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Trophy season opens in just a week

The trophy rockfish season is fast upon us.
    These migratory trophy-sized fish are in spawning mode. First they move up the Bay to their natal headwaters. Then, having spawned, they move back down the Bay, returning to the Atlantic. They move in pods unpredictably. Thus fishing in a fixed spot or targeting a specific area is not the most productive strategy. Constantly moving and presenting baits continually over an area as large as possible is the better method. That’s trolling.
    For these big fish, you’ll be dragging a lure 12 or more inches long. Its size tends to discourage undersized rockfish, less than 35 inches, but it does not eliminate them, as even 16-inch fish will attack and get hooked.
    While the spawning rockfish are almost impossible to anticipate in their movements, some considerations can be helpful. Because of the Coriolis effect caused by the earth’s rotation, a stronger (and saltier) incoming tidal current occurs on the Eastern Shore of the Bay, with a correspondingly greater outgoing tide on the Western Shore. Thus stripers tend to ride the incoming flow up the Bay on the eastern side and leave on the Western Shore’s stronger ebb.
    The keyword is tend because there are other variables at work. The availability of forage fish is equally important as stripers feed throughout the spawn. If the baitfish are congregated on the Western Shore, the rockfish will soon be there as well. If the stripers’ natal water is a Western Shore river, that’s where they will eventually be.
    The migrating pods of striped bass will also transit along the deeper channels of the Bay because that’s where the tidal currents will be the strongest. The temperature comfort zones this time of year will be in the top 15 feet of the water column. That’s the depth where trophy-sized fish can usually be found — unless they are not.
    Boat noise will drive the fish deeper, and a lot of boat noise will put them right on the bottom.
    Feeding fish can also be found down deep unless they’ve keyed on schools of bait higher up in the column. Keeping an eye on the fish-finder will establish where most of the bigger fish are. Adjust your trolling weights and lure type accordingly to target those depths.
    Color also has a part to play in your trophy-fish solution. The traditional selections are chartreuse, white and yellow in fluorescent or standard colors or combinations. There are also days when purple, black, green or red are catching the fish. The only consistent color consideration when fishing the early season is that, inevitably and ironically, the biggest fish will want the color you don’t have. So be prepared and change colors frequently, especially if you are moving over fish that aren’t responding.
    To present your baits over as wide an area as possible, avoid traveling in a straight line, especially directly down or up current. Instead move diagonally, and change course frequently until you find some pattern to the presence of fish. They may be on the edges of deep channels, in the middle of the channel or over a specific depth.
    Finally, keep your boat’s speed on the slow side. Three to four knots is about right, but don’t hesitate to vary your speeds a little to find the speed at which the fish want the baits presented. Rockfish will often take bait moved very slowly, but they’ll rarely hit one being trolled faster than five knots.
    Have you got all that? Is your boat shipshape and your tackle set? Then you’ll be ready to go April 15.

The misnamed Jerusalem artichoke supplies both

The Jerusalem artichoke is a sunflower cousin that gives both flowers and food. In late August and into September, bright yellow flowers cover its tall stems. Below ground, it is growing tuber-like structures on its roots that resemble pachymorphs of the bearded iris. The tubers are edible.
    This North America native is invasive and must be grown in an aboveground container to prevent it from spreading. I grow my Jerusalem artichokes in a plastic half-barrel with the base partially buried to prevent it from tipping over. They like a rich organic soil that is well drained.
    Plant the tubers in spring. Once started, you will never have to replant — unless you harvest 100 percent of the tubers, which is nearly impossible. Abundant lumpy yellowish-white tubers grow from near the base of the stem to as deep as 18 inches below the surface of the soil. The tubers may be individual or clustered.
    Harvest the tubers in the fall after the stems have died back, using a digging fork so as to not damage them. Start digging from the inside walls of the barrel toward the center. The tubers will be scattered at varying depths. Remove as many as you can find.
    After you have finished digging them up, blend two parts by volume existing soil with one part compost and refill the planter. Plant four to six of the smallest tubers about two inches deep for next season’s crop. Many stems will emerge in the spring.
    Eat the tubers raw or cooked. First scrub them thoroughly with a stiff vegetable brush. Then, working underwater, scrape the corners with a sharp knife to remove the brown areas and soil. The tubers do not have to be peeled. They can be steamed or boiled and mashed like potatoes. Or they can be eaten raw like a radish or shredded and added to salads.
    Go slow at first. Although the tuber is mostly starch, Jerusalem artichokes contain a natural compound called inulin that is not absorbed by the digestive system. It acts like a mild laxative to some people. Before substituting them for mashed potatoes, start with a small sample both raw and cooked.


