It's been years since Casa Grande High School's United Anglers have seen any salmon in the Petaluma River. In fact, Chinook salmon, once abundant on the California coast, are now considered an endangered species. But this year, the renowned student restoration group is nursing an astonishing number of salmon eggs into adulthood in an effort to increase the local population of the threatened fish.

"We just haven't seen any significant number of fish in the last years. And we've spent plenty of time on the river looking," said Dan Hubacker, interim hatchery director.

"To go from a year where we didn't see any fish to a year where we brought in 12 adults, it's encouraging to see that," he said.

From 12 adult salmon that students took from the Petaluma River in December, about 26,000 eggs were produced, and are now growing quickly at the United Anglers' hatchery on the Casa Grande campus. Once they are grown, the salmon will be tagged and released back into the bay, increasing the chances of survival for the species.

"It's really exciting now that they are starting to aggressively feed," said Hubacker.

Casa Grande's United Anglers program was started in 1983 by wildlife biology teacher Tom Furrer, who has temporarily ceded the program to Hubacker while he is on medical leave for knee surgery. The program's original goal was to restore Adobe Creek and increase the steelhead trout population in the area. Since then, they have built a $500,000 hatchery facility on campus and expanded to learn about other species. The program has also gathered international attention as the subject of a Japanese television show and an "ESPN Outdoors" sports article.

While the students monitor the river every year for fish populations, this year was much different. The 12 Chinook salmon that they found surprised many, and the reason for the increase may be due to a variety of factors. But the biggest contributor was likely the early rains this year, which helped conditions for the fish to grow before students caught them in December.

"It was really special this year to be able to go, &‘Where did you find yours?' said Hubacker. "There is a story for every one of them."

Casa Grande junior Justin Herrell said that most fish were found around areas with fast-running, oxygen-infused water. Searching the river between the Payran Bridge and the outlet malls, "there are definitely areas where you'll see more of them," he said.

Chinook salmon live in salt water, but lay their eggs in fresh water. The species' biggest challenge is to find locations suitable to spawn in, up creeks and in clean water without much sediment.

"If they try to spawn in the conditions they are in, they will not take," said Hubacker, explaining why the fish need help from hatcheries.

After catching the 12 fish — some of which were quite large — the students then took them back to the hatchery to spawn and incubate their eggs.

"We had a huge ice chest full of water with a 25-pound fish in it, taking it clumsily over the rocks," recalled Herrell.

By now, the 26,000 eggs have hatched and grown into small, one-inch-long fish in troughs at the hatchery. By March or April, after the fish have been fed to grow to around 4 inches, they will be tagged and transported to a facility in the bay in Tiburon. There, they will acclimatize to the salt water and be released soon after.

"When we really know our numbers is when we tag our fish," said Hubacker.

The students may release some of the fish in a special trip under the Golden Gate Bridge, he added.

As fish populations are monitored in the future, the coded wire tags on each fish will help biologists identify where the fish came from. United Anglers has a network of alumni throughout the state, and some work in the Department of Fish and Game or hatcheries.

Many students in the program say they want to continue environmental or outdoors work as a career, and the class gives them the training to do so. Besides the classroom work as a 20-student sixth-period class, the students go on weekend restoration trips, do prep work at the facility before school, and even clean and care for the hatchery.

Despite the popularity of the program among the class and in science circles, the world-class hatchery is unknown to a number of students on campus.

"It's not a class that's aggressively promoted; it's just word-of-mouth," said Hubacker.

But among the students and alumni, the program often has a lasting effect.

"A lot of the kids go into the field of science," said Hubacker. "More than anything, there are students that go into the field of public service."

(Contact Philip Riley at philip.riley@arguscourier.com)