Thin surface ice piles at the edge of Alamoosook Lake in Orland on Tuesday, April 10, 2018. State and federal data show that at many lakes and ponds in Maine, surface winter ice is melting away weeks earlier than it did in the late 1800s. Credit: Gabor Degre

Ice fishing is a Maine tradition that goes back centuries. But as temperatures have climbed in recent decades, the ice is melting earlier and earlier on most of the state’s lakes, and that’s carving into the ice fishing season.

Gregory Burr, a regional fisheries biologist for the state in Hancock and Washington counties, said that Acadia National Park’s Jordan Pond, once a popular destination for ice fishermen, hasn’t frozen solid enough to support them for several winters, for instance.

“It’s opening up earlier and earlier (throughout the region),” Burr said Thursday. “We’ve seen some pretty dramatic changes.”

Those dramatic changes can be seen on what is perhaps Maine’s most iconic lake: Moosehead. For the first time since records started being kept in the late 1840s, Moosehead Lake is on pace this decade to have an average date in April for when its surface ice disappears, rather than in May.

Ice-outs — the term used to describe when Maine’s lakes and ponds lose their winter surface ice each spring — used to happen in April at Moosehead maybe once every 10 years in the late 1800s, if at all. But climate change has resulted in April ice-outs for the iconic lake to become more common and, if the trend continues, could wind up being the norm, according to scientists.

Until the 1970s Moosehead Lake, which covers almost 75,000 acres and stretches nearly 30 miles from Greenville at its southern end to Seboomook at its northern tip, had some ice-outs that didn’t occur until after the second week of May. But four of the past eight years have produced April ice-outs at Moosehead, with two of them occurring in the middle of that month. The latest reported ice-out date for Moosehead since 2010 was May 10 in 2014.

And Moosehead is not alone. Rangeley Lake also is on pace this decade to have its first ever April average ice-out date, according to a Bangor Daily News analysis of federal and state data. Mooselookmeguntic and Richardson lakes each had their first April average ice-out dates for any decade in the 2000s and are on track to do so again this decade.

Sebago Lake, which in the latter 1800s typically had average ice-out dates around April 20, averaged a March 31 ice-out date from 1980 through 1989 and over the past nine years has had an average ice-out date of April 3. West Grand Lake in eastern Washington County is on target this decade to lose its ice more than two weeks earlier than it did in the late 1800s, which is the last time it had an average ice-out date in May.

There are more. Cobboseecontee and Damariscotta lakes each are on pace for an average ice-out this decade in early April, more than two weeks earlier than their decade-long averages from the 1800s. Over roughly the past four decades, Penneseewassee Lake in Norway has been icing out on average two weeks earlier than it did in the late 1800s.

Burr said the two eastern coastal counties are popular among ice fishermen in January and February, often drawing more anglers than they do in the summer. But winter temperatures on the whole have been getting more mild — in spite of occasional severe storms and cold snaps — preventing any ice fishing at some lakes.

In addition to Jordan Pond, Tunk Lake in eastern Hancock County has had recent winters when the ice was too thin to go out on, Burr said, while the ice on Gardner Lake in East Machias now frequently goes out in March.

“We’ve been seeing this [trend] over the past 15 years,” Burr said.

Still, at other lakes, this spring has been cool enough so far to prolong ice-fishing conditions. At least one ice fisherman was out last weekend on Cathance Lake in Washington County, he said.

Glenn Hodgkins, a U.S. Geological Survey research hydrologist based in Augusta, has examined historial ice-out and stream flow data in New England, including records for more than 20 lakes in Maine. He said streams throughout the region are swelling from spring runoff between 5 and 10 days earlier than they did in the 1930s.

Hodgkins said that winter’s severity can vary greatly from year to year or even from decade to decade. The 1960s and 1970s had slightly colder winters in New England than in the early 20th century, he said, but the longer-term data shows a trend of increasingly milder winters.

Data published in a 2010 study by Hodgkins shows that from the 1980s through 2008, when U.S. Geological Survey stopped compiling data, the number of ice-out dates in March increased for lakes and ponds in the midcoast area and west to Kennebec, Androscoggin, interior Cumberland and southern Oxford counties. Data collected by the state since 2003 shows that March ice-out dates, though rare, have continued to occur in that part of Maine.

“We consistently found a strong correlation between air temperature and ice-out,” Hodgkins said.

The earlier ice-outs are not evident throughout the entire state, however. Eagle and Scopan lakes in Aroostook County, which have ice-out data that goes back to the 1920s and 1930s, have averages that overall have changed by only one or two days in the past 80-plus years. Portage Lake had an average ice-out date of May 11 in the late 1920s and every decade since — aside from the relatively chilly decades of the 1960s and 1970s — has had an average ice-out date between May 1 and 5.

The relatively cold weather the past few weeks especially has put the thaw in northern Maine on hold as nighttime sub-freezing temperatures have helped preserve ice two or three feet thick in Aroostook County — helping hardy residents in the Sinclair area to carve out possibly the world’s largest ice carousel on Long Lake on April 7.

The extended chill prompted some anglers to lobby state officials to extend the ice-fishing season in remote portions of western and northern Maine, where ice-fishing season closes at the end of March. Ice fishing is permitted as long as conditions will allow in Androscoggin, Kennebec, southern Oxford and southern Penobscot counties, as well as those along the coast.

Rich Yvon, who owns and operates Twin Maple Outdoors guide service in Bradford, said he has not encountered any early ice-outs up north, where he exclusively leads trips.

“We had plenty of ice coming into April,” Yvon said. “If anything, it is [happening] later.”

Yvon said anglers in 2017 successfully petitioned the state to extend the northern ice-fishing season because of that spring’s continued chill. This spring, a similar lobbying effort failed to pan out.

“They should have done it [again] this year, but they didn’t,” he said.

Gordon “Nels” Kramer, a state fisheries biologist who works out of the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife office in Enfield, said Wednesday that lots of lakes in Maine still are frozen in. The ice on Cold Stream Pond in Enfield, he said, is two feet thick.

If the climate keeps warming to the point that it begins melting most Maine lakes even in the dead of winter, he predicted, it won’t happen anytime soon.

“I won’t be here, but that may be possible,” Kramer said.

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Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....