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The earth’s pulse is quickening

Despite our recent snowy, cold spell, signs of spring are everywhere as the earth awakens from its winter hibernation. Long ago, the Celts of pre-Christian western Europe called this time of year the quickening. To them, all objects of Earth — not just creatures, but trees, stones and the ground itself — were alive, all sharing the same sap of life. Now, deep within the still-bare trees, the sap of life flows, birds build new nests; shoots of the earliest spring flowers pierce the frozen soil. All around us, the earth’s pulse is picking up its pace.
    These last weeks before the vernal equinox bring some of the greatest seasonal changes. Perhaps most noticeable is the growing length of daylight. Since solstice, December 21, we have gained more than an hour of sunlight in both the morning and at day’s end. Now, as the earth reaches an apex in its elliptical orbit around the sun, the days grow longer all the faster, adding another 20 minutes of sunlight in the morning and nearly 15 minutes in the afternoon between now and equinox March 21.
    Overhead, too, the changing constellations foretell the coming of spring. The familiar shape of Leo the lion crouches over the eastern horizon, its blazing heart, Regulus, piercing the darkness. Following the great lion is Virgo, the goddess of crops and harvest, holding in her hand an ear of wheat in the form of the brilliant star Spica.
    Behind those two zodiacal constellations is Boötes, the herdsman of Ursa Major and Ursa Minor. In Greek legend, Boötes is Arcas, son of the nymph Callisto and Zeus and the first to tie a team of oxen to plow, revolutionizing farming and ushering in the era of agriculture that led to the rise of civilization. Each year, Boötes returns to our evening skies to usher in the spring planting season.
    All five planets grace our darkened skies this week, with Jupiter appearing at sunset followed by Mars and Saturn later in the evening. Venus rises in the east around 4am — 5am with Sunday’s implementation of Daylight Saving Time. And Mercury glimmers low in the east-southeast during dawn, far to the lower left of Venus.
    Thursday, March 6, the moon nears the constellation Taurus and its first-magnitude star Aldebaran, which is to the upper left of the moon.The Pleiades star cluster is to the upper right of the moon, while the bull’s V-shaped face, the Hyades, is farther to the upper left of the moon. Friday night the moon is just two degrees above Aldebaran, which is roughly the width of a finger held at arm’s length.
    Sunday and Monday nights, the waxing gibbous moon joins bright Jupiter. Farther below the moon is the first-magnitude star Procyon of Canis Minor, the Little Dog.
    Daylight Saving Time begins at 2am Sunday morning, when we spring forward an hour. While we’ll lose an hour’s sleep in the morning, it will provide a reprieve for night-time sky-watching.
    The International Space Station races across our predawn skies. Tuesday it appears above the south-southwest horizon at 6:43am and arcs to the east-southeast horizon before setting at 6:46am. Thursday, March 13, it appears in the southwest at 6:40am and sets six minutes later in the northeast. It’s brighter than any star and moves faster than a jet.

