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Yellow perch break winter’s fast

Things are looking up for Maryland anglers when the first runs of yellow perch are reported. Also called ring perch, neds or yellow neds, they are the first Tidewater fish to respond to spawning urges. Leaving their wintering grounds, they will now break up into small schools and migrate toward fresher tributary headwaters to lay eggs and reproduce.
    Waysons Corner where Rt. 4 crosses the Patuxent River is usually the place yellows first appear in our neck of the woods, and this year is no different. The run there started a week or so ago and is growing. Fish up to 12 inches are being taken, but with a nine-inch minimum size and a 10-count possession limit there can be lots of throwbacks.
    Other places will soon see these fish. Maryland Department of Natural Resoures lists some 40 springtime yellow perch fishing spots on its website: dnr2.maryland.gov/fisheries/Pages.
    You might not find them the first or second try, so don’t hesitate to change locations. But if you are persistent, you will score the first fresh fish dinner of the new year — and it will be a good one.
    The migrating schools of perch tend to move up the rivers and streams on the incoming tide, retreating to deeper water as the tide reverses. The best shoreline bite is usually some phase of that high tide. Focus on the brushy shorelines, especially near downed trees, bushes and sunken debris. During low water, try channels and deep pools.
    Small male yellow perch move up the tributaries first, the larger males arriving a bit later. Both remain upriver and near spawning sites as long as females keep coming. The roe-bearing females show on their own immutable schedule and then leave soon after they spew their eggs. Yellow neds also live in most freshwater impoundments throughout Maryland and feel the same springtime spawning urge.
    Yellow perch exude their roe in accordion-like sacks designed to foul on any submerged structure, holding the roe suspended. The eggs hatch in 10 to 25 days.

Fishing Yellow
    Five- to seven-foot light or medium spin rods work well this time of year. Reels should be spooled with fresh four- to 10-pound test monofilament. Small hooks are generally best, with a No. 2 the largest for this time of year.
    Low water temperatures will limit the success of artificial lures, as this time of year most fish locate their food by scent rather than sight, and perch are no exception. Present fresh bait such as minnows, grass shrimp, bloodworms, earthworms, wax worms and butter worms on hi-low rigs. Use a sinker in deeper water and shad darts suspended under a bobber in the shallower areas.
    When fishing bobber-suspended baits, cast out and pop the bait slowly back to create sound and constant motion.
    I’ve had good results with a tandem rig with a gold No. 12 Tony Accetta spoon and a lip-hooked minnow on the long leg and a bright colored 1⁄8-ounce shad dart dressed with a grass shrimp or a bit of worm on the shorter leg. Casting this rig out to likely areas and slowly working it back will almost always draw strikes when yellow perch are around. It has the additional advantage of enticing any pickerel lurking about.
    When you locate perch in deeper water they will usually remain concentrated in that area for some time. But the neds in warmer shallow water are generally in spawning mode and constantly moving. As females begin to exude their egg sacks, groups of males follow them, bumping their sides and exuding milt to fertilize the eggs.
    Gravid females appear to be the meatiest of the perch, but most of their physical bulk is made up of the eggs. It is better to keep the legal, slimmer males and release the egg-bearing females to contribute to next year’s population.

