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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.

Persistence conquers all.

–Benjamin Franklin

Trollers are the majority of trophy-season rockfish anglers, as they should be. There is no surer way to seek out and hook a giant migratory striper than by working the deep-water shipping lanes with large lures and heavy tackle.
    But there are anglers who march to a different drummer in the spring season. They do not hear the rumble of an engine, nor do they smell engine exhaust. Chumming from an anchored boat or fishing cut bait from the shoreline can score big fish. However, the challenges these anglers face are considerable, and only patience and persistence can ensure success.
    The principle problem is anticipating where rockfish might be. Over the next month, rockfish will be on the move, driven by spawning instincts no one can anticipate. Reproduction is the prime motivation of every striper now swimming the Chesapeake.
    There is no way of predicting where a rockfish will be from day to day. Some will be moving up the Bay to spawn, others spawning, some leaving the Bay having finished but pausing at times to feed and regain lost weight. Trollers broadly target anticipated lanes of movement. Bait fishers can only pick a spot and hope the fish will eventually show up.

Trophy Fishing the Hard Way
    Make your tackle a bit stouter. The fish targeted during trophy season are the migratory giants. A minimum-length 28-inch keeper is going to weigh about 10 pounds; a 45-incher as much as 40 pounds. Fish of this size can put considerable stress on your tackle.
    Choose a rod with a good amount of backbone. From a boat, a six-and-a-half-foot medium-heavy to heavy-powered stick, spinning or casting, is the minimum to get the job done. Your line should be fresh and test out at 20 pounds at the minimum with no less than 150 yards spooled on a reel with a good-quality drag that has been recently serviced. A boat angler fishing from anchor should always have the anchor line fitted with a float so that it can be cast off to quickly follow after the fish.
    If you’re fishing from shore, you’ll need a stout 10- to 12-foot rod to get your bait out where the big ones cruise looking for a bite to eat. Shore-bound anglers may also want to upgrade to 30-pound mono or 30-50 braid, all on large capacity reels (300 yards or more).
    Hooks sizes should be substantial. A 7/0 is about standard, and leader material (I suggest fluorocarbon) should be no less than 30 pounds; 50 is better. There are going to be a lot of pyrotechnics, so you’ll need the toughness of such a leader to protect against cut-offs from hull or rock abrasion.
    Your summertime landing net may also be grossly inadequate for the trophy season, and there is no worse time to realize that than with a 45-incher rolling alongside. More big fish are lost in landing efforts than at any other part of the battle.
    The baits used should be as fresh as possible and changed every 20 minutes. With water temps below 50 degrees, rockfish find food by smell. Menhaden (also known as alewife, bunker and pogy) are one of the most popular and successful baits. Use big chunks, both to attract larger fish and to reduce the chance of an undersized fish swallowing the bait.
    Bloodworms are particularly effective this time of year, but always use circle hooks with the worms and come tight as soon as you notice the fish taking your bait to reduce the chance of deep hooking.
    The last essential rule is that all knots should be tied fresh, carefully lubricated with saliva and drawn up with a firm pull. Inspect all of your efforts carefully. If the knot doesn’t look absolutely perfect, cut it off and retie it. You don’t want to blow a single opportunity with one of these great fish.
    Daytime can be productive for anglers this time of year, but the pre-dawn and post-sundown hours will probably score more keepers than any other time of day.


Fish-finder

    White perch have finally started running, and the Tuckahoe is seeing a few good fish caught. Beachwood Park on the Magothy is also producing some nice whities, as is the Choptank.
    Pickerel are really heating up as they are keying on the perch. Herring are moving up the rivers while beginning their own spawning run. Shad are mostly a no-show, but they should be making a move in the near future. Saturday, April 19, is the start of trophy rock season and an unofficial holiday on the Chesapeake.

Saturday, April 19, is the 13th Annual Boatyard Bar & Grill Opening Day Rockfish Tournament. It’s a catch-and-release competition, with proceeds going to Bay charities. Prizes and a party with food, drink and good music lure a thousand-plus Bay enthusiasts: http://tinyurl.com/l8duuvn.