How to catch the first fish of the year

With the end of February news that the yellow perch bite had started, I imagined an immediate sortie. But the next three days brought deep snow and temperatures in the low 20s.
    That ruled out any perch action for now. But following the big chill, a couple of series of days promise to reach the high 40s. That’s the window I want. I plan to hit water the second day in each series.
    At this time of year, if you wait for a fishing report to trigger your outing you will always miss the bite. The day you are hoping for has to be anticipated. By the time you get a good report, that opportunity will have passed. You’ll rarely get more than one good day in any series in March; the weather is just too ­inconsistent.
    Water temperatures this month will often hover only a few degrees above freezing. But a 45-degree (or higher) sunny day can warm just about any shallow water up into the high 40s in a matter of very few hours, instigating spawning. The second day of a short warming spell is as good a time as any to try for the yellow neds.
    Find a place along tributary headwaters with relatively shallow water (two to four feet), good current and submerged structure such as brush, downed trees, rocks or even old collapsed docks. You’ll be in likely ­territory. These are the areas the females will choose for spawning.
    If you are fishing from a skiff, you can target the deeper holes where the fish will collect and hold while awaiting more comfortable temps to arrive.
    Yellow neds are unique in that the females exude their eggs in a gelatinous, milky, accordion-like sheath about two inches in diameter and as long as five or six feet. That egg ribbon is intended to entangle on the submerged structure, keeping it off the bottom until the eggs hatch in two to six days.
    The males come first to the spawning grounds and remain there as long as females continue to arrive and spawn. As individual females begin to exude their milky, egg ribbon, multiple males follow and fertilize the eggs. After the females have emptied themselves of their roe, they return down river.
    Tide is your third critical piece of information. The website www.tides.info gives tide predictions for many locations on almost all the rivers feeding Chesapeake Bay, including prime yellow perch waters like the Tuckahoe and the Choptank.
    Having a flexible plan is essential to harvesting a limit. Knowledge of the approximate tide stages for an area lets you try multiple sites. If you find no action at your first choice, dropping downstream or moving upstream you can anticipate the water levels until you manage to locate fish. Neds tend to move onto the shallows during high water and drop down to the deeper holes as the tide recedes.
    The published tide predictions may not be specific to your favorite (or targeted) spot. But if you can find one listed anywhere on the tributary itself, after a visit or two you should be able to calculate the differential and note it for future estimates.
    Yellow perch can be very selective about bait. My general rule is small to medium bull minnows and grass shrimp followed by bloodworms, then night crawlers. One of those is sure to do the trick. Adding the bait onto a bright lure such as a shad dart, jig head or small spoon can also increase your chances of success.
    The fish are also sensitive to your line size. Heavier mono or braid is, unfortunately, more obvious to them, especially the larger fish. Four-pound mono is my favorite option, though some friends score well using heavier test braid and fluorocarbon leaders.
    The first fish of the new season, yellow perch are delicious, some say more so than their white cousins. After a horrible winter like this one, chasing a yellow ned is far preferable to staying inside one day longer than you must.

The Dog Star’s neighbor once shined almost as bright as Venus

The Globe at Night campaign continues through the end of the month, so you still have a chance to contribute to this stellar effort. “Citizen scientists” — that’s you and me — are asked to study the constellation Orion and upload your sightings to the organization’s web site. Find details at www.globeatnight.org.
    The hunter’s neatly aligned belt stars point almost straight down to the brightest star in the heavens, Sirius in Canis Major, the Great Dog. A Greek-rooted word, Sirius means sparkling and scorching. The ancient Egyptians worshiped this star as their god, the dog-headed Anubis.
    Marking the dog’s forward paw is the constellation’s third-brightest star Mirzam, meaning the announcer in Arabic, as this star rises just before Sirius.
    The second-brightest star in Canis Major is Adhara, marking the great dog’s loin. Five million years ago, Adhara was a mere 34 light years away, and it blazed at –4 magnitude — nearly as bright as Venus! Seen from earth, no other star has ever shone so bright except our own sun. Since then, Adhara has raced from us and is now some 430 light years away and shines at a still-respectable magnitude 1.5.
    Less than five degrees directly below Sirius is the open star cluster M41, named after the 18th century French astronomer Charles Messier, who catalogued the night sky’s brightest objects. With today’s light-drenched skies, M41 appears as a single point of light. But that wasn’t always so. Around 325 BC, Aristotle wrote: “one of the stars in the thigh of the Dog had a tail, though a dim one: if you looked hard at it the light used to become dim, but to less intent glance it was brighter.”
    Staring at a point in the darkened sky, you’ll see what the Greek philosopher meant. Gaze straight at a star, and it dims. Look at it out of the corner of your eye, however, and the same star appears noticeably brighter. This is because our eyes have two distinct light-recognizing cells: Rods and cones. When we stare intently at something, the cone cells to the center of our retina react, providing us detail and color. However, in dim lighting, the rods at the retina’s outer edge respond.
    Today astronomers know that M41 is in fact hundreds of stars, but if you hope to see more than one point of light in this cluster, you’ll need binoculars or a modest telescope.

