Major. Sirius rises around 2am in the east-southeast. Close to the horizon, it pulses a dazzling rainbow of colors, its light refracted by earth’s atmosphere like that from a prism. Closer to daybreak, when Sirius is high in the south, its light cuts through less of our atmosphere and appears a brilliant, cold white. As if Sirius didn’t stand out from its brightness alone, the three belt stars of Orion point straight down to the Dog Star.
    Perhaps, though, you’re looking due east in the hour before sunrise. In that case you’re seeing Jupiter, which outshines even Sirius. The giant planet rises around 3am, and by 6am it is high in the east. Below Jupiter is the constellation Leo with its upper body looking like an inversed question mark with Regulus at the bottom.
    You’ll want to get up before dawn Wednesday to catch the total lunar eclipse of the full, Hunter’s Moon. An eclipse of the moon only occurs during full moon, when it is aligned just so with the earth and sun, which casts earth’s shadow over the lunar surface. The process begins after 4am as the moon grows darker under the outer, penumbral, shadow. A little after 5am, the full, umbral, shadow begins to take a growing bite from the moon’s left edge until it is completely over-shadowed by 6:30. Mid-eclipse is at 6:54, after which point the rising sun breaks the spell.
    At the other side of darkness, Mars and Saturn appear at sunset. Saturn is fast on the heels of the sun, low in the southwest at dusk. Night by night the ringed planet is sinking lower and inching closer to the sun until it disappears around month’s end. Mars trails Saturn by roughly 20 degrees. Normally its red hue makes it easy to spot, but you may think you’re seeing double, as Mars is less than five degrees above another red light, Antares, the heart of Scorpius, whose name means rival of Mars. Over the coming weeks Mars creeps higher while the scorpion sets from view for winter.

You’ll need them to get rid of ­creeping Charley and clover

Fall is the best time to eradicate clover and creeping Charley from your lawn and garden. Both of these broadleaf weeds can be controlled by spraying with Weed-B-Gone, Trimec or Speedzone. Apply at the rate of two tablespoons per gallon of water as a light spray on the foliage. Apply only enough spray to wet the foliage. 
    Take care to avoid dripping on the soil. These sprays are phenoxy compounds that can be absorbed through the roots of desirable plants, such as trees and shrubs, causing twisting and curling of leaves next spring. 
    Apply these sprays only on actively growing plants. They are not effective on plants stressed by drought. In drought, thoroughly irrigate the area at least 48 hours before treating with the herbicides. Apply in the early morning hours when the cells of the plants are turgid.
    Foliage absorbs the chemicals in a couple of hours. Keep pets and children away from the treated area for at least 24 hours. Wear rubber boots, rubber gloves and use low pressure to avoid drift. Do not apply spray when the wind is blowing. 
    In areas of heavy infestation, a second application may be necessary. The problem area is most likely infested with seeds of these broadleaf weeds, so anticipate the growth of young seedlings next spring. Eradication cannot be done in one year due to the weeds seeds accumulated on the ground.
    To prevent spring seedlings from becoming well established, set the cutting height of your lawnmower as high as possible so that the grass shades out the young weeds.
    Both clover and creeping Charley are difficult weeds to control. It generally takes three years of persistent fall treatment to eradicate them. 
    Where the clover dies, you may notice that emerging grass blades are greener than in other areas of your lawn. This is because clover fixes atmospheric nitrogen that is released into the soil after the plants die and decompose. Not creeping Charley; it’s just a nuisance.


Mulching With Leaves

Q    After a good rain, I raked leaves off my flower garden. The layer underneath was totally dry in many places, and when the rake passed over the ground, it gave off a sound as if it were hollow underneath. The dry old mulch appeared to have lots of graying in it. What should I do?

–Vicki Marsh, Deale

A    Dry leaves are hydrophobic, meaning difficult to wet. Add about two tablespoons of dish detergent to a watering can and sprinkle the solution over the dry leaves and gray layer beneath. After they seem wet, sprinkle additional water over them and incorporate all into the soil by spading or tilling. The gray matter is most likely actenomyces that will decompose the leaf residue once wet and active.

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

It takes a full palette to size up circumstances correctly

When surface-plugging for rockfish, I like to have at least two rods ready and rigged with contrasting colored lures so I can switch back and forth without interruption. This way I can immediately cast back to the spot of a missed strike with a different color, giving the fish two different looks.
    Over the years, my box of poppers has expanded to hold about 25 lures of at least a dozen different colors. Over many seasons, each lure has at one time or another been a special producer.
    As a general rule when fishing shallow (less than six feet) top water, almost any color floating lure can induce a fish to strike — when fish are there. Once you’ve established the presence of stripers willing to strike, you will also notice a color preference.
    You see this truth clearly when fishing with a partner offering a different color than yours. One of you will catch more than the other. If the low man switches to the more successful color, that difference will be greatly reduced.
    About four seasons ago, we rarely took a fish over 23 inches that wasn’t caught by one particular lure. That year’s favorite sported an iridescent green-and-black back, flashing gold sides and a bright orange belly. That one was the giant killer. Other lures may have taken more fish overall, but all the big ones fell to Mr. Orange Belly.
    Another year, all-black was the top dog for catching big aggressive rockfish. I always switch to black under poor light and heavy overcasts. That season, black was the best color by far under every condition. Last year, white was the most productive. This year has yet to be determined.
    You can guess forever about why the preferences change year to year or even day to day. It’s one of the mysteries of angling.