Design your vegetable garden for trickle irrigation

You can reduce the amount of water you use for your vegetable garden by 70 percent and count on a bountiful harvest. If you lay out your garden in rows, trickle irrigation can make a world of difference.
    Its virtues are many. You irrigate only the rows you plant — not between the rows where the weeds grow. The trickle of water also carries water-soluble fertilizer to the roots of desirable plants; again, the weeds get none. Because water is applied slowly in drops directly on the soil, there is no water loss to the atmosphere by evaporation. Because the foliage of plants remains dry, there are fewer problems with disease. Weeds are less a problem when the soil between the rows remains dry.
    Follow the rules and it will work for you.
    You’ll need a real trickle hose. A soaker hose isn’t good enough. Water weeps out from around the entire surface of the hose, which is made of recycled ground rubber tires. The trickle hose has pinholes every six to 12 inches, and they are laid face down so the water goes directly into the ground and does not evaporate.
    I recommend drip tape for your trickle hose. No working length can be longer than 300 feet. The rows in your garden need to be level or nearly level. Water must be clean and free of particles running at a minimum pressure of 10 PSI (pounds per square inch). Well water is safe to use, but surface water from ponds or streams must be filtered to remove solids.

Supplies First
    Trickle irrigation supplies are not available from local suppliers, garden centers or farm supply dealers. I buy mine from Farm Tek. As drip tape is sold only in 1,000-foot spools, you might consider encouraging friends or neighbors to join you in ordering.
    Streamline 636 drip tape (110742) is made of eight-millimeter black polyethylene with drip holes spaced 12 inches apart.
    For each row, you will also need a twist lock that attaches the drip tape to the water supply. I use the 110736 twist lock. Consider the 110740 twist lock with a valve should you wish to shut off lines not in use.
    To insert the twist lock into the water supply line, I recommend purchasing the 110746 8-mm punch. Purchase a small supply of 110738 twist lock couplings in case you damage a drip tape or wish to extend a line.
    You’ll also need a garden hose, three-quarter-inch black plastic pipe and adapters, all available at your local hardware store. To determine the amount of black plastic pipe needed, measure the length of the garden hose that will be supplying water. You’ll also need a three-quarter-inch garden hose, an H-adapter for every supply line, as well as one three-quarter-inch end plug and clamp.

Installation
    For uniform watering, lay your drip tape as level as you can in the rows soon after seeding or transplanting. I hand-water transplants first to firm the soil around the roots before installing the drip tape. The drip holes should be in contact with the soil.
    Cut the drip tape two feet longer than the row, knot it at the farther end and bury that end to prevent wind movement. If the drip tape is being laid on a warm, sunny day, allow slack because it will contract as it cools.
    The three-quarter-inch black pipe water supply line should first be laid in the sun to warm and make it straight since it comes in coils.
    While the black polyethylene pipe is warm, use the 8-mm punch to make a hole in the pipe and insert the twist lock. Unscrew the open end of the twist lock and insert it into the end of the drip tape. Insert the end plug and attach with a clamp at one end of the water supply line and the female hose adapter and clamp at the opposite hose end.
    To make a single drip tape line, you’ll need only one half-inch female hose adapter, which attaches to a length of drip tape with a pipe clamp. Additional rows and lines to irrigate them each need a twist lock. They should all be installed in a straight line on the water supply line.
    You may also need more than one water supply line, depending on the scope of your garden.
    I rotate crops every year, so I have three different water supply lines of different length. The water line that supplies water to my corn patch is designed with a row spacing of two and a half feet. For all other crops, I use three-foot row spacing.
    With proper care, both drip tape and water supply lines can be used for many years. Use care with cultivating and hoeing so as not to cut the drip tape. (Damaged Drip Tape can be mended by using twist lock coupling 110738.) Store the lines in a shed or garage when not in use.

