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Learn what you need to know, take what you need to have

If you don’t have some type of watercraft — be it canoe, kayak, skiff, sailboat, sailboard or motor yacht — you’ll miss out on enjoying our largest public playground: the vast, 4,500 square miles of the Chesapeake Bay.
    A boat is your magic carpet for roaming the Bay and its tributaries while fishing, sailing, crabbing, clamming, oystering, photographing or cruising and paddling about in the natural beauty of the Chesapeake.

Fish-finder

  The rockfish trophy season is following its traditional schedule. Opening week was great. But springtime weather and the stripers’ natural inclination to elude anglers have taken a toll. Larger rockfish continue to move on their own spawning-driven, immutable and impossible-to-anticipate timelines. In better weather, good trophy fish have been taken all around the Chesapeake. But no one location or pattern has emerged to help anglers concentrate efforts. The spawn is especially late this year, evidenced by the high percentage of roe-laden females boated. So the migratory giants will, in all likelihood, remain available well into May.
  The white perch run is mostly over, as is the hickory shad run. The hickories will be running back to the ocean, while the white perch will wander slowly downstream, then school up and head back to their accustomed hangouts. Some will return to reside in shallow water structures of the Bay and its tributaries, others to the medium depths of the Chesapeake where they will all feed up to regain the body mass lost during spawning. Until the weather warms up and the perch settle down, they will be difficult to locate.
  A few more sunny, 70-plus-degree days will be needed to get the bass and bluegill on their spawning beds. That is sure to happen soon. If you haven’t caught a bluegill (or a bass) on a fly rod and a popper in shallow water, you haven’t lived your angling life to its fullest. This is a good time to correct that oversight.

    But being on the water is not without risk. Every year people are injured and lives lost. Safe boating depends on proper preparation. Step one is following the rules, requirements and guidelines set out by the Department of Natural Resources for boating safety.
    Find Maryland’s recreational boating safety equipment requirements at www.dnr.state.md.us/boating/pdfs/recreationvessels.pdf. Or call DNR and request a copy of the Boat Maryland textbook.
    The most imperative requires that every watercraft of every type, size and location — Bay, pond, creek, river or lake — must have a wearable life jacket or personal floatation device (PFD) of appropriate size for each person on board. All children under the age of 13 must wear their PFD while aboard any craft less than 21 feet in length.
    Boats of 16 feet and over must likewise have, readily available, a type IV floating, throwable device (for man-overboard situations) such as a certified floating cushion or life ring.
    Finally, to operate sailing or motorized craft, all boaters born after July 1, 1972, must take an eight-hour Maryland Basic Boating Course and possess and have on their person a Maryland Boating Safety Education Certificate.
    Classes are listed in Bay weekly’s 8 Days a Week calendar of events. Natural Resources Police Safety Education also lists classes: 410-643-8502; www.dnr.state.md.us/boating/safety/basiccourse.asp.
    You can also find online courses at:
• www.boatus.org/onlinecourse/
Maryland.asp
• www.boat-ed.com/maryland/
• www.BOATERexam.com/usa/
maryland
    Find a handy checklist of all boat-safety items required under Maryland law at the DNR website or on page 21 in the Boat Maryland textbook. Failure to possess these required items while operating your boat can cost you a significant fine plus, in some cases, being ordered off of the water until the shortcomings are rectified.
    There is also a list of suggested items that make a lot of sense. These include a VHF radio, cell phone, extra fuel, a boat hook, charts and a compass, a flashlight and batteries, food and water, mooring lines, tool kit, spare anchor, binoculars, extra clothing, foul weather gear, a searchlight, sunscreen, insect repellant, hand towels, a First Aid Kit and a spare paddle.
    If you venture into distant, sparsely populated areas, consider an EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon) and a satellite phone.
    Squalls, thunderstorms and other violent weather conditions — as well as mechanical breakdowns and unavoidable accidents — are always unpleasant possibilities on the water. Keep the DNR emergency response hotline on your speed dial or, at least, in your list of phone contacts: 410-260-8888 or 877-224-7229.
    If you spend enough time on the water, eventually things will get dicey. If you’re prepared, the incident will only result in a good yarn. If you’re unprepared … well, don’t let that happen.

