For this installment of F3T Behind the Lens, we check in with the Director of “Black Salmon,” Jamie Howard. Black Salmon takes us to the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay to chase cobia, a resource noticeably less abundant than just a decade ago. Follow along as angler and fly tier, Blane Chocklett, tries to connect with the feisty, yet picky, cobia.
Flylords: Hey Jamie, can you tell us a little bit about the Black Salmon team?
JH: We had two captains work with us in Black Salmon. Tyler Nonn and Jason Barham. Both had many years of experience in the Chesapeake, and have experienced the highs and the lows with cobia numbers year over year. Tyler and I had shot Running the Coast together a few years ago, so we knew each other. We kind of have a similar sense of humor which comes in handy when the going gets tough and smack talking is required to kill time. Blane Chocklett was on the bow with his rod and patience in tow. This film would require all of it. He loves cobia and he knew what he was getting into. He was tying flies early and fired up. Everyone was super passionate about the fish so as we looked mile after mile we kept our heads up and kept swinging.
Flylords: How did the film turn from an idea to a reality?
JH: The interesting thing about this project is that I’d not really planned to do a film for the tour. I was chatting with Chris Keig who used to run it, and he kinda joked about me doing something again with a “why not?” Blane and I were fishing the cicada hatch down south, and I think it came up that he was going to be fishing for cobia in summer. The more I read about the fish, the more I was intrigued. Well, a couple of months later, I was suddenly in the editing room for weeks on end in the fall. I just kept following it and the pieces fell into place. The Chesapeake is my home Virginia waters, and it holds a special spot for me. The health of the fishery is vital (we also explore it in Running the Coast), and it gives back exponentially when taken care of.
Flylords: I think it’s probably safe to say that saltwater fish species enjoy more “nicknames” or naming variations than those in freshwater. How did you settle on “Black Salmon” for the film’s title?
JH: The Black Salmon title derived from early research. I saw the number of names cobia had been given up and down the coast, including Ling and Crabeater. Black Salmon really represented the insatiable desire of anglers to catch and eat it. The taste makes it a target. That’s something, in the United States at least, that bonefish, tarpon, and Permit don’t have to deal with. The fact that cobia grow quickly and get big also has led to its tournament popularity–everybody wants to show a big fish–which has also contributed to its decline. Note: we were fishing for the Atlantic stock. There is also a Gulf Stock. cobia migrate up and down the coast and intercept different fishing communities. Interestingly, after speaking with scientists, the species stock division line seems to be somewhere around Cape Canaveral, Florida. So, our fish can range that far down in Florida to the Mid-Atlantic and North. The Gulf fish will not go above the north Florida zone.
Trying to manage a migrating species like the cobia is not easy, and with climate change, they’re moving further north, which Tony Friedrich from the American Saltwater Guides Association touches upon.
Flylords: Let’s talk fishing, what are some fly fishing techniques and strategies for targeting cobia?
JH: It may be easier said than done, but the basic strategy when it comes to cobia fishing is getting a good number of shots. It’s not easy to get a fly to find purchase in that bottom-feeding mouth and to get them to eat in the Chesapeake, you have to sort of piss them off. Ideally, your fly is moving at a high rate of speed in their cone of vision and seems worth the pursuit. They tend not to like it to ever slow down or drop off, which adds to the frantic vibe as they come charging in. Blane ties a number of colors for his saltwater changers. On our trip white proved effective one day, but Tyler, Blane, and Jason likely would be the first to say they’ve caught them on any number of colors. You’re not necessarily replicating a baitfish, you’re just trying to get the fish’s attention most of the time.
Flylords: How was the fishing while y’all were filming?
JH: The film is an accurate document of what we saw. Very challenging conditions and limited shots. It’s a run and gun game. Some days there’s more gunning and some days there’s more running. We were very happy to have boated the one we did. A few came unpinned as they often do on the fly. One interesting discovery when I reviewed aerial footage later, I saw a school under the back of the boat after we had missed a cobia. A group hovering by the engine and no one even knew they were there. They are unusual fish, who hover up in the water column and then just disappear for no apparent reason.
Flylords: There are a lot of conservation tones in the film. Can you tell us a little bit about the issues facing the cobia fishery?
JH: Along with many other species, cobia have shifted North due to warming waters. This shift has moved cobia into higher population areas. In turn, a recreational effort has dramatically increased–commercial landings have as well. Recruitment, the number of juvenile cobia produced each year, also trended down during this recent time period. While cobia are not currently overfished, we need to watch this stock very closely for all the reasons listed and do our part to promote sustainable fisheries management.
Flylords: Captains Tyler Nonn and Jason Barham are constantly on the water and have witnessed, firsthand, the noticeable downward trend of cobia in the Bay. What are some of the ways he thinks management could improve?
JH: Tyler was all in for this. He has seen the striped bass population fade right in front of him, and now cobia are doing the same. The solution in both cases seems to be leaving the big breeders alone and practicing catch and release in most cases. To be honest, he’s also not a fan of social media when it comes to burning spots and glorifying the killing of big trophies. His passion for the fish really shows out there, and it’s always essential when you are grinding late into the day.
Jason Barham has also been on the water for years and actually has worked on the commercial end of it which is interesting. Yes, he’s taken them home, but he knows about the population from that perspective, and even he suggests the fish should be left alone until after they spawn. There needs to be more attention paid to fish reproduction and migration habits. i.e. we need to pump the brakes on unfettered killing.
Flylords: Were there any difficulties in filming out in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay? Any disaster stories?
FH: Like many fishing films, there’s usually a backstory. This film required everyone to dig deep. It was hot as a handgun out there and the fish were by no means all around us. I think everyone was talking to themselves at certain points. We spent some long, focused time finding our opportunities. There were a couple of times if we’d been near a dock and some margaritas, we might have just taken a break, but we stayed out, and it made for a pretty good plotline of reality on the water.
Flylords: Anything else you want to bring up about the film?
JH: The cobia have never really had a starring role on the big screen. I mean the catfish meets sand shark combo is not that sexy at first glance for cinema maybe, but they held up their end. The fish are popular for a reason. If Black Salmon helps move the needle a little bit away from the kill/eat-first-ask-questions-later mentality it’s a win. I know the fly fishing community is a little more inclined to catch and release, so we may be preaching to the converted, but I hope it starts a dialogue on and off the water. The reason we make these films is to celebrate fish as a sport and as a natural resource to be sustained. I echo the sentiment of Tony Friedrich in the film, we have a chance to be proactive here, and that’s rare in fishery management. It’s usually reactive and working from behind. We all keep adjusting to a new normal for most wildlife pursuits. Any time that tide can be reversed is pretty exciting–here’s hoping.
Photo credits: Nick Costas and Daniel Bagbey.