Transplanting seedlings

The sooner you can transplant seedlings after they germinate, the better they can survive and continue growing. Delay transplanting your seedlings after they have become crowded and have true leaves, and you’ll get stunting, resulting in slower growth.
    The first green leaf-like structures you see on seedlings are called cotyledons. The cotyledons contain all the energy necessary for germination and the development of the first true leaves. To minimize transplant shock, transplant seedlings soon after the first true leaves appear.
    Small plants grow rapidly, and the sooner you transplant them the faster they grow. Transplant bedding plant seedlings into individual three- or four-inch pots in cell packs such as 804. Metro-Mix, Sunshine Mix, Farfard Mix or Pro-Mix can be used as a transplant medium. These commercial blends have sufficient fertilizer to supply the needs of the transplants for six weeks. Eliminate the need for later fertilizer by blending one-third by volume compost made from lobster or crab waste with the commercial mix.
    Your growing medium must be moist, neither wet nor dry. Using the point of a plant label or the point of a knife, lift each seedling or clump of seedlings from their growing medium. With the same instrument, separate the clump of seedlings into individual plants. Using your fingers, lift each seedling by gently grasping the cotyledon. Never lift young seedlings by grasping the stem. The stem is the permanent part of the plant while the cotyledons are only temporary structures engineered to drop from the stem as soon as the plant becomes well established. If you accidently squeeze the stem, you can permanently stunt the plant’s growth.
    At this point of development, the seedling will require full sun. Minimum temperatures should not drop below 65 degrees. The containers should be irrigated only when warm and dry to a fingertip pressed lightly on the surface of several containers.
    Consider conditioning the plants by placing them outdoors in partial shade for at least a week before transplanting them into the garden.  
    Seeds of cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, peppers and lettuce should be sown now, from late February through early March. Seeds of tomatoes should be sown approximately five weeks before they are to be transplanted into the garden — unless you desire to transplant tomato plants with tomatoes already attached to the stem.
    A certain amount of pride comes with growing your own bedding plants from seeds.

Coming next week: One-step potting.

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

Brady Bounds opened up the Bay to fly fishermen

Brady Bounds says he is semi-retired. By that he means he no longer books 250-plus charter days on the water during a relentless 12-month season. For his own enjoyment of life plus some past health issues, he’s cut that down the last few years. Still, he probably fishes more than 90 percent more than the rest of us.
    Bounds was one of the first guides to embrace light-tackle fishing on the Chesapeake some 50 years ago. It happened almost by accident.
    Loosely defined, light-tackle Bay angling is pursued with medium-power spinning or casting rods about seven feet long, lines from eight- to 20-pound breaking strength and almost any fly rod setup. This is equipment designed for freshwater fishing and, before Bounds, not often seen on the Chesapeake, where stout, six-foot boat rods and 30-pound test line were the norm.
    Bounds was a young man living in Leonardtown in St. Mary’s County when he and a friend planned to buy a boat to get in on those years’ great middle-Bay fishing for rock, blues and other brackish water game fish. They decided on a used Chesapeake Bay deadrise. When the time came to sign the papers, the friend backed out and Bounds had to go it alone.
    Miffed, he dedicated himself to demonstrating to his buddy just what he had missed. Bounds became a skilled Bay fisherman, then got his commercial license and earned money chartering the deadrise. Trolling, chumming and bottom fishing, he acquired quite a reputation for delivering a good day on the water.
    He was working on his equipment at the dock one afternoon when, all of a sudden, a fellow who had been admiring his boat and setup offered to buy it. It was at a price Brady just couldn’t refuse, despite the fact that up to that moment he’d had no thought of selling.
    A local marina signed the boatless Bounds on to captain charter boats, and he liked the work. Meanwhile, friends had discovered freshwater bass fishing and the tournaments then new to Maryland.
    Bounds often spent the morning running a Bay charter and the afternoon fishing sweetwater with his buddies for bucket-mouths. Finally he invested the money from the sale of his deadrise and bought a used bass boat of the new, shallow-draft, flush-deck design that was sweeping the largemouth bass fishing world.
    To be competitive in tournament bass fishing, Bounds soon found, he had to perfect his structure-fishing game. Structure fishing is a freshwater technique that targets open water and the unseen bottom contours such as sunken creek beds, lumps, drop-offs, submerged trees, brush and other fish-holding features. Structure fishing in lakes and impoundments was far more productive in terms of numbers and size of fish than fishing shoreline edges.
    It was difficult fishing in those days as there was no GPS technology. Bounds mastered the skill of triangulating shoreline features and keeping close notes on bottom readings from his fish finder. His techniques are now called Conceptual-Pattern Fishing
    He shared his tournament knowledge and promoted bass and striped bass angling by writing for local fishing journals. A popular author, he also hosted a fishing program on local cable TV for five seasons.
    Next he tried advertising light-tackle charters for striped bass in a Bay journal. Over a few months, he had no inquiries. Disappointed, he told the journal editor he might as well cancel.
    The editor suggested tweaking the ad. The next edition carried the same small ad but with one modification, a narrow red border emblazoned with the words fly fishermen welcome.
    Bounds’ phone began ringing off the hook. He knew little about fly fishing but was certain he could get fly anglers on fish and in position to catch them.
    Soon he was swamped with charters.
    The fly fishermen brought non-fly fishing friends who used Brady’s freshwater bass fishing tackle. Those anglers came back with other friends wanting the light-tackle, big-fish experience.
    Word spread, and the number of anglers and guides using this new equipment and approach multiplied exponentially for years thereafter.
    Fly- and light-tackle fishing had arrived on the Bay.

