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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.

As the sun perches over the equator, spring begins

Perhaps you’ll be at lunch Thursday at 12:57pm. Or maybe you’ll be busy at work or school. At that particular time, however, the sun shines directly above the equator. That morning it rises due east, and that evening it sets directly west. This is the vernal equinox, the first day of spring for the 90 percent of the world’s population living in the Northern Hemisphere. In the Southern Hemisphere, it is the first day of fall. Regardless of where you live, your day will be more or less split equally between daylight and night.
    More or less, because the earth is not a perfect sphere, it is tilted at a 231⁄2-degree angle, and its orbit around the sun is not a true circle. As a result of all this imperfection, our day of equal night and day along Chesapeake Bay was Monday, March 17. From now until the autumnal equinox in September, our days will boast more light than darkness, and our sunlit hours will continue to grow until summer solstice 13 weeks hence.
    The waning moon rises a little before midnight Thursday, with golden Saturn just two degrees ahead of it. As the two shift to the west, Saturn pulls farther away, but they are still within a binoculars’ field of view high in the south at 4am Friday. Early morning Saturday the moon is less than 10 degrees above Antares, the red-glowing heart of Scorpius, the celestial harbinger of spring. By Thursday the 27th, the thin crescent moon rises just 90 minutes before the sun and is accompanied by brilliant Venus less than three degrees below.
    Each year as Scorpius rises in the east, Orion sets in the west. At 9pm he is high in the southwest, but by midnight the hunter already has one foot beneath the horizon, and each night he marches farther from our view.
    So for one last time, Orion is the focus of this year’s Globe at Night Campaign, an international effort to involve ordinary sky-watchers like yourself in gauging the darkness of the night sky. This session runs from March 21st through the 30th. The data help determine the effects of light pollution. Thousands of observers from all over the world have already compared their own sightings to those on the supplied star charts and uploaded their findings to the group’s website: www.globeatnight.org. Now’s your chance to join the cause.

To recover from cold weather and salt, your landscape needs TLC

It’s been a hard winter for plants as well as for us. Damage to landscapes reminds me of the winter of 1976-’77, when the Bay froze as far south as Norfolk. Compounding problems are the tons of salt and chemicals used on roads, sidewalks and driveways. On state highways alone, 480,000 tons of salt were spread this winter, more than double average usage over the past four years.
    Everywhere you look, you’ll see symptoms of winter injury to plants. The foliage of many ground cover plants such as liriope, pachysandra, St. John’s wort and creeping junipers is brown and brittle.  Many azaleas, Japanese hollies and camellias have dead branches, and many small flowering trees have broken branches from the weight of the snow and ice.
    Most of the ornamental plants used in landscaping are survivors. With patience and time, they will recover and resume growth come spring — providing their roots were not killed by low temperatures.
    Roots are not as cold-hardy as the aboveground stems and leaves. If the majority of the roots are growing in mulch as a result of over-mulching, it is highly possible that the roots died in killing temperatures of –4 degrees. If the majority of the roots were killed, the entire foliage of the affected plants will gradually turn brown as daily temperatures rise. The only solution is to wait and see. If half or more of the plant dies, it means replacing and avoiding future over-mulching.
    For injured ground cover, the best solution is to adjust the cutting height of your lawn mower to about three inches and mow the tops down so they won’t look so conspicuous. Most likely the roots of these ground covers have survived and the new growth will emerge form the crowns or rhizomes. Dead branches in juniper ground cover will have to be pruned away one dead branch at a time. Junipers are conifers and cannot rejuvenate unless there are live green or gray-green needles firmly attached to the stems.  If the entire plant appears dead, then the only choice is to replace it.
    Dead branches on azaleas, rhododendrons and Japanese hollies need to be pruned back to a main stem or branch that is alive. If the entire stem is dead, cut it within a few inches of the ground. If the root system is alive, these plants can regenerate from the stumps on stems smaller than one inch in diameter.  Recovery will be slow, however, and it may be best to replace the plant.
    Do not try to bolt together broken branches on trees and large shrubs. This will only result in rot problems in the future because the sapwood has already been exposed to rot-causing organisms. Bolted together, they will rot from the inside out. Broken branches should be pruned to a healthy stem with the cut made perpendicular to the broken branch. Never make a flush cut with the stem. If the bark on the stem has been damaged, use a sharp knife or chisel to smooth the bark and exposed sapwood so as to promote the growth of callus tissue. Do not paint with tree-wound dressing.
    Damaged grass and plants along sidewalks or driveways may be dead. Do not fertilize as this will only contribute to the salt problem. The best solution is dilution. Spade a one-inch layer of peat moss with a dusting of limestone into the affected layer to dilute the salt concentration to a tolerable level. During the growing season, the sodium concentration will be further reduced by leaching.