This pollution is endangering our night skies

We all know of Earth Day, but what about Dark Sky Week?
    “I want people to be able to see the wonder of the night sky without the effects of light pollution,” says Jennifer Barlow, who came up with the idea of Dark Sky Week as a high school student in 2003. “The universe is our view into our past and our vision into the future … I want to help preserve its wonder.”
    We’re in the midst of this celebration of darkness, which has grown into a global movement, leading to downward-facing streetlights, low-glare outdoor bulbs and a greater understanding of the value of darkness.
    “Once a source of wonder — and one-half of the entire planet’s natural environment — the star-filled nights of just a few years ago are vanishing in a yellow haze,” warns the website for Dark Sky Week’s parent organization, the International Dark-Sky Association. “Human-produced light pollution not only mars our view of the stars; poor lighting threatens astronomy, disrupts ecosystems, affects human circadian rhythms, and wastes energy to the tune of $2.2 billion per year in the U.S. alone.” Learn more at www.darksky.org.
    Find your piece of darkness and a view to the east before daybreak Friday and Saturday, when the waning crescent moon hovers within 10 degrees of dazzling Venus.
    Tuesday’s new moon provides the backdrop for this week’s installment of the Globe At Night campaign, which fits hand-in-glove with Dark Sky Week. Your fisthand sightings help map what’s visible — and not — in the night sky all around the world. It’s easy to take part. Log onto www.globeatnight.org to download a star map of Leo the lion, see how many and which of the stars you can spot on a clear night, and return to the website (or the mobile app) to upload your results.
    For parts of South Africa, Australia and Antarctica, Tuesday’s new moon lines up just right between the earth and sun to create an annular solar eclipse. In an annular eclipse, the moon is too far from earth to fully obscure the sun, instead covering only the corona and creating a ring of light outlining the darkened moon. While you’ll likely have to settle for on online view of this one, we’ll have front-row seat for October’s partial solar eclipse.

Otherwise, you’re planting trouble

Every year, readers complain to me that some of their plants are flowering either poorly or not at all. That junipers, Japanese hollies and other shrubs have dead branches or worse. That their plants are so leggy. That tree roots have cracked their sidewalks. Last year, a reader asked what would cause the cement block in his basement to crack and bulge.
    As plants grow, they require more room. Some plants grow more vigorously than others. Many people plant without planning or knowing anything about the plants they have purchased. All kinds of trouble results.
    Crowding is one the consequences. Few gardeners can afford to purchase mature plants when landscaping their home or planting their flowerbeds. Most of the trees and shrubs sold in garden centers are one-tenth to one-quarter their mature size. This is also true for bedding plants and vegetable transplants. Because the plants are small, there’s a tendency to plant them close together to fill the space as rapidly as possible. The problem is that plants quickly grow together and compete for light. Some of the more vigorous species, especially when planted on the south, begin to shade the slower-growing plants. The better prepared the soil, the quicker the growth.
    Crowded plants are forced to grow tall and spindly with weak stems. The thickness and strength of a plant stem is directly related to the frequency of bending and the number of branches or leaves originating from the stem. Plants that are crowded do not sway with the wind as those that are more exposed. Crowding also prevents side branches and leaves from developing on the stem. As a result, the stem does not increase in diameter and remains weak. Crowding also inhibits flowering.
    Many flowering plants such as azaleas, rhododendrons, roses, crape myrtle, lilacs and Korean dogwoods produce the maximum flowers when planted in full sun. The plants may have been planted in full sun initially, but surrounded with a more vigorous or a taller-growing species, they extend their shade over the slower-growing flowering species. As the flowering plants are exposed to more shade and less sun, their ability to produce flowers is reduced.
    Other species of ornamentals will grow only in full sun. Junipers, Japanese hollies, pine, spruce, fir, arborvitae, chamaecyparis and others deteriorate when planted in shade. As these species are exposed to more and more shade, the plant’s branches die back. Many gardeners associate the dieback with disease and do not realize that the branches are dying from insufficient direct sunlight.
    As the roots of trees grow in diameter, the force that is generated can lift concrete walkways. For planting near walkways or foundations, select trees that will produce deep roots and plant them at a sufficient distance to develop without damaging structures. Trees should never be planted closer than 20 feet from a foundation. I have seen cement block foundations crack and bulge from the pressure exerted by expanding tree roots.
    Before purchasing plants, take time to read the information about each species, select those that best meet your needs, recognize their mature size and make certain that the plants you select will receive the amount of sun they need.


