Students at Esko's Winterquist Elementary School recently embarked on a very unique field trip that involved venturing into the wilderness and releasing approximately 160 classroom pets into a lake.

Since December, Branda Thwaits’ classroom has been working tirelessly to raise rainbow trout from eggs to fry through a statewide program by Trout Unlimited called “Trout in the Classroom,” which works to fund school efforts in harboring pods of rainbow trout.

Now, with the end of the school year fast-approaching, approximately 30 students watched their hard work come to fruition when they gave the trout a new home in Duluth’s Clearwater Lake on Wednesday, May 26.

“(It’s a) really cool experience for the kids,” Winterquist Elementary School Principal Brian Harker said. “They all had a role.”

Newsletter signup for email alerts

When the classroom first received the trout, they were in the form of 300 fish eggs. Over the course of the last seven months, several students, ranging from kindergarten to fifth grade, have been helping care for the fish.

“It was a full community effort,” Thwaits said, explaining that the Esko school community has been very supportive of the project, with two students from Esko High School playing key roles in helping care for the fish.

One of these high school students was seventh grader Maddie Moon-Chavez, who said she got involved in the project due to her and her late grandfather’s shared love of fish.

Moon-Chavez explained that she worked hard to care for the fish by adding fresh water to the tanks and feeding the fish every day. She said she came to know the fish well, even naming two of them: Ash and Greg.

Many of the students treated the fish like pets and some shared that the release was a bitter-sweet moment.

“It’s just sad because I loved them,” third grader Isebella Brown said.

Brown helped with the fish on a regular basis and shared that she cared about them, even though one bit her and her hands got cold in the water.

She said she felt proud to see them grow large and healthy enough to be put into nature.

“It was pretty cute … to see them just go out,” Esko junior Dale Laborde said.

Laborde was the other high school student helping to raise the trout and said he took on the project out of his love for aquatic animals.

When releasing the fish, Trout Unlimited Education Program Supervisor, Amber Taylor assisted the students as they used plastic containers to transport the trout from their portable tank into Clearwater Lake.

According to Taylor, rainbow trout require cold, clean water to survive. They also grow slowly, taking a number of years to reach significant sizes.

Because of this, trout eggs often have trouble surviving in the wild due to predators and harsh conditions.

Taylor explained that work like that of the Winterquist students can help increase trout populations by raising the fish in a controlled environment and then releasing them into ideal natural habitats, such as Clearwater Lake.

“This is awesome,” she said. “The water is clean, cold and healthy.”

Thwaits' classroom is the first group to participate in a program of this kind at Esko, with Thwaits’ background as a park ranger contributing to her passion for the project.

“This is super fun,” she said. “I love it.”