Look for them together from dusk Tuesday to dawn Wednesday

Sunset Thursday and Friday finds the waxing moon high overhead in the company of Gemini’s Castor and Pollux above, Canis Minor’s Procyon below and Orion’s Betelgeuse off to the west. Come Saturday the moon is in the constellation Cancer, too faint to compete against lunar glare.
    Come Sunday, the moon has a new companion, the bright star Regulus trailing a dozen degrees behind. The brightest star in Leo, Regulus is also part of the asterism called the Sickle of Leo, which looks like a backward question mark, the star marking the dot at the bottom.
    Monday’s full moon — the Snow Moon and the Hunger Moon — trails Regulus, while bright Jupiter follows the moon by roughly the same distance. Finally, Tuesday evening the moon and Jupiter are within two degrees of each another, appearing as a tight pair until sunrise.
    Just two weeks shy of opposition, Jupiter is at its best and brightest, rising in the east around 7:30pm and shining high in the south at 1:30am and brilliant above the western horizon at dawn.
    Dawn highlights the other four naked-eye planets. Mars rises around 1:30am, and by 6am it is high in the south. The red planet is just beyond the head of Scorpius, and it is 15 degrees from the scorpion’s red heart, the bright star Antares, whose name means Rival of Mars. You’ll have ample time to compare them in coming weeks as Mars drifts closer to Antares.
    Contrast that to golden Saturn to the east, creating a skewed triangle with Antares and Mars. You’ll find the ringed planet in the southeastern sky as dawn begins to brighten the horizon.
    Venus and Mercury rise just before dawn. Venus blazes brighter than all but the sun and moon, and Mercury, just a few degrees lower, shines at a respectable magnitude –0.1); even so, you’ll need an unobstructed view of the east-southeast horizon and likely binoculars to spot them.

Be ready for fish with the year’s most appealing lures

High winds, dark days and 20-degree temperatures have limited anglers’ choices this ugly February. Enforced home time is just what you need to prepare for next season.
    Among good news last season was the appearance of vast schools of schoolie rockfish. Many proved under the 20-inch minimum size, meaning many will have grown fat and legal by the time fishing blossoms again.
    Be ready for these coming-of-age fish with the most appealing lures. You won’t want to see nearby anglers scoring cast after cast while your offerings are getting only minimal acceptance.
    On a quick and casual survey of tackle shops around the Chesapeake, I made a list of lures that should produce as the 2016 rockfish season commences on the Tidewater.
    An eclectic enterprise on Kent Island that prides itself on being first in identifying new trends in lure design had some interesting recommendations. Blueblue, a Japanese lure company with scant exposure here, has a couple of lures that have given their anglers particular success.
    They are the Blueblue Searide Jig and the Blueblue Snecon 130, a swim bait in green with an orange belly or yellow with a red belly. Both lures have a radically different noise and swim action from traditional rockfish lures, which may explain their effectiveness. Both are worth examining.
    An Annapolis tackle shop with a long tradition of handling excellent artificial baits offers some light tackle lures as well. Big (10 inch) BKDs in white or chartreuse are definitely favored on black one-and-one-half Mission jigheads for springtime trophy efforts. The Tsunami holographic soft plastic baits in bunker color in all sizes are also worth a look, especially on hardhead two-tone jigheads. They’re said to work equally well for casting, jigging and trolling.
    Five- and six-inch soft plastic, Saltwater Bass Assassins in Opening Night and Albino Shad have remained consistently productive, customers say. But Panhandle Moon- and Ripper-colored five-inch Saltwater BAs on one-and-one-half Mission jigheads were reported as superior for most of the second half of last season.
    Stingsilvers, especially when rigged with a dropper fly, continue to be among the better metal baits to work with in vertical jigging for rockfish. Silver is the most productive color followed by gold when fishing in overcast or stained water.
    A reliable Edgewater tackle store added that Mirrolure Popa Dogs, a top water popper with walk-the-dog action and a unique sound, was a surprising and overwhelming favorite last season. The redhead, white-body model was tops in sales, which numbered in the hundreds.
    Soft plastics by Bust ’em Baits, competing with BKD and BA lures, are also achieving local notice with a unique construction that delivers a more pronounced undulating action.
    Time will tell if they are worth making room for in your tackle box.