Using Your System
    Water is applied in drops under the drip tape, but capillary action will eventually create a band of moist soil from 10 to 18 inches wide under the surface of the soil. Enough water must be applied to penetrate to a depth of six inches before the flow is turned off.
    With this system, the irrigation needs of most vegetable gardens vary from once to twice weekly, depending on heat and wind. Turn on the water before plants wilt.
    When starting to irrigate, turn water on at full capacity and operate the valve at full capacity until all of the drip tapes have been filled and are dripping water. Next, lower the volume of water until the drip tapes at the highest point on the water supply lines begin to have reduced pressure. At this point, if you gently press the drip tape near the water line, it will collapse. Wait a minute or so until all drip tapes appear to be less turgid before walking away.
    Operate the system for at least four hours in sandy soils and six hours in heavy soils.
    By lowering the volume of water entering the supply lines, you are essentially lowering the pressure. The pressure will vary if you are on well water, but the variation will not seriously affect the flow of water through the drip tape.
    To maximize space and use of water, I sow parsnips, carrots, beets and lettuce in double rows 12 inches apart with the drip tape between the rows. I grow my sweet corn in blocks of five rows two and a half feet apart, sowing seeds six to eight inches apart in short rows 10 to 12 feet long. I fold the drip tape at the end of each row immediately after sowing so I am not wasting water by irrigating ground that I have not sown. I use the same method when sowing snap beans.
    When lifting the Drip Tape after the crop has been harvested, try not to stretch it. For storage, I fold it like an accordion and tie with cotton string. When preparing to reuse the drip tape, remove an inch before attaching it to the water supply.

Winter’s constellations are on the way out, while spring’s are here to stay

As the sun sets Thursday evening the waxing crescent moon appears high in the south, its lower tip pointing to the star Aldebaran a few degrees away. Aldebaran is a red-giant that marks the eye of Taurus the bull. Just to the left of the moon is the Hyades cluster, a V-shaped pattern of stars that make up the face of the bull. Higher above the moon is the Pleiades cluster, marking the bull’s shoulder. Named after the seven daughters of Atlas, six of the mythological sisters are visible to the naked eye. How many can you spot?
    Saturday the moon shines near Jupiter, the next-brightest object in the night sky. The Gemini twins Castor and Pollux are above Jupiter, while below the moon is the bright orange star Betelgeuse, the shoulder of Orion. The next night the waxing moon is just a few degrees below Jupiter, well within the field of view of binoculars. Surrounding the moon and Jupiter are the bright stars of the Great Winter Circle (which looks more like a hexagon): Aldebaran, Rigel, Sirius, Procyon, Pollux, Castor and Capella. Within the circle is Orion’s bright-red star Betlegeuse. This is the last month to catch these winter luminaries as they shift to the west and out of sight.
    While Jupiter fades with the stars of winter, Mars is at its prime amid the stars of spring. The red planet appears low in the east at sunset with the blue-white star Spica five or six degrees to its lower right. Mars reaches opposition on the 8th, at which point it rises as the sun sets and does not set until sunrise the next morning. This is its best apparition all year, and only Jupiter and Venus shine brighter.
    Saturn rises in the southeast around 10:30pm, is at its highest in the south around 3am and is low against the southwest horizon at daybreak. The planet is tilted in such a way that its rings are on full display with even a small telescope. The ringed planet is in the middle of Libra and forms a tight triangle with the constellation’s two brightest stars. To the west of Saturn and marking the balance’s fulcrum is Zubenelgenubi, while above the planet and marking the upper scale is Zubeneschamali, which has the distinction of being the only star that glows with a green hue. Not everyone can distinguish the color; can you? Zubenelgenubi is Arabic for the southern claw, while Zubeneschamali translates to the northern claw, namesakes from when these stars were part of the constellation Scorpius.
    The last of the planets visible this week rises before dawn. There is no mistaking Venus above the southeast horizon shining at magnitude –4.5, exponentially brighter than even the brightest star. Venus doesn’t climb very high, but it will hold this position in the early morning through spring and summer.

