The Paper photo by Brent T. Wheat
An typical early fall day along Sugar Creek in Montgomery County. In 2018, there are far fewer leaves present on the water even though we’ve reached the last week of October!
The Paper photo by Brent T. Wheat An typical early fall day along Sugar Creek in Montgomery County. In 2018, there are far fewer leaves present on the water even though we’ve reached the last week of October!
We’re in the final throes of October and everyone is talking about the fall colors, or more correctly, the lack thereof. What happened?
Our beautiful Hoosier fall foliage is created when trees and many other plants begin their annual winter shutdown. As days get shorter and the weather gets colder, the chlorophyll that gives plants their characteristic green color begins to wear out and isn’t replaced. With the green coloration gone, remaining chemicals and pigments in the leaves take center stage before everything turns brown and falls to the ground. This process results in our annual fall treat as the countryside becomes a glorious palate of red, yellow and even purple.
Except for this year, when Mother Nature has thrown a high-and-outside curve ball. Obviously the days are getting relentlessly shorter but the weather has been exceptionally warm since last month, averaging 10-degrees above average. This has tricked the trees into thinking we’re still somewhere in mid-September so it isn’t yet time to shut down the chlorophyll factory.
We’ve had a killing freeze and multiple frosts within our normal mid-October time frame but even those low temperature excursions were short as the days warmed up quite nicely. That’s why we’ve arrived at the last week of October with the trees fully clothed but looking somewhat threadbare, like a hobo in a thrift-store suit.
Aside from the consequences on local tourism due to the lack of leaf-peepers, there are other noticeable effects of the warm weather. A few days ago I snuck out for a morning of creek fishing in an effort to pick up the big smallmouth bass that I knew were dying to attack my lure in their pre-winter feeding frenzy.
As it turned out, the fish were fairly lethargic in the clear, cold water on a blustery day threatening rain but the biggest thing I noticed was the ease of casting and retrieval. Usually by this date the water is carpeted with great clumps of leaves and countless singles floating downstream, making the visual experience sublime but the fishing utterly maddening. In fact, the blanket of floating leaves is the primary reason I give up creek fishing by late October, but not this year.
Based on five decades of outdoor rambling, my wholly unscientific opinion is we will be seeing peak colors almost a month late, provided the weather doesn’t suddenly turn frigid and cause the entire landscape to drop its leaves virtually overnight.
Such crazy extremes are always a possibility this month, just like 1989 when my class at the Indiana Law Enforcement Academy was running through six inches of snow in mid-October. It was the earliest snowfall ever recorded in Indiana and we recruits were forced to slip-slide through the slush until four days later when it reached 60-degrees!
Has anyone mentioned that Indiana’s weather is highly variable, especially the tenth month? As “they” are fond of saying: “Don’t like the weather? Just wait five minutes…”
What about the role of climate change in our crazy autumn? I’ve learned two things in my journalism career: don’t try to be middle-of-the-road regarding climate because both sides will pummel you viciously for not agreeing enough with them. Secondly and unrelated, is the rule to never, ever, ever, ever discuss the fact that outdoor cats are the documented number one predator of small animals and songbirds. The hate mail will be off the charts and countless boxes full of cat poop will show up on your doorstep.
Back in the woods, another minor point that I haven’t seen mentioned anywhere is the looming absence of purple in our fall color scheme. If you’ve noticed a seemingly large number of dead trees this year, you’re not mistaken: we’re now seeing the full results of the invasion of the Emerald Ash Borer (EAB). This invasive insect swept across the country like a literal plague and killed nearly every single ash tree in Indiana. As ash trees are famed for their purple fall coloration, you probably won’t be seeing much of the royal tint this year — or for many years. Think about the EAB problem next time you’re tempted to poo-poo the latest warning about a threatening new invasive species.
On the other hand, there are a few benefits to our late fall. The crowds that descend like swarms of bees into places like Parke County and Nashville, Indiana, will be thinner during peak color this year, allowing for a more relaxed experience if you want to likewise enjoy the scenery. If your October is too busy with family and fall sports, you’ll probably get a little more time to enjoy the colors before the snow flies. I might even get in another fishing trip or two before the bass go into hiding for the winter.
I’ll join them if I ever write another cat story.
Brent Wheat is a familiar face to Montgomery County readers. His weekly outdoor column, “Out in the Open,” now appears in The Paper of Montgomery County. He can be reached at