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Paddlers approach fish and wildlife closely and unobtrusively

Lifting the slender red hull with one hand, I put the single-person kayak in the back of my pickup truck, securing it with a bungee cord and tucking in the double-bladed oar. Within an hour, I was floating over the placid waters of my favorite lake, casting my fly rod to any number of bluegills, pickerel, bass and perch.
    Later that week, I would launch the same craft along a major Chesapeake tributary to pursue white perch and schoolie rockfish with a light spin outfit.
    One of the best things about living in Maryland is our public recreational areas. I’m not talking about places such as Quiet Waters Park, Truxton or even Sandy Point State Park, though they are all great areas to enjoy the outdoors. The public space I’m talking about is the Bay itself and its almost countless tributaries, as well as Maryland’s many freshwater lakes and streams.
    Under federal law, people have access to all navigable waters subject to the ebb and flow of tide, and to all inland (non-tidal) waters capable of being boated. That means that if you’re floating in a watercraft almost anywhere in Maryland, you are in public space.
    That amounts to thousands of square miles of public recreational water including the 2,500 square miles of the Chesapeake, the 3,190 miles of shoreline (up to the high water mark), 40 rivers and innumerable lakes, streams and creeks.
    But you can’t enjoy this vast playground unless you have a boat, which may be easier than you think.
    The kayak boom has accelerated access to Maryland’s waters. This small craft was created by Inuit hunters of the far north some 4,000 years ago. It is a very stable craft due to its low center of gravity, light and easy to propel. In its modern incarnation, it is inexpensive and virtually maintenance-free.
    There are versions available for big water (sea kayaks), special designs for fishing, others for whitewater or saltwater surfing models. There are models designed for up to four people, though solo and two-person kayaks are the norm. All are seaworthy, so you can expect to be safe and secure on any day pleasant enough to make you want to be out on the water.
    Many versions weigh about 40 pounds and can be transported on the top of virtually any vehicle. I’ve even seen them towed on special trailers built to be pulled by a bicycle.
    The general touring or recreational versions will do for most applications. Coupled with a comfortable life jacket and a light two-bladed paddle, it is a marine package almost anyone can afford and enjoy.
    This very unobtrusive craft allows the paddler to approach closely to fish and wildlife, a particular advantage to an angler, wildlife photographer or nature lover.
    Canoes also afford wide access to our calmer waters. Canoes were developed some 10,000 years ago in Scandinavia and are generally considered the first form of watercraft. Of yore, they were crafted from a single log or by covering a light framework with tree bark.
    Commonly used by Native Americans and later by European immigrants, the canoe proved to be the primary source of transportation on the lakes, rivers and streams of North America until the late 1800s. Their light weight allowed them to be easily portaged between navigable waters, and they were built in sizes that could accommodate as many as eight passen­gers and their gear.
    Today’s canoes are constructed of molded synthetic materials that are both light and robust, requiring little maintenance. Many are as inexpensive as kayaks though not quite as stable because you sit higher in the hull. On the other hand, the canoe provides more room and storage. Many models can accommodate up to three or four people.
    No matter which of these light craft you choose, it will give you immediate access to one of the largest aquatic recreational areas in America, and all that access is free.

Asparagus is coming; winter weeds should be going

If you planted a cover crop of winter rye or wheat last fall, most likely the grass is six to 12 inches tall by now. Use your lawnmower to mow the grass as close to the ground as possible. Mowing saves you time in tilling the soil and helps to dry it, making it easier for the tiller.
    Ground left bare will by now be covered with a carpet of chickweed and henbit. Use horticultural vinegar to kill these winter weeds now before they drop their seeds. For maximum control, spray the vinegar on the foliage during a bright sunny day. Within 24 hours, you will see the weeds turn yellow-white with the leaf margins going brown. Friends report good results with a mixture of one gallon of distilled white vinegar with one-quarter cup of Palmolive dish detergent.
    If that bare ground is your asparagus bed, once the weeds have died down, rototill lightly, delaying if the soil is very wet. Before tilling, you can easily remove old stems because most have rotted at the base. Allow the tines of the tiller to penetrate the soil no more than three or four inches so as to not disturb the roots of the asparagus plants, which will soon be sending up shoots
    Readers have asked how to grow white asparagus, which are tenderer than green asparagus and have a milder flavor. White asparagus are grown in the dark. The old method was to hill the beds with soil or sawdust as the spears appeared above ground. The modern method is to build a lightweight frame of wood and cover it with black plastic or roofing paper. As soon as the spears appear, place the covered frames over the beds, lifting every two or three days for harvesting.
    If you have not had your soil tested in the past four years, now is the perfect time to submit a good representative soil sample for testing.
    I recommend sending the soil samples to A&L — now Waypoint Analytical — in Richmond (www.soilandplantlaboratory.com/services/soilsampling.aspx).
    If your soil is a sandy loam or loamy sand, have it tested for all trace elements especially for boron (B). However, if your soil is a loam, silt or clay loam, the general soil test will suffice.
    If you have been growing multiple crops each year, you most likely will need to apply limestone. If you want me to make the recommendations, don’t specify a crop (a savings of $3-$5) and include my email so I’ll get your results: dr.frgouin@gmail.com. Once I have them I’m happy to consult you.