Trophy-size fish arriving daily

Very large migratory stripers are arriving in the mid-Bay, setting the scene for the opening of Trophy Rockfish Season in just two weeks. Big-fish anglers — sports who are willing to spend 10 frigid hours or more at a stretch jigging for a single photo op with just one enormous cow — are posting pics of multiple big fish caught and released from The Rips at the Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant up to the warm water discharge at the mouth of the Patapsco.
    Despite grim news last year from the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission of a 25 percent decline in overall striped bass stocks, the Chesapeake, especially the mid-Bay, experienced a striper-fishing bonanza last season. Devoted fishers are hoping for a repeat this year.
    Scuttlebutt overheard from commercial netters over the winter indicates an unusually big population of larger-than-average fish holding on wintering grounds in the mid-Bay. We are all hoping these fish will remain with us, especially at the beginning of the season.
    Two weeks from now, we’ll get on the water officially and settle all the conjecture. Finally, the cold we’ve complained about the last two months will be working in our favor. There’s a better than good chance that the low temps have delayed this season’s spawn, which will in turn keep more big fish in the area longer.
    Early on, big trolling lures such as parachutes with nine- to 12-inch soft shad in the traditional colors of white, yellow and chartreuse, will compete with the more trendy hues like John Deere green, sparkle purple and jet black. Whatever the color, the big rigs should be dragged to tempt the giants.
    Umbrellas, chandeliers and other multiple-lure setups that create lots of water noise and disturbance to attract big fish remain popular — and work well. Big fish? Big bait. The old mantra is as true today as ever.
    The best areas to troll this time of year are the deep-water channels that the migrating stripers tend to use (the tides are stronger) to come up the Bay (usually on the eastern side) and to leave (usually on the western side). Of course, choosing which side to fish is not so simple when you also have to take into account wind direction, forage fish location, time of year, time of day and boat traffic. The only rules that don’t change are to fish the warmer top 15 feet of the water column (unless there’s heavy boat traffic, then fish deep) and always plot a zigzag course to cover more water.
    Chumming with bait fishing was once uncommon during the trophy season but is gaining adherents every year. One reason is that it lets anglers tangle with really big fish using lighter tackle. Another reason is it has been surprisingly effective
    Most boat anglers fish the channel edges and set their baits (fresh menhaden is best) on the bottom. Others will fish some of their baits shallow, under floats, or at intermediate depths with little weight. There is a strong belief that stripers found up off of the bottom in springtime are traveling and not eating. But you can never tell.
    Quite a fishery has also evolved over the last few years off of the beaches of Sandy Point and the pier at Matapeake State Park, where anglers using bloodworms and fishing long surf rods to get their baits out away from the shoreline have been scoring great catches (for release) from mid-March through mid-April, especially before dawn and after dark. The opening of trophy season means they’ll finally be able to keep one fish if it’s over 28 inches.
    The most important aspect of both chumming and bait fishing from shore is using circle hooks. The odds of catching a throwback (under 28 inches) are very great this time of year. Half of all released deep-hooked fish of any size die within two hours, an extensive DNR study has found. Every angler should use circle hooks to keep from gut-hooking these fish.