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

The big fish are here, with anglers on their tails

As our boat, Downtime, approached the Bay Bridge spans, I glanced back at the trolling setup just in time to see the portside rod slam down hard in its holder. Tim Levandoski, an eager angler visiting from upstate New York, rushed to grab the straining outfit. He could barely hold it vertical while line poured off the reel against the drag.
    Welcome to the Chesapeake, I thought, as a broad smile illuminated the face of an angler accustomed to the pull of the five- and six-pound freshwater bass of his home state. Fifteen minutes later, but only after considerable effort, he hoisted up a muscular 36-inch, 20-plus-pound rockfish for some photos.
    That handsome catch was made the last practice day before trophy rockfish season. A stellar opening day followed on April 19. The last half-dozen years, opening day has been plagued by nasty winds and wretched seas. This year’s version was sunny and calm, and the catches impressive.
    Success spread over a wide area including Love Point, the Bay Bridge, Gum Thickets, the mouth of Eastern Bay, Bloody Point, over to Hackett’s and down to Chesapeake Beach, then to Solomons. Our waters are full of migratory stripers, and they are hungry.
    Early reports included a couple of 50-plus-pound fish. A 47-incher (that took a white bucktail) was caught by Jim Aherns on the Pollyann to win the 13th Annual Boatyard Bar & Grill Opening Day Tournament.
    Nice-sized fish seem to dominate the storyline all over the Bay.
    Angler’s Sport Center has weighed in quite a few hefty stripers for citation (40 inches or over), more than I ever remember, and I’ve heard of no throwbacks.
    Trolling typically dominates the early season tactical scenario with boats working the main stem of the Chesapeake. Larger lures such as parachutes rigged with nine- and 12-inch sassy shads (white or chartreuse) are taking large fish, while big umbrella rigs in the same colors have accounted for a few giants.
    Fishing the top 20 feet of the water column is key during the early season, but dragging a few baits deep for insurance makes sense. Working across the cavernous shipping channels all the way past the shallower edges and keeping trolling speeds to under three knots are also part of the drill. Early morning hours are usually heavily weighted with success as daytime boat traffic eventually scatters the fish or drives them deeper.
    Bait fishing is taking increasingly larger numbers of trophy stripers as well this early season as the method continues to become more popular. Fishing fresh-cut bait or bloodworms on the bottom has been surprisingly effective in the same areas that have traditionally been productive only later in the year. The most productive spots are around the mouths of the major tributaries for boat anglers; Matapeake and Sandy Point state parks, or any accessible shoreline on the Bay proper, for land-based sports.
    The opening day of Maryland’s Rockfish Trophy Season is designated by state law as the third Saturday in April. The timing is planned to avoid large female fish still trying to reproduce.
    The result of our unusually long and cold winter, however, is that many of the trophy-sized females landed so far this season are still bulging with roe. Because of the unusually low water temperatures, the spawn has been delayed and extended.
    Prudent anglers will refrain from harvesting these gravid fish, releasing them and choosing to take only the males and spawned-out females. Returning big roe-bearing fish — easily carrying a half-million eggs — to the Bay to complete their spawns will benefit future rockfish populations.

Bright planets and shooting stars dazzle this week

As the sun sets, Jupiter shines high in the southwest, smack-dab in the middle of the constellation Gemini, its bright stars Castor and Pollux a few degrees away toward the celestial zenith. By midnight the king of the planets hovers above the horizon and sets within another hour.
    By that time, Mars is high in the south. Just days past opposition, the red planet is visible from dusk until dawn. It is also at its closest to Earth in six years. If you have a telescope, you’ll want to aim it at our planetary neighbor, which won’t appear so large in a view-piece again for two years. Mars shines in the constellation Virgo, with its blue-white alpha star Spica trailing by 10 degrees. As daybreak arrives, they are low against the west horizon.
    In the hour before sunrise, Venus dominates the east, brighter than anything but the sun and moon. The Morning Star doesn’t climb high above the horizon, which only adds to its splendor as its light shimmers and sparkles like a kaleidoscope as it passes through Earth’s atmosphere.
    The dark hours between Tuesday and Wednesday mark the peak of this year’s Lyrid Meteor Shower. The best viewing is between midnight and daybreak, when you might spot up to 20 meteors an hour, some with long trails burning for several seconds. The waning crescent moon rises around 3am and could dampen the showing. But keep your eyes peeled through the week when errant meteors could still streak across the sky.

