Monday, May 30, 2011

Toddler Summer Party Time

Oh my God, I am so exhausted.  Another weekend of toddler partying - 3 big parties in two days.   The first two involved us chasing Hank around a generally unsafe environment, as he was the smallest kid at the party.  The third was hosted by our pals Denny and Ryan, whose 14 month old maniac Gabe takes after Hank's own self-destructive anarchist tendencies.  Which means they have toddler-proofed their house.  Overall, I had probably two dozen alcoholic drinks over the weekend and never even got a buzz - I was chasing Hank around in the sun the whole time.  It was some exhausting fun!  All photos by my beautiful wife.
I'm hiding! Duh.
Looking for more little girls to hug!
Momma says that Gabe and I are never, ever allowed to go on Spring Break together.  Heartbreakers!
Denny and Ryan play in real, actual, paid bands and so they have a mini studio setup.  Hank approves.
Hank on lookout duty while Gabe throws things down the basement stairwell at Ryan & Denny's house
All partied out!

Friday, May 27, 2011

Eastern Shore Post-Spawn Bass on Ultra-Light

Where'd the bass go?
There they are.  Largemouth bass nests.  Sans largemouth bass.  It's been almost a month since I hooked my last bass.  Continuous rain, cool weather, and the spawn have made it almost impossible to track down largemouth, smallmouth, and striped bass unless you have a whole lot of boat and a whole lot of time to dedicate to their pursuit. 

My brother T was in town for 24 hours, structured around an Orioles vs. Yankees matchup at Camden Yards.  He showed up and the weather was atrocious. 

The Chesapeake Bay was like chocolate milk and most of the rivers and lakes look the same.  With a weather forecast that was sketchy at best (80% chance of rain), we headed up to northeastern Maryland to try fishing a long-forgotten spring fed pond and creek surrounded by forest.  I found this pond by cyberscouting last spring, although I'd driven past it a thousand times before that without even knowing it was there.  The fact that it's surrounded by forest is important because as I saw last year, the forest doesn't erode much soil into the pond at all. The springs also don't contribute any sediment.  And the old, old dam prevents the muddy high tide from the Elk River to climb back up into the pond.  It was worth a shot.  I was pretty sure the bass were still spawning.  And even if they weren't, it was mid-day and wouldn't be biting.  Wrong.
Biggest fish I've caught on this 4" BPS Crystal Minnow
T immediately lit into some subadult largemouth bass and proceeded to burn up a nice little spot.  This part of the Elk River is brutal compared to most coastal plain rivers - it has steep slopes, loose soil, and tons of thorns, rhododendrons, mountain laurels and ten million spiders between you and every fishing spot.  Boat access? Yeah, right.  The fish were being pretty particular about what they wanted to eat.  But as we changed from lure to lure, we occasionally "got it right."

First bass ashore in three weeks!
Boy, were the fish ever hungry.  Despite the weeks of rain, these post-spawn bass were ready to crunch some lures.  Interestingly, some just didn't work.  Switch color or size, and you could watch the water "bump up" behind your retrieve as big fish rose to pursue them. 

Bass, mostly 11-15" and less than two pounds, would occasionally find something they'd like and just punch it.  They were hitting surface lures. Beetle spins. Pink worms. Bumblebee worms. Crystal minnows.  Poppers. But in each case, the "right" bait had to be just right.

Rainstorms came and went and we kept fishing.  T didn't bring his boots, so he wore my LaCrosse agIon knee boots and I wore my Danner Upland boots and just accepted that I was going to swamp them, which I did. Think we had ideal casting conditions?

T works the edge of the reeds with a hot pink twist-tail grub
It was challenging fishing in the shoreline vegetation.  The water was high - well up into the Phragmites (reeds), which made casting a bear - even on my 5'0" Pflueger Razor Tip.  On the other hand, it gave us the chance to get right on top of bass who were hunting the perimeter of the grass.  Seemed like they were just working up and down the grassline.  Bringing fish to hand was no small feat, with ultralight tackle, fish flying through the air, diving under brush, and getting crammed inbetween reed stalks.  Not counting the fact that we were up to our knees in mud and water. I was really surprised that neither of us got a leech on our legs!
Like my first two trips to this spot in 2010 (here and here), we somehow lucked into some dinosaur-looking, monster-sized bluegill around the time the bass bite turned off (noon...can you believe it?).  I mean look at this monster:

Or this one!

Look at 'em!  And after another trip of catching as many bass like this as we wanted......

Big lure, tiny rod, mediocre fish

It finally occured to me that this "fishery" is not managed properly (actually, I'm pretty sure it's not managed at all).  I've fished here four times and have never had the problem I had a few weeks ago at Liberty Reservoir, which is that my lures get gobbled up by 4" and 6" long bluegill.  No sir.  Not here on the Upper Elk River!   On the other hand, I've never caught or even seen a bass over two pounds here.  The spot seems to be full of bluegills in the 8-12" range and bass in the 10-14" range.  I don't know what they're eating, and either I'm not fishing correctly for the even bigger bass that are out there, or they aren't out there at all.   Since it would be nearly impossible to get a kayak in here, I don't even know how to get out to deeper water (if it's really that much deeper at all).

