Monday, February 28, 2011


What fish-loving Mainer wouldn’t relish a plate of fresh smelt, Osmerus mordax, rolled in fine cornmeal and fried in rendered salt pork? Even health-conscious types, those who would use olive oil instead of pork, must admit that smelt are one of the tastiest fish to swim in Maine waters.

A friend just returned from a night of smelt fishing on the Kennebec River. He gave me a package of smelts, cleaned on the spot inside the ice shack. These supplied enough for two meals.

But ice fishing isn’t the only way to catch smelt. Each spring, smelt, thousands and thousands of them, ascend tidal rivers up and down the Maine coast. They don’t all go back to sea with the tide, either, as evidenced by the huge number taken by dippers in South Brewer on the Penobscot River.

People also fish for smelt with rod and reel, too. In fact, smelt bite 24 hours a day, not just at night. Those hardy souls who dare to go out now with a spinning outfit, some shrimp meat or even a small jig such as Swedish Pimple, stand a chance of taking a good mess of smelts.

While not exactly a game fish in the same league with trout and salmon, smelt fight quite well given their diminutive size. Toothy, aggressive and willing to bite on almost anything, smelt are a real joy to catch on ultralight fishing tackle.

Here’s another thing. Down in coves and tidal rivers in Knox County, smelt make an annual, fall run. People buy telescoping poles, line attached, from outlets in Rockland. The prescribed method here requires going out at night on an incoming tide, baiting the four hooks (attached via a spreader) on the end of the line and holding the spreader and its little knob that serves as a strike indicator, just above the surface.

When a smelt bites (sometimes two or three bite at once), the knob turns, signaling that its time to raise the pole and grab the silvery, wriggling smelt.

Finally, smelt used to run in Belfast Bay when Stinson Cannery was still in business. I used to catch lots of them from the old footbridge and also, from my canoe, which I would tie to the Stinson wharf.

Smelt season is here. Even if you don’t go fish for them yourself, try and buy enough for at least one or two meals. You’ll be keeping alive a wonderful, old-time Maine tradition.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Try Sketching

Two fields of study become far more enjoyable by the simple addition of sketches of the subject or subjects. These are astronomy and botany.

It took me years to realize that a person need not be an artist in order to make useful sketches. For astronomy, a sketch of whatever we see through a telescope or binoculars at any particular time becomes useful when looking at the same scene on a different night. By sketching stars, planets or whatever, we quite naturally become more familiar with that part of the sky.

The same goes for plants, even more so. Making simple sketches has greatly enhanced my study of wild, useful plants. Since plants differ in style and structure, it pays to become familiar with the idiosyncrasies of each plant. And sketching helps immensely. Here’s one example.

I had just completed a sketch of a mature ostrich fern and then compared it to a professional drawing in one of my field guides. It was only then that I realized that I had depicted the pinna, the primary divisions of the blade, “leaves,” if you will, as being opposite each other on the stipe (stem). In fact, these occur opposite each other on ostrich ferns.

This little technicality made my sketch null and void. And, it etched in my memory the true features of an ostrich fern.

Besides all this, sketching is fun and rewarding. It requires nothing more than paper and pencil and perhaps a ruler.

Surprisingly, for someone with little or no artistic talent or skills, my sketches do manage to impart the flavor and general appearance of the wild plants.

For me, sketching my favorite plants has become an important adjunct to my study and enjoyment of the same. Just don’t ask me to sketch people, fish or animals. That simply isn’t going to happen.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Gray Jay

Every so often, a Canada jay appears at the plum tree in front of my house. These are also called gray jays and by old-time woodsmen, “gobbeys.”

Since gray jays are birds of the northern conifer forest, it is unusual for me to see one here in Mid-Coast Maine. But when it happens, I’m delighted. Here’s why.

Gray jays are charming, friendly little birds and will quickly warm to humans. In fact, they once followed logging crews in order to secure handouts in the form of table scraps and other treats.

But as social and outgoing as they are, gray jays do not frequent developed areas to any great degree. In fact, they are in my mind, the essence of wilderness.

So when a gray jay appears at my place, it tells me that despite encroachment by new people moving in and new houses going up, I still live in a place that is wild enough to suit a gobbey. And that knowledge tickles the heck out of me.

By the way, Robert wonders if I got lost looking for ground ivy. Well, I must admit that the snow is way deep, so I haven't yet done my "shovel foraging." I will soon, honest. Tom

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Looking Ahead

A freelance writer by trade, I write about nature, plants, insects and so on. I also cover fishing and other outdoor pursuits. As such, I write a number of regular columns for The Maine Sportsman Magazine.

