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Trout in the Classroom educates youth on fish biology, helps keep wildlife pro young at heart

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GF&P naturalist Keith Wintersteeen explains trout-egg care to students

A 12-year-old with a mustache. That’s how I like to describe Keith Wintersteen.

Wintersteen is an accomplished wildlife professional with decades of experience who somehow maintains the giddy outdoor enthusiasm of an adolescent.

Full disclosure? He’s a friend of mine. More importantly, he’s a friend of fish, and all who love and hope to understand them.

These days, Keith Wintersteen is expanding the fish-loving crew to include students in science classes at St. Thomas More Middle School and Stevens High School in Rapid City. Other state Game, Fish & Parks Department outdoor specialists are visiting classrooms at schools elsewhere, and leaving fish when they depart.

Or, more accurately, soon-to-be fish.

That’s what Trout in the Classroom does, all in the name of scientific exploration and fish appreciation.

Other Trout in the Classroom participants this year are:

Avon, Centerville, Alcester-Hudson, Hitchcock, Sioux Falls Lincoln, Mitchell, Harrisburg and Lennox. The Keystone Treatment Center in Canton will also have eggs hatching in a couple of aquariums.

All these educational efforts are led by professionals who are committed to bringing the wild — in this case on the fins of baby trout — into the classroom.

And nobody appreciates a fish, or an open mind toward wildlife, more than Wintersteen — a 50-something naturalist with GF&P’s Outdoor Campus West in Rapid City. During his past working life as a fish-hatchery professional, he delivered plenty of trout — or trout eggs — for fish-stocking efforts across the Black Hills and beyond.

Wintersteen considers his classroom deliveries to be every bit as important as any he made while working for hatcheries.

“It’s just an outstanding way to get the children to connect with nature,” Wintersteen said. “This is real-life stuff.”

Real life-and-death stuff when it comes to the fish eggs and the trout fry they will produce in 20-gallon aquariums outfitted with high-tech oxygen systems and temperature regulators that increase the hatch rate and survival of the trout.

WIntersteen oversees the placement of two such setups, and this year they are in classrooms at STM and Stevens. Each costs about $1,000. But the project got a boost when the Black Hills Fly Fishers came up with the money to cover the costs.

It fits with the mission of the Fly Fishers, a collective of conservation-minded anglers who incorporated as a non-profit in 1990. The group's stated mission was to promote environmental conservation in Black Hills lakes and streams.

They also love talking about their passion for trout and fishing, and they work to share that love.

Fly Fishers spokesman Ev Hoyt of Rapid City says the $1,000 each for the aquarium setups was money very well spent.

“Educating Black Hills students through hands-on classes like Trout in the Classroom will help them understand the essential elements of water quality, biology, and aquatic environment,” Hoyt said. “We hope that after these ‘adoptive parents’ watch the trout eggs become little ones ready for release into their more natural environment in Black Hills lakes and streams, the students will come to appreciate just how important the trout fishery is to residents of the Black Hills.”

And there's more.

“We hope that these students will become active leaders and advocates in the efforts to improve and protect water quality, aquatic habitat, and the fishery in the lakes and streams of the Black Hills,” Hoyt said.

But first things first. There are those eggs, and how to care for them.

STM science teacher Carrie Wilson had her kids prepare by discussing and studying trout, their life cycles the hatchery process. Wintersteen then arrived with GF&P interns Megan Brink and Jake Fonkert to carefully place 100 bright-orange rainbow trout eggs in the classroom aquarium.

First, there was a temperature check that revealed that while the classroom aquarium was at the desired 53 degrees, the water in the bag holding the trout eggs had warmed during handling and transit to 58 degrees. So Wintersteen began and explained a temperature-equalization process before the eggs could be set in a holder inside the aquarium, to prevent shock and possibly death to the eggs.

He also explained that the fertilized eggs were 18 to 20 days old, and that most would likely hatch successfully in about 10 days. After that it would be up to Wilson and her students to monitor the trout development, feed according to directions, assure consistent water temperature and oxygen levels, test water for ph levels and remove any uneaten fish food and any eggs or fish that die. He also showed them how to tell when a trout egg is dead.

Wintersteen expects the students to take the work seriously.

“You’ll get to know these fish, and you’ll start to name them,” he said. “And there will be a Bob. I guarantee you. There’s always a Bob.”

Bob the Fish might make it, or not. Before Wintersteen and his little crew left Wilson’s classroom, one student stopped studying the orange eggs in the tank and pronounced: “There’s a dead one.”

Yup. Real life-and-death stuff.

“OK,” Wintersteen said. “Let’s get it out of there.”

The other eggs looked promising, however. And if all goes as planned. sometime in early May the baby trout that have hatched and survived will be 2 1/2 to 3 inches long, and ready to be stocked in a back pond on the grounds of the Outdoor Campus West in northwest Rapid City.

The pond is a place where trout eat well on a plentiful supply of freshwater shrimp. A batch of classroom trout released there a few years ago grew to more than 17 inches in a year, a phenomenal growth rate that Wintesteen explained with a sweet analogy.

“Just imagine if you and I sit in a room that’s full of caramel rolls,” he told the kids. “That’s the human equivalent of this pond and its food supply.”

Sometime between now and the planned trout stocking, I’ll stop at Wilson’s class for an update on how the trout are doing, and what the kids are learning. Then you'll get to hear from them.  And in May, I’ll be at the Outdoor Campus West for the stocking, along with the kids and Carrie Wilson.

Wintersteen will be there, too, of course. And, like always, he'll be acting like a 12-year-old with a mustache.