Fish on! Packrafting for the Black Canyon’s Salmonfly Hatch

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Paddling a tandem Alpacka packraft with new Cargo Fly through one of the canyon's many rapids.

“Last time I did this hike, I couldn’t walk for days.”

The words wouldn’t be so disheartening if they didn’t come from Thor Tingey, the CEO of packraft manufacturer Alpacka. A longtime adventurer from Alaska, now heading his mother’s company in Mancos, Colorado, he’s built like you’d expect someone named Thor to be: a rock solid, tree trunk-legged cross between a linebacker and hockey player. If the hike hobbles his Herculean quads, what does that spell for a Luddite like me?


Can it get any better? Alpacka packraft fishing in the Black Canyon. (Photos courtesy Scott Yorko)

We’re clinging to the roots of a pine tree halfway down the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park’s Warner trail, a 2,500-vertical-foot elevator shaft straight down to the river far below. Across from us, the Precambrian Painted Wall, a famous quartzite-dike-pierced climbing route, peaks through errant openings in the undergrowth. The only upshot: a few of the roots take the odd form of handrails.

We’re here to 1) test out Alpacka’s latest and greatest breed of packraft, one complete with an airtight zipper in the tube to hold your gear; and 2) do so during the river’s coveted salmonfly hatch, which annually sends its trout into a feeding frenzy. Studies show that the river’s browns wolf down 70 percent of their annual calories during the month-long hatch.

While Black Canyon is the least visited national park in the country, its anglers like it that way.

Fly fishing for salmonfly-eating browns at camp.

On the drive to the rim from our take-out at Pleasure Park, our shuttle driver Gavin regaled us with tales of catching massive browns on yellow sallies and, more importantly, salmonflies. “It’s a little smaller hatch this year, and it’s hard to tell where it’s coming off,” he said. “But I had one on by a boulder that took me back to only four wraps left on my backing.”

With us is an assortment of journalists, photographers and fisher-types, including Italian photographer Paolo Marchesi from Bozeman, Montana, a diehard fisherman who hiked down two days before us to fish the hatch solo.

Arriving exhausted and blistered at the river, we take off our hiking shoes and soothe our sore feet in the cold river. As at a physical therapy office, we wade in up to our thighs, soaking our sore muscles. Only it’s a far better view than any PT office. Towering 2,000-foot granite cliffs rise straight above, bookending a river bathing in blue.

Paolo has been fishing his head off and the Black Canyon, he says, has lived up to its billing. The hatch hasn’t been huge, but he’s landed plenty of lunkers.

A Black Canyon brown, which consumes 70 percent of its annual calories during the six-week-long salmon fly hatch.

After a quick lunch we stuff our gear inside the tubes — in go the backpack and hiking boots, won’t need those any more, thank God — and inflate the rafts via a virtually weightless nylon bag that serves as a pump.

The craft have come a long way since Thor and his mother, Sheri, made their first boat together for adventuring across the tundra in Alaska. Alpacka’s line-up now includes singles and doubles for everything from whitewater to touring, all with weight-savings and durability the driving forces. While Thor left to attend law school at Lewis and Clark, and later practice until 2015, the adventures offered at Alpacka overrode any he’d find in a courtroom, and he moved to Mancos to become president of the company in 2016. Since then the company has blossomed to include 26 employees, making more than 20,000 packrafts since its inception in 2000. Eighty percent of them, he says, are sold direct, with the rest selling through retailers.

The company’s likely to grow even more, having perfected its new gear-inside-the-tubes technology.

Long used in those dorky, gerbil-wheel-like Zorb balls, invented in New Zealand in 1994, Sheri and partner Forest McCarthy came up with idea to add them to their packraft tubes, calling them “Cargo flies,” as far back as 2002. But they didn’t really perfect it until 2012, and totally dial it in for commercial use until shortly later.  “Somehow the light bulb flashed to put gear inside the tubes, where the air then surrounds it,” Thor says. “It also offers a lower center of gravity, which increases stability.” The technology opened the doors to packrafting harder and harder whitewater, without a cumbersome gear bag in front of the paddler, and also made rolling the craft easier. in short, it’s ushered in a new era of multiday wilderness exploration. 

A serene setting in the canyon

Before we know it, we test the technology for ourselves at at our first horizon line. The Warner Trail has deposited us below all of the canyon’s notorious and sieve-ridden Class V-VI rapids, which make it one of the country’s top, multi-day expedition kayak runs, but still above a handful of Class IVs we’ll have to face in our diminutive craft.

After a quick scout on the right, we put in and run it, with varying results. A wave-hole throws Thad and Scott’s tandem askew, sending them into the drink while we pass them by on the left.

Shortly later we face another Class IV, this time with better results. For all their weight-savings, the boats are heavy on performance, helping even those without honed whitewater skills get through fine.

Of course, the real reason we’re using them is to access the fishing. While today’s rapids curtail our fishing a bit, in between are slackwater sections where fish are slurping on the surface.

