The National Trout Learning Center (NTLC), an environmental learning center dedicated to conserving our natural and cultural heritage of trout and their cold-water environments, was conceived in 2009 by the Preston Economic Development Authority. Seeking to bring the natural assets of the region to a level of national recognition, the new Center would showcase Preston, the “Trout Capital” of Minnesota, and the surrounding four-state driftless area of southeast Minnesota, southwest Wisconsin, northwest Illinois, and northeast Iowa. Economic impact statistics and studies had documented the value of promoting and preserving the angler experience with the cold-water trout fisheries of southeastern Minnesota. Situated among the unique geological features of this unglaciated region, already known to provide outstanding tourism opportunities encompassing hiking, biking and skiing trails, state forests and parks, limestone bluff lands and pastoral agricultural scenery, the NTLC would provide an additional dimension in educational resources in aquatic ecology, complementing established regional environmental learning centers and public and private colleges in the region.
To realize its vision of a center that would connect the public to the angling experience, provide hands-on participation in citizen science and involve local communities in celebrating the unique cold-water resources of the region, the Steering Committee forged partnerships with municipal, county, and state authorities, interested citizens, businesses, sportsmen’s associations, foundations and regional educational institutions. Early partners in the venture included the University of Minnesota, national, state and local chapters of Trout Unlimited, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Fillmore County Soil and Water Conservation District, Winona State University staff, Federation of Fly Fishers, Minnesota Trout Association, Eagle Bluff Environmental Learning Center, and the National Eagle Center.
The NTLC opened a temporary headquarters in downtown Preston in the summer of 2010. Featuring a cold-water aquarium, a small library on trout and trout fishing and exhibits on fly-tying, fisheries management, karst geology, and regional information, the new trout center attracted over 630 visitors from locations ranging from Maine to Alaska.
In its second year, the NTLC shortened its name to “National Trout Center”, developed a logo, and continued, with its partners, to develop strategic plans, field activities in fishing, fly casting, water quality sampling, stream ecology and insect identification. The NTC also convened in-house programs in fly tying, and leader and spinner fabrication, and added a cold-water invertebrate aquarium to its exhibits. While the temporary center was serving well to attract new visitors to the area, it was perceived by the Steering Committee as the beginning of what would become a permanent center that would include indoor and outdoor activity spaces, public green spaces with kiosks and areas for experiential learning and hands-on demonstrations. Year-round indoor activities, classroom and meeting spaces, exhibits and retail space would all be incorporated into the Center. The Steering Committee began to lay plans for a permanent home for the National Trout Center that would feature spaces for its educational program, a unique cold-water living stream exhibit, and enhanced public access to the Root River for people of all ages and abilities.
Now in closing out its tenth year of operation, the NTC has passed numerous milestones along the way to becoming a permanent educational institution in the driftless region. Programming for the NTC has matured with offerings for an expanded family clientele. Major stream improvement in nearly a mile of the South Branch of the Root River in Preston has increased accessibility and trout habitat; a 9-hole fishing course has been established to introduce fishers to a variety of water flows encountered in trout fishing; and, a database of over 450 high-resolution maps has been developed for MN DNR-sponsored fishing easements. These maps are now available in print media at the National Trout Center, and on-line at the NTC website (https://nationaltroutcenter.org/visit-ntc/maps/ ).
With a broad spectrum of courses in the arts and crafts of fishing, environmental quality, biology and ecology of coldwater streams, National Trout Center staff and volunteers are looking forward to contributing to a future of perpetual renewal of the cold-water resources that have made this region a crown jewel of the upper midwest. The NTC has indeed become “The Voice of the Driftless”.