Net Gains

Gambling on the Miramichi with Shady Ladies, Green Machines, and wizards.

[by Robert Sohrweide]

THE SHADY LADIES IN DOAKTOWN ARE A FISHERMAN’S DREAM. They hang out and do business across the street from Tim Horton’s. You can buy a cup of coffee and a doughnut at Tim’s, cross the street, and pay for a Shady Lady of your choice. Of course, you have to enter the fly shop to make the purchase, and you’ll want at least one, for a Shady Lady tied by the family members who run Doak’s Fly Shop is one of the most successful salmon flies fished in New Brunswick.

“Sandy and Frank had gone out before breakfast to scout and spotted bright fish that had swum miles from the mouth of the Miramichi, and they were silver-sided, sea lice–ridden, confident fish that had not yet been near a hook. “

Rob, Bill, and I were on our way to fish the Northwest Miramichi River for Atlantic salmon. We had driven all night from Lyme, New Hampshire, to Doaktown, New Brunswick. The bathrooms, coffee, and doughnuts at Tim Horton’s were very welcome, and then we crossed the street to Doak’s. Rob led the charge followed closely by Bill and, more slowly, by me. Rob and Bill had ordered only one doughnut; I had to pause at the door to wolf down my second. At Doak’s, no food is allowed, but coffee is okay. Sticky fingers and fine flies do not mix, and Jerry Doak figures that a customer with a cup of coffee in his hand will buy at least five flies.

As I entered the shop, Rob had already picked out a selection of Shady Ladies and was pointing out some subtle nuance of Jerry’s tying technique to Bill. Rob is a very experienced fly tier, and Bill a relative newcomer to the craft.

Jerry looked on and smiled. He joined the conversation and pointed at another fly. “Try the Shady Lady in a couple of sizes. Then tie on this fly—a Green Machine. That one-two punch seems to be working now.”

On the Miramichi and other great Atlantic salmon rivers, some water is productive year after year and some is not. The areas that traditionally hold fish areas are called pools, and each usually has a name—the Doctor’s Pool, for example. Names of pools can be almost as colorful as the names of salmon flies. Both have many stories behind them, and as long as there are salmon runs, there will be stories. Here is one of mine.

We began at Dam Camp but finished up at Adams Camp, which is on the Northwest Miramichi, sits on a bend in the river, and has a large log cabin with a working fireplace in the main room, Coleman lanterns throughout, and two unheated bedrooms that hold two people each. No electricity here. Across the green from the fishermen’s cabin are the guides’ quarters and a cook shack serving sizable and tasty meals. New Brunswick law states that every two fishermen from out of the province must be accompanied by a guide.

In early August, we were the final party of the camp’s nine-week season, and we fished four days. The four of us—we had been joined by Rob’s friend Hank for the last part of the trip—were the only fishermen on the three miles of river leased or owned by Adams Camp. Sandy and Frank were our guides. The three of us who fished Dam Camp caught and released salmon. Rob’s 30-pounder was the biggest, and the fight lasted more than an hour.

The night of the big catch, Rob’s eyes lit up over good bourbon as he told the story of the fight that took him several hundred yards downstream and wended through rocks, blowdowns, deep pools, shallows, and ripples. All the while, George the guide worried that the fish was too big for the net, and when the salmon showed little sign of slowing, the guide resorted to trickery. He placed the longhandled net on the stream bottom and stepped away. Rob “brought” the still-hard-fighting salmon over the net. At just the right time, George swooped to the end of the long handle, lifted quickly, and netted the fish—finally, miraculously.

Bill, who had fished near Rob but cleared out of the stream to make room for the battle and to follow the fight, smiled and nodded and drank as the story progressed. He confirmed that everything Rob said was true. We toasted the released fish even as the night waned, and Rob continued to set up drinks. And, oh yes, he caught the large Atlantic on a Shady Lady tied by Jerry Doak.

The first night in Adams Camp, we heard thunder in the sky and rain on the wooden shingles. The next morning the river ran murky and high and yielded little. The day after, the river had not dropped but had cleared some, and we heard welcome news from Sandy: “Salmon fresh from the sea are in our pools.”

Sandy and Frank had gone out before breakfast to scout and spotted bright fish that had swum miles from the mouth of the Miramichi, and they were silver-sided, sea lice–ridden, confident fish that had not yet been near a hook. During the night, they’d moved fast upstream and passed 20 parties of fishermen. The news was better than coffee, and we rushed through breakfast.