Help plot the stars and shine a light on light pollution

With the moon waning through pre-dawn skies, this week marks the year’s second Globe at Night backyard observing drive, which aims to enlist you in charting the night sky. The goal: “to raise public awareness of the impact of light pollution by inviting citizen-scientists to measure their night sky brightness and submit their observations to a website from a computer or smart phone.”
    This month’s target constellation is Orion. To get started, log onto the Globe at Night website — www.globeatnight.org — where you’ll find star charts of Orion custom-tailored to your viewing area. Then, find a dark location and see how many stars you can spot compared to those shown on the charts. Finally, upload your results on the website or through the Globe at Night smart-phone app. You can make and tally as many observations as you like from the same or several locations. Based on the results, astronomers can gauge the effects of light pollution across the earth.
    Sunset reveals Jupiter high overhead. Shining at the feet of the Gemini twins Castor and Pollux, Jupiter rules the heavens in brightness for much of the night.
    Saturn is on prime display by midnight, and Thursday it should be all the easier to spot as it travels within a few degrees to the left of the moon. The moon and Saturn remain together through the night, and by dawn Friday you can find them low in the south. Farther to their right are Mars and Spica.
    If you’re up before dawn and have a clear view to the east, you’ve probably noticed the morning star Venus. Blazing at magnitude –4.9, Venus is at its brightest of the year. Wednesday, ­Venus is joined by the thin crescent moon just to the left. The two are just as close before dawn Thursday the 27th.

Sow slow-germinating seeds now

As you know from last week’s calendar of when to sow what, now into early March is the time to sow seeds of onions and shallots, begonias and coleus, petunias and impatients. These very fine-seeded species require special treatment. Here’s what to do.
    Buy a commercial seed starter that’s a sterile fine mixture of peat moss, pine bark and fine vermiculite amended with limestone to adjust the pH to near 6.5.
    Sow onions and shallots in four-inch pots with drainage holes. The seedlings will grow in these containers until you transplant them to the garden. Fill the pot to the top with seed starter; scrape away the excess. Bounce the bottom of the pot several times on your work surface to eliminate air pockets. Smooth the surface of the growing medium. Now uniformly spread 30 to 40 seeds over the surface. Watering the seeds will cover them with medium as it causes additional settling.
    The seeds will germinate best at temperatures between 75 to 80 degrees. The top of the refrigerator supplies the heat to make an ideal germinating table. As soon as seedlings appear, move the pots to a window facing south for maximum sunlight — or into a greenhouse. Irrigate as needed. Fertilize after seedlings have grown two to three inches tall. Use either fish emulsion or a diluted commercial water-soluble fertilizer.
    For starting seeds of begonia, coleus, impatients, petunia and so on, salad trays — the plastic kind you fill at salad bars — are ideal. Using an ice pick or a pointed knife, punch holes uniformly across the bottom, spacing the holes one inch apart. Punch from the inside out. Next add at least one to two inches of seed-starting mix. Using plant labels, divide the surface area of the starter mix so that each species gets approximately two by two inches. Scatter the seeds uniformly over their area, label each species and sprinkle with water until the excess drips out the container’s bottom. Snap the clear cover closed and place the container on top of the refrigerator.
    As soon as the seeds start to germinate, move the container to a window facing south or to a greenhouse. To prevent the build-up of heat within the salad bar container, lay a pencil or wooden dowel half-way between the hinge and the front edge of the container, across the length of the container and wrap with a rubber band to keep the cover partially closed. The seedlings will be ready to transplant into larger pots as soon as they can be lifted.