Color Is a Changing Phenomenon
    A menhaden doesn’t display the same colors dead or even freshly out of the water as it does when it is cruising with its brethren along a rocky shoreline. Often young ones flash silver, while older, bigger bunker will have a golden hue. A live eel free swimming shows different shades of lavender, not the black we expect eels to be.
    White perch are generally light or silver colored, especially when swimming around lightly colored bottoms. They can also take on a much darker, virtually black, appearance when they are over a dark bottom or ensconced among weed beds or downed trees.
    Those aren’t the only baitfish a successful fisher has to emulate. If the stripers are keying on silversides, they will be looking for a different color than when they’ve been munching on bay anchovies. Yearling mud shad will sport a much different look and shade than a peanut bunker. Yellow perch are much more colorful than white perch. I have caught rockfish stuffed fat with jet black mad toms (baby catfish).
    Rockfish also love blue crabs, soft ones when they can find them though they’ll eat small hard crabs as well.
    All of these prey species are different colors, and these colors alone can trigger strikes under the right conditions.
    Your lure doesn’t have to emulate the exact item the rockfish are eating. If the color is close to the one the fish are expecting to see, they will attack.

Testing the Waters
    Faced with a full color palette, I went right to basics starting with an all-black Smack-It Jr. on one rig and a plain all-white variation on my second outfit.
    My partner had tied on a silver plug with black details that suggested a more realistic baitfish.
    As we moved along the calm shoreline, his lure drew an uncertain swirl behind it. As he threw back into the same area, I shamelessly dropped my all-black popper just a dozen feet upcurrent of his.
    Apparently my offering was closer to what the fish wanted. I was soon fast to a fat and explosive striped bass that turned the water to froth.

How to freeze your rockfish

We baked a whole, handsomely fat, 34-inch rockfish in a Cuban barbeque box (lacajachina.com) for my middle son’s college graduation. It was delicious. The remarkable thing about that treat was not that the dish came out so well (the barbeque box is simple to use) but that the fish had been stored in the freezer since the middle of last season. It tasted almost fresh-caught.
    Years past, I experienced much disappointment in freezing fish for longer than one or two months. Fish frozen for longer sometimes resulted in strong-tasting and stronger-smelling dinners.
    The difference is that vacuum-packing machines are much better at eliminating all air from the package; contemporary plastic bags also seem to be more durable and puncture-proof. Allowing any air to reach the fish during storage is a sure way to ruin its table quality.
    Preparing whole fish for freezing is a fairly simple affair. The fish should immediately be immersed in ice (but not ice water) after catching. As soon as practicable, it should be thoroughly scaled, eviscerated and the gills and all traces of organs removed. This includes scraping the backbone and inside of the head of all dark meat.
    The fish should then be thoroughly rinsed and dried. Finally rub it, inside and out, with olive oil. The coating of oil further protects the fish from air and allows it to slide into the ­vacuum bags without difficulty.
    Be careful to prevent the many sharp spines of the fish’s fins from puncturing the plastic bag during processing and storage. If the fish is moved at all within the freezer to access other foods, it should be
re-examined for vacuum failure.
    Now vacuum pack and store each fish individually in the freezer — not stacked together — to minimize freezing time.
    Freezing rockfish fillets is even simpler. Again, ice the fish immediately after catching. Fillet and skin as soon as possible. Remove the dark lateral line by incising along each side at a sharp angle, pulling that meat away and discarding. The dark meat is strong tasting, and that taste only gets stronger and migrates to the rest of the fillet over time in storage. The dark meat section is also where toxins tend to concentrate.
    Using the vacuum packer as before, process the flat fillets in quantities that are convenient to use all at once.
    If you don’t have a vacuum machine, fillets can be frozen almost as effectively by placing the pieces in appropriately sized heavy-duty zipper-locking freezer bags and adding water. Wrap the bags tightly against the fish, force out all the air and as much water as possible, seal and place them individually in the freezer. The added water insures that no air will reach the fish during storage.
    Maintaining a cold — at least zero-degree — freezer is also essential to long-term storage. Above that, bacteria can emerge and eventually cause unwanted flavor changes. Commercial fish storage is generally maintained at minus-20 degrees, but a household fridge may not be able to reach that temperature. Use an aftermarket temperature gauge and the lowest possible freezer setting for best results.
    I routinely can keep vacuum-packaged whole and filleted fish up to a year and water-filled frozen fillets up to six months without risking culinary disappointment. However, if the integrity of the vacuum sealing has been compromised during storage, there are only two remedies: thaw and cook the fish immediately or redo the packaging. Attempts to repair holes in the bags with tape or glue inevitably result in poor table quality.