Since assembling, preparing and editing manuscripts for a magazine of this size takes considerable time, MS writers must prepare our columns well ahead of time. This means that now, in February, I’m writing about fishing in April.

Discussing seasonal activities two months ahead requires acquiring a certain mindset. We must immerse ourselves in the topic, drawing upon memory and also, notes from one full year previous.

So now, with nighttime temperatures hovering around 0 Fahrenheit and daytime temperatures slightly below freezing, my thoughts and emotions are set smack-dab in April. That, my friends, is one way to beat cabin fever.

In fact, I just this morning wrote about trout fishing on the Piscataquis River. This rocky, riffly water in the southern reaches of the Moosehead Region flows through woods and fields, farm country and small towns, a true, Currier & Ives setting.

Additionally, I must soon go through my photo collection and select an image to illustrate my column. This, too, helps to bring the wonder of springtime home, even while it is yet winter.

So here I sit in my home office, scrutinizing photos of rivers, trout and scenic countryside. And in doing this, I am able to escape, if only for a short while, the difficulties of winter and transport my soul to a time and place that kindles joy in my heart.

Does cabin fever lurk at your door? If so, then perhaps you can find respite through some quite time, recalling pleasant days of a different season. And before we know it, the real thing will have arrived. It won’t be long now.

By the way, thanks to the readers who commented on my clamming post. It's good to hear from you. Tom

Sunday, February 20, 2011

State Parks For Clamming

For me, foraging means incorporating every wild thing I possibly can into my days afield. This includes clams and clam digging.

I am old enough to remember when Mid-Coast Maine absolutely brimmed with open clam flats. We thought it would never end. It did, though, and not necessarily because the clams went anywhere. They didn’t. It’s just that the rules changed.

Municipalities began selling nonresident clamming licenses back in the 1970’s. I remember, because I had a Tri-Town license (Stockton, Searsport and, I think, Prospect).

That was all well and good, since the licenses were inexpensive and we had oodles of places to dig. But the topic of pollution reared its ugly head. As per the law, a beach is presumed polluted until proven not polluted. And the State of Maine has not money or people (and sometimes it seems to me, inclination) to go around and test the water in order to make a determination. So otherwise fine clam flats remain closed to harvesting.

Still, some areas have long been and remain, clean and open to clamming. Of these, some are open to the public without any strings…no license, no anything. Just go and dig your peck of clams.

Where are these wonderful places, you ask? State parks.

As much as local governments might like to charge a fee for clamming (they are governments, after all. Fees and licenses are, well, you get my drift), they are prohibited from doing so.

Reid State Park, for instance, offers some great opportunities.

Continuing up the coast, many state parks are closed because of real or suspected pollution (refer to statement above). The majority of open areas sit in Down East Maine. Beginning at Holbrook Island State Park in Brooksville and heading way up (or down, as in east) to Cobscook Bay, the public may harvest clams on state property in accordance with state laws.

My point in presenting this? I recently met a gentleman who wasn’t aware of the opportunities available in state parks. In fact, I don’t think he really believed me.

Of course we must always check first before grabbing clam hoe and hod and heading out on the flats. But for those who love nothing better than a mess of fresh-dug clams, our state parks provide that very opportunity.

With March just around the corner and the likelihood of above-freezing temperatures, I can think of nothing finer than to spend a few hours digging clams, listening to gulls and breathing in the fresh, salt air.

So if you enjoy clamming as much as I do, why not look into visiting a state park? You just might find a whole new world of fun and adventure.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

New Reserch Highlights Health Benefits of Knotweed

An old saying went something like this: “If a plant is hard to kill, it is either very good for you or else it is toxic.”

In the case of some of my favorite wild edibles, the former certainly seems true. Consider dandelions and Japanese knotweed. Both, once established, are nearly impossible to eradicate. And both make good eats (as Alton Brown might say) and both provide lots of health benefits.

A recent trip to my doctor’s office revealed much about Japanese knotweed. Doctor Piel is a homeopath and often suggests various plant products for me to use…or to avoid.

Doctor Piel had recently read my book, “Wild Plants of Maine, A Useful Guide” and while he was testing me, our conversation turned to knotweed.

As it turns out, knotweed contains something called resveratrol. According to laboratory tests, resveratrol has anti-cancer properties and also promotes long life in humans. In fact, a well-respected medical herb company offers a product that contains Japanese knotweed root.

This amazed me, although it shouldn’t. I am aware that many of our wild edibles have medicinal virtues. But this new bit of information regarding knotweed came as a complete surprise.

Anyway, Doctor Piel didn’t suggest that I take this commercially produced knotweed product, since he is well aware that I eat knotweed fresh in season and as a frozen product out of season. It stands to reason that I must get a good, steady supply of resveratrol as a result of my knotweed consumption.