Eventually we had to get moving to our "Outdoorsman Challenge" of my new Cooper Discoverer AT3 tires, so that mystery will have to remain unsolved until I get back to the Elk River again.

Generally known as the Bear Grylls of Southern Virginia, T scuttles up a steep mountain laurel bluff while eating termites for his breakfast

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Fishing Loch Raven Reservoir the Right Way, Part II

In Part I, we looked at accessing the large-ish body of water known as Loch Raven Reservoir in central Maryland.  Now let's take a look at what actually catches fish there.  Perhaps the best way to start is by summing up the types of fish present, and then look at individual habitats.

Photo courtesy of Maryland DNR
Fish of Loch Raven
It's a pretty typical lake, dominated by largemouth bass and bluegill.  Smallmouth bass are also present, usually in cooler, deeper water, as are pickerel, pike, and several other species of panfish, including perch.  Each have their own feeding habitats and if you know how to fish for a given species throughout the calendar (i.e. when fish typically hold in what types of habitats), you can pretty easily target them on those habitats at Loch Raven.  Go find 'em!

Silty Shallow Shorelines.   Since the reservoir is a flooded river, there are other creeks, ditches, wetlands and springs that feed it - and many of those run through developed or heavily farmed areas on the way to the reservoir.   As a result, there is some sediment moving around in the reservoir from time to time (aka 8 months per year).   Areas with protection from wind and current are often built up in thick silt (muck). Areas exposed to the wind are more likely to have substrate of sand, gravel and larger stones - even boulders.  The silt flats can be fished for those prey fish - panfish and subadult largemouth - with topwater lures, terrestrial flies, and anything that won't sink into the debris. Save time by concentrating on areas with woody or rock structure along the shoreline (which is most of the reservoir).  Personal favorite lures: BPS Nitro Minnow (white, black, silver patterns), Blue Fox Big Crappie Rig (chartreuse/red).

Rocky Drop-offs. At Loch Raven, the silted in areas are usually shallow, with higher quality fishing (for larger fish) available where the silt drops off into deeper water - as the big boys wait for prey to swim out of the shallows.   Fishing the dropoffs from these silty coves is a great way to find big bass (and pickerel) that are hunting for food, and for that, I generally recommend unweighted creature baits, rubber craws, salamanders, and rubber worms, all in the seasonally appropriate can do the homework on that!! Personal favorites: 2" salted craw in pumpkin.  Rapala X-Rap.

Shoreline grass beds - Even an idiot (me) can find bass in aquatic vegetation.  Which doesn't mean you (I) can catch them.  Bass, especially big largemouths, love vegetation because it offers protection from birds like herons, osprey, and eagles, as well as hiding places to hunt panfish and shiners.  These big fish don't actually live in the vegetation, but in other structure around it.  Think of the aquatic vegetation as you would your own porch or deck. Somewhere to hang out, but eventually you retreat inside to your home.  Bass in the vegetation are usually keying in on other structure too, whether it be rock piles, logs, trees, etc. Keep that in mind since Loch Raven has a ton of downed shoreline trees and a ton more shoreline grass beds!   The key is to focus on where fish (any fish) are moving among the vegetation. Any disturbed area in the vegetation (where the bed changes depths, or where a tree has fallen on top of the water lilies, for example) is a good bet.

Do not fish Loch Raven's grass beds from the shoreline unless you are using the most weedless lures every, or are collecting aquatic vegetation for a salad or for composting.  These areas should be targeted by boat unless you just love frustration and wasted time.  I say this because the majority of a retrieve to shoreline will be through the bed, and the interior of the bed is less likely to hold big fish. The beds are thick, and regardless of whether you present a weedless lure, you will still have to clean your lure after each and every retrieve.

However, by sitting in a boat on outside of the bed, your lure can be worked parallel to the bed.   To do this, you will want three things: floating, weedless, and weedless!  Buzzbaits (probably my least favorite lure) can do wonderfully here if the bass are actively feeding - you'll have to do a very fast retrieve.  Rubber frogs can also be very effective once you learn the retrieve speed and type that the bass are keying in on.  Wacky rigged weedless worms too! Be creative and be patient.  Personal favorite lure: Yum Dinger in Bumblebee, wacky rigged.

Spring-fed pools. Loch Raven is fed by a number of above-ground and underwater cold springs. I haven't found them all - I'm sure - and I'm persnickity about the ones I do know about, so go find them yourself! During the hottest months, when the rest of the reservoir is very difficult to fish (for quality fish), spring-fed areas will be full of small baitfish and a few hungry predators, especially largemouth. The springs I know about are difficult to access unless you have all the time in the world to boat or hike to them. Let's put it that way. As a result, I don't know what the best lures are for those areas. Think: lots of baitfish, cool, clear water, and big fish holding deep and dark. Which makes me think of spoons and lipless crankbaits like gotcha plugs. If you're a swimbait pro, there's no reason why a swimbait shouldn't work in these habitats, especially if the water is clear, as it tends to be once the spring rains subside and the flow entering the pools is from above ground or submerged springs (springwater, like you pay $2/bottle to drink).  Personal favorite lure: large beetlespins, Joe's Flies, small Acme Kastmaster spoons.