Spot-Planting Grass

Q    I need to plant grass in bare spots. What is the best procedure?

–Paul Lefavre

A    Use a steel rake or potato digger to loosen the top two inches of soil. Rake an inch-thick layer of compost into the soil and smooth the surface. Sprinkle grass seed into the top layer of soil-compost blend. Water using a fine mist. Sprinkle a thin layer of straw or shredded paper over the seeded area to create about 30 percent shade, then mist again. Mist daily until the seed germinates, reducing to one misting every two days for the first week, then twice weekly until the new grass seedlings develop their dark green color.


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

Proper preparation prevents poor performance

You can never trust Maryland’s March weather. Another certainty is the march of time, which puts us only a couple of weeks from Trophy Rockfish Season, opening April 15. Cold or warm, snow, sleet, rain or sun, the striper season is fast arriving.
    So don’t make opening day your first day on the water. I take at least a week for a shakedown cruise or two plus scouting trips to get ready. That means now is the time to get going.
    My first act of preparation is to remove all my reels from their rods and examine them. Over a long winter, grease and oil can congeal, making the mechanical functioning of the reel stiff and uneven. This can also be true of drag operation. Check each reel and correct any problems.

The Scoop on Line
    Next I take all the reels spooled with mono to a sporting store and have the line replaced. The trophy season brings us into contact with the biggest rockfish of the year. Some of these guys will top 50 pounds. If this is my season to hook a fish of that size, I don’t intend to handicap myself with a line that may have been dragged across rough bridge piers, jetty rocks or pilings last year.
    I prefer to use fluoro-coated monofilament lines. There are all sorts of scientific explanations for fluoro’s superiority, from its invisibility to its superior hardness. I don’t believe any of them. If I can see the line in the water, it’s not invisible; nor will a harder finish keep a line from parting when a 30-pounder wraps you around a barnacle-encrusted piling and keeps on going.
    What I do believe is the test results of an old experiment. Berkeley Fishing Line Company strung a number of samples of mono- and fluoro- lines in a massive aquarium populated with large fish. The purpose: to count the number of times fish bumped into the mono lines vs. the flouro lines. The results counted twice as many collisions with fluoro as with mono.
    I’ve also found on my own when chumming that I can still catch fish with fluoro lines when the tidal current slows or stops. I rarely can get rockfish to bite in those situations with mono, and almost never with braid.

Tie a New Knot
    The next critical item on my opening day list is to cut off all knots in all lines and leaders and retie each one — carefully. If you wait till you’re on the water, the temptation to immediately begin fishing will be too great. Broken knots are the number one cause of losing big fish. A knot tied sometime last season is a prime candidate for failure.

Recharge Your Batteries
    You’ll also want to recharge all marine batteries. Then check them again the next day. Winter temperatures can be hard on battery cells. They may briefly charge to full capacity, but the faulty ones will lose that charge rapidly. Checking your batteries 24 hours after a full charge should identify the weak ones and save you from getting stranded out in the middle of the Bay.