It’s time to start onions and peppers

Onion and pepper seeds are slow to germinate and slow in their early stage of seedling growth. So if you’re growing them from seed, you want an early start. Now’s the time.
    Sow the seeds in a sterile potting mix rather than garden soil to avoid sprouting weeds and contaminating your seedlings with soil-borne diseases. Fill the pots a half-inch from the top. Tap the pot on a bench several times to eliminate air pockets. Firm the potting mix by pressing three or four fingers across the top of the mix. Sprinkle the seeds across the smooth surface, and lightly cover with fresh potting mix. Use a rose bulb or a fine sprinkler to lightly moisten the potting mix until you see water dripping from the bottom of the pot.
    Germinate these seeds in total darkness at constant temperatures of 75 to 80 degrees. How to get those conditions?
    Once excess water has drained from the bottom of the pot, cover the top with plastic and put it on top of the fridge or near the furnace where temperatures are relatively constant. Check the pots daily to make certain that the potting mix does not dry. Moisten accordingly.
    Onion plants grow in their original pots until it’s time to move them into the garden. Sow their seeds a quarter- to a half-inch apart to give them room to produce thick stems and larger root systems to better survive transplant. Sown closer than one-quarter inch apart, onion seeds will grow thin and spindly seedlings too weak to survive transplant in the garden. To accommodate a good population of seeds, use a six- to eight-inch diameter pot three to four inches deep.
    Pepper seeds can be sown closer together because you’ll transplant the individual seedlings into separate pots as soon as their true leaves appear. The first leaf-like growths are not leaves but cotyledons that provide energy for germination and early growth. Do not transplant the seedlings until you see true leaves.  
    Using a pencil or other object, lift each seedling from the potting mix. Grasp the seedling only by the cotyledon. Grabbing the stem or leaves may harm the plant, but the cotyledons are temporary and will separate from the plant under the shade of the leaves.
    To produce strong, healthy plants for your garden, transplant into four-inch pots in the same potting mix the seeds were sown in.
    Check the potting mix bag to see if it contains added nutrients. If nutrients have been added and if compost is part of the blend, water the pepper seedlings until the excess drips from the bottom of the pots.
    If the mix is free of nutrients or compost, add half the amount of water-soluble fertilizer recommended by the manufacturer. Fertilize at the full rate as soon as active growth begins.
    The amount of nutrients generally added to potting mixes is adequate for approximately one month. After that, use a liquid fertilizer as recommended by the manufacturer.
    Give the young the plants full sun. Check daily to maintain proper moisture.


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

Winters’ luminaries are giving way to those of spring

As dusk gives way to darkness around 6:30, the sky comes alive with the constellations of winter and some of the brightest stars in the sky. High in the south stands Orion, facing west toward the bull Taurus. Behind the hunter come his hounds, Canis Major and Minor. Above Orion are the stick-like figures of the Gemini twins, and to their east is a loop of stars forming Auriga the charioteer. The luminaries of these constellations themselves loosely form the Great Winter Circle, in which the waxing gibbous moon sits right in the middle Wednesday the 17th.
    While the winter constellations dominate the evening sky, those of spring are gathering to the east. At midnight, Leo the lion shines almost directly overhead, with Virgo and Boötes high in the east. As dawn draws near, Scorpius sprawls above the southern horizon.
    The pre-dawn skies are also host to all the naked-eye planets.
    Highest of the planets is Jupiter, rising around 9pm and midway between the bright star Regulus of Leo and Spica of Virgo. This is the best time of year for watching Jupiter. Even a modest telescope will reveal the gaseous giant’s equatorial bands and Great Red Spot as well as the planet’s four largest moons.
    The next planet in line, Mars, doesn’t rise until 1am, as far to the east of Spica as Jupiter is to the west. Over the next few months, the planet rises earlier and grows brighter nearing its closest approach to earth in late May.
    Saturn rises around 3am and is over the south-southeast horizon near dawn. Antares, the heart of the scorpion, is less than 10 degrees to the lower right. While the planet doesn’t climb especially high, its rings are tilted at a good angle for telescope viewing.
    The coming sun begins to bleach the eastern sky by the time Venus crests the horizon, but she shines so bright she easily cuts through the glare. But you may have to scour the skyline to find Mercury, which is less than four degrees below the Morning Star at dawn Saturday.