A rocky point at Loch Raven (my photo)
Rocky cliffs, gravel points, boulder islands, and submerged rock piles. At Loch Raven, the stony shorelines and drop-offs are key hunting habitat for large predatory fish - especially largemouth bass and pickerel.  Depending on the season, conditions, and time of day, large fish will work these areas, hanging very close to vertical rocks and literally cruising the shoreline like sharks.  If you haven't been to Loch Raven during a severe drought, you can't know where 80% of the submerged rock structure is.  And even if you have, you still haven't seen 40% of it.  Deeper rock piles are excellent places to target smallmouth and mid-day largemouth.  This is the habitat type that I have the least experience fishing, but I do know that lightly weighted rubber worms, craws, tubes, and twist-tail grubs can be highly effective, especially when the water is clear.  Very traditional bass anglers may prefer diving crankbaits and jerkbaits, but I honestly haven't had a lot of success with those in water over about 6' deep. Personal favorite lure:  2" rubber craws.

Deep Water.  So you're going to fish Loch Raven in July in the middle of the day.  Good luck.  But the fish are still there, and they may actually be biting.  Especially catfish, but bass too.  You need to get  After the bigger bass finish their post-spawn feast in the shallows, they slip on down into deeper water to keep cool, coming shallow again on some (but not all) nights.  On many summer mornings, I've watched them literally change from a shoreline hunting pattern to a "swimming out to the channel" pattern when the sun breaks the treetops.  So how do you fish for these lazy lunkers? 5 deep water anglers will tell you five different things, but it's hard to go wrong with weighted pork trailers, stinky twist-tail grubs, and scented crawfish lures.  Sometimes scented tubes and mini-tubes will also work on smallmouth bass.  Another very different method is to use blade baits and heavy spoons.  These haven't been effective for me at Loch Raven, but I think that's attributable to my fishing style (and lack of fishfinder), not the effectiveness of the lures. No personal favorite lures.

I hope that the surprising masses of people who visit River Mud looking for information about fishing Loch Raven Reservoir find this more informative than my historically very random reports of my fishing trips there. If you landed here first, be sure to check out Part I, which speaks a lot about shoreline and boat access.

Thanks for stopping by, you lurkers!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

A Welcomed Day Off in Maryland

First post-spawn largemouth. Little guy was returned unharmed (not counting the lip injury) to the Elk River on Maryland's Upper Eastern Shore
 Things are absolutely insane right now between work and home. The Tugboatdude brilliantly purchased some Yankees vs. Orioles tickets, which basically required me to take a day off of work (wouldn't want to be late for that 7:05pm first pitch!!).   It was a wonderful day off.  We got up late (meaning 6:30am), hung out with Hank, took him to day care, and headed to Havre de Grace and across the Susquehanna Flats to Maryland's upper eastern shore (where Delaware, Maryland, and Pennsylvania meet).

We enjoyed some outstanding mid-day fishing (which never works for us), found out that the bass are definitely OFF their nests (HOORAY!) and field-tested a set of tires (Cooper Discoverer AT3) that were sent to me for a blog review (I know! Awesome, right?). 

Kept the day going with an amazing dinner of grilled butterflied chicken breasts with adobo butter (Bobby Flay's recipe) and grilled German potato salad (also Bobby Flay's recipe) with fresh chives from the garden.  My wife, Tugboatdude, and I all chipped in, with Hank doing his best to interfere. 

Capped it all off with a 15-inning pitching duel at Camden Yards in the private-level boxes.

Yup.  That's a day.  Photos and stories to come!

Monday, May 23, 2011

How Conservation Non-Profits Really Work - Part I

Lots of non-profit groups working with some government funding on a trout
project in Vermont.  Great photo from Southwestern Vermont
Trout Unlimited.
Wow.  I have been putting off writing this post for over two years.  I've been writing it for over three months.  Most folks who read this blog support outdoor or environmental non-profits ranging as far politically from the NRA to the Sierra Club, with thousands of non-profit groups falling inbetween them on the political spectrum.  These groups were formed and still exist today because they do "good works" that are not required by government agencies, but are voluntary efforts.

In the conservation realm, most non-profit groups focus on one of three main goals: 1) to improve or protect natural resources, 2) to engage the public in the outdoors or conservation, and/or 3) to advocate for legislation that will positively impact species or habitat conservation.  Many groups do all three, but there is usually a strong primary focus on one of those . These efforts are supported by the priorities of each group's members and donors.  Sounds good, right?

