Members of the Casa Grande High School United Anglers kissed their babies goodbye last week.

With help from crews at the California Department of Fish and Game's Congressman Don Clausen Fish Hatchery at Lake Sonoma, the students in the United Anglers program released 35,000 steelhead they had hatched and raised in the high school's own facility into the fresh water of Dry Creek. In keeping with a United Anglers tradition, students kissed goodbye one fish from each bucket as they set the squirming masses free.

"It is kind of sad to see them leaving," said sophomore Kerrianne McCarthy, a first-year United Angler. "It is kind of both an ending and a beginning."

This year's fish release was special to the students for several reasons. For one, it was the first release of steelhead raised at the Casa Grande hatchery. Previously, students had worked only with Chinook salmon. According to teacher and class advisor Dan Hubacker, steelhead are much different from the Chinook, requiring students to learn about a whole new aquatic species.

The release was also special in relation to the disappointment students experienced last year when someone prematurely released the 60,000 Chinook the students had raised before they had a chance to do so themselves at Romberg Tiburon Center. The students did get to release 1,000 young steelhead from the Tiburon facility into San Francisco Bay, but it wasn't the same as releasing their own.

Last week, the students were certain they released their own fish. DFG officials deposited 100,000 fish the state had raised at the Lake Sonoma hatchery a week earlier so the students could be assured the ones they delivered into Dry Creek were the ones they had hatched, fed, finned and cared for more than a year.

The Casa Grande steelhead had been trucked to the Lake Sonoma hatchery a couple of weeks earlier so they could get acclimated to the Dry Creek water before they were released to be free to survive on their own. They will eventually find their way to the ocean where they will spend two years before returning to Dry Creek to spawn. Unlike salmon, who spawn and die, steelhead will once again return to the ocean before coming back to their home creek for a final spawning.

There were no tears when the fish were released, although there were a few squeals from girls kissing fish goodbye. It was definitely an emotional experience for all the young Anglers.

"This is really special," said Tyler Aughney. "We can see where restoring the steelhead habitat really pays off. I was there to see them hatched and to see them released is pretty awesome."

Working with the steelhead has reaffirmed for senior Aimee Guy her desire to work in the field of fish and wildlife after she graduates. "It was a pretty cool experience," she said. "After feeding and caring for them, to see them released was really cool."

"This is the first time we've been able to directly release fish we've raised and see them go into the wild. It's pretty awesome," agreed sophomore Jordan Rones.

Even with a brigade of willing bucket carriers, the Casa students weren't able to download all 35,000 of their hand-grown steelhead and DFG workers finished the job in more traditional fashion, pumping the remainder of the fish through a pipe and into the creek without so much as a kiss goodbye.