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

Or two ... Or three.

The single best general-purpose fishing rod for Chesapeake perch is a six-foot-six-inch medium-power, medium-light-action spinning rod rated to cast one-eighth to one-half ounces of weight. Arm that with a light, good-quality spin reel that can carry approximately 100 to 125 yards of six-pound-test monofilament or an equal amount of eight- to 12-pound braid. That’s a great perch stick.
    This outfit can easily cast lip-hooked minnows or grass shrimp on a small shad dart suspended under a weighted bobber. This bobber and dart rig is right for the spring runs of both yellow and white perch. It’s also the traditional setup for most perch fishing in shallower Bay and tributary water the rest of the year.
    The tackle is likewise robust enough for deeper waters in the summer with a hi-lo rig with No. 2 or No. 4 hooks, a one-ounce sinker and blood worms, grass shrimp or — better yet — small pieces of peeler crab. Using the ultra-thin braided line to get deeper easier is the most productive technique in hot weather months when the fish are schooled in 15 to 30 feet of water throughout the Bay. In this deeper water, you’ll generally be fishing over shell bottom.
    That one setup will generally get the job done just about anywhere on the Chesapeake. Still, many dedicated perch anglers prefer very different tackle. One of my favorite outfits is designed for throwing small spinner baits around jetties and piers. It’s a short five-foot-four-inch extra-fast-action spin rod with an all-cork handle rather than a screw-type reel seat.
    The thick cork handle is especially comfortable to hold, even when wet, and the shorter rod allows me to shoot flat, underhand casts beneath docks and piers to reach the shaded areas that white perch love during the daytime.
    The setup is also ideal for working shoreline in the early morning when distinct shadows cast by overhanging trees tend to concentrate fish seeking shelter from the rising sun. In spring fishing on small creeks, the short rod also avoids overhead foliage and allows an angler to drop a bait precisely into very small openings.
    I fish strictly four-pound-test mono on this outfit for its stealth factor and the challenge of handling bigger fish. To tempt strikes, I rely on one-sixth- to one-quarter-ounce Super Rooster Tail spinner baits in Clown Coach Dog and Chartreuse Coach Dog colors. The short rod accentuates the stubborn fight perch give when the tackle is matched to their size. The extremely light setup makes an all-day casting marathon much easier on the arm.
    When I want to target citation-sized whities that hold on structure in the shallows starting in early June, I will often go to a seven-foot, light-action finesse casting rod with a Chronarch 50e reel spooled with 10-pound Super Slick Power Pro and a six-pound fluoro leader. With this rig, I can stand off at a distance to avoid spooking the older, smarter fish (a 12-inch perch is often 10 years old) and throw quarter-ounce Rat-L-Traps, Cordell Super Spots and No. 13 and even No. 14 Tony Accetta spoons.
    Larger perch like to key on bigger baitfish, such as young menhaden and yearling spot, so lipless crank baits like these and the Tony spoons are ideal imitations. The larger size of the lures also means you won’t waste a lot of time reeling in and releasing undersized perch because they can’t get the lure in their mouths.
    Coincidently, our Bay perch are a very under-rated fly-rod species. Try a four- to six-weight fly rod of from seven to nine feet, a floating line and throw a small Clouser Minnow in sizes 2 through 4 in just about any color, but especially chartreuse over white or olive over white. You can have a wonderful and productive day fishing the skinny water.
    Keeping a long-handled crab net on board during any of these sorties is a good idea. It’s perfect for scooping up any big perch that you hook. It also avoids the agony of losing a lunker trying to lift the fish into the boat with just the rod. It only takes the escape of one citation-sized fish to convince you of the value of this tip.
    White perch are the most numerous fish in the Bay, and Maryland anglers harvest more of them than any other species. They are superb on the table, and, if you use tackle matched to their size and strength, you can make each and every catch more memorable and a far richer sporting experience.