Small gardens can yield big rewards

Short on space or sun but longing for your own fresh vegetables? You can garden with as little as a square foot of space. Dwarf varieties of vegetables grow successfully in limited space, including planter boxes. You can find them in the seed catalogs arriving by mail this time of year.
    Small or not, all vegetables need full sun. For that, no amount of fertilizer can substitute. So watch where the sun falls now, remembering that in full summer it will take a more northerly path. When you find your sweet spot, let its space dictate your garden size.
    When planning, double-cropping will maximize your growing space. For instance, Bibb lettuce and green onions can grow together. In one square foot of space, you can grow four Bibb lettuce plants and eight green onions planted between the lettuces. As soon as you harvest the lettuce, be ready to plant more. As the season will have advanced, this time choose Summer Time lettuce. This variety is heat tolerant, but because it grows larger than Bibb lettuce, only two plants can be grown in one square foot of space.
    You can grow one miniature cabbage plant and eight radishes in a single square foot. The radishes will be ready for harvest in 24 to 30 days, leaving plenty of room for the cabbage to grow.
    Also available in miniature form are bush-type cucumbers and summer squashes. Hot pepper plants by nature tend to be small and highly productive.
    A small-space garden can also have tomatoes. Cluster varieties produce an abundance of fruit in a limited amount of space. The Tiny Tim variety takes up little room in a garden and produces excellent fruit.
    If you yearn for snap beans, consider growing pole beans. Grow them on a trellis, but make sure bean leaves don’t shade the rest of your vegetables. To ensure they don’t block sunlight to other foliage, plant beans on the north side of your garden or make use of a nearby wall using coarse string for them to climb.
    Little Marvel is a delicious shelling pea that grows only 18 inches tall and produces well. I have even seen it grown in flower boxes with the vines hanging down, loaded with pods.
    Whatever you choose to grow, gardens in a limited space need well-prepared soil. A blend of equal parts compost and gardening soil will provide approximately 50 percent of the nutrient requirements. To maintain the soil, supplement with fertilizers at two- to three-week intervals. For container gardens, add about 25 percent sand by volume to the soil mixture for proper drainage.
    Keep your small garden properly irrigated. Water well and deep, avoiding daily watering except in wilting sun.


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

It’s the critical link to your fish

In my considerable exposure to big fish stories over the years, I’ve noticed that many failures and disasters focus on one recurring cause: tired fishing line. That is unfortunate, especially as the cost of replacing the line on most reels is less than a six-pack.
    How do you know when it’s time to replace your line?
    If you’re asking yourself that question, the answer is yes. When in doubt, replace.
    Monofilament can degrade rapidly with exposure to ultra-violet sunlight and fluorescent lighting, eventually from wear, changes in temperature and humidity and sometimes from simple age.
    New monofilament has a particularly lovely shine on the reel spool. With time and use (especially in saltwater), that shine disappears. Eventually the line becomes chalky. A flat finish is suspicious; chalkiness is definitely bad. Both are signs that vital components of the mono have leached out.
    Braided line, brands like Power Pro and Berkley Fireline, is much more resistant to age and wear than mono, but it is not immune. Extreme use and repeated exposure to the elements eventually cause that line to fail as well.
    When a line begins to lose its integrity from age or use or both, knot strength is the first thing to go bad.
    Next, try the knot test. On lines of indeterminate age and from 10- to 20-pound breaking strength, tie an overhand knot and give it a hard jerk. If it breaks, get rid of the line.
    When lines below 10-pound fail the test, you face a judgment call. Are you ready to chance a good fish?
    Replace your line regularly. Every season is best for monofilament, and every three to five years you should replace braided line.