As non-profit groups have grown in power over the last few decades, their "good works" - specifically, their ability to raise funding and efficiently get work accomplished - have been noticed, and as a result, state and Federal agencies have rewarded them  with funding through various processes to keep up "the good works," as ambiguous as they might be.  So what is a not-for-profit 501(c)3 organization, or "non-profit," anyway?

In the United States, a non-profit organization is a corporation (that's right) that technically has no owner, only a board of directors or trustees.  Because there is no owner and no stockholders, any earned profit (called a surplus) cannot be sold or traded to anyone.  As a result, these organizations can be (but aren't automatically) granted tax-exempt status by the Federal government (under IRS Code 501(c)3) and by individual states.   How does this all happen, and why does it matter?

The business of legally assembling a non-profit is pretty simple.  The group first files a basic articles of incorporation document in the state where they plan to focus their operations. Once incorporated within the state, the organization then files Federal (IRS) papers to incorprate Federally, which in the case of 501(c)3 groups, includes a request for exemption from taxes.

It's important to note right off the bat that nonprofit groups like the NRA who actively campaign for or against specific parties or politicians are not 501(c)3 groups, and thus, are not tax-empt, even though they are non-profit organizations.  Thus, your NRA donation (for example) is not a tax write-off - they are a 501(c)4 organiztion.  Interestingly, 501(c)3 groups can and do actively lobby for or against specific legislation or budget items......just not individual politicians or parties.

The backbone of every non-profit organization is its set of bylaws, which are often drafted during the incorporation process.  The bylaws not only define the mission of the organization (important), but how the organization is allowed to conduct business based on its articles of incorporation (even more important). If you contribute significant funds (in my opinion, over $2,500/year) to a non-profit group, you should absolutely have access to the bylaws.  Just to know what's in there.

Over the course of a few posts, I'll examine how conservation-focused non-profit organizations:

1. Raise and spend money (June 6)
2. Utilize and manage volunteers and staff (June 13)
3. Set goals for the future (June 20)

4. Continue to pursue their primary mission in good times and bad (June 27)

This QDMA event is focusing on landowner outreach.
Along the way, I'll provide examples of how certain conservation non-profits have struggled and subsequently succeeded or failed at dealing with these issues.  In most cases, these examples will be of groups that many of you support.  In some cases, the same organization may be trotted out as a case of failure, and then as a case of success.

Join me, and learn about how your money is used, what different conservation organizations are actually trying to achieve, and how effective they are working toward those goals.  The news is mostly good, rarely bad, but occasionally ugly. I look forward (I think) to your comments!

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Back to Light Tackle Basics

First fish of the morning
With a break in the crazy weather and the bass spawn (largemouth, smallmouth, and striped) most assuredly wrapping up, I took advantage of a morning out of town to do a little fishing with a coworker. 

We were the guests of an old plantation property (now corporate meeting facility) on the Wye River on Maryland's eastern shore. I had scoured google earth to confirm that the tidal shoreline was too shallow to fish, and that there were no freshwater creeks or ponds on the 1,000+ acre compound.

Luckily, I was wrong.  My coworker found a few hidden farm ponds on google maps using his iPhone and away we went through pastures grazed by the (regionally) famous Wye Angus cattle.

After about 20 minutes of hiking through knee high wet grass (aka Chiggerville), we found our first spot, an excavated fish pond from "days of yore" that was full of feisty but small bluegills.  I'm sure that there are bass in the pond, but they were not interested in messing with our lures. 

I dialed in pretty quickly and started catching fish.  It was fun and really relaxing.  THe intermittent retrieve aka "run-stop-twitch" was easy money for these little fish.  My coworker, who usually fishes for striped bass on the bay, really seemed to enjoy the change of pace that pond fishing can offer.

Eventually my coworker had to go deal with some actual work, leaving me to try a public area off the Wye River, called Wye Mills Lake.  Wye Mills was a historic mill settlement dating back to the 1700s.  The dam has been significantly bulked up but at 50-ish acres, it's one of the larger ponds on the eastern shore (Maryland has no natural permanent ponds or lakes).

Unfortunately, this guy (see right) showed up and pretty much destroyed the fishing opportunities.  Oh well.

Chartreuse Joe's Flies pattern - a bluegill and trout killer!
I did manage to catch a few fish at Wye Mills Lake and it definitely turned out to be one of those "I'm probably not going to fish here ever again" kind of experiences. Not because of anything bad about the place or the anglers on the lake, it just seems to not be the most amazing spot.  And - granted - it was about 10:00 on a sunny morning.

Eventually I rolled on into work with a big grin on my face.  Although I'd been stymied by the bass spawn yet again, it was a great morning to stretch my legs, catch a few fish and watch the sun rise.  Nothing wrong with that. 

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Occasionally I Use My Brain, OK, Rarely

I had a nice schedule laid out on Maryland's eastern shore, with an hour or two of free time (although mid-day).  I was planning to be nowhere near any of the farms I hunt, so my thoughts quickly drifted to public land in the area.  Luckily, a nagging thought finally came to the front of my mind.