Oh, that same herb company also offers a number of dandelion-based products. Again, I eat dandelions several times each week, year-round. So I wouldn’t gain much by buying what is already available to me for free.

Oh, I’m not going to suggest that if everyone eats knotweed and dandelions, they won’t grow old or ever become ill. But still, it is truly comforting to know for a fact that the wild plants that taste so good are also good for us.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Hard Luck Fruit Trees

Winter brings hard times to fruit trees here in Maine, but not necessarily because of cold weather. Apple trees, plum trees and some pear and cherry trees are very cold hardy. Winter presents other problems for fruit trees.

For me, having a ready source of fresh fruit was always a dream. I began planting 30 years ago and my efforts included different types of apples, pears, plums, cherries and peaches. You would think that I would have a flourishing orchard by now. But that hasn’t happened.

First, during one winter of deep snow, meadow voles found my trees and girdled most of them. When spring came, only a few had enough tissue in the cambium layer to sustain life. The rest died.

I did manage to save a flowering crab, by making several bridge grafts. These tied in life-giving sap from the very base of the tree to good bark above the vole damage. But while flowering crabs are nice to view in spring, they don’t produce edible fruit.

I finally purchased Vinal spirals to wrap around the trunk of my remaining trees. These solved the vole problem.

Then, deer found my pear orchard. I had a half-acre of pears and plums and put lots of time, effort and money into it. The trees responded nicely. Then one spring morning I woke up to find that deer had chewed them all down to nubbins. They have not bounced back. Scratch the pear orchard.

As of last week, I had one apple tree which I purposely situated only feet from my kitchen door. I figure it’s too close to the house for deer to dare approach. So far so good.

Also, two trees in back had somehow managed to survive vole predation. These trees were about 20 years old and deer had eaten them back twice and twice they pushed out new growth. I finally got one apple from one of them last year and had high hopes for continued success.

But after this last blizzard, I looked out the window and saw where a deer had wallowed through the snow and made a virtual road around both trees. There, it browsed to its heart’s content. Both trees have lost all the new growth from last year. Even if one or both manage to survive despite the deer damage, it will be many more years before they produce fruit. And I am not growing any younger, you know.

This leaves the apple tree in front, the crabapple tree with its pretty but inedible fruit and two plum trees on the edge of my lawn.

The snowplow man came by the other day to plow the two-inch snowfall (against my will…I didn’t feel like paying to have such a small amount of snow removed) and decided to “push back.” That is, he wanted to make more room for future snow. My drive is beginning to look like a bobsled run.

In pushing back, my friend drove over my lawn and garden beds…I’ll see how they made out come spring. Hopefully they are okay. But in his zeal to hurl accumulated snow as far from the drive as possible, he plowed down my two little plum trees. These had only just begun to produce and the plums were quite sweet and juicy. I doubt that they will ever bear again, if in fact they are not broken quite in half.

This leaves the crab and the edible apple tree in front. Knock on wood, both look hale and hearty. But only time will tell.

Sometimes I think that it just isn’t in the cards for me to have fruit trees.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Come On Spring

A few days ago I wrote about my intention to go “snow shovel foraging.” Since then, umpteen feet of snow have intervened and my plans for digging for wintergreen and ground ivy are on hold.

I still intend to do my winter foraging, but it seems like a good idea to wait until the snowpack shrinks just a mite. Call me timid…but wallowing around in waist-deep snow doesn’t thrill me. Were it absolutely necessary, sure, but as long as I don’t absolutely have to, “I ain’t a-gonna,” as my grandpa Tom White used to say.

Anyway, this winter weighs heavily upon my sun-starved soul. Dark days follow each other in painfully slow succession. And when it isn’t dark and cloudy, it is way colder than we might hope.

I find myself asking, wondering if spring will ever arrive. And just when it seems as if the answer is “no,” someone will call me on the phone, wanting to set up a foraging trip for next spring or summer.

So every once in awhile, I’ll take a stroll, so to speak, through my calendar. Doing that cheers me greatly.

Also, working on new writing projects (in addition to my regular columns and magazine assignments) helps me keep my chin up. The latest item on in the works, a forager’s notebook, will feature a monthly write-up of a featured wild plant, weekly household tips and line drawings, by me, of the various plants.

The notebook will come into being through the kind auspices of Nancy Randolph, publisher of Just Write Books, Topsham, Maine. Just Write did my Wild Plants of Maine, A Useful Guide and also, Hidden World Revealed, Musings of a Maine Naturalist.

The notebook, meant for people to write in and keep notes, comes as a companion to Wild Plants of Maine.