On lawn and garden; never in the compost pile

If you’re burning wood, you get ashes. A reader asked if he could dump his ashes in the compost pile. My answer was a resounding no.
    Wood ashes are basic in nature and contain high levels of oxides, making them very reactive in raising the pH. Composting systems perform at their best when the feedstocks — those materials that are undergoing decomposition — are slightly acid. So adding wood ashes to an active composting pile will delay and/or stop the composting process.
    Store wood ashes in covered metal containers and keep them dry. They should never be stored in an open container where they can absorb water. I can remember watching my grandmother pour dishwater over a bed of wood ashes to extract a lye solution she used to make lye-soap. (Remember the song “Grandma’s Lye Soap”?) I can also remember the strainer she used becoming very hot after the lye water had drained away.
    Wood ashes are best applied directly on the garden or on the lawn. Ashes must be cool and dry when they are applied. Ashes spread in a garden and covered with dry leaves can start fires. I know because I’ve seen it happen.
    When applying ashes on lawns with a fertilizer spreader, first screen them through a half-inch screen to remove pieces of charred or raw wood. Directly from the container, they should be spread as uniformly as possible; use a lawn rake to spread them around to avoid creating hot spots that can kill the roots of the grass. Spread the ashes on a calm day, avoid inhaling the dust and wear safety goggles to avoid eye contact.
    In general, I recommend spreading a five-gallon pail of wood ashes over 100 to 200 square feet, especially on lawns. Higher levels can be applied on garden soils that are to be rototilled.
    Wood ashes are a tremendous source of calcium, potassium and some phosphorus as well as essential trace elements. If you are using wood ashes to maintain the pH of your lawn or garden, have your soil tested to avoid excessive high soil pHs and to assure that your soils contain adequate amounts of magnesium (Mg). Wood ashes tend to be almost free of magnesium, which is essential for the manufacturing of chlorophyll in plants.
    Save some of your wood ashes to spread around the zucchini plants this summer to help in controlling the stem borer. Before the zucchini plant starts spreading, apply a thin layer about two-feet wide around each plant. It will not provide 100 percent protection, but it does reduce infections.

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

Five planets and a full moon grace our skies this week

With our return to Daylight Saving Time, I wake greeted by Venus blazing in the southeast. The Morning Star rises around 5:30, and an hour later it is well perched above the horizon, shining brighter than any object other than the moon and sun. As sunrise nears and if the sky is clear, another bright light appears 20 degrees in Venus’s wake, Mercury.
    Friday marks the innermost planet’s greatest western elongation — its farthest point from the sun as seen from Earth. Even so, it only climbs 10 degrees above the south-southeast horizon before sunrise. While Mercury doesn’t climb any higher, it brightens from +0.8 to –0.1 magnitude through March.
    Evening brings the other five naked-eye planets into view. As twilight gives way to darkness, Jupiter pops alight almost directly overhead. It is easily the brightest object other than the moon, which is far to the east this week.
    Mars rises around 9pm, as bright as any star. Compare its ruddy hue to the first magnitude star Spica’s blue-white glow just a half-dozen degrees away. Planet and star are at their highest in the south around 3am.
    By that time, Saturn is well above the southeast horizon, trailing 30 degrees behind Mars and Spica. The ringed planet is at its highest in the south a couple hours before sunrise.
    The moon is prominent this week, reaching full phase Sunday. Native Americans called this the Worm Moon, as this is the time of year when the ground softens and these creatures
begin to work the earth.
    Friday the waxing gibbous moon is just a few degrees to the west of the star Regulus in the constellation Leo, while Saturday the moon shines well below Regulus.
    Monday the just-full moon rises with Spica in tow. The lead star of Virgo stands almost directly below Luna, while ruddy Mars is just a few degrees left of Spica.
    Tuesday the moon, Mars and Spica rise in the southeast around 10pm and form a triangle. The waning gibbous moon shines four degrees to the lower right of Mars and one degree to the lower left of Spica. They remain tight all night and are high in the northwest as sunrise approaches Wednesday morning.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of fish

