GRAND MARAIS, Minn. -- You would think Brian Larsen is late for an appointment. He strides along a path in the forest at a clip just short of a run.
We have been moving this way for most of an hour on a July afternoon when the trail intersects a wider path overgrown in tall grass and wildflowers. Larsen, of Grand Marais, likes this.
"I'm hoping this is a logging road," Larsen says. "This looks like a logging road, doesn't it?"
Without waiting for an answer, he begins moving through the grass. In one hand, Larsen carries an old fishing rod. In the other, he totes a plastic bag containing night crawlers and a few extra hooks.
He's on a brook trout mission.
This is old-school brookie fishing. Busting brush. Fighting bugs. Drifting a night crawler down some tiny stream hoping a brookie takes it. If you're lucky, you catch enough for a meal. Once in a great while, you might find a beaver pond where the brookies grow to 15 or 18 inches and weigh a pound or two. But not often.
Not many people fish for brookies this way anymore. But Larsen, 54, grew up doing this and it remains his preferred method of fishing.
"They're the first fish I caught," Larsen says. "I love the taste of brook trout. I love to hook a brook trout. They're beautiful."
His dad was a logger, and as a kid, Larsen worked in the woods, too, stacking logs at landings.
"Every single day, I'd bring my fishing stuff with me," he says.
When his dad gave him a break, he'd go exploring nearby streams.
"You could see where there was great potential for fish to be," he says.
On this recent July afternoon, we're prospecting a couple of Larsen's brook trout haunts. They are not far from Grand Marais, but we will not mention the names of the streams here. That wouldn't be fair to the fish or to Larsen.
He is disappointed when he reaches the first stream. The beaver pond where he once fished has filled in. It is not as deep as it once was. From a cluster of Joe Pye weed, Larsen baits up and tosses his 'crawler in. Two, three casts. Nothing.
He knows there's no use wasting time here. We turn around and begin the hour-plus walk back. He comes across another old logging road and thinks he might remember it. We walk it for about 20 minutes.
"I hope we come to a little creek," he says.
But we don't. In fact, we come out at someone's back 40, where a rusted snow-plow pickup sits parked.
"I know where we are," Larsen says. "I know who lives here."
We follow the drive, then a gravel road, and eventually end up at Larsen's car. He drives to the next spot, a wider stream full of pools and aldered banks and rocky riffles.
He wades in, wearing tennis shoes and blue jeans. I follow, and we begin leap-frogging down the stream, taking turns at the best looking holes.
Soon, we begin catching fish. They are typical stream-size brookies. Six inches. Eight inches. The largest maybe 9 inches. But they are infused with color, as all brookies are, as if somehow a carnival became a trout. Their sides are olive but dappled with buttery spots and red dots encircled in baby blue. Their fins are a Caribbean sunset.
I ask Larsen why he thinks so few people fish brookies in streams now.
"It's a really good question," he says, thinking for a moment. "Everything has to be easy now, and brook trout fishing isn't necessarily easy."
This kind of brook trout fishing is also too simple for the sophisticated marketing that surrounds fishing now. You can do it without GPS, without a fish-finder, without electronics of any kind. You could throw a tiny spinner through the fast water, but all you really need is some line, a single hook and a gob of 'crawler. There are no television shows about this kind of fishing.
What happens, as you work your way downstream, is that the river takes you in. What you see are lovely stretches of moving water, tannin-stained and coffee-brown in the deeper pools, the color of a good lager in the shallower runs.
The river gurgles and purls and whispers as it works its way around rocks and over small ledges. The sound isn't overwhelming, but it's enough to make a 20-yard conversation difficult.
So, Larsen and I move along independently for the most part, flipping our 'crawlers along bankside trees or letting them drift into eddies behind boulders. Occasionally, we have to make actual casts, but mostly, brookie fishing is a matter of dropping the 'crawler and letting it float downstream. You can fish mere feet from where you stand, watching the current carry the worm along.
No form of fishing, except maybe for bluegills with bobbers, is more intimate.
When a brookie hits, he often does so with abandon. You'll either come up with a wormless hook, which happens often, or feel something like electrical current pulsing at the end of your line. Hooked brookies cartwheel and shudder and wriggle at warp speed.
At 7 or 8 inches, they are not hard to subdue. We lift them from the water, swing them to a wet and waiting hand. We catch enough for a couple of meals, but we have decided that today will be a catch-and-release outing. We fish until we run out of night crawlers.
Following a remnant trail along the river on our way out, we come to what must have been someone's regular camp long ago. A couple of sitting benches remain in the overgrown clearing. A fish-cleaning table, gray and weathered, still clings to a tree. In the grass, we can make out the stones of a fire ring, and leaning against another tree are a couple of old grates for the fire.
I remember, years ago, old men telling me how they'd get off work on a Friday night. Their wives would have the food and gear ready in the car. Together, they would head up the North Shore and inland to fish brookies in their secret spots. They'd camp Friday and Saturday night, eating what they caught, sleeping in the woods.
This had to be just such a place.
Larsen and I stood there for a minute, each lost in our own thoughts. Then we turned and broke brush back to the car.