Turkey season. Last day.  Maryland.

Public Land.

No thanks.  Turkey season is the one time I don't mess around too much on public land (at least where hunting is allowed).  Turkey hunters are way too jumpy. 

So instead, I enjoyed a nice drive across the shore, attended my meetings, and skedaddled back to the office.  Survived another spring without geting popped upside the cheek with a 3.5" hevi-shot load......all in the name of catching a few fish. 

In other news: I didn't get a chance to hunt turkeys this spring.  Not pleased. Oh well.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Live Bait Fishing is Easy, Duh

(note: thanks to blogger for losing this post during your crash, forcing me to re-write it from scratch!) It's been about 100 days since waterfowl season closed.  Turkey season ends next week and there is no chance I'll get to go, since it's mornings only in Maryland.  The bass are spawning on their beds and not being cooperative with my usual catch-and-release efforts, so I thought I would actually pursue some panfish for food.  With the exception of the too-infrequent saltwater bottom rig, I haven't bait fished in quite awhile.  What I remembered is that:

1) It's really easy
2) It's not hard
3) You don't have a lot of control over what takes the bait, and
4) It's pretty much really easy

An opportunity for a light-tackle lunchbreak opened up and even with high winds, cloudy water, and bright sunny mid-day skies, I figured I would catch enough edible fish to more than fill my handy new Field & Stream brand creel bag.  Let's just say there were some errors in my assumptions, but I headed out to Liberty Reservoir totally ignorant of that reality.

Don't worry.  I caught fish. In fact, I caught well over 100 fish, probably over 150, which would be plenty to eat except that most of them were 4 inches long.  The spots I was fishing (in the sun and wind, in the middle of the day) were absolutely overrun by tiny sunfish who were all too eager to snatch up my bait.   Every cast during my outing resulted in a fish on the line.  I eventually got mad and live-lined one with a sinker for catfish. Bastard.  And it didn't work.  No matter how deep I cast or how much weight I added, the little guys were extremely aggressive and almost always got the bait on the initial drop.  I was beside myself - how was this happening?

After initially tossing back 2 or 3 8" bluegills, I kept one, caught a 9" black crappie, and decided to keep a smaller bluegill that I mortally wounded during the de-hooking process.  Not much to show for a lot of baitfishing.

I haven't cleaned a panfish (or really, any fish under about 16" long) for well over a decade, so I turned to the trusty internets.  I quickly found the video "How to Fillet Your Panfish" by Muskie Matt of Regular Fishin' for Regular Guys.  The work was easy and within a few (several) minutes, I had all little three fish filleted and vac-sealed together for future cooking.

Speaking of which, how should I cook them (I'm looking for more detail here than "FRYIN PAN!")?

All I know is that next time I go freshwater fishing for food (and/or with live bait), I will put some real effort into it, and get on the water early or stay late - as I would for artificial lure and catch/release fishing.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Around the Garden

Note the difference in soil color between my no-till beds and the adjacent conventional/till gardens.
There's plenty of stuff going on around here, both outdoors and otherwise.  However, with crashing for the last 24 hours (and deleting an entire post of mine that was scheduled to publish today), I'll just hit you up with a little garden update.  In short, things are growing fabulously.  I am now harvesting leaf lettuce, leeks, and chives, and everything else is coming along fairly well.  I keep forgetting to plant the carrots and I'm running out of time to start!

I was curious if my untilled (now no-till) soil would break on the shovel or clump up into big clay chunks (as it did when I first got the garden plot in 2010).  And now, with squash and tomato plants going in the ground, it's too late to till, even if I change my mind.  I was excited to see that once broken loose from the ground, the soil just fell apart on the shovel with the tiniest amount of pressure from my boot or hand.  It looks great.  Nice and dark brown, full of earthworms, centipedes, and all kinds of other critters.  Unfortunately, also including several gigantic hornworm pupae, ready to emerge as moths.  While I acknowledge that the sphinx moth, the larval form of which is the hornworm, is an important thanks.  I have plenty of other bees, moths, and butterflies. 

First harvest of 2011!
Food is starting to come out of the garden, and like every year, it's not a day too soon.  Within another three weeks, all of the seedlings will be out of my basement and the grow lights will turn off again until March 2012. 

There's a lot of work yet to do to get to that point, and a lot of things that can go wrong with so many young, sensitive plants in the garden.  Like my friend Jonas' garden, that was destroyed by hail on the day he planted it.  Yikes.

It's been a good week outdoors, from walks with my wife and Hank, to some time fishing the Patapsco River, wetland site visits for work, and some sunny, sweaty hours in the garden.  The weather is starting to bear down on us, and promises somewhere between 4 and 10 days of straight rain.  My brother the Tugboatdude is coming to town in that timespan and hoping for some outdoor fun (and to watch our beloved Yankees terrorize the hapless Orioles), so we're hoping for a few dry afternoons and/or mornings. 