White perch make good sport and better eating

March brings a springtime treasure that almost makes up for its treacherous weather: white perch. These tasty fish have just begun to show up in the creeks, though the winter storm that tormented the Northeast coast might delay the bulk of their numbers.
    A close cousin of the striped bass, white perch (Marone americana) are the most numerous fish in the Tidewater as well as the species most often caught by recreational anglers. They can reach 18 inches in length, but due to Maryland’s largely unregulated commercial netting in the Chesapeake, not many taken by hook and line are over 10 inches.
    The largest white perch on record anywhere was caught in 2012 in a Virginia private pond by Beau McLaughlin of Virginia Beach. It weighed three pounds two ounces and measured 17 ¾ inches. The previous record of three pounds one ounce was taken in 1995. The current record for the Chesapeake is two pounds 10 ounces.
    Living 15 or more years, white perch is a particularly prolific species. The male fish move upstream toward fresh water and await the arrival of females. The females arrive next, usually on an incoming tide, and move into the warmer shallows when they feel the urge to spawn. Each gravid female produces 150,000 or more eggs as she releases her roe in stages in tributary headwaters over one to three weeks from mid-March through May. The males follow, broadcasting their milt over the roe. The eggs will hatch out in one to six days. Fingerlings remain in the shelter of the headwaters for a year or two before descending to bigger Bay waters.
    Finally spent of eggs, the females return downstream to Bay waters while the males stay on station until the females stop arriving. After the spawn has been completed. The fish then regroup and move out to their preferred haunts. Some gather near the Bay shorelines or over shell bottom flats in about 10 to 15 feet of water, others prefer moving back into the estuaries in two- to five-foot depths.
    Fishing for white perch in the springtime is generally a shallow-water experience. A light-action spin rod with six-pound test mono is the optimum tackle. Tipped with a small, weighted casting bobber and a shad dart, a grass shrimp, a minnow or a piece of worm as enticement, the rig is cast out from the shoreline and worked back in a slow, twitching motion.
    When fishing from a boat, target shallow shorelines during the flood tide, particularly areas near submerged brush, fallen trees, rocky edges and around docks or bulkheads. As low tide approaches, the fish tend to retreat to the deeper water. Then a top-and-bottom rig with a one-ounce sinker is a better producer for both shore and boat anglers.
    There is no minimum size nor possession limit for white perch, but a fish much under nine inches lacks enough meat to warrant harvesting.
    Their table quality is unequaled, whether baked, broiled, fried whole or filleted, rolled in panko and crisped in hot peanut oil. If you haven’t tried them, you’re missing out on a Bay treasure.

Hoe them out and bury them — or eat them

Winter weeds have loved mild winter we’ve been having. Annual bluegrass, cardamine, chickweed, henbit and mares-tale, to name a few, are twice the size they were this time last year. Unless you eradicate them now, they are likely to cover the ground by the time you’re ready for planting. They may already be flowering and producing an abundance of seeds.
    Attack them without chemicals with a hoe or pull them out of the ground. Then collect them and bury them deep in your compost bin. If you leave them lying, they will most likely take root and resume growth. These cold-tolerant weeds can remain alive and capable of rooting even if they are all turned upside down. Their fibrous roots will retain sufficient soil to keep them moist and growing and the stems that will come in contact with the ground can form roots.
    Weeds are survivors, determined to thrive and reproduce.
    You can also eat them. Add some snap to your salad with cadamine. Common chickweed has a very mild lettuce flavor. Dandelions are quite mild providing there are no flower buds forming on the plants. Wild mustard should now be ready to be harvest, adding zest to any salad. If you like a vinegar taste, add a little oxalis to the salad blend.


No Sun, No Fruit

Q    We are hoping you can help us with a problem in a fruit orchard. The trees in question are Malus Spartan, Prunus armenica Harlayne, Prunus persica Red Haven
    They were planted about five years ago. They initially produce fruit early in the season, but the fruit ­doesn’t mature. At first the problem was assumed to be birds or other pests, but we’ve tried various bird barriers and still no luck. No amendments have been made to the soil recently. I know we don’t have a lot of information to offer, but perhaps you could provide some initial thoughts about what we should explore?
     Does it look to you like the trees are too crowded with underplanting? Or perhaps the surrounding trees are shading them out? Would it be recommended to move the trees to a different location?

A    You are trying to grow fruit trees under crowded conditions and in partial shade. Also the trees do not appear to have been properly pruned to allow sunlight to penetrate the canopy, which is necessary for fruit to ripen. Fruit trees must be grow only in full sun, and they must be pruned properly for the fruit to be exposed to a certain amount of direct sunlight for ripening.


