FARMINGTON, Minn. (WCCO) –- Just off a Dakota County road, in a gravel parking lot, Hastings High School biology teacher Joe Beatty is holding a class.
A closer look reveals that Beatty’s is not a normal high school class. To him, ecological theories might be taught in a classroom, but they’re best learned outdoors.
On Friday, Beatty gathered his 16 students to fish along the Vermillion River and see firsthand how the once polluted waterway is again growing trophy brown trout. But his students won’t be fishing with rods and reels; they’ll be using electric probes and nets.
Brian Nerbonne, a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) trout stream specialist, invited Beatty’s class to help his DNR crew conduct a fish population survey on this stretch of the river.
Nerbonne said he has a class out every year to help the DNR monitor the fish population in the river.
“We’ll come out and sample all the fish,” he said.
With a small white boat to float an electric generator, the fisheries crew prepares cable and probes to send a slight electric charge into the water. The electricity will temporarily stun whatever fish are nearby, making them pop to the surface. It’s known as “electrofishing,” and it’s done to help the DNR accurately count and measure fish populations. It will be the student’s job to scoop the stunned fish with nets and place them in a water filled washtub.
Within minutes of sweeping the stream with their probes, a variety of fish species – from white suckers and mud minnows to big brown trout — are gathered in the tub.
After seeing the colorful spots on the trout, student Marissa Novak said, “I’ve never seen one that big. I always get the really small ones, so this is exciting.”
It wasn’t only trout that slipped into their nets. Students unknowingly scooped up some strange, even scary looking aquatic insects, like the stoneflies that trout eat.
“[Stoneflies] kind of are monsters, they eat other bugs,” Nerbonne said.
The field trip presents a rare chance to see aquatic biology at work and to teach the value of environmental stewardship. The Vermillion River is living proof that polluted waters can be transformed back into productive fisheries.
“We’ve got a trout stream that now sustains itself and reproduces, and the trout are spawning. We don’t have to do any more stocking out here, so it’s a great success story,” Nerbonne said.