It's May in Maryland - there's a lot of stuff going on outdoors and I look forward to sharing it with you all!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Chasing the Shad Run in Maryland

Delaware Indians setting shad traps and smoking operations
Every spring, since at least the end of the last Ice Age, three species of shad have migrated up the Chesapeake Bay to spawn in highly oxygenated freshwater streams.  Native Americans knew this, and relied on the shad for much-needed spring protein (in the case of American and Hickory shad) and also for fertilizing crops like tobacco and corn (in the case of the much fishier Gizzard shad).  These fish tend to school anytime they reach an upstream obstacle, waiting for the right time or flow to continue moving upstream. 

Of course, all of that changed when the French, Dutch, and English started erecting mill dams across coastal plain streams from North Carolina to New Jersey in the mid-1700s (although it's true that beaver dams existed on most or all of those streams at various times prior to colonial settlement).  These mill dams prevented shad (and herring, striped bass, and many other species) from moving upstream to the spawning grounds, which in turn, made the corralled and confused shad very easy prey to fishermen.  Humans' interest in harvesting these fish en masse has not subsided.  In several states in the Northeast, the season on American and Hickory shad remains closed due to centuries of overfishing.   However, a very particular and unusual culture still exists every April and May on those Chesapeake Bay streams - catch and release fishing for Americans and Hickories.   How weird is that culture? Check out the tackle:

You have to admit, those are some pretty weird little plugs.  They're called shad darts.  While shad can and do bite other lures (and live bait), they certainly chase these little things around. 

One friday morning found me on Maryland's eastern shore, and I decided to see if the shad were hanging around one of the Wye River's fish passage blockage, which is the historic Wye Mill Dam (which impounds the current Wye Mills Lake).  I had heard that shad were around, but with all of this crazy weather, it's just hard to know.

I have to admit, I have not fished the shad run in three years now, and I have forgotten what I had taught myself about these tough fish.  I started off with a few crappie lures that were getting big strikes but no hookups. I then switched to a 4" Rapala Subwalk "Ghost" with a trailing streamer and the hits came fast and furious.  The shad - big shad (a dead 18"er was on the bank) - were rising through the stained water, grabbing the lure, and heading deep.  Then they would run the bottom of the channel while still holding onto the lure.   Then, every time, I'd decide that I'd had enough, turn off the drag, and start retrieving, at which point the shad would bounce the lure.  I hooked a few dozen and never brought one to the surface - very frustrating.  Other lures didn't provoke the same strike. Smaller lures only caught me bucketfuls of panfish (and once again, I did not have a creel or cooler with me).   Frustrated, I eventually gave up and headed for the fish passage barrier where I learned how to fish for shad on Maryland's Choptank River.

At first glance, it appeared fairly promising.  There was a lot of water coming over the old mill dam, and even more through the fish passage notch that was cut by DNR contractors about five years ago.  It seemed a little brown, but more critically, another light tackle angler was already set up on the old dam and casting just downstream into the plunge pool, where the shad were waiting.  He caught a few, but it wasn't at all reminescent of some of the classic days I've had fishing there (pulling out fish after fish after fish).

But it just was not to be.  Neither the upstream fisherman's luck, nor the tales of striped bass lurking in the pools below were able to get any shad in my hands on this day.  The Choptank was ridiculously stained, once I saw it up close.  No lure could deal with the discoloration and the speed of the river (nearing flood stage).  Oh well.

When you get a few hours of unobligated time to fish, it's hard to say, "Maybe another day."   The shad run is now ending throughout the upper Chesapeake Bay and I'm pretty sure I won't get another chance to target them this year.  I'm at least pleased that I got some really big ones on the line, and I'll be prepared to try some new spots in April 2012!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Steps to Starting a No-Till Garden

Field pea cover crop (left beds), mid-April 2011
As I watched the growth of my cover crop (field peas) this spring, I increasingly grew conflicted about the inevitability of killing the cover crop for my summer veggies.  Not about whether to kill the peas, but what a shame it was that they had absorbed all of those nutrients and grown (I imagine) miles of roots in my garden soil, just to be tilled under as a green manure.

Then, it hit me.  I work and hunt on no-till farms all the time.  Why not try a no-till garden that would incorporate the above-ground parts of the plant as a green manure or mulch, and leave all the root mass intact underground?  It was actually difficult to find extremely helpful details on how to carry out this out.  Unfortunately, most of the web resources on no-till gardening basically say, "Yeah, no-till is great, you should do it, it reduces water pollution!"

Uh, okay. Thanks for the tip. Other web resources quickly delve into agricultural terminology, which obviously is not very helpful for the low-skill or moderate-skill gardener wanting to try out this technique.  So even though I'm trying it myself for the first time, I thought I would put a brief resource online showing gardeners how to get started in no-till gardening.  Please add comments if you have questions or criticisms.

