CENTRAL MINNESOTA — It was midmorning on a sunny day last week when Mickey Johnson of Brainerd and I, fly rods in hand, walked single file down a narrow trail toward one of the few trout streams the area offers.
It was hot and steamy, not the kind of day one relishes wearing waders and carrying a backpack full of camera equipment. The temperature was already in the mid-80s and the dew point was above 70. Tropical, you might say.
After a short walk we reached the stream. Already a messy mix of bug spray, sunscreen and sweat ran down my forehead, blurring my sunglasses and dripping from my chin.
"I'm liking the looks of this," said Mickey as his trained eye scanned the stream. "The water is high and stained."
Mickey, a fly-fishing fanatic, had just returned from a trip to the Bighorn River in Montana, where he caught large rainbow and brown trout.
"We had a gully washer of a rainstorm while you were gone," I said.
According to Mickey, all the ingredients were present for us to catch plenty of trout, hopefully some big ones. The recent influx of warm rainwater into the stream would have washed in a bounty of food such as worms and bugs, which, we hoped, would have the fish actively feeding. The high, swift-flowing, tea-colored water would also help keep us out of sight of wary trout.
Earlier this summer we fished the same water, and although a number of brook trout fell for our offerings, none was big.
"I'm looking for that whale, a brookie in the 15-inch range," said Mickey as he tied on a large, weighted cone head Muddler Minnow.
Moments later Mickey hooked and landed our first fish, a brook trout about 10 inches long.
"That's a good start," I said, as Mickey released the fish.
"With the water high and stained like this, the trout could be anywhere, not just in the deeper holes," Mickey said. "The best spots will still be the undercut banks and shady areas."
Just a few yards downstream Mickey landed a second brook trout, near in size to the first.
It was my turn. With the water high, it was more difficult to spot potential trout hideouts, but I kept in mind what Mickey had told me: The trout could be anywhere. That was good because that's where my casts went -- anywhere.
Navigating a high and wild trout stream requires sure-footedness. It is riddled with underwater, out-of-sight obstacles like slippery rocks, slimy logs and hidden drop-offs. I was extra cautious since I didn't relish the thought of taking a plunge with a backpack full of expensive photography gear.
"Shuffle your feet slowly along," Mickey said.
My first trout of the day was a colorful 10-inch brookie that fell for a streamer fly called a Pass Lake. Mickey had tied the fly himself and given it to me during a previous trout fishing jaunt. The little trout was likely a male since it was particularly colorful. Its fins were brilliant orange with white leading edges. Scarlet red dots along the trout's side were centered in larger sky-blue spots. Only Mother Nature could concoct such an attractive color scheme.
Mickey wanted me to catch one of those big brook trout he knew lived in the stream and thus allowed me to fish most of the hot spots, all of which he knew well. As we worked our way downstream, the fishing action slowed.
At one point I missed three fish in a row. I thought maybe I had snapped the hook off my fly, but when I checked, I found my tip-top rod guide had come loose and slid down the line, finally catching on the fly's hook.
"No wonder I couldn't hook those fish," I said.
Even after repairs I still missed two more trout. Mickey also had trouble, which told us the trout obviously were not that aggressive.
When we reached our turnaround point, instead of following the stream back to the truck, we cut cross-country. We talked along the way, mostly about how despite the apparent perfect conditions our catch was a bit disappointing.
Like the old saying goes, "That's why they call it fishing and not catching."
Bill Marchel, an outdoors columnist and photographer, lives near Brainerd.