Line-Shopping Guide
    When buying new line, do not look for bargains. A low or steeply discounted price may indicate old stock or questionable quality. Both mean trouble.
    I have a fishing buddy who cannot resist a bargain. He had chanced into a small out-of-the-way shop selling spools of a popular line at such a low price that he bought a lot. After the start of the rockfish season and the third inexplicable break-off in just the first couple of trips, that line disappeared from his reels and that bargain was never again mentioned.
    Since spools of fishing line do not bear a discernable manufacture date, you never know how old they might be. Thus knowing your supplier is another good rule in buying line.
    Many low-cost lines are excellent, though not superior. Higher-quality lines are monitored for uniform breaking strength. Manufacturing methods are routinely upgraded, with the latest (and usually most expensive) softeners and lubricants added, resulting in better longevity, suppleness, ease of use and knot strength.
    Unless you don’t mind losing gear and fish to break-offs, buy the best you can afford. Purchase your line from a reputable dealer that rotates stock and sells a lot of the product. If you are having your line spooled at the store (always wise), ask to see the bulk spool. Inspect the line for age (if mono, it should be shiny), and don’t hesitate to give it the knot-and-pull test.
The 20-Foot Solution    
    Before the start of each season, discard the first 20 feet of line off each of your reels. Repeat after every half dozen or so trips, particularly if you enjoyed a lot of action. The first 20 feet undergoes the majority of the wear and is most likely to fail under high stress. Landing your next big fish may depend on it.


Conservation Alert

Maryland Governor Hogan’s administration plans to suspend Bay oyster restoration. They are also opening to commercial harvest many oyster reserve areas that have been off-limits. Oysters have been driven down to the last one-half percent of their historic population levels, and these actions, while popular with the commercial sector, are bound to push this vital Chesapeake resource closer to exhaustion. All Bay-lovers should respond to these misguided actions: http://takeaction.cbf.org/p/dia/action3/common/public/?action_KEY=18053.

Five planets shine at dawn

Sirius the Dog Star, blazes high in the south by 10pm. The brightest star, Sirius is easy to spot, but if you have any trouble, follow the three belt stars of familiar Orion down and to the left.
    Last week we traveled the Great Winter Circle, which encompasses Sirius. The Dog Star also anchors another asterism, the Winter Triangle. The other two points are Betelgeuse, marking Orion’s upper shoulder, and Procyon, the Little Dog in Canis Minor, which together with Sirius, the lowest of the three, form a near-perfect equilateral triangle.
    For the first time since 2005, all five naked-eye planets are visible, aligned on the arc of the ecliptic before dawn. This week they are joined by the moon, as well.
    Jupiter leads the way. Old Jove in fact rises due east a little after 9pm and as dawn approaches is high in the west-southwest. Friday you’ll find the moon midway between Jupiter and Spica, the first-magnitude star of Virgo. Then Saturday the moon is less than two degrees to the upper left of Spica.
    To the east of Spica is Mars, which rises around 1am. Sunday before dawn the last-quarter moon is midway between Spica and Mars. Early Monday morning, the moon is just a few degrees to the upper left of Mars. Keep an eye on the red planet, as it draws closer to earth — and brighter — over the coming months.
    Saturn is next in line, rising in the east-southeast after 3:30am. Before dawn Tuesday the moon is between Saturn to the east and Mars to the west. Wednesday the ringed planet is just a few degrees beneath the waning crescent moon.
    Venus rises in the southeast around 5:30am, and once it’s crested the horizon there should be no mistaking this morning star, which is brighter than all but the sun and moon.
    The last planet, Mercury, is another matter, rising in the southeast amid the gathering glow of dawn. While brighter than most stars, the innermost planet is so tight against the horizon that you’ll have an easier time spotting it with binoculars. This week Mercury is within 10 degrees of Venus but will close the gap in the coming week, climbing higher and growing brighter before daybreak.