Field peas mowed and mulched, late April 2011
1) In my opinion, no-till is not a gardening technique that one should fully begin when they are planning a summer garden. This is not meant to discourage you.  I say this because the first thing you will need to begin no-till is a "decent" soil base.  That means soil that has been worked since its prior use (lawn, forest, abandoned, etc and has had some (lots of) organic material worked into it, and not just laid overtop of the garden.  So, quite ironically, the first thing that many no-till gardeners will have to do is to till their garden! Even if you don't, it will take months to build up a solid garden soil from scratch.  Don't despair.  Just give it time!

2) If a gardener is considering a no-till conversion in late spring/early summer (when many gardeners are thinking most frequently about their gardens), this is a good time to add significant amounts of organic material.  This is not just for this summer's benefit - but for long term changes in the structure and nutrient content of the soil. 

3) Anyone who gardens in rows should also consider a summer cover crop to help break up the soil inbetween their garden plants. The worst thing for starting a no-till garden is large clumps of dried soil. Keeping the soil moist and/or shaded throughout the summer will provide benefits in the fall and future growing seasons.  Periodically adding additional organic material, even in limited spots, is not a bad idea either.

4) As summer harvests begin to wind down, plant a fall, fall/winter, or fall/winter/spring cover crop.  Anyone interested can search the label "cover crops" on River Mud. I have to confess that I am still learning which cover crops work the best in my soil and garden.  Protecting the soil from winter erosion and wind are very important to establishing a no-till garden.  By March, I observed a significant difference in soil structure between my beds with successful cover crops, unsuccessful cover crops, and no cover crops at all.   Don't be afraid to experiment.  Cover crop species selection and mixes of species are something that are available on the web from many state extension and agriculture departments.  It's good information.

5) Gardeners should not be afraid to selectively or totally kill their cover crops when they are ready to plant in fall, winter, or spring.  There are many options available for using the above-ground portions of the plant, including mowing (which serves as a green mulch or manure) or cutting and composting (to be used later in the garden).  In rare instances (in gardening), the cover crop may be harvested for use or sale.  Whichever option is chosen, the plant material should not be wasted or thrown away.

6) Before a gardener is wholly committed to no-till, they should take a soil sample and evaluate how healthy the soil "looks." Better yet, the soil's quality can be better estimated by sending a sample to the local extension service, in states where the extension service still provides testing.  Even if a private lab is selected for testing, it should not cost more than $30.

This is precisely where I am.  The first spring of no-till.  I'm happy with how the soil looks (dark brown with black organic mottles) and feels (crumbles easily in my hand).  If I do test it (which I will do this fall), I'll be looking at the following basic garden soil metrics:
  • 50% solid, 25% air space (pores), 25% moisture (pores)
  • 40% sand, 40% silt, and 20% clay
  • 5% organic matter
  • pH between 6.5 and 7.0
At the end of the summer season (1 season of no-till), I'll send out for lab samples for a conventional (tilled and amended) garden plot and one of my no-till beds.  We'll see if the reduction of effort also comes along with an increase in soil quality!   Common sense tells me that the soil can't possibly be any worse than when I started working this plot in April 2010.  How can I say that without any data whatsoever?

Well, take a gander at what I inherited at that time:

I don't need any data to tell me that the soil in the picture is nearly worthless, and that any organic material added to it the following summer, absent cover crops, will be lost to erosion the following winter.  How much money in soil and fertilizer are you planning to give away next winter?

If you think I'm exaggerating, check out how much soil another gardener at my City Farm has given away, for free, to our creek (which does not want the soil):

Planting sparse rows, not providing winter cover, and tilling at least once a year has led to this. We're talking hundreds of pounds of creek sediment out of a tiny garden - and it can be almost totally prevented by doing less work.  So think about no-till and whether it can work for you.  A few extra resources for you:

Note: The above links consistently refer to "compost layering" from the ground up only. Again, think about this in detail - can you accomplish a good starting garden from the ground up only?

Information on detailed and specific topics related to no-till gardening can - not surprisingly - be found at the No Till Gardening Blog.  Pay them a visit!

Friday, May 6, 2011

A Quick Run to the Catawba River

On our Easter trip to North Carolina, we had a chance to stop by our friend Candy & Bob's campsite along the lazy Catawba River.  Funny thing is that the Catawba River isn't naturally lazy - it's dammed up in 6 places in North Carolina, and another 5 spots downstream in South Carolina. So in essence, the River is actually a series of lakes.  American Rivers calls it the most endangered river in America.

I had very little time to assess the spot (I didn't even have an address or map ahead of tiem) and get a line wet, as our Henry, Bob & Candy's 3 little ones, some other kids, and a bunch of dogs were all running around the floodplain like a bunch of maniacs.  Wet, sandy, runny-nosed maniacs.