Next week: Transplanting seedlings.

Now’s the time to pack the things you’re sure to need

A number of tools can make an angler’s life easier. The most important of these are often needed multiple times a day. Many are the frustrated anglers who have overlooked them.
    I’m frequently surprised by the number of experienced fishermen and women who have to rummage around in their pockets or tackle bags to find a tool to cut their line when changing terminal tackle. If you’re using braided line, you’ve found that not every line clipper will manage its thin diameter and tough composition.
    Your line cutting device should be designed to include braid and should always be carried in an easily available location on your person. Keep in mind that an angler’s hands are often fouled by fish slime or bait offal (or both) at the precise moment the device is needed. Having to plunge one’s dirty mits into pockets looking for a line cutter is always unpleasant.
    A clipper or proper cutting pliers on a belt holster is handy. It will inevitably save any angler time and trouble. Plus, if I’m fishing with you, you won’t have to bother me by asking to use mine.
    The second necessary item is a small folding utility knife. I’ve carried a scout-type knife for years, and there’s hardly a day on the water I don’t use it. Searching through tackle boxes and bags for a screwdriver or a hole punch, can opener, bottle opener or cutting tool is unnecessary if you keep one of these in your pocket.
    The curved beak can opener, by the way, also excels at picking out particularly nasty backlashes and knot tangles. A Swiss Army knife with its combination of tools also works well, particularly the Tinker model.
    The next most important everyday item is a long needle-nose pliers suitable for extracting a hook from deep within a fish’s mouth or throat. Even when using circle hooks, a busy day of fishing will inevitably result in hooking a throw-back fish (in a difficult-to-reach location. The proper tool, close at hand, makes the hook’s removal much less traumatic for the fish and allows you to return it to the water promptly.
    A stout wire cutter is also essential. Sooner or later, the odds are that you or someone in your party will get a fishing hook imbedded somewhere on their person. Prepared anglers can retrieve their wire cutters, snip the hook off with just an accessible part of the shaft protruding, dose the area with a disinfectant and then tape the protruding shaft firmly down and out of the way.
    The unfortunate victim can continue fishing and afterwards visit a medical center to have the remains of the hook removed with the aid of a local anesthetic and get the necessary shots and antibiotics.
    If you don’t have a wire cutter on hand, your day on the water is suddenly over. Hook-removal techniques are endlessly touted by instruction books and videos, but, I have never seen the large rockfish hooks used on the Bay removed on-site without the accompaniment of pain and often some ugly tissue damage.
    A good-quality fillet or fish knife is also an item that should be included with your tackle. A sharp knife is absolutely necessary for the precise cutting and preparing of baits. At the end of the day, if you’re fortunate enough to have access to marina fish cleaning facilities, it will save you much fuss and bother by helping you reduce your catch to fillets before heading home. I use a freshly honed, five-inch, Russell, curved-blade, boning knife.
    A small but powerful flashlight with fresh batteries is another particularly useful item that is somehow often overlooked. Though most fishing trips are planned for daylight hours, the launch often occurs before dawn and the return sometimes happens after dark. Finding boat keys or anything dropped is much more problematic if you have to search by feel.
    The final must-have item in your gear bag is not really a tool, but it can be critical. Always store at least one small tube of high SPF sunscreen somewhere among your gear. Staying out on the water means a nasty burn unless you have some on hand.
    Fish fully prepared. You’ll never regret it.