Here’s how I know which to trust

In winter’s grip, there is nothing like a good nursery and seed catalog, full of colorful pictures of thriving plants, to put you in the mood for digging in the soil. These books may even encourage you to build a small greenhouse or hot bed to get started early.
    Which is why mailboxes fill up with seed and nursery catalogs this time of year.
    I receive many more catalogs than I keep because I discard those with altered images or illustrations to describe what they have to offer.
    There’s a difference between an honest-to-goodness nursery or seed producer and the books sent by wholesale distributors. Most wholesale distributors publish thin-paper catalogs full of pictures that have been enhanced using intensive colored ink or have colorful illustrations of plants and fruit. They also tend to run specials such as two to three plants for the price of one or two to three packets of seeds for the price of one.
    On the other hand, a quality nursery or seed catalog business will most often provide a business history, including location and the number of family generations involved. They will also include information on breeding and propagating practices and photographs of their fields and staff. Most of this type of information is missing in catalogs of wholesale distributors.
    Did you know that by law, catalogs that advertise plants must include in the ad the scientific Latin name of the plant, including genus and species. This is because the English name of plants can change from one part of the country to another, while the Latin name never changes.
    I save good seed and nursery catalogs for at least three years, using older ones as references. All nursery and seed catalogs have sensational new introductions every year, most often posted on the first few pages. To learn if the variety has survived the test of time, I locate the new and improved variety that appeared three years earlier and see if it appears in the 2016 catalog. If I find that variety in the 2016 catalog with even more glorious description, I know that it has gained good reviews and they are bragging. If the description has not changed, it means that the variety is still under study.
    Seed and nursery companies are in business for making money. Their intent is to offer only what sells. Since thousands of dollars are spent in developing new varieties, they cannot afford to carry varieties that do not sell.


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

The waterfowl hunter is a different sort of man — or woman

The sound of a half dozen rapid shots followed by a pause, then two or three more measured reports rolled in from the nearby Magothy River. I was drinking my first coffee that morning, still in my bathrobe and looking out the front window when I heard the gunfire. It was bitter cold, windy, overcast and an altogether miserable morning. The duck hunters must be in heaven, I thought.
    Foul winter weather drives migrating waterfowl down the Atlantic Coast. It also moves birds that have already arrived off open wind-riven waters to seek shelter and food along the shoreline coves and the tributaries. That’s where these specialized hunters wait, crouching in blinds or shivering in layout boats next to scores of decoys, fingering long, slender shotguns and waiting for their quarry to be attracted into range.
    Waterfowl hunters are not like normal people. During duck and goose seasons, spates of sunny days and moderate temperatures send them into irritable funks. Forecasts of storm warnings and gusting winds, snow or rain, overcast skies and plunging thermometers cheer them and lighten their step.
    Waterfowling is a sport only for the hardy, those inured to harsh, frigid conditions and ready to expend any amount of effort in preparing for their sport. They must also be immune to long days of inaction, for experienced gunners know well that often the birds do not come to the hunter.
    The sport requires specialized hard-weather clothing, tough waterproof coats and trousers with heavily insulated cores. All come in camouflage patterns designed to make the wearer as inconspicuous as possible to the migrating ducks and geese. Those birds have virtually telescopic vision.
    It takes strength and good physical condition because gunning the Chesapeake requires an inordinate amount of hard labor. Preparing blinds and duck boats, lugging any number of decoys, setting them out before sunrise and carrying bags of gear: That kind of effort will raise a sweat and exhaust many before the first shot is even fired.
    Challenges are often extreme. The hardy, long-traveling, powerful birds that test these gunners do not seem bound by the normal physics of flight.
    I remember gunning many years ago on Lake Erie. I was in a layout boat behind four-dozen decoys on a blustery day inside Presque Isle Bay. A string of a dozen canvasbacks had plummeted in from on high. I rose up to lead the first duck by at least a half-dozen feet. My shot struck the water just behind the trailing duck as they flew off. If those geese weren’t exceeding 100 miles an hour, I’ll eat my hat and yours as well.
    In spite of the challenges, this sport has long had a hard corps of dedicated practitioners. And make no mistake, it isn’t strictly a man’s sport. That shouldn’t surprise anyone, especially these days, when the women in our military are earning Army Ranger badges and queuing up to compete for the most exclusive areas of Special Forces.
    Woman or man, the waterfowl hunter is a different sort of individual.