Countless specks form the Zodiacal Light

The waning crescent moon ends the week low in the southeast before dawn. Sunday marks the new moon, the second in March. But it’s not gone long, reappearing as a thin sliver above the western horizon at sunset on the 31st.
    With the moon out of sight much of the night, this week provides one of the best chances to see the zodiacal light, a hazy glow that extends like a cone from the western horizon pointing heavenward also called false dawn. It appears an hour or two after sunset, and you’ll only see it with clear, dark skies.
    If you see the zodiacal light, you might first think you’re looking at a wispy cloud, back-lit by starlight. Or maybe the Milky Way. But its opaque, pyramid-shaped glow extending up from the horizon is unique.
    What you’re seeing are tiny bits of matter floating between the sun and earth. Left over from the formation of the solar system 4.5 billion years ago, they range in size from meters to millimeters. Like everything else in the solar system, these micro-worlds orbit the sun, following the same path along the ecliptic as the other planets. And like the planets, they are not themselves luminous. What we see is sunlight reflected back to our eyes. None of these pieces of solar system detritus are large enough to reflect enough light to be seen from earth, but collectively they create this distinct glow that we see after sunset in late winter and early spring.
    While you’ll have to hunt for the zodiacal light, Jupiter is not nearly so elusive. In fact, the king of the planets rules the heavens from sunset, when he is almost directly overhead, until 2:30am, when he sets in the west-northwest. In that time, there is no brighter object visible.
    Mars rises around 9:30 and is easily spotted well above the horizon an hour later. Normally Mars shines about as bright as the average star. Not so right now, when the red planet easily outshines blue-white Spica five degrees to its lower-right. Mars glows a distinct orange-red and is almost as bright as it ever gets — almost. Watch over the next coming nights as the red planet climbs higher and glows brighter on its way to opposition April 8.
    Saturn rises before midnight, but your best view of the ringed planet is before dawn, when it is high in the south. It’s far to the left of Mars and not near so bright. The nearest bright star to Saturn is Antares, the red heart of Scorpius to the south.
    Venus rises an hour ahead of the sun. While this Morning Star doesn’t climb high above the horizon, it blazes at –4.5, exponentially brighter than any star.
    The pre-dawn window to see Mercury is closing fast. It trails Venus by about 20 degrees and is tight against the east-southeast horizon a half hour before sunrise.
    As if preparing for a final bow before leaving the stage, Orion stands over the southwestern horizon at sunset. This week is your last chance to observe the great hunter in the Globe At Night campaign. Come the end of April, Leo will become the focus in this effort to plot light pollution around the planet. For more information go to www.globeatnight.org.

Add soil-testing to your spring chores

High winds have cluttered lawns and gardens with branches and debris. Rake thoroughly to remove anything that might be propelled into the air by a fast-spinning lawnmower blade. Don’t add yourself, your pets or your windows to the statistics of lawnmower injuries.
    While you have the lawnmower in operation, raise its deck to four inches and push it through the flower garden. This is a great way of pruning the top of the perennials and annuals and pulverizing them into mulch. This natural mulch will not suffocate the roots. Leave the stems of annuals in place to help maintain the mulch. Both stems and roots of annuals will contribute organic matter to the soil.
    This is a great time of year to prune the buddleia to the ground. Don’t be afraid. Butterfly bush is nearly impossible to kill. I have seen it grow in thatch roof on houses in England.
    Spring is also time to divide perennials that are becoming crowded. I like using a Japanese gardeners’ knife or a hatchet with a hammer to divide perennials with crowns that are difficult to pull apart by hand. Use the knife or hatchet to divide the top of the crowns down to the roots, then pull the roots apart. This method helps you recover a greater portion of the roots. If you are dividing a large clump, discard the center portion, which is generally the oldest and the most susceptible to rot.
    Clumps of ornamental grasses also need dividing. The center of large ornamental grasses tends to die out, resulting in a donut appearance. Before digging the clump, use your power hedge clipper to prune back the top. You can make the top into mulch by cutting the stems into four- to six-inch lengths and letting them lie. Cut the stems as close to the ground as possible, and don’t worry about cutting a few new green shoots.
    Root-prune the clump close to the outer edge by sticking the blade of a sharp shovel perpendicular to the ground and pushing until its top is flush with the ground. Repeat this step around the entire clump. Dig a ditch around one-half the circumference of the clump before trying to wedge the root ball from the opposite side of the ditch. With the root-ball above ground, use an ax and a sledgehammer to divide the clump into smaller clumps four to six inches in diameter, saving only those divisions along the outer edge. Discard all crowns close to the center of the clump. These are the oldest crowns and prone to rot.
    If you are a friend of the Bay, want to save money and desire the best lawn and garden ever, have your soil tested. If you have been fertilizing your lawn and garden year after year and/or have not applied lime, there is a good possibility that you could have problems. Excess levels of phosphorus in the soil cause nutritional problems. Your soil may be too acid to grow plants efficiently. Or the organic matter in your garden soil could be too low.
    Only a soil test will give you the information to correct the problem and help you become a better gardener. Go to www.al-labs-eastern.com and follow the instructions. If you would like the Bay Gardener to review the test results, include my name and email, dr.frgouin@gmail.com, and they will send me your results.
    Do not include a crop on your form, which will save you a few dollars. But I will need to know what you are growing to make the proper recommendations, so e-mail me crop information separately. I do not charge Bay Weekly readers for my recommendations.