At the end of day Paolo tops the list with seven fish, followed by Thad with four (“But they were on a stone fly,” he downplays), and Thor with two. For my part, I got skunked, which I’m relatively used to, but I didn’t try too hard with all the whitewater. And I did get a few good looks and tugs, which for me is a victory.

In the morning, while we’re sipping Jet Boiled coffee at a sandy camp, Thor strolls up beaming. “They’re on,” he says, saying he caught seven in the pools above camp, all on flies called the Pink Norm. You can’t find the flies in Colorado, he says; they’re tied by a guy named Norm Wood, who lives on Oregon’s Deschutes. And it doesn’t mimic a salmonfly, he adds, but rather a Golden, which hatch at the same time. He even caught a rainbow, he says, which used to be far more prevalent here before whirling disease took hold. Now the canyon harbors more browns.

A couple people try them, but it’s slowed down. So we switch back to salmonflies, fishing from shore at camp before packing up and moving downstream.

The whole salmonfly hatch follows a cycle of moving on as well. Their life cycle is not necessarily one to envy. They live for seven years in and under the water before crawling up out of the river as stoneflies, shedding their prehistoric-looking skins and living just a day once airborne to lay their eggs. To me it seems a poor return.

I’m soon thankful for their fleeting life cycle, as I’m casting a chunky salmonfly toward the turquoise waters. I catch one, then two, on the same fly, beautiful browns in the mid-teen-range (that’s size, not age). We look for the splash marks on the cliffs; that’s where they’re feeding. I throw one and it hits the rock, plunks in the water and then, in the same time span, a fish strikes. Even George Balanchine of the New York City Ballet couldn’t have choreographed the timing better between cast, plunk and strike.

In all I land seven fish today, for me a minor miracle. A few miles downstream we pass a father-son duo that had hiked up from the Chukar trailhead about five miles downstream. They had to clamber over a ridge to get here, passing a big, dead mountain lion en route. “It’s paws were this big,” the dad says, holding his hands apart.

“The fishing’s kind of died down,” he continues. “But it was great this morning.” Just then, as if on cue, I nail another brown from the packraft, right in front of him and his son. Thor, who pulled over and is fishing from a nearby beach, then adds salt to the wound. “We got a few,” he downplays.

After a quick beachside lunch, I grab my rod leaning against a tree only to see a salmonfly perched on the rod just inches above my own fly. It’s another good sign that we’re using the right bait.

As we near the Chukar trailhead, the place where outfitters and privates can access the lower Gunnison Gorge with only a mile-long hike, I see Paolo the Photographer lining up a shot upstream. Natural poser that I am, I paddle right toward him and cast, my line unfurling directly toward his zoom lens. I think it’s just a staged shot, one showing me in all my gifted, casting glory, until I get a strike as soon as my fly lands just beneath him. It’s just another quintessential fishing moment down here, so perfect as to be cliché.

“This is probably the best trout-fishing experience I’ve ever had,” Paulo says later in his Italian accent, big words from someone straight out of A River Runs Through It.

We continue deeper into the gorge, passing Chukar, which provides easier access with only a mile-long hike. This is where outfitters and private paddlers and anglers put in, increasing the fishing pressure.

I’m in a single now, practicing my one-armed skull-stroke with my paddle in one hand and fly rod in the other. It’s difficult because as soon as you stop paddling and try to cast, your craft spins, contorting your shoulder up and behind you, as if you’re on the rings in gymnastics. But eventually you pivot around, hopefully without marring your fly presentation. Which is the great thing about fishing the salmonfly hatch. You can throw perfect fly presentation out the window. In fact, the harder you smack it down on the water, the better. It’s my kind of fishing. 

Someone’s at our reserved campsite #17, so we continue down to aptly named Caddis Camp. Sure enough, Thor lands a few here as well.

At the horizon line for the next rapid, I get a fish on the line only to drag it down through the entire rapid. I don’t land it until afterward, feeling guilty about the war wound I give it. Thor catches one at the brink also, but manages to deftly eddy out to reel it in. Farther down, I glance down at my boat’s seat and see a stonefly nymph just like my own wiggling its multiple legs. It’s another harbinger that we’re casting the correct vittles.

Camping below Chukar, the next day I hop back on the double with Chad, and quickly break my rod — a 20-year-old trusted Orvis five weight, complete with Grateful Dead dancing bears inlaid onto it by my Alaska brother-in-law — on my first fish. While it’s only a 12 or 13-incher, it snaps the third section almost in half. “That’s just testament to hos strong a 12-inch brown here,” Chad says. “They’re powered by salmonflies.”

I borrow Chad’s extra and fish some more, casting to shelves, banks and riffles, catching a couple more navigating such Class III-IV rapids as Boulder Garden, Cable and The Squeeze to negotiate. Bookending these are a slew of Class IIIs until gradient slackens near the take-out at the junction of the North Fork of the Gunnison at Pleasure Park.

There, we unzip our hulls and roll up our rafts, vowing to come again…as soon as our quads recover.

For more information on Alpacka pacrrafts, visit www.alpackaraft.com