Throughout the past month, I continually checked the ten-day weather forecast. Up to the last minute, the same results turned up: above average temperatures and no significant rain. In Maine, September was once the time to catch brook trout as they move from lakes to rivers. Cooling waters and river corridors resplendent with awesome foliage—this is what kept me wanting to return every September to Maine’s western mountains.
Sadly, barring some fluke weather event, the ninth month of the year no longer offers what it used to. What was once a time of bone-chilling nights and days of fleeting brightness is now a time whose rhythm has changed. Today, the close of fishing season is usually upon us before the fish have entered the rivers.
I’m sophisticated enough to know the difference between weather and climate, but as I recall fishing seasons over the past 30 years, an unmistakable—and deeply troubling—pattern emerges. My angler’s lament might seem like nothing more than a personal gripe, but something bigger is happening. As recently as 30 or even 20 years ago, Maine’s fishing season—largely unchanged since the 19th century—still allowed anglers a decent chance to experience the fall migration. I recall those mornings when I shivered inside my tent while knowing that I needed to be on the water. Today, I stay home and watch the forecast and wonder what has happened?
Climate scientists have focused on the Gulf of Maine as a living laboratory for the environmental transformation wrought by a changing climate. That’s a correct and fair assessment, but it neglects an equally dramatic transformation occurring in the watersheds that feed the Gulf of Maine’s iconic coastline. With ice-out on Maine’s lakes now occurring, on average, at least nine days earlier than it did 100 years ago, how can we expect a different result?
Maybe the fish are better off for not being present when the fishermen are, yet something is really missing when people who once could anticipate and plan and spend money to enjoy a fishery are shut out. That’s the case across our state when anglers stake out a favored spot on a pool or riffle and end up staring at warm water. What would it be like a few weeks later, in mid-October, when the fish have returned to moving water? After a few consecutive years, anglers will lose interest, and not even care enough to ask. As they fade away, so will an important constituency for keeping Maine’s waters in a healthy state.
One aspect of climate change that resonates for us non-scientists is the loss of the sense of season. Much as I might enjoy the effects of a prolonged Indian summer, I would be happier if the seasons were more as they were when Native Americans occupied the lands and waters that we now inhabit.
Postscript: I wasn’t totally shut out this year. Like the 2004 Red Sox, I managed to pull an eleventh-hour victory out of my hat. On September 30, as the rain and wind thrashed Maine, I caught (and released) a big male brookie in one of my favorite pools. The weather odds trumped the climate trends and gave me the chance to taste a bittersweet reminder of what September used to be and what Maine is supposed to be.
Charles Gauvin started at Maine Audubon in 2014. Gauvin brings more than 25 years of experience in conservation leadership, much of it as the president and CEO of Trout Unlimited, the nation’s leading river and fish conservation organization.Gauvin most recently served as Chief Development Officer at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC. He collaborated with Carnegie scholars worldwide to develop program strategies and support in the United States, Europe, Russia, the Middle East, Asia and South Asia.