I went 1,000 miles for this catch

By the time I got the 20-pound-class rod out of its holder, our mate was urging me to reel and reel fast. A fish had just taken a live herring bait, throwing lots of slack into the line. Winding madly, I eventually felt some tension. When the line came tight, I set the hook hard. That might have been a mistake.
    My rod jerked down, and the spool blurred as something strong tore out line against a firmly set drag. The centrifugal force created by the whirling spool threw out a wet mist dense enough to cloud my sunglasses. Some 150 yards away, an iridescent royal blue and silver missile launched out across the water’s surface. Voices behind me yelled sailfish, sailfish!
    I could do little but watch my line disappear. Large ocean swells generated by stiff overnight winds rocked our 42-foot sportfisherman, and I wedged my feet into the deck and leaned into the gunnels for stability. It was a sunny 80-degree morning and we were already having an awesome day.

Miami, Yes!
    Florida in March has some great angling. The weather can be wet and windy, but temperatures are in the 80s.
    My oldest son and I were on the first day of a week-long adventure exploring Miami waters. This was our first stop, blue-water action for billfish and dolphinfish.
    We and another father-son team, Allen and Chris Young, had chartered a day with Captain Jim Thomas and his brother Rick on their classic 42-foot sportfisherman, the Thomas Flyer out of Bayside Marina in the heart of Miami.
    The Gulf Stream — that incredibly fertile warm ocean current that runs north from the Gulf of Mexico up along the Atlantic coast all the way to Newfoundland and then to Europe — comes within two miles of the Miami coast. With it comes one of the greatest densities of pelagic (off-shore, surface-dwelling) game fish in the world.

Back to That Sailfish    
    It took more than 20 minutes to persuade my sailfish to the side of the boat. Wrapping the leader in his gloved hand, Rick leaned over the side and planted a tag in the fish alongside its large, graceful fin, then clipped the line close to the hook. With a sweep of its scimitar tail, the handsome fish vanished back into the deep blue.
    That was the third sailfish of the day, with more to come including one big fella of over 60 pounds that had Allen down to bare spool twice before we chased it down. The smallest that day was maybe 40 pounds.
    Interspersed with the sailfish were schools of hungry dolphinfish (mahi mahi) to 15 pounds.
    With a final tally of some five sails, all tagged and released, and almost two dozen delicious mahi marked for some serious dinner parties, we headed for the marina.
    Later that week my son and I would hook up with a Florida legend, guide and author Steve Kantner, who came out of semi-retirement to acquaint us with Florida’s springtime spinner shark run. Fishing 10- and 12-foot surf rods with our feet in the warm, sandy beach, we tangled with over a dozen of the 90- to 120-pounders in a long afternoon of excitement.
    The last day was spent stalking Miami’s freshwater canals for their famed peacock bass with longtime guide Alan Zaremba from his 17-foot Florida flats boat. The fish were in spawning mode and attacking anything that approached their nesting sites. Sight casting and pitching small jigs, we lost count of the numbers that we battled.
    Two days later, arriving back at home, mild 50-degree temperatures greeted us. But as we awaited our baggage, a weather broadcast warned of another snowstorm coming to Maryland.