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

If an extraordinary day comes your way, grab your gear and get fishing

Friend and neighbor Frank Tuma and I were enjoying a combination shakedown cruise and yellow perch outing on the Magothy River. At Beachwood Park, we noted a number of anglers milling about with about as much success as we were enjoying, which was none. No one seemed to care. It was enough to get out on the water.
    Tossing minnows, spinner baits and small spoons separately and in combination, then just about everything else in the tackle box, we worked over shoreline spots thoroughly. Targeting fallen trees, derelict docks, jetties, groins and anywhere either of us had ever caught a fish, we exchanged stories of successes and disasters.
    I worked my two favorite outfits. One is a five-foot-four-inch, extra-fast-action Loomis GL2 spin rod with a Shimano Sahara 1000 reel spooled with six-pound P Line. The other is a six-foot St Croix medium-power casting rod paired with a Shimano Calcutta 1000 DC-level wind reel, spooled with 10-pound Power Pro.
    My buddy, ever the more practical and pragmatic of the two of us, used his trusty six-foot-six-inch, ultra-light spin rod of unknown provenance and a mystery spinning reel spooled with 10-pound Spider Line. Frank caught all the fish.
    After working the Upper Magothy to little effect, we explored the nearby creeks lower down the river, trying to rescue the day with a pickerel or two. At about noon, Frank hooked up with a real scrapper on an orange-and-yellow spinner bait with a lip-hooked minnow. I assisted by netting the flashing pickerel for a quick picture.
    Quite near the same spot, Frank then had another smashing strike. His rod bent over, and I could hear his reel grudgingly giving up line in fits and starts as the fish refused to come closer. The battle went on for long minutes, and the water boiled as the fish came near the surface again and again — Never close enough, however, to identify except as a big one.
    Guessing a really big pickerel, then perhaps an early-spawning rockfish, Frank worked the fish gradually closer while I threatened him with disgrace if he lost it. As it finally neared the boat and I leaned over with the net, we caught a flash of a brown and orange flank. Then it was gone. The hook had pulled.
    After a moment of anguish we laughed. This was what fishing was like — and we would have let the rascal go anyway. Now we were free to interpret the brute anyway we felt. It could have been a big channel cat, or perhaps a thick and powerful carp heading to spawn. I suggested a wayward cobia. That was preposterous, but it had been a long day and we were both getting a bit addled after such a successful late-winter’s day on the water.

High in calcium and potassium, it keeps lawn and garden soil balanced

Wood ash belongs in the garden or on the lawn, not in the trash can or in the compost bin. Wood ash is basic in nature and an excellent source of calcium, potassium and trace elements. This means ash can be used as a substitute for limestone. A five-gallon pail of wood ash will treat approximately 100 square feet of a garden or lawn with a pH of around 6.0.
    I have divided the vegetable garden into three zones and treat each zone with wood ash once every three years. The wood ash has done such a great job of maintaining the pH of the soil that I have not had to apply lime or potassium on the garden for the past 25 years.
    Select a calm day for applying wood ash, as it is easily carried away by the slightest breeze. I use a trowel to spread the ash from the pail, applying it until the ground appears covered like a heavy frost.
    Wood ash won’t supply magnesium, an element often low or deficient in Maryland soil. Without magnesium, chlorophyll’s efficiency in converting carbon dioxide to sugars is considerably reduced. Since wood ash does not contain magnesium (though limestone does), I also apply Epsom salts at the rate of five to 10 pounds per 1,000 square feet depending on the soil test results.
    Don’t dump wood ash in the compost pile. Wood ash is basic in nature, and the microorganisms involved in composting perform best in an environment that is mildly acid. Adding ash will stop the composting process.
    Never use a paper, cardboard, wooden or plastic container to carry wood ash. Ash may appear cool when you remove it form the fireplace or stove, but hot embers can remain buried and when exposed to air can ignite. Put your ash in a metal container and store it outdoors in a sheltered place a couple of days before spreading in the garden. I can remember my grandfather removing ash from the parlor stove and spreading it in the garden only to turn around to see dried corn stalks smoldering.
    Here’s another use for wood ash that’s now largely forgotten. My grandmother dumped wood ash from the kitchen stove into a wire basket in the shed. She then flushed the ash with dishwater several times, collecting the water to make lye soap. Do you remember Grandma’s lye soap — or the old popular song by that name?