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

 

You think you’ve got everything you need until you find out you don’t

It was a nearly perfect morning. We had arrived to find our favorite yellow perch spot empty of angler competition, the broad stream running full and clear and a warm sun poking up over the tops of the thick trees lining the far shore.
    With medium-sized bull minnows hooked on shad darts under weighted bobbers, my buddy Frank and I flipped our rigs out into the stream, above a small eddy churning about 30 feet from the shoreline. Both our bobbers disappeared as soon as they drifted close to the edge of the twisting water.
    Setting our hooks, then gently fighting and easing two fat neds to the shoreline, we grinned so wide they almost hurt our faces.
    “Man these are definitely keepers,” I said.
    “Definitely,” Frank concurred, “but we had better check.”
    Agreeing, I hunted in my tackle bag for a measuring tape. It was not to be found.
    “I must have left it at home,” I said.
    Frank was not having any luck either. “I know I had one last year,” he said.
    “Dang. I’m not so positive that my fish is legal,” I had to admit.
    “I’m not sure enough to risk a $200 fine,” Frank agreed.
    After a final desperate search and still coming up empty, I proposed an option.
    “I think a dollar bill is close to six inches. Let’s cut a branch the size of one and a half bills to measure our fish. We should probably add a little length just to be sure, because I’m not positive that a bill is just under or just over six.”
    Both our neds proved legal by this method, and we used the small stick until we limited out.
    We would later discover that a dollar bill is exactly 61⁄8 inches. So we had probably released, unknowingly, a dozen legal keepers.
    We also discovered we had overlooked bringing a fish stringer, pickerel lures, a better quantity and selection of shad darts, heavier sinkers and a minnow net for dipping bait.

Making Your List
    The first trips of the year can be like that. You think you’ve got everything you need until you find out you don’t.
    With the benefit of hindsight, Frank and I made a checklist:
    A measuring tape or ruler.
    A five-gallon plastic utility bucket, a great catchall for carrying the various items of your tackle to the fishing site as well as in carrying back any fish you might harvest.
    Two fishing rods per person so that an accident like a broken rod or a reel that has frozen up over the long winter won’t derail your after an hour on the road and a mile hike to the secret spot. It is also handy to have one rod rigged for bobber fishing and the other for bottom fishing.
    A regulation book in case you catch a species you hadn’t planned on and can’t remember the minimum legal size or legal season for possession.
    Extra shad darts of varying weights, sizes and colors, plus small spoons and crank baits, extra hooks of the proper size and hi-lo rigs to set up for bottom fishing. Also bring sinkers and bobbers in enough quantity that you can lose a few in the multitude of snags and low treetops in springtime angling waters.
    A minnow bucket so that you don’t have to purchase yet another when stopping at the bait store; plus a small dip net to allow your hands to stay warm in the chill of spring.
    A line clipper;
    A good knife;
    A small towel or two to keep your hands dry and warm and to wipe off fish or bait slime.
    A hemostat or pliers to aid in divesting your fish — especially pickerel — from the hooks.
    A camera to prevent your being called a liar.
    Boots in the event of a flooded or muddy shoreline.
    A light waterproof jacket or poncho for that day when a warm, sunny sky turns into an dark dowpour.
    A first aid kit, including bandaids, medical tape and disinfectant for fin and hook punctures, plus a small wire cutters should a hook bury in past the barb.
    Last but not least, a fishing license.

A gas giant, that isIt’s a Gas

Jupiter is brilliant from dusk to dawn, rising in the east at twilight, at its highest due south around midnight and low in the west at dawn. The gaseous giant is at its closest, and Tuesday marks its opposition, when it is directly opposite the sun in relation to earth. The planet is at its best for viewing, and even a modest telescope will reveal its colored bands and its four largest moons.
    Mars rises around midnight and is well placed in the south as daybreak approaches. Over the next three months the red planet grows in size and brightness as it moves closer to earth.
    Saturn rises around 1:30am, trailing Mars by 20 degrees. Come dawn it’s high in the south-southeast. The bright star to its lower right is Antares.
    Venus twinkles just above the east-southeast horizon a half-hour before sunrise, while Mercury is a few degrees lower still, and almost lost now against the coming sun.