While it’s too cold and windy to fish, use your downtime to get ready to fish. Otherwise, you’re looking for trouble when you hit the water.
    Put fishing line first on your list. If you’re using monofilament, there is no question as to whether to replace the mono on your reel. Do it. Good monofilament can last two to three years, but even with the best of care it won’t retain 100 percent of its qualities.
    Sunlight, salt, friction and stress degrade mono beginning from the very first time you use it. Mono stretches before it breaks (often as much as 50 percent); after stretching, it does not return to the original length.

Fish-finder

Yellow perch have started up their run again after earlier efforts were halted by snow, ice and low temperatures. This time it should be for real. Try the upper Magothy, the Severn, the Choptank, Wye Mills and the mid-Patuxent. Small to medium bull minnows are the best bait, followed by grass shrimp and worms. Minimum size is nine inches; the limit is 10 fish.

    Consequently, 20-pound mono once stressed to its limits (by, say, breaking off on a snag) will no longer test full strength nor have the same shock-absorbing quality. Repeated episodes of extreme tension accumulate and can eventually cause significant degradation.
    Sunlight weakens mono, salt sucks the softening agents out and friction from the guides or dragging the line across underwater structure creates weak spots. Why risk the loss of a good fish or spoiling your first day on the water for such a minor investment? The average spin or casting reel can be respooled with fresh quality monofilament very inexpensively.
    More recently developed braided lines are much more resilient than mono and retain close to their full properties for a number of years. But they are not immune to wear. Strip off and discard the first 20 feet of braided line from each reel at the start of every year. Examine the spool closely. If you see any line fraying further down its length, consider replacing it.
    Braid is made from four to as many as eight strands of interwoven polyethylene. If any one of these strands has suffered abrasion in any particular place, your line test can be affected by as much as 25 percent, while two strands in different places reduces strength by 50 percent.
    Lines used for trolling suffer much more wear than lines on tackle used for casting, bait or bottom fishing. Dragging water-resistant bait setups such as parachutes, tandems, umbrella and chandelier rigs puts a lot of stress on the line over greater length. Add in the fact that the rods are continually flexing and the guides wearing back and forth in the same limited area over endless hours of fishing. Thus, annual replacement should be a minimum standard.
    The second show stopper for a new season is the condition of your hooks. Salt has a way of working its way into the most secure tackle box. Over the winter you may find that your hooks, especially (and perversely) those on your more expensive lures, have acquired a coating of rust.
    A rusted hook, even one lightly affected, requires exponentially more force to pierce a fish’s mouth because of its uneven surface. Removing the rust does not solve the problem; the corrosion has already pitted the steel. Unless you prefer near misses to hook-ups, replace any hook that has even a hint of rust.
    Finally, check your reel drags. Drags can freeze up if they’ve been exposed to saltwater or excessive dust and moisture, particularly if they’ve been put up without releasing the drag tension. Pull out a couple of handfuls of line against the drag to verify its functioning.
    If the drag is frozen or the line pulls out in uneven fits and starts, you need to disassemble the drag, clean out the components, grease, then reassemble them. It’s a relatively simple task and requires few tools. YouTube videos have tutorials on your brand or one similar to yours. If you don’t feel up to the task, seek a professional — promptly.
    We’re just about a month away from the start of rockfish season on April 19. There is no time to waste.