Students Raise and Release Brook Trout

By Laura Oleniacz
WINCHESTER, VA —Sixty to 80 percent of the trout released into the stream will die, Jerry Casey said as he stood ankle-deep in Redbud Run with his pant legs rolled up.

Leaning over a bucket half submerged in the stream, he waited for the 4-inch-long Brook Trout to get acclimated to the water temperature and swim to freedom.

Millbrook High School students and teachers in the natural resources, welding, and horticulture classes clumped near the stream to watch the trout release. The students had raised dozens of trout from eggs to fry to fingerlings—the stage in trout development when the fish are finger-length. They had monitored the water quality, temperature, and pH in the fish tank at the school, and made sure the trout were well fed.

Casey said the trout will now have to struggle to survive.The fish will have to adjust to their new, natural environment after living a sheltered life in a tank. They will also have to compete with the Rainbow Trout population already living in Redbud Run.

The trout release was part of Trout Unlimited’s Trout in the Classroom environmental education program, which started in New York in 1997. There are about 75 Virginia schools participating in the program, said Casey, a retired science teacher and Trout Unlimited member who served as the coordinator of the local Trout in the Classroom program.

Casey, who lives in Winchester, wrote to the Chesapeake Bay Restoration Fund and received $4,200 to supply Frederick County’s three high schools—Millbrook, Sherando, and James Wood—as well as Frederick County Middle School, with tanks, chillers, filters, and hundreds of trout eggs from a Richmond hatchery.

The fish at three of the schools died in a series of mishaps. Sherando had a power outage over the Christmas holiday. The loss of power shut down the tank filter and chiller, which maintains a trout-friendly water temperature of 50 degrees.Frederick County Middle School also had a power outage. When the electricity came back on, the chiller did not. James Wood’s water tank had high levels of ammonia, which killed all the trout.

“It was a learning curve for us, for everybody,” Casey said.

Millbrook’s project was the most successful, he said, but there were some close calls. Several fish jumped out of the school’s tank during a thunderstorm, and a power outage temporarily raised the water temperature to 70 degrees. Despite the occasional scares, the Millbrook students said they enjoyed the experience.

“I mean, I had fish as pets and it wasn’t that big a deal, but once we got the eggs and watched them hatch, it was really quite interesting,” said junior Chelsea Marshall. “They were good little trout.”

Senior Wes Heavener said the hardest part of the job was carrying the heavy buckets of water to add fresh water to the tank.

“It was actually pretty cool to watch them come out of eggs,” he said.

Natural resources teacher Adam Cook’s class studied fish and aquaculture while caring for the trout. They also sojourned to Redbud Run, which is next to the high school east of Winchester, to collect rocks and algae for the tank and do some stream cleaning. During the cleanup, Wes found a construction barrel in the stream.

“He was kind of proud of himself for picking up the most trash,” said Cook, who had instituted a reward system for the cleanup based on trash size and quantity.

The goals of the Trout in the Classroom program are to teach students to appreciate water resources and to foster a conservation ethic, but not necessarily to repopulate streams with trout.

“I think the point of it is primarily education, with a result,” Cook said. Repopulation is a secondary aim.

“It’s about the students themselves,” said Casey, who is hoping to expand the program to other area schools and maybe include a fly-fishing demonstration. “Any school that would like to participate, we would like to accommodate them.”

Cook, who is preparing to leave Millbrook to teach at another school, said he wants to take the program with him. Millbrook teacher Mark Hawkins, the former natural resources instructor, said he has plans to continue the program at the Frederick County school.

“We had pretty good luck with it,” he said.–Winchester Star