Trout connect science, ecology and fun for Lincoln kids

LINCOLN — A biting cold wind and light specklings of May snow could not damper the enthusiasm of the 36 fifth- and sixth-graders of Lincoln Community School who watched their 143 hand-raised brook trout swim free in the New Haven River Monday afternoon. An admiring crowd of fellow students in kindergarten through fourth grade cheered them on.
The trout release was the culminating step in the students’ semester-long study of ecology, through the lens of brook trout as an indicator species.
“We chose trout just because there was a hands-on aspect to it. The trout are in the classroom. The students are watching them grow and develop and can tie it into the ecosystem, given that brook trout are a bio-indicator in the health of the aquatic ecosystem,” said 5/6 teacher Mikaela Frank. She spearheaded the project, along with 5/6 teacher Mollie Sprague.
The fifth- and sixth-graders raised the trout in a 100-gallon classroom tank, starting in January, as part of the Trout in the Classroom program. The trout arrived from the Roxbury Fish Hatchery at the “eyed-egg stage” (the two dots in the egg become the actual eyes of the brook trout). They grew to become handsomely barred one- to three-inch fingerlings, ready for the river.
The LCS project is part of the nationwide Trout in the Classroom program, which in Vermont is sponsored by Trout Unlimited. The program gives students a hands-on way to study science by learning about trout (what they eat, where they live, how they grow), studying river ecology, collecting and identifying river insects, and analyzing water quality.
Students at Lincoln Community School took on daily tasks like feeding the trout and testing the tank water for pH, nitrates, nitrites and ammonia, said Frank. They helped change the water regularly, five gallons at a time. And when younger students came to see the fish, the fifth- and sixth-graders explained what they were learning to the younger kids.
The students’ care in carrying out their tasks was seen in the LCS project’s 72 percent survival rate, starting from 200 trout eggs and losing only 57 — one of the highest success rates recorded in a Vermont classroom, according to Trout in the Classroom’s Joe Mark.
Special guests in the classroom helped facilitate the students’ 360-degree study of trout and their ecosystem. Among these special guests were Vermont Fish and Wildlife Fish Health Biologist Tom Jones, who dissected trout with the students. Environmental activist James Ehlers, executive director of Lake Champlain International, talked about Lake Champlain and the challenges of keeping a healthy lake and watershed. Lincoln fish artist Nick Mayer drew trout with the students. Outreach specialists from the UVM Watershed Alliance took the kids to the river (right down the bank from their playground) in March and April to wade into the icy flow, set up “kick nets” and gather what the LCS budding scientists know as “benthic macroinvertebrates” or “BMIs” (but which most of us know as bugs that live on the river bottom, under rocks). Bob Wible, the central Vermont Trout in the Classroom liaison, helped set up the tank, transfer the unhatched eggs to their classroom home, and visited the classroom for Q&As.
Students liked many different things about the project.
“My favorite part of the trout project would be every morning walking in and just seeing the trout just looking at us all the time, being able to glance over from my desk and just watch them swim around,” said Joe Graziadei.
“I liked doing the pH testing of the water and matching it up with the color on the card to see if the water was healthy or not and trying to figure out if the pH was too high or too low,” said Julia Colo.
Creed Stillwell said that his favorite thing was “getting to do the kick net and trying to find all these BMIs.” Asked which water bug was his favorite, he replied without hesitation, “Probably a stone fly.”
Dom DeNapoli liked “drawing the trout and making the pictures. We got to draw the details on the fish.”
For EthanThompson, the best parts of the program were watching the trout grow and getting to learn something really in depth.
“I liked how it was really in-depth learning, not just ‘OK we’ll be studying trout,’ but we actually learned about them,” he said. “We didn’t just learn about all the stages we actually saw them as they grew from the egg to all the way to now they’re like two inches.”
Local experts led students in a series of hands-on workshops on Trout Release Day. Forester Joe Nelson took small groups along the river for a closer look at the riparian forest. He helped the students identify trees and learn about their unique characteristics, talked about how forests help protect the river, and then handed students tree calipers so they could each measure a trunk, ID a tree and report back to the group.
LOCAL FORESTER JOE Nelson points out a variety of trees growing along the New Haven River to Lincoln Community School students Monday afternoon. Independent photo/Trent Campbell
“I just love the kids, just learning. And I love the kids just being out there with me and seeing their curiosity and their enthusiasm. I love that,” said Nelson.
Inside, out of the driving wind and snow, students learned about fly fishing from Middlebury Mountaineer owner Steve Atocha. The Lincoln resident brought his tackle box of garishly wonderful pike lures in glittering bright neon greens and oranges and purples. Students passed around hand-made flies made to look like life-size hummingbirds, mice and frogs, as Atocha demonstrated how he mimicked each critter’s movements along the surface of the water to snag a pike.
Outside, casting into the driving wind, avid fisherwoman Nancy Cornell of Starksboro had students casting with fly fishing rods across the playground lawn.
Naturalist Craig Zondag, a volunteer from the Otter Creek Audubon Society who also works as a biologist for the Lemon Fair Insect Control District, led the students on a stroll through a series of micro-habitats along the river.
“You are scientists here,” said Zondag, at the start of the walk.
The students looked at how native plants prevent streambank erosion better than invasives, spotted a beaver footprint along the edge of a pond, and sighted a Blackburnian warbler just returned from Central America. The bird perched in a tree high above the riverbank and hung there far longer than Zondag expected, as students beamed in on it with their binoculars.
“This is a really special sighting,” said Zondag.
Down on a small gravel bank alongside the New Haven River, students waded into the water holding a net and then kicked the rocks along the river bottom to dislodge bugs … er … benthic macroinvertebrates, with help from classroom specialists from the UVM Watershed Alliance. The group then poured water along the net to dislodge the tiny critters into a large dishpan and started sorting them by type into ice cube trays, one slot each for mayfly larva, caddis flies, stone flies and so on.
“Students are using equipment, such as kick nets, and learning skills that stream ecologists really use in the field,” said educator Ashley Eaton.
“I see a bug!” shouted one student.
“I see two!” shouted another.
“I got one!” shouted a third.
The students then lugged their BMIs inside and fed them to the trout. Would the trout recognize the bugs as food, having eaten only pellets? And how would they know to eat them? asked the Watershed Alliance educators. And within seconds, students saw the answer as the tiny trout followed their instincts, swarmed and devoured the tiny BMIs.
Final honors of the day went to Trout in the Classroom’s Bob Wible and Joe Mark, who together with teacher Kaela Frank tipped over the two coolers of baby fish and released them into the New Haven River.
“The trout project brought the realities of what’s happening to the kids’ environment to a local level — what happens in the environment impacts everything,” Frank said. “And the fact that we released them into the New Haven River right near our school property — that’s a swimming hole that they go in — there’s such a connection to the environment around them and to be able to see that environment in a different way and have a different perspective on it is really valuable.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].

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