When asked what they’ve learned so far about raising Steelhead trout, a flurry of hands shoot up from students in Michelle McDaniel’s seventh-grade science class at Mount Saint Mary’s Academy.
“Steelhead are just rainbow trout that have evolved in salt water and fresh water,” said Joe Rubino, age 13.
“I learned that they have to be in dark places because they have really sensitive eyes,” said Maddie Lima, age 12.
Mount Saint Mary’s Academy is one of six area schools where students are raising steelhead from fertilized eggs as part of a nationwide program known as Trout in the Classroom.
Last week, volunteers from Gold Country Fly Fishers caravanned to Rancho Cordova to pick up 200 eggs from the Nimbus Fish Hatchery and transport the precious cargo in coolers back to tanks set up in Nevada County classrooms.
In about a month, students, teachers, parents and volunteers from the fly-fishing group will travel to Sailor Bar on the American River to release the young fry into their native waters.
Besides picking up and distributing the eggs and setting up tanks and equipment, volunteers from Gold Country Fly Fishers will visit classrooms dressed in hip waders to teach kids how to tie flies.
“I like the education aspect of it,” said Robin De Negri, who has volunteered, along with others in the group, for a number of years.
When McDaniel was growing up in Port Angeles, Wash., she remembers learning about fish life cycles in a similar program at her middle school. The lessons she learned back then are just as relevant now to her own students.
“It’s pertinent because it affects the environment these kids live in,” McDaniel said of the program.
Students in elementary and middle school learn the many layers of a river ecosystem and the importance water quality, water flow and aquatic life play in fish health. Fourth-grade students learning about their home state have the added bonus of learning how important fish were as a resource to many native California cultures.
De Negri volunteers at Grizzly Hill School on the San Juan Ridge where many children have cast a line into Blair Lake at Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park during the annual kids’ fishing derby. Many of the children in McDaniel’s class excitedly share their experience fishing in lakes such as Bullard’s Bar, Englebright, Stampede Reservoir and Scotts Flat.
Others have never gone fishing.
“A lot of kids don’t have experience with the river,” said volunteer Walter O’Dwyer. O’Dwyer says he’s been fishing since he was 4, growing up near Mt. Lassen and Lake Almanor. He enjoys the meditative quality of fishing, reading the water, knowing where the bugs are, and setting up fly box, rod and reel.
“It’s about the experience. It’s so quiet and pristine. It’s hard to duplicate,” he said.
De Negri, O’Dwyer and their friend, fellow fly fisher Larry Uno, like the idea of influencing the next generation of ecologists.
Students gather around the 10-gallon tank to get a closer look. Small dark eyes peer unblinking through the delicate eggs resting along the gravel bottom.
Based on the temperature and fertilization date, students have calculated when they think the 32 eggs will hatch.
Students in McDaniel’s class are studying life science. They monitor the temperature of the tanks daily and graph their findings. They are learning about trout life cycles and exploring the study of genetics and how human intervention possibly plays a part in Steelhead survival.
In past years, some students developed an emotional attachment to their fish and even went so far as to name them, said De Negri.
West Coast fisheries have seen dramatic fluctuations in recent years with some years so dire that full bans were issued on commercial and recreational fishing to protect populations.
“If fisheries aren’t successful and healthy, we don’t have anything to catch,” DeNegri said. Gold Country Fly Fishers practice catch and release.
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife operates and maintains the Nimbus Fish Hatchery under a contract with the Bureau of Reclamation. It’s an agreement that is meant to mitigate lost spawning habit blocked by the Nimbus and Folsom dams.
When the fish are large enough, they are trucked to the Delta to ensure their safe passage to the ocean. In about three years, the fish instinctively return to the American River.
“Most of them return to the stream they were born in,” said Joe Ferreira of California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The Bureau of Reclamation operates and maintains the Nimbus Dam, built in the 1950s as part of the Central Valley Project, a massive engineering network consisting of 20 dams and reservoirs, 500 miles of canals and 11 power plants bisecting rivers such as the American, Stanislaus, San Joaquin, Sacramento and Trinity — ancestral habitat of salmon and steelhead.
The Central Valley Project stretches for hundreds of miles from the Cascade Mountains and Sierra Nevada to feed irrigation and domestic water needs and provide flood control and electricity.
McDaniels has introduced the subject of dams to her students — the impacts, controversies and debates.
“It’s something they’re probably going to grow up with … They’re not going to get away from it. So they can play a role in how (the fish) are sustained.”
Contact freelance reporter Laura Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-401-4877.