By Kim Walter
FORT VALLEY -- About 50 brook trout were released back into their natural habitat Friday morning, thanks to the devoted care of seventh grade students from Peter Muhlenburg Middle School.
The release was the final stage of the Trout in the Classroom program, a project of Trout Unlimited, along with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. Even though Shenandoah County doesn't have a chapter of Trout Unlimited, two seventh grade life science teachers at the school saw the value in it, and wrote a grant to purchase the necessary equipment.
Now in its third year, the program brings young brook trout into the classroom, where students have to monitor them and their habitat. While doing so, teachers use the hands-on experience to touch on a number of science SOLs.
Natalie Rhodes, one of the life science teachers, said this year's program was the best yet.
"It must've been third times the charm," she said Friday before the release at Passage Creek in the George Washington National Forest.
In the past two years, the classes have run into issues. One year the nitrate and nitrite levels were off, which killed almost all the fish. Another year, a few of the trout grew so large that they ate the other smaller fish.
"Even though we had some trouble the first two years, it still taught the kids about things we teach anyway, like life cycles and survival of the fittest," she said. "But this year went pretty much perfectly."
Seth Coffman, a coordinator with Trout Unlimited, led the students through the release on Friday. Before the big moment, though, he did some electrofishing to show students what kinds of fish were living in the water.
He had to use a special electrofisher backpack and pole to perform the task. He asked students to step away from any part of the water, as they could've been shocked since they weren't wearing the protective gear that he was. After just a few minutes wading down stream, he came back with a handful of fish ranging in size and quizzed students on their names.
The recent rainfall made the electrofishing a bit more difficult since the water was high, but it didn't stop students from waiting anxiously to see what Coffman would come up with.
After being shocked, the fish are put in freshwater in a bucket where they "come back to life." Several of the fish Coffman caught were so energized that they flopped out of his hands as he showed them to students.
Coffman explained that a number of the fish he found, including a rainbow trout, wouldn't normally thrive in the stream anymore. They were actually planted there by the state for fishing purposes.
Last May, students released a number of brook trout, and Coffman said he went back to the area last September to see what he could find.
"I actually caught two of the brook trout that the students raised," he said. "That was kind of cool to see that they survived and were doing just fine."
Hopefully the survival numbers will be even greater this time around, since more brook trout were being released.
About 30 students were chosen by teachers to go on the trip. The selected students had to write an essay explaining why they should go and what they had done to help with the project. One student was recognized on Friday morning, and was given the honor of releasing the first fish.
Kaitlin Mentz, 12, was one students who went above and beyond in watching over the fish, according to Rhodes.
"This student came in before the school day started, during every lunch period, and even came back at the end of the school day to help," Rhodes said. "Of course, she did everything that was asked of her and more during class."
Kaitlin smiled as she was handed a clear cup with a brook trout in it, and paused to look the little fish in the eye.
"This was so much fun," Kaitlin said. "I really enjoyed being able to watch them grow all year, it was just really interesting to see what we read about and talk about happening right in front of our eyes."
The student said she was happy to work with the fish since she and her father shared a past time of going fishing. She said the experience lent to her interest in the brook trout.
"I'm so happy we get to put them back where they belong," she said.
Rhodes admitted it was a special moment when all the students crowded the banks and waded out into the water to say goodbye to the little fish.
"They actually care about these fish so much," she said. "Today just proves that the project is a good one. I can tell they really learned something, and they're going to remember it for a long time."
Contact staff writer Kim Walter at 540-465-5137 ext. 191, or firstname.lastname@example.org