Irrigate Your Garlic
    Your garlic plants are thirsty. Neither rain nor snow has provided them with water. February’s extra-warm, sunny days have activated the garlic plants into wanting to grow. Without adequate water in the ground, the tips of the leaves are showing yellowing and brown crispy tissues. Irrigate them now for bigger cloves of garlic at harvest.  Italian, Polish and German garlic is not planted as deeply as elephant garlic, making them more susceptible to drought damage. Soaking the soil with water now also makes the ground less likely to freeze deeply should the weather turn cold again.


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

Attack overgrown plants before this year’s growth starts

If you have overgrown plants that are smothering the house or taking over the landscape, now is the time to strike. Hollies, yews, viburnums, forsythia, azaleas, rhododendrons and many more take well to hard pruning. Butterfly bush should be pruned very hard, to within inches of the ground, every year.
    The only plants you can’t prune severely are conifers such as junipers, cedar, pine, spruce and fir. These species do not form adventitious buds, nor do they have latent buds capable of sprouting after all other buds have been removed.
    Brutal pruning to lower the height and spread of plants is best timed when the plants are dormant, meaning several weeks before the soil begins to warm. Well-established vigorous plants have extensive root systems in the ground with an abundance of reserved energy. Early pruning directs that reserved energy to the most viable vegetative buds in the stems. Thus the earlier plants are pruned hard before growth starts, the more new growth they will generate.
    If you are cutting azalea stems the size of your index finger, as soon as temperatures rise you will see hundreds of green buds emerging from under the bark up and down that stem. Each of those buds is capable of producing branches. While the buds are still soft and green, wipe away at least half of them with your fingers. If you allow all of those buds to produce branches, the stems will look like a bottlebrush.
    When pruning forsythia and weigela, always remove branches that have gray bark near the base of the plant. Prune as close to the ground as possible to promote new vigorous stems to emerge from buds at the soil line. Remove all stems smaller than a pencil in diameter. These weak, flimsy shoots will generally not flower and will only droop with the ends of the stems touching the ground and rooting in.
    When pruning lilacs, inspect the larger stems for borer holes. Lilac borers generally attack stems one-and-a-half to two inches in diameter. Cut infected stems near the ground, and either burn or send them away with the trash. Allowing those infested stems to remain will only result in younger stems becoming infested before they approach maturity. You don’t want that because lilac flowers are produced on second-year wood.
    Do not try to rejuvenate any plant whose stump is larger than two inches in diameter by cutting it back to the ground. Stumps are capable of sprouting, but the sprouts will topple when the center of the old stump, which is mostly dead tissue, begins to rot, two to three years after it has been cut.
    To maintain generally well-behaved plants, prune after flowering when the petals are dropping to the ground.