It’s not such prickly work after all

A Bay Weekly reader who has tried and failed many times asks how to grow cactus plants from seeds.
    It’s possible. Here’s how.
    For growth, cactus plants need full sun, dry conditions except for a few days of rain in the spring, sandy rather poor alkaline soil that’s hot in the day and cool at night. These are exactly the same conditions you must satisfy to be successful in germinating seeds. 
    To prepare a seed germinating mix, blend one-fourth cup of garden soil with two cups of play sand and one rounded teaspoon of agricultural grade dolomite limestone. Moisten with water and mix thoroughly. Place the mix in a metal or Pyrex pan and bake at 200 degrees for one hour, cooling in the oven. By doing this, you are pasteurizing the soil to kill all weed seeds and living organisms that are not common under desert conditions. Put two tablespoons of the sterilized soil in a clean, sterile container or plastic bag. Place the rest of the sterilized soil in a clean, shallow four- or five-inch pan with drainage holes in the bottom.
    Uniformly scatter cactus seeds over the surface of the mix, allowing one-eighth to one-fourth inch between them. Cover the seeds with the saved pasteurized soil using a tea strainer. Water the seeds carefully with a rose bulb or fine sprinkler until water drips from the bottom of the container. Place the pot near a window facing south where it will obtain full sun all day and cool temperatures at night.
    Commercially, cactus seeds are germinated in lighted cycling chambers with 80 degrees of bottom heat for 12 to 15 hours under grow lights and nine to 12 hours of darkness at temperatures 60 to 65 degrees. You can best achieve the commercial germination chamber with a gooseneck lamp with a 40-watt incandescent light bulb. Adjust the light to 10 to 12 inches above the pot and place both in the middle of a room. Turn the light on soon after you rise in the morning and turn it off before going to bed at night. The heat and infrared rays of the incandescent light bulb will not only provide light but also warm the soil during the day. When the light is off, the soil will cool.
    Most packets of cactus seed contain several species, so germination is very erratic, anywhere from a few weeks to a month or more. Check for soil moisture daily. If the soil feels warm, irrigate lightly. If the soil feels cool, withhold irrigation.


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

If it’s looking like a curled wood saw, it’s time for a new one

While walking close to the stern of my trailered boat in the drive yesterday morning, I felt a tug. My pant leg had hung up on the outboard’s prop, and for good reason. The edge of the offending blade looked like a curled wood saw.
    Fishing shallow water has its rewards, but it can be hard on boat propellers.
    You’re sometimes navigating where your skiff’s propeller is pushing through sand, silt or worse. You are inevitably going to hit a rock or two, possibly even a boulder.
    If you have a stainless steel prop on your outboard, you must be eternally cautious or have deep pockets. Stainless is expensive and doesn’t easily bend or deflect. While superb for deep-water cruising, stainless props will fracture, or fail when encountering rocks of size.
    Aluminum props are much more forgiving, bending and deflecting from collisions with the hard stuff in the shallows. My propellers for the last few decades have been aluminum for just that reason. Though they can eventually lose their operating efficiency when the blades become too rough or misshapen, replacing them is rather simple.

Know Your Propeller
    Next to the horsepower and torque of the motor itself, the propeller is the most critical link to moving through the water. The propeller and its shape determine, among other things, your top speed, fuel economy and how promptly your craft comes up on plane.
    An outboard prop’s performance essentials are identified by the numbers inscribed on the hub of the prop (which means you have to take the propeller off to determine what they are). These numbers indicate pitch (how far the prop theoretically drives through the water in one revolution, measured in inches) and the prop’s diameter (also in inches). It should also denote the direction of rotation (usually right or clockwise).
    If you are pleased by the past performance of your propeller and merely intend to restore lost efficiency (caused by dents, gouges and misshapen blades), purchase a new one with the same pitch, diameter and rotation direction as your original.
    At propeller-changing time, you can also modify any aspect of your craft’s general on-the-water performance. Choosing less pitch, or a slightly smaller diameter for your new prop can likely generate higher RPMs (engine speed) and a greater WOT (wide open throttle) speed. Expect, though, that the change (as long as the RPM increase is within the safe range of the engine’s specs) may also result in your craft coming up on plane a bit more slowly.
    If you are a shallow-depth dervish intending to cruise the shoalwaters and wanting your skiff to jump up on plane faster, choose a greater pitch or a bit larger diameter prop, recognizing you may lose a little top-end speed.
    One caveat: It is impossible to predict exactly how a different prop will affect your boat’s performance on the water. So when you decide to try a new setup, exercise care in unpacking, installing and running the new unit. If it doesn’t perform as you wish and the parts (and packaging) are still in new condition, you can return it in exchange for another better suited to your needs.
    Don’t discard a banged-up prop. It can come in handy as a backup. If you’re handy and have a hammer and a butane torch, you might restore a dinged aluminum unit to useful condition.