Bright planets and shooting stars dazzle this week

As the sun sets, Jupiter shines high in the southwest, smack-dab in the middle of the constellation Gemini, its bright stars Castor and Pollux a few degrees away toward the celestial zenith. By midnight the king of the planets hovers above the horizon and sets within another hour.
    By that time, Mars is high in the south. Just days past opposition, the red planet is visible from dusk until dawn. It is also at its closest to Earth in six years. If you have a telescope, you’ll want to aim it at our planetary neighbor, which won’t appear so large in a view-piece again for two years. Mars shines in the constellation Virgo, with its blue-white alpha star Spica trailing by 10 degrees. As daybreak arrives, they are low against the west horizon.
    In the hour before sunrise, Venus dominates the east, brighter than anything but the sun and moon. The Morning Star doesn’t climb high above the horizon, which only adds to its splendor as its light shimmers and sparkles like a kaleidoscope as it passes through Earth’s atmosphere.
    The dark hours between Tuesday and Wednesday mark the peak of this year’s Lyrid Meteor Shower. The best viewing is between midnight and daybreak, when you might spot up to 20 meteors an hour, some with long trails burning for several seconds. The waning crescent moon rises around 3am and could dampen the showing. But keep your eyes peeled through the week when errant meteors could still streak across the sky.

Here’s the right way to till the garden

Just because you have a rototiller or a Mantis doesn’t mean you have to till your soil until it is pulverized into dust. The more you till the soil, the more damage you do to its structure. The finer you pulverize the soil, the faster its organic matter is destroyed.
    Here’s how to do the job right.
    Pray for perfect conditions, as soil should never be tilled when too wet or too dry.
    Till the soil no more than twice before planting vegetables in the spring. One shallow tilling in the fall is all that’s needed before planting cover crops. If your soil has a cover crop of rye or wheat, mow it as close to the ground as possible to pulverize the vegetation. To till, set the tines at a depth of three inches for the first pass through the garden to kill the roots of the cover crop and expose the soil to the drying sun and wind. Allow three to five days before the second tilling, hoping it doesn’t rain during this drying-out period.
    Before tilling the garden a second time, set the tines to a depth of five inches and till the garden perpendicular to the direction of the first tilling. This pattern ensures a more uniform tilling and reduces the potential of compacting the pan layer of soil below the tilled layer.
    If your soil test recommendations call for amending with limestone, compost or fertilizers, apply them prior to the first tilling. As limestone is very slow in reacting in cold soils, the first tilling should be done as early in the spring as possible and the second tilling delayed one and a half to two weeks. This technique allows for the lime to react and begin correcting the pH.
    Care in tilling the soil reduces the loss of organic matter. Increasing the organic matter requires the addition of compost or animal manure. Many garden problems can be avoided by maintaining your soil’s organic matter concentration at five percent or above.


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

It’s a shame to let April end with no pickerel

Long, lean and equipped with a mouthful of needle-sharp teeth and a nasty attitude, the chain pickerel, sometimes called the water wolf, is the acknowledged king fish of winter. Most other Tidewater species become sleepy and lethargic at lower temperatures. The water wolf seems energized by the chill.
    This past winter season was so frigid and foul that I never managed a single dance with these sly devils. I remedied that recently on the first decent day in months.
    With the water still cold, the fish are grouped to feed on spawning perch and herring. As the water warms, the pickerel will spawn, then spread out in singles and melt into thicker cover.
    We fished the Eastern Shore, but you can find pickerel higher up in most of the tributaries and creeks around the Chesapeake.
    These members of the pike family are ambush predators. You’ll sometimes encounter them cruising in open water, but this time of year it’s more productive to target trees fallen into the water (laydowns), submerged brush, piers, the shorelines of coves, the edges of floating debris, jetties and rocky edges.
    We were using a small gold spoon with a lip-hooked bull minnow. The flash of the spoon — plus the undulating action it gives the minnow as you slowly retrieve — draws smashing strikes. Pickerel will hit either a minnow or a spoon alone, but the two in tandem are especially deadly. As another benefit, the metal spoon generally keeps your line away from the teeth of the fish so you don’t need a leader. Anglers also employ spinner baits such as large Rooster Tails, Mepps, smaller sized Rat-L-Traps and similar crank baits. Our gear was light, six-foot spinning rods with four- and six-pound line.

