In a split second, Chuck Norris leaped from the confines of a clear plastic cup and surged into the chilly waters of Mark West Creek. And then he was gone.

Chuck Norris, one of about 60 1-inch-long fingerling steelhead trout shepherded from Gary Graves's sixth grade classroom at Mark West Elementary School, was named by sixth grader Alex Arreguin for the fearless way he surged into the student's transport cup for the final moments of this phase of his journey.

"He was the only fish that actually swam into the net," Arreguin said. "He wasn't afraid of the challenge."

Neither are Mark West's 54 sixth graders who spent the better part of the school year learning about steelhead, their habitat, breeding grounds and spawning practices.

On Monday morning the students walked from their Lavell Road campus near Larkfield, north of Santa Rosa, to nearby Mark West Creek and released about 60 fingerling steelhead. It marked the final piece of a year-long project Graves has been running for nearly two decades.

"Most of these kids have been down here on their own but it's better when they come down here for a reason," Graves said of the creek that runs near the campus. "They'll take better care of it."

"We talk about how to minimize damage to the creek in everyday life — a piece of trash on the playground that never gets picked up eventually ends up on the creek," he said.

Graves's students, along with sixth graders from John Ryan's class, visited Casa Grande High School's on-campus hatchery this spring and returned with about 60 fish that they studied and cared for in class until the annual release day.

"This is really a special day for them," Ryan said. "This is what they remember."

Graves said he and Ryan have had to work harder in recent years to make time for the steelhead project because the demands of federal and state academic mandates has made longer-term, time-consuming projects tougher to shoehorn into the calendar.

"I tie it into the curriculum we have to teach," Graves said of the fish project. "It's really hard to fit in the things that we used to."

Sixth grader Ryan Paull said the effort was worth it.

Paull took time out Monday from acclimating his fingerling to the creek temperatures to explain how fingerlings will eventually spend time in the estuaries in order to morph from freshwater to saltwater creatures. They will eventually return to Mark West Creek to spawn — finding the exact spot by sense of smell, he said.

"It's more fun to get to do this activity rather than seeing a picture in a book," he said. "The best part has been right now."

Staff Writer Kerry Benefield writes an education blog at She can be reached at 526-8671 or