Finally, be cheered knowing that we have only 40 days to wait until spring. We Mainer’s can surely handle that.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Binocular Astronomy

Even now, in the middle of a 1960s-like winter, the dedicated naturalist can find something of interest to observe. In this case, we need to look up.

Winter constellations are of much interest and fortunately, the “seeing,” or quality of the wintertime air and sky is conducive to stargazing. And while no special devices are necessary, a decent pair of binoculars helps immensely.

I use a 10 X 50 set that cost less than $100 and has superb optics. This power and field of view are perhaps better suited to celestial observing than any other configuration. However, any binoculars are better than none, so if you have a set kicking around in cabinet or closet, by all means give them a workout.

I have practiced my astronomical chops for long enough now that I know when and where to look for interesting objects. One of my favorite sights are star clusters and right now, the constellation Auriga, high in the east in mid-evening, contains at least three good binocular objects.

These look like round, fuzzy swarms of bees. In fact, they are clusters of countless stars, bound together as a system and traveling through the universe together.

Of course the biggest and most extraordinary sight now is the Great Nebula in Orion, in the middle of Orion’s Sword. It’s a naked-eye sight but it really comes to the front with binoculars, a dazzling picture.

And while I can’t say stargazing in February is not without risk of some discomfort because of cold, I was outside last night for a half-hour of observing and the temperature held at a steady 0 degrees. And I wasn’t troubled by the cold. That’s because it was a still night. Even a slight breeze makes stargazing somewhat dicey.

But that’s one reason why binoculars work so well now. Here’s the key.

First, figure out what to look at and where. I suggest going to and checking our their weekly sky report. You can also download sky maps designed especially for your area.

Next, dress warmly, don hat and gloves and step outside. It takes a little while to cool down, even on the coldest night. Try and steady your binoculars (rest on something, even a broomstick with a board on one end will work) and home in on the nearest cluster, double star or binocular-visible galaxy (the Great Andromeda Galaxy will soon be in prime position in early evening).

Finally, I bought a folding beach chair for binocular viewing. By sitting down in this comfortable seat and supporting my binoculars with my elbows, I get a very steady picture, interrupted only by my heartbeat.

Binoculars make it easy to bundle up, quickly step out for a bit of stargazing and just as quickly, dart back in again to warm up. Telescopes don’t allow of this kind of instant action.

So do a bit of studying. Wipe off those old binocs and try some stargazing. But be warned. It’s a fascinating hobby, one likely to get you hooked for a lifetime of outdoor nighttime entertainment.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Halfway Point

February 2. Groundhog Day. Also Candlemas Day. Both have their own bit of interesting folklore and both approach us with an olive branch of hope for something better, namely an early end to winter.

German tradition dictates that if the (this means any groundhog, not just one particular animal) groundhog does not see his shadow on this day, then winter’s end is neigh. And so today, February 2, 2011, our nation’s official weather prognosticator, Punxatawny Phil, was hauled out from his semi-hibernation and given the opportunity to see his shadow. He did not see it and the official verdict was thus given: winter will end soon.

Since so much folklore has some basis in fact, let’s consider the groundhog. As alluded to above, groundhogs are not heavy-duty hibernators. In fact, on a warm February day, a groundhog may bestir itself to leave its burrow and take a short stroll, kind of a way to work out the kinks and so on. I have seen groundhog tracks on the snow and tracked them to a woodchuck hole.

As for telling the weather, well…

And then we have Candlemas Day. This marks the day on the church calendar when people bring their candles to church to have them blessed. In a broader sense, the day touches upon the coming light of spring, the ever-lengthening hours of daylight. And, of course, it ties in with the wait for Easter.

An old English proverb goes this way:
If Candlemas Day be fair and bright
Winter will have another flight
But if Candlemas Day be clouds and rain
Winter is gone and will not come again.

Of course this pretty much ties in with the groundhog seeing his shadow. It’s just another way of saying the same thing.

February 2 marks winter’s midpoint. From now on, we’re on the downhill side of the dark, cold season. And no matter the weather, no matter how much snow we get or don’t get, no matter if the temperature remains well below whatever we might consider “normal,” the faint stirrings of approaching spring have begun.

Because we are now halfway through winter, the old farmers’ wisdom rings true when we repeat the following lines:
The provident farmer by Candlemas Day
Has half his wood and half his hay.

Of course many today don’t burn wood and have no use for hay. But certainly some have preserved in one way or another, produce from their gardens and perhaps, foraged wild edibles. Have you any winter squash left? How about potatoes? Are the fiddleheads in your freezer halfway used up?

Some things never change. We just think they do.

Happy Candlemas/Groundhog Day.