11 minutes a year can really add up

The moon wanes through late-night and early-morning skies this week, reaching last quarter Tuesday. The moon rises Thursday around 9pm, with the bright star Spica trailing about 10 degrees behind. Far to the west of the moon is Jupiter, the next-brightest object. Friday night Spica rises ahead of the moon, but now the two are less than five degrees apart.
    The moon rises just before midnight Sunday followed only minutes later by the red planet Mars, roughly five degrees to the southeast. As sunrise approaches Monday you’ll find them high in the south.
    The moon rises around 1am Tuesday, and now it’s six degrees to the left of Mars. Another red light, Antares, the heart of Scorpius, shines to the moon’s lower left, and it, the moon and Mars form a tight triangle. Ten degrees east of the moon is golden Saturn. The moon and Saturn are spectacular Wednesday before dawn, with the moon just two degrees above ­Saturn.
    Venus still glimmers low above the southeast horizon in the half-hour before daybreak. You may even spot Mercury lower still, though you may need binoculars.
    Monday marks Leap Day, that time every four years when we recalibrate our calendars to celestial time. You see, it takes the earth a little more than 365 days to orbit the sun, so we add a 366th day on each Leap Year to keep things in synch. You might think that Leap Year is a modern development. In fact, it was first enacted by Julius Caesar more than 2,000 years ago.
    Those early astronomers were able to track the earth’s annual passage around the sun to within 11 minutes — pretty good considering the telescope would not come along for another 1,400 years. While 11 minutes may seem insignificant over a typical year’s 525,600 minutes, it adds up to a full day every 130 years. By the 1500s, the vernal equinox fell on March 11 rather than the 21st.
    Enter Pope Gregory XIII, who in 1582 wiped from that year the days of October 4th through 15th. Further, he ordained that Leap Years would continue in years divisible by four except those ending in 00 — unless those 00 years were themselves divisible by 400. So back in 2000 we observed Leap Year, but in the year 2100 we will not. This reduces the difference between a solar year and our calendar year to 26 seconds, one day every 3,000 years!
    Again, pretty accurate computations at a time when the abacus was the most advanced mathematical instrument.

Put yourself in its place

Oh, the stories I’ve heard of abuse to cactus. I’ve spent many afternoons and evenings in plant clinics where people wheel in large barrel or drum cacti with decaying centers. Often water was oozing from the bottom where it had begun to rot. One elderly lady arrived in a chauffeured limousine. She sent the chauffeur inside to bring me out to examine her plant, a three-foot-tall Saguaro cactus. Before she would allow me to examine her cactus, she requested my credentials.
    My first question to her, and to the other cacti owners I advised, was where the plant was kept at home. Most often, I was told, in the middle of the living room.
    Where do cacti grow? The desert.
    Cacti growing as houseplants need to reside in an area with full sun.
    Cacti are succulents and store large amounts of water in their cells. Because the epidermal layer is thick between the spikes and covered with a chitin like material, they lose little water by evaporation. In the home, most cacti should not be watered more than once a month and should only be fed with a liquid fertilizer once a year.
    They’ll need repotting every four to five years. The soil can be made by blending 10 percent garden soil with 90 percent sandbox or builders sand. To each cubic foot of cacti soil, add one-half cup of agricultural limestone and blend thoroughly. Heat garden soil at 200 degrees for one hour to kill weeds, insects and worms or grubs.
    Because most cacti have sharp spines, they are dangerous. To handle them, crumble many sheets of newspaper into large, tight balls. Put the paper balls over the spines, pressing firmly into place until you can no longer feel the sharp ends.
    To remove a cactus from its pot, slide a long sharp knife along the inner side the container and the root ball. Tip the container on its side and slide out the root ball. If the root ball does not slide easily, strike the bottom of the container with a rubber hammer or with a two-inch-thick board cushioning a carpentry hammer to prevent breakage.
    The new container should be at least three inches larger in diameter than the old and one to two inches deeper. Measure the depth of the original root ball and add soil to raise the top of the root ball to within one inch from the top of the pot. Stand the plant upright and lift into the middle of the new container. Wear thick gloves and get your hold on paper, not spikes. Use your repotting mix to partially fill the space between the root ball and the wall of the new container. Then wash the new soil into place with a steady stream of water. Add more prepared soil and water until the new soil is level with the top of the root ball.
    For large cacti, repotting will require several hours of intensive labor.


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

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.