Give and Take
    We had action as soon as we hit the water. My buddy Moe had the first fish, a big one, right next to us after a considerable battle. During the fight, it managed to open the small snap securing Moe’s lure. With a couple of headshakes at boatside, the fish escaped with my friend’s six dollar spoon sparkling from the edge of its smile.
    Mine was the next hookup, and it felt like a real giant. It came away from the shore pulling deep with steady pressure and passed by us, unconcerned, on the way out to open water. I wasn’t sure it knew it was hooked.
    I increased the drag tension as the fish slowly pulled out line. Only then did it shake its head for the first time. My line went slack. Retrieving my spoon and ravaged minnow, I could only surmise that my hook point had never penetrated the fish’s mouth. When the beast suspected deception, it had simply spit out the offending morsel.
    We kept at it through a subsequent slump, finally hitting pay dirt an hour later while working submerged brush. After landing three nice fish, we keyed on similar structure along the shoreline and drew regular strikes and frothy battles over the next four hours.
    The iridescent green rockets occasionally went airborne, clearing the surface and giving us a good look at their lethal profiles and fearsome dentures. Our fish that day averaged about 20 inches; we stopped counting after 15 splashing encounters.
    A 24-inch pickerel is citation-size and gives an outsized battle. A 14-incher is rather lightweight though still a legal keeper.

Your Turn
    Chain pickerel will continue to haunt submerged structure and cruise the tributaries and impoundments until the end of April, or as long as the white perch runs last, so you can still get in on the action.
    Take a net as pickerel are impossible to handle without one. They are also extremely slippery. You can control them somewhat in the boat by gripping them by the eye sockets (it doesn’t harm their eyes). It’s probably best to leave them in the net until they’re unhooked and ready for release. Never forget about their teeth, which are needle-sharp and abundant.

A Poor Meal
    The down side to the pickerel is in its table quality. It’s got lots of bones, many very fine. The fish are far more valuable swimming than in the frying pan.

Luna joins several luminaries, but its disappearing act is the best

The moon waxes through the weekend, until Tuesday’s full moon, known as the Grass Moon, the Egg Moon and the Pink Moon. This is also the first full moon since vernal equinox, the Paschal Moon, marking the start of Passover and setting the date for Easter the following Sunday.
    Thursday the bright gibbous moon hovers below the first-magnitude star Regulus, heart of Leo the lion. Stretching up from the star like an inverted question mark is the Sickle of Leo, which marks the head of the celestial lion. Located along the ecliptic — the pathway through the heavens of the sun, moon and planets — Regulus is joined every month by the moon, which is never more than five degrees away.
    The following nights the moon marches eastward against the backdrop of stars, leaving Leo and approaching Virgo. By Saturday it is in a barren patch of sky, midway between Regulus and equally bright Spica to the east. Don’t confuse Spica’s blue-white glow with that of ruddy Mars a few degrees away.
    By Sunday, the moon forms an uneven triangle with Mars and Spica, its shape shifting as the three objects pivot to the west. Monday the near-full moon is within five degrees of Mars — and about half that distance from Spica. The three are so close that they will all fit within the field of view of binoculars or telescope. Come Wednesday, the moon comes within a few degree os Saturn amid the faint stars of Libra.
    Tuesday, the full moon rises as the sun sets and sets the next morning at sunrise. But in between, a little before 1am, the moon slowly inches behind earth’s full shadow, or umbra, in a total lunar eclipse. The eclipsed moon never actually disappears, but it does darken considerably, sometimes taking on a coppery or even blood-red hue as if illuminated from within. While the hours are for night owls, we’re in prime position to see this along Chesapeake Bay (as is most of North and South America as well as Australia). Unlike an eclipse of the sun, you can stare at this all you want with no worries.
    Beginning around 1am, the moon crosses into earth’s outer, or penumbral, shadow. The change is slow and subtle, with the moon’s left, or northwest, edge starting to darken ever so slightly. But by 2am, as the moon slips behind the umbral shadow, the darkness spreads and deepens. The total phase begins at 3:07am, and at 3:46 the moon, earth and sun will be almost perfectly aligned, with the moon appearing as an eerie shadow of its usual self. Totality ends at 4:25am, and by 5:33 the moon will have crept from the umbral shadow. As daybreak draws near, the moon escapes earth’s shadow, only to set in the west.