I tried one backwater spot and found that the whole area within my casting range was too shallow for big fish - a lot of sediment in this river!  BTW Candy - I left a nice popper hung up on a clump of Arrowhead approximately 10 feet out into the cove, right behind your campsite.  Enjoy! The River was the same - very shallow and poor structure outside of the deep, muddy channel, which really looked more like a catfishing spot than anything else (Bob caught a 9lb channel cat that night).  I then tried the inlet that drained the backwater pool into the River and had a little more luck - sunfish, juvenile largemouth, and yellow perch all holding in 4-6' of clear water.  Good deal.

The yellow perch run in Maryland was totally useless this year, and honestly I haven't caught yellow perch in years, so it was good to get re-acclimated.  They would only hit lures that were on a burn at the exact depth they were holding, although a few did rise to take fast-ripping lures in 1-3' of water.

I ended up catching about 9 yellow perch and 4 or so pumpkinseed in a little less than 2 hours of mid-day fishing - hey, I am taking what I can get these days.  I found one very nice size largemouth holding (probably on a nest) right off of a downed log.  He hit but missed the hook a few times, gulped once and bounced the hook another time, and eventually got wise to my ways and fled the scene.

It was at this time that I met See Saw.  My boy See Saw owns a red-glitter bass boat with a 250hp Merc on the stern.  See Saw rips up and down the river looking for fish, which is OK with me.   I can't help but be amused by the later information I received that See Saw owns this beautiful $40,000 bassin' outfit but lives in a singlewide trailer in the area.  Dream big, See Saw, dream big.

I did get a chance to show Henry his first live fish (I fished with him in a backpack last summer but caught nothing), but by the time I showed up at the toddler scene down the bank, wiggling (suffocating) perch in hand, Henry was eating a hot dog and chatting up some toddler ladies, making my fish pretty uninteresting by comparison. Don't believe me?

These days, he is mostly interested in running into the water at full speed, chasing ducks, chasing turtles, and falling/jumping off of boats and piers into the water, with no fear of the potential outcome.  I hope to focus that enthusiasm on some real water sports in the coming years, and I look forward to coming back to the Catawba River and doing some serious fishing.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Leave the Creel, Take the Cannoli

In my last trip - a scouting trip -  to Highway Ponds WMA Haunted Bridge WMA, I saw beaucoup big, dumb fish.  I went back this week with my UL fishing tackle and my creel. I planned to catch a few bass and then fill the creel with delicious panfish, that I already was planning to fry. Oh, such plans....

Of course, this was a stupid idea.  It had stormed all day (look at that spooky sky in the picture!), and a tornado touched down the day before, literally down the street. 

Hispanic fishermen have been seen at the WMA seine-netting for spawning largemouth bass (totally illegal and probably not worth the effort), and on top of that, the vegetation has doubled in area over the last 10 days, and the algae bloom has started.

I haven't even started talking about the fishing yet!  I got out to the "rear ponds" and was let down and simultaneously excited that three teenagers (including a girl!) were all fly casting at the exact spot I planned to fish.  They were catching fish - though not many, and small.  Regardless of whatever activities they are into most of the time, I was pretty excited to see them out fishing on a sunny April afternoon, when everything in popular culture tells them to be doing something else. 

Since I wanted to catch fish worthy of prepping and eating, I did not throw tiny lures out, instead focusing on topwater lures with some umph to them.  I got very few strikes and eventually found a tight spot to cast into, between some water lilies, where I hooked into a 14" largemouth.  In my excitement to bring it to shore, I somehow let it get out of the water, still on the hook, where it bounced the hook and escaped before I could take a picture.  HUGE bummer. 

I ended up spending a lot of time cleaning water lily parts and algae off of my lures, and the bite just wasn't happening.  A few fish were feeding on topwater.  I started to see fish beds and realized.....the fish are on their nests now. The spawn.  I honestly think that this spot may be done for fish production for awhile.  The illegal seine netting is impacting the habitat and obviously the population of lunkers, and the vegetation and algae are just overpowering the water surface.  I will return to the WMA's wooded pond after the spawn, and if it's not productive, I probably won't come back until October.

You know, there's a reason why I usually leave the creel in the truck.  I'll leave it in the truck again next time I go fishing. Or even better, not go fishing during the spawn, after a tornado.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Henry's Carolina Easter

This is Hank.  These are Hank's Easter duds.  They are pretty cute, and everybody thought so.  So, what else do you do for Easter, when you're Hank? First of all, you definitely eat some cake that bunches of different ladies bake for you.

Then when Mommy and Daddy take you to see a show, you dance up by the stage until the band asks you to climb on stage with them.

Then, when the fiddle player tries to show you how the instrument works, you yell,       "I do dat!" and pluck the strings, to the fiddle player's amazement.

And sometimes you just kick it at Grandma's house, stunt riding your toy ATV in your monkey pajamas and cowboy hat (duh, that's what everybody wears when they go four-wheeling).

But when you're Hank, you know it's just a toy, and sooner or later you demand a ride on a real tractor.

And when that, too, becomes boring, you demand several rides through the woods on the Swamp Buggy.

And after awhile, you get kind of tired and just want Mom and Dad to take you down to the Catawba River.

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