One by one, 27 children picked their way down a sandy slope to the bank of the Little Sandy River, their hands held carefully on top of the red plastic cups they carried.
Once at the waterside, they hunkered down and slowly turned their cups over. Out from each poured a trickle of water and one or two fish, their fins flapping and their gills gasping.
The fish weren’t too happy in the cups, explained one of the children, Brandon Caudill. You could tell because the backs of their tails had darkened to almost black, a sign they were agitated.
“I think when they get back in the water they’re going to turn back to their normal color,” Brandon said. “I think they’re going to be real happy with their new home, so I hope they enjoy it.”
The children, all fifth-graders at Poage Elementary, had ridden to Grayson Lake on Wednesday to release the fish, 150 rainbow trout they had hatched back in the fall for a class science project.
They had started with 300 eggs but lost some hatchlings along the way. They also donated 25 of them to an elementary in Estill County, which was conducting a similar project and lost its fish during a prolonged spell of severe winter weather.
Over the course of the school year the children monitored the fish, recorded water temperature and pH, and kept logbooks of their observations.
By Wednesday the fish were outgrowing their aquarium — three to five inches apiece — and school is almost over anyway, so it was time to let them go.
“This is the cumulative activity,” said their teacher, Tandy Nash. “In the classroom it was inquiry, which was the foundation for this. This is real life. Now they understand why they did what they did.”
At the river, for instance, they could see the current moving steadily downstream and thus visualize why the still water of the aquarium built up high levels of nitrogen from waste material, she said.
“That’s the great thing about science. It explains everything about everything.”
The project was sponsored by Trout Unlimited, a national club for conservation-minded anglers. Two members, Mark Hanni of Ashland and Don Thompson of Lexington, accompanied the children.
The organization sponsors the project in hopes the children will learn to appreciate conservation and the outdoors, and to teach the children about the life cycle of the fish, Hanni said.
Before releasing the fish, the children tested the river water with the help of Brian Radcliff, a retired teacher who now works for the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture’s Tracy Farmer Institute.
They tested for acidity and oxygen level, and checked its temperature — a chilly 60 degrees.
Then they introduced the fish to their new environment. As they wiggled out of the cups, the trout lingered for a few minutes around the rocks by the shore, perhaps getting their bearings or just catching their breath in the cold, oxygen-rich water.
One by one they ventured out into the stream. They met the current, dipped under the muddy brown surface, and they were gone.