Just keep your feet wet,” my grandpa told me. I was 12, and he’d just handed me my first fly rod. He was explaining how I could explore the trout streams of northern Minnesota, even when they passed through private land. Minnesota’s “wet feet” stream access law is a positive relic of our troubled timbering history, and allows public use of any waterway that can be, or could have been, used for commerce—to float a saw log downstream to a sawmill, say—as long as you are standing in or floating on the water.
I internalized this law at a young age. I also gathered from Grandpa a vague but vivid impression of rarely fished trout streams across the Arrowhead of Minnesota, along the North Shore, and deeper within the vast Superior National Forest. I pictured them wild, tracing through dark spruce swamps, crossing a few gravel deer-camp roads, swirling beneath old timber train trestles, waded by more moose than anglers—and home to trout measured in pounds, not inches. The rod I now held had seen many of these streams while in his hands. I questioned him endlessly about these places over the next decades, but specifics were few and forgotten.
As I grew up, I never explored far beyond the small streams near Duluth, which were plenty to keep me mystified in those pre-driving days. In the years since, I have fished a lot of streams with a lot of different fly rods and caught a lot of brook trout. I lived and fished in northern Michigan, where every sandy meander is ice cold and holds trout.
But after returning home to Minnesota, I found myself again feeling the northward pull to my grandpa’s still-mysterious forest streams. Do they still run cold? Do they still harbor giant brookies? As soon as I could find a day, I said, I’d head up and see. Life unfolded; it took years to find that day.
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From the gravel road, it’s not much more than a root beer trickle over boulders that disappears into a tangle of alders. But beyond the alders, according to Google Earth, it opens up and twists through a wide marsh bottom, spotted with pines, beaver dams, and deep bends.
I’m not certain my grandpa ever fished this stream, or if it even has any brook trout in it at all. If there are, they would be wild remnants of undocumented stocking that occurred half a century ago or more. Such survival is far from a sure thing in this region, with its shallow bedrock geology that limits springs and the cool water temperatures that brookies prefer. Still, the DNR classifies it as a trout stream, which must be worth something. The only way to find out: getting my feet wet.
So I do one gray May afternoon. Fighting through the tangled riparian brush, I’m soon sweaty and covered in bark, spider webs, and scratches. But a dark, mysterious ribbon of cold water stretches before me, deep on both banks, with oily black currents swirling over hidden boulders. Giant old-growth black spruces and tamaracks loom on the outside bends. I pause for a few minutes, employing one of my grandpa’s best bits of trout fishing advice: sometimes it’s best to just watch the water for a while to see what you can learn.
As I stand there, a mayfly—a large gray drake, a size 12 or even 10—lands on my arm. Several more pirouette above the water. Mayflies are a sign of a healthy stream. They live on the streambed for a year as nymphs, and then hatch into the air for a day or two of aerial matchmaking before falling, spent, to the stream’s surface—a trout angler’s Holy Grail, called a “spinner fall.” Trout line up in the slick water to sip the dying flies from the surface. That is, if there are any trout in the stream.
In the short stretch of water I can see, there are no mayflies on the water and no trout rising. I begin wading upstream—maybe there’s a rising fish just around the corner. But I soon realize that the wet feet rule isn’t going to help me this time around. The calm dark water is calm and dark because it is deep: just a few yards from the alders, it’s already threatening to fill my waders. I’m forced to stop. Frustration rises, followed by guilt for feeling frustrated in such a wild, beautiful place.
And I realize that giant, wild brook trout just might actually be able to live in deep, cold water like this. Suddenly they are no longer ghosts of a 12-year-old angler’s imagination, but a real possibility in a real stream. Maybe.
But today the mayflies vanish without a spinner fall. I am either a bit early or a bit late, either in the day or in the season. So it goes with fishing. But already new ideas and solutions begin swirling in my mind, like mayflies over dark water. Next time, I’ll bring some size 12 gray drake imitations—and a canoe.
Next time, I smile to myself. Maybe in a few weeks. Maybe next year. Maybe in another decade. Meanwhile, the mystery remains.