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

Yellow perch are the first panfish of the emerging spring season

My rod tip was arced over so hard that the tip entered the water off to the side of the skiff. The drag on the tiny spin reel was groaning as it released a few yards of four-pound-test mono into the current and an unseen fish made its best effort at an escape. I pushed my slender stick up high to avoid fouling the line on the brush tips poking out of the water where the fish was heading.
    The water boiled as the fish neared the surface at the far shore. A glint of gold flashed against the morning rays of the sun. Bingo, just what I was hoping for. A yellow perch was on my line. Then another broach and a pair of flashes. Bonus: Two yellow perch were on my rig.
    Yellow perch are closer to gold or brass than yellow. They are also known as ring perch, neds or yellow neds. No one I have ever spoken to has an explanation for the ned part of the name. The ring aspect is due to six to eight, vertical, bright-olive stripes along the flanks of the delicious fish that give it the appearance of being ringed. In other parts of the country it is known as the raccoon perch, the lake perch, the American perch and the ringtail.
    Whatever you call it, the fish is the first panfish of the emerging spring season. It was once significantly more numerous than today and far more popular with anglers. But the Bay population has suffered over the years from commercial overfishing and the silt and lawn chemicals released from residential and commercial developments around the headwaters where they spawn. Of late, their numbers have been recovering due to Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ efforts at restricting commercial harvest so that our 300,000 recreational anglers could be apportioned half shares with the three-dozen or so netters that continue to harvest them.
    In February, yellow perch begin ascending the Bay tributaries, seeking to spawn in the freshwater sources where they were born. They feed on worms, insects, larvae, grass shrimp, minnows and other small fish and live in the more brackish waters of the Chesapeake during most of their life.
    This fish has a unique spawning characteristic. It releases its eggs encased in a long accordion-like membrane designed to hang up on rocks, brush or any stream structure that ensures the roe do not settle to the bottom. If the egg sacks do not remain suspended, they are far more likely to become covered with the silt and chemical residue that washes into the streams in the spring rains and much less likely to hatch out.
    The traditional angling method for ring perch is a light spin rod armed with a shad dart or two suspended under a casting bobber and tipped with grass shrimp, worms or small minnows. Four-pound test mono is just right for the task, but an angler can get away with up to eight-pound in a pinch.
    Fish the first of the flood around the shores of the headwaters or the last of the ebb at the deeper holes. Or fish whenever you can as the runs of perch during the spawning season are unpredictable.
    There is a nine-inch minimum size limit with a possession limit of 10. The citation size is 14 inches, and the state record is two pounds three ounces for tidal areas and three pounds five ounces for non-tidal.
    Scaling, eviscerating and beheading the fish will result in the tastiest preparation, but filleting the fish makes the end result boneless. Baking, broiling or breading and frying all result in a great meal. The traditional approach is a crispy coating and hot peanut-oil frying.
    The results are all the same: a delicious treat made all the more tasty because it’s the first fish dinner of the coming spring season.

Now’s the time to get it right

Step 1 to a productive garden is getting the location right. Plants perform best in full sun and well-drained soil. You can improve other aspects of a garden, but there is no substitute for full sun and a soil that drains properly.
    Next, prepare a soil test. Your soil may do fine for grass and weeds, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for gardening. The pH, nutrient concentration and organic matter in soils are important and can be improved.
    Follow the instructions at A&L Eastern Laboratories of Virginia: www.al-labs-eastern.com. Expect results by mail within five working days. Replies by email take even less time. Add my email to the form — DR.FRGouin@gmail.com — for personal recommendations from the Bay Gardener based on the results.
    Plan for proper irrigation. I am a big supporter of trickle irrigation because it irrigates the plants with 80 percent less water than overhead methods. Since the water is placed just within the root zone of the plants, it is not irrigating the weeds between the rows. Plant foliage also remains dry, reducing the spread of diseases that can occur when plants are irrigated from overhead.
    Vegetable gardens should receive one inch of water per week. Allow a trickle system to run for four to five hours with four to five pounds of pressure in the irrigation line. When irrigating with sprinklers, place a tuna fish can on the soil in the middle of the irrigation area. When the can is full, you have applied one acre-inch of water.

Plant Spacing

Tomatoes: 21⁄2-3 feet

Peppers: 2+ feet

Okra: 18 inches

Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage and cauliflower: 12 to 18 inches

Corn 6-8 inches

Lettuce: 6 inches

Bush beans and peas: 2 inches

Root crops such as carrots, beets and parsnips: 1⁄2 inch
-1 inch, thinned to 2-21⁄2 when seedlings reach 2 inches

    Buy a hoe and keep it sharp to stop weeds in their tracks. Cultivation should be shallow so as not to damage roots of crops or to expose dormant weed seeds. Garden soils are loaded with weed seeds accumulated from previous years. Most weed seeds can survive for years; exposure to even a few seconds of sunlight stimulates them to germinate. Thus the less you disturb the soil, the better.
    Simply scraping the hoe on the soil surface to separate the top of the weeds from their roots is all it takes, unless you have waited until the weeds are knee-high.
    Plan for adequate spacing. Annual plants grow rapidly. If they are crowded, the plants will spend most of their energy competing for light, water and nutrients and less energy in producing a crop.
    Plan your planting by the sun’s course. If your garden rows run east to west, plant lower-growing crops on the south side of taller-growing species. In other words, plant the green beans on the south side of the corn or tomatoes and the lettuce on the south side of the green beans. If the crop rows run north to south, it does not matter how you arrange the crops because the sun travels from east to west, resulting in uniform lighting of all plants.


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