Healthy rivers mean healthy fish.
That was the take-home concept for a class of seventh-graders from Washington Middle School who visited Bancroft Pond to learn about river health and ecology on Monday.
Students pulled on waders and splashed through chilly water during their trip, which marked the beginning of “Fish Week,” when the Watershed Education Network and WestSlope Chapter Trout Unlimited partner to teach students hands-on lessons about the fish and organisms living in Missoula’s watershed.
The students used nets to collect samples from the river, which they dumped into white plastic tubs where they could easily identify macroinvertebrates, or small organisms without backbones.
“There’s a redworm,” seventh-grader Ricky Hartman said.
Kade Vestman, another student, pointed to a scud, which looks something like a shrimp and a crawfish combined.
Students used a chart to identify the different insects and macroinvertebrates, which serve as an indicator of river health as well as a food source for fish.
Deb Fassnacht, the executive director of the Watershed Education Network, said the group works with teachers to expand on ecology lessons that students are learning this time of the year.
The field trip focuses primarily on the food web of macroinvertebrates and why they’re important.
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“In our streams and rivers, macroinvertebrates feed our fish and scrape algae and shred leaves,” Fassnacht said. “They’re a really big, important base of a food web that supports healthy fish and then healthy birds.”
Fassnacht said the group typically visits the river where they can observe more fish, but they opted for Bancroft Pond due to current flooding conditions.
Students also learned about the importance of macroinvertebrates in other areas — such as fly fishing.
Jeff Lukas, a WestSlope Chapter Trout Unlimited member and fly fishing guide, as well as a Watershed Education Network board member, who taught students the basics of fly fishing using a fail-safe method.
Lukas helped students connect fly fishing to their lesson on macroinvertebrates, which people who fly fish try to imitate.
Each student got to practice casting a fly — sans a hook. Instead, they tied a piece of yarn to the end of the line to imitate the flies that trout eat.
“It’s about the same weight and resistance as a fly would be if you were casting,” Lukas said of his method which he called “controlled chaos.”
“The more enthusiastic they get, the wilder it is,” Lukas said, adding that they would have "hooks everywhere" if they opted for the more traditional method.