A healthy and happy lawn gives no ground to weeds

A lot of people out there are trying to sell you weed-and-feed fertilizer. Don’t buy them — or you’re buying trouble. Here’s why they don’t always work — and may cause problems.
    Two different types of weed killers, aka herbicides, are blended with lawn fertilizers in formulating the so-called weed-and-feed blend. One kind is advertised to kill broadleaf weeds; another to kill crabgrass.
    The formulation of weed-and-feed fertilizer advertised as killing broadleaf weeds such as dandelions, ground ivy and plantain is a phenoxy compound (2,4-D, Dicamba, MCPP, etc.) in granular form. These compounds can be absorbed through the foliage or by the roots. But only under certain conditions.
    They don’t function when the soil is dry or when weeds are dormant. If applied in early spring, the killing agent may well deteriorate or leach deep into the soil beyond the reach of the roots of weeds. But the roots of trees and shrubs can absorb them, causing injury such as twisting and curling of leaves and damage to new growth. Another problem is leaching into groundwater, which contributes to the pollution of the Bay.
    Delay application until after grasses and weeds have resumed growth, and the fertilizer is likely to cause a disease problem such as fusarium. Fusarium, aka frogeye, kills grass. The symptoms appear as a tuft of green surrounded by a dead brown zone. Another problem: Late application of high-nitrogen fertilizer on cool-season grasses such as bluegrass or fescue forces the grass to produce lush growth at a time when lawn grasses are stressed by the heat of summer. Cool-season grasses grow best in cool weather.
    Weed-and-feed fertilizers promoted to control crabgrass often do not perform as advertised when applied early.  These weed killers are called pre-emergent, meaning that they must be applied before the weed seeds germinate. Their effectiveness at killing germinating weed seeds lasts only  four to six weeks after they have been applied. But crabgrass is a summer annual weed whose seeds do not begin to germinate until a week or two after forsythia has dropped its flowers. So if crabgrass-killing weed-and-feed fertilizer is applied too early, its effectiveness at killing germinating crabgrass weed seeds is severely reduced. Delay applying the product until after forsythia flowers have dropped, and you risk fusarium problems.
    Weed-and-feed fertilizers can also contribute to the pollution of the Bay. Granules that fall on sidewalks and driveways either float or dissolve and become part of the storm water that contributes to the non-point source of pollution. If your property abuts the Bay or its tributaries and a heavy rain occurs soon after application, the granules can find their way into the Bay.
    A healthy lawn does not allow weeds to grow.
    Have your soil tested to make certain that the pH is between 6.2 and 6.8. If the results indicate that your soil contains adequate levels of phosphorus, purchase only fertilizers with 0 phosphorus. If the test indicates your soil has adequate levels of phosphorus and potassium, consider using calcium nitrate.
    Also set your mower to cut the grass no shorter than three inches and taller if possible. Cut it tall and let it fall for a healthy turf that gives no ground to weeds.
    
To Test Your Soil
    Find instructions for submitting soil samples for testing at www.al-labs-eastern.com. For sandy soil, choose the S3 test. Save money by specifying no crop. I offer free follow-up directions to Bay Weekly readers. For my recommendations, add my email (as well as your own): Dr.FRGouin@gmail.com.

Ask Dr. Gouin your questions at DR.FRGouin@gmail.com. All questions will appear in Bay Weekly. Please include your name and address.