In his own words, Dan Burgess is “relentlessly passionate” about fish and their habitat.
Dan Burgess points to a steelhead fry about to be released into Rowdy Creek after it was raised in a Pine Grove classroom. Del Norte Triplicate / Adam Spencer
For more than 20 years, Burgess has been sharing that passion with local students through the Del Norte County Salmon in the Classroom program, where students raise salmon and steelheads from egg to fry in a classroom-based aquarium.
Last week, Burgess, the natural resource director of Rural Human Services, met dozens of fourth-graders from Pine Grove Elementary School at the Del Norte Rod and Gun Club to release some steelhead fry into Rowdy Creek, completing a learning experience for seven classes this year.
Burgess asked the fourth-graders to collect some water from the creek using plastic cups and add it to the 5-gallon bucket filled with steelhead fry “to get them used to the water,” Burgess said.
The kids were asked to break into groups of three with one fry per group, and then Burgess said: “All of these fish have a common last name. Can you guess what it is?”
“Steelhead!” some kids correctly answered.
Burgess asked the kids to give each fish a first name, or two or three. Soon enough, “Jojo Gus-Gus Steelhead” and “Oak Tree Steelhead” were released into the cold, rushing creek.
“I think it’s great that they get to see it in real life,” said Lisa Price, mother of fourth-grader Cole Price. She was helping out with the field trip.
Burgess quizzed students on the steelheads’ life cycle from egg to alevin (or sac-fry) to parr to smolt to adult. He asked the students what a bed of salmon and steelhead eggs is called, and most knew it as redd. Then he asked: “Where would be a good place for fish to hide?”
“In the rapids!” an enthusiastic student answered.
Students learn the importance of cold, running water for a fish’s natural development during Burgess’ first visit to classrooms to drop off the eggs, which are donated by Rowdy Creek Fish Hatchery.
“Little fish go into the ocean and they come back this big,” Burgess said, holding up a stuffed replica of an adult steelhead.
The largest steelhead ever caught and recorded in California, at 27 pounds, 4 ounces, was caught in the Smith River.
Burgess pointed out that steelheads’ larger cousins, chinook salmon, often grow as large as 50-60 pounds, just as heavy as many of the students.
During the chinook spawning season in the fall, “Rowdy Creek stinks with fish,” Burgess said. “Usually you smell ‘em before you see ‘em.”
Salmon die after spawning and their dead carcasses are often pulled up out of the water by bears and raccoons, causing the stench to linger.
The students were quick to remember that salmon die after spawning, but Burgess reminded them that the steelheads they were releasing would actually spawn more than once.
Even before reaching the shores of Rowdy Creek, the legacy of Burgess’ restoration work can be seen via small conifers.
Strolling through the riparian landscape, Burgess pointed to recently planted Western Hemlock and Western Red Cedar. The trees are meant to replace what has been logged on the property still owned by Green Diamond Resource Company, a partner for Burgess’ restoration and education projects.
Because the trees Burgess has planted will not be falling into the creek to create fish habitat anytime soon, Rural Human Services applied for a grant to install “large woody debris” (as fish fanatics call it) in Rowdy Creek. Tree trunks and roots were placed with heavy equipment in a 1,600-foot section of creek near the gun club last year.
Burgess has used the site for salmon-in-the-classroom projects for the past four years
RHS has submitted an application to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to an in-stream log structure project on another 1,600-foot section.
The log structures were noticed by some students, who said it looked like the trees had fallen into the creek.
“And that’s what it’s supposed to look like; like it fell naturally,” Burgess said.
He was also involved with the placement of boulders in Rowdy Creek more than 20 years ago, which also improves fish habitat.
“There’s more opportunity for large wood to accumulate,” Burgess said.
“Two years ago it didn’t have all of the wood, but now we can say there’s wood and roots for the fish to hide, just like the poster,” Burgess said.
After groups of fourth-graders took turns releasing fish and ate lunch, Burgess gives them an opportunity to plant some coast redwoods — the favorite part of the field trip for some students.
Burgess brought the trees from the Mill Creek tree nursery, which he runs wearing a different hat with Redwood National and State Parks.
“It’s great to get the kids to learn about fish but then they also get to plant trees,” Burgess said. “It’s all part of the same picture.”
Funding for the program is provided by the California Department of Fish & Game’s Steelhead Fishing Restoration Card, National Marine Fisheries Service and local donations from organizations, including the Sunrise Rotary Club.