This nebula is alive with stars

As the sun sets, one of the first constellations to appear is Orion, already high in the southeast, and by 8pm looming in the south. With its geometric, hourglass shape, Orion is one of the easiest constellations to spot and one of the most rewarding to study. The brightest star is blue-white Rigel to the lower right, marking the hunter’s left knee. Opposite to the upper left is the red-giant Betelgeuse, punctuating Orion’s raised right arm.
    Marking the hunter’s opposite shoulder is Bellatrix, meaning female warrior. While nowhere near as bright as Rigel or Betelgeuse, Bellatrix is still the 22nd brightest star. Juxtaposed to the constellation’s lower left and marking the hunter’s right knee is Saiph, bright enough to stand up to the glare of this week’s bright moon.
    Perhaps even more recognizable are the three almost perfectly aligned stars of Orion’s belt, Alnilam, Mintaka and Alnitak. The belt points down toward Sirius in Canis Major, the brightest of all stars. Following the belt the other direction leads to Taurus the bull and its red-orange star Aldebaran.
    Hanging perpendicular from the belt is another, fainter line of stars that forms Orion’s sword. One of the objects in the sword isn’t a star at all but rather a blazing and massive illuminated cloud of stellar gas, the Orion Nebula, or M42. At 1,400 light years distant, the Orion Nebula shines at fourth magnitude, appearing as a fuzzy patch to the unaided eye. Binoculars reveal M42’s light as distinct stars, while even a modest telescope hints at the vast number of stars lurking within the clouds. But what really stands out is the luminosity as opposed to individual points of light. Nestled within the clouds like a celestial incubator are thousands of nascent stars, their light diffused and spread through the gas.
    The beacon of light above Orion is Jupiter. It is visible all night before finally setting in the northwest around 4am. Mars rises around 10:30pm and is high in the south around 3am. Saturn rises after midnight, well to the left of Mars and high in the south with dawn. By that time Venus is well positioned above the east horizon, having risen around 4:30. There’s no missing this morning star, unless you mistake it for a plane or some other unidentified flying object.

Here’s what to sow when

It’s time to start on your garden.    
    Sow slow-germinating small seeds inside in late February through March. These include begonia, celery, impatient, petunia, snapdragon, etc. These small seed plants are not only slow to germinate but slow to grow.
    Wait until March to sow larger seeded plants. Broccoli, cabbage, Chinese cabbage, cauliflower, kohlrabi and pac choi should be sown so that the plants will be tall enough to transplant into the garden in early to mid-April while temperatures are cool. The seeds of these plants also germinate and grow best in cooler temperatures. To prevent sunscald, acclimate the plants by placing them in trays outdoors under light shade for at least a week before transplanting them into the garden.

What’s Next for Forced Bulbs?

Q  My forced bulbs, amaryllis and paperwhites, have finished flowering. What can I do to bring them back next year?
    –Sandra Olivetti Martin

A  Are the bulbs in gravel or in soil in pots? If they are in gravel, plant them in a mix of half potting soil-half compost, put them near a window facing south and keep them growing until you can plant them outdoors in full sun come spring. In soil, give them some liquid fertilizer. Next fall after the leaves have died back, dig up the bulbs, plant them in pots, place them near the foundation of the house on the north side and mulch heavily with leaves held in place with chicken wire. Near early December, bring in a few pots of potted bulbs and start forcing them. Do not fertilize them again until they have flowered.

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

    Because seeds of peppers, both hot and sweet, are slow to germinate, they should be sown in March, under 80-degree temperatures. Pepper seeds require two to three weeks to germinate and seedlings are slow to grow initially.
    Seeds of tomatoes, calendula, gazania, gaillardia, marigold, sunflower and zinnia germinate rapidly, and the seedlings also develop rapidly. Seeds of these species can be delayed five or six weeks before they are transplanted into the garden. This prevents the seedlings from becoming root bound, which will permanently stunt their growth. If you want to grow extra large plants, start them in five- and six-inch containers.
    Many seed catalogs publish seeding schedules, but you must know your climate zone and growing conditions, such as growing in a cool or heated greenhouse or on the window sill. The heated greenhouse in full sun provides the ideal growing condition, while the window sill is the least desirable situation for growing plants, especially those that require full sun.
    If you are growing plants on a window sill, rotate them daily (weekly if that’s the best you can do) to prevent them from leaning toward the light. Follow the same rule if you have a lean-to greenhouse that faces south.