The other night, on a small trout ribbon near Winona, Rich Enochs found his bliss: complete solitude. Fly rod in hand and the faint, hypnotic murmur of clear, cold moving water setting the mood, the 72-year-old retired chemist and veteran fly fisher cast to hungry trout with nary another human being in sight or within earshot.
“It was just me and the cows in a nearby pasture,” said Enochs. “It was a great evening of fishing, especially after all the spring rains that dirtied the streams. Fly fishing in southeast Minnesota is a way for me to decompress and relax. Solitude is a big part of why I love getting out.”
This spring, Enochs was named program coordinator for the National Trout Center (NTC), a cold water conservation/education nonprofit group based in Preston, Minn. The NTC opened four years ago as a way to spotlight the region’s picturesque yet fragile trout streams, which attract thousands of anglers from across the country each year. The NTC is located in downtown Preston, where visitors can view educational exhibits and other displays that highlight the natural and cultural heritage of trout, their cold water environs and fishing.
The long-term goal, Enochs said, is to acquire state funding for a permanent home, a learning center on banks of the South Fork of the Root River in Preston.
The NTC exists on a small annual budget, funded by the Preston Economic Development Authority and through various grants and individual donations. Enochs is the organization’s sole employee, but the organization boasts 10 active board members. “Our board, like others organizations like it, are extremely well educated and come from a wide variety of backgrounds — some are lawyers, some specialize in fundraising, some are college professors,” said Enochs. “They all know how to use their time wisely and have that single trait of a love for conservation, the outdoors and trout fishing.”
Enochs and the board share the goal of educating “anyone who wants to learn about trout biology, ecology and behavior, trout habitat, and the conservation and restoration of these cold water streams,” said Enochs. “We want to bring people to this beautiful region by promoting the cultural heritage and experience of trout fishing. It’s a mix of science, education and culture. We believe that’s good for tourism, as well as the environment. In fact, they go hand-in-hand.
“For me, working for the National Trout Center was a natural fit,” he added. “I believe in its ideals and principles, so giving up a few days of retired life was just fine with me.”
The NTC sits in the heart of the so-called driftless area that stretches through four states (southeastern Minnesota, southwestern Wisconsin, northwestern Iowa and northwestern Illinois), encompasses six major watersheds, and includes more than 600 spring-fed creeks. The health of these idyllic bluffland watersheds is inextricably linked to how the land surrounding them is managed. And on that land, serious problems exist.
Jeff Broberg is the outspoken president of the Minnesota Trout Association, as well as an NTC board member. A geologist by trade, Broberg lives south of Whitewater State Park and has fished the streams and rivers of southeast Minnesota for 25 years. Over the last several years, he says perennial vegetation has given way to row crops like corn and soybeans. Row cropping, he said, makes nearby streams more susceptible to runoff of sediment and other pollutants.
“I fear we’ve seen the pinnacle of water quality in the southeast and now it’s declining, and that’s not good for trout or trout fishing,” said Broberg. “Corn for ethanol now has a total hold on the landscape in the southeast, because farmers are incentivized by state and federal policy.
“Day by day, we see the loss of pasture, cultivated hay, buffer strips, fence rows, odd corners, yards around old farmsteads, and even cemeteries plowed up to plant more corn,” he said, adding that he doesn’t blame farmers for simply following the incentives provided by agricultural policy. “The consequence on our landscape is dramatic and visible to anyone who lives or visits the countryside. More row crops, more acres of land with no cover for six to seven months a year, more erosion, more tile drainage, more surface water pollution, more groundwater pollution, the loss of grassland birds, and the inevitable impact on our trout streams.”
To illustrate how changes in land-use affect trout and trout streams, Broberg points to this year’s record May rains and June’s three weeks of near-continuous precipitation — a growing trend in recent years. He says the rains caused heavy erosion “in almost every field over a wide area,” turning the streams into “chocolate milk” and making them mostly unfishable. “Trout were blinded and choked by the silt loads,” he said. “No one I know in conservation believes this is a sustainable model over the long term. We have to do better.”
Broberg and others see trout as the modern-day equivalent of the canary in the coal mine. Trout need clean, cold, well-oxygenated water to survive and thrive. And sediment and trout don’t mix. At each life stage, trout are affected by sediment. Sediment runoff covers gravel runs and riffles where trout spawn. Sediment also can smother trout eggs and hamper natural reproduction. In adult fish, sediment can get in their gills, cause stress and ultimately kill them.
Broberg believes most of 2014’s young-of-the-year trout was lost because of the silt-laden water. “That’s three out of the last four years we have lost nearly the entire crop of young fish due to spring floods. The good news is that we have an abundance of adult fish, but even they were starving unless they could find a clear water refuge where they could see and eat. The entire aquatic food chain can be disrupted by sediment.”
Broberg and others also are worried about the increase in nitrate levels in the region’s streams. A recent study by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency found that more than 70 percent of nitrates in surface water in intensively farmed southern Minnesota come from cropland, where anhydrous ammonia and other nitrogen compounds are used as fertilizer. High nitrates levels can harm fish and aquatic life, as well as pose health risks to humans when they pollute drinking water wells.
Last February, just before Enoch was hired, Broberg said the NTC conducted its own “base flow” water sampling and analysis of 22 waterwells and as many 36 trout streams in the southeast. Like the MPCA study, the NTC found high levels of nitrates. “It’s certainly worrisome,” said Broberg. “The nitrate groundwater contamination is what feeds our trout streams.”