Packrafting the Black Canyon during the salmonfly hatch
September 3, 2018
BLACK CANYON OF THE GUNNISON NATIONAL PARK — "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. The longtime adventurer from Alaska — now heading his mother's company in Mancos, Colorado — is 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?
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.The only upshot: A few of the roots take the odd form of handrails. Across from us, the Precambrian Painted Wall, a famous climbing route, peeks through errant openings in the undergrowth.
We're here to test Alpacka's latest breed of packraft, one complete with an airtight zipper in the tube to hold your gear, during the river's coveted salmonfly hatch which sends its trout into a feeding frenzy. Studies show the river's browns wolf down 70 percent of their annual calories during the monthlong hatch.
The triumvirate of the Blue Mesa, Morrow Point and Crystal hydroelectric dams upstream control flows into the notorious Black Canyon below, creating prime fish habitat. Black Canyon is one of the least visited national parks in the country, and that's exactly how its anglers like it.
On the drive to the rim from our take-out at Pleasure Park, our shuttle driver regales us with tales of catching massive browns on yellow sallies and salmonflies.
"It's a little smaller hatch this year, and it's hard to tell where it's coming off," he says. "But, I had one on by a boulder that took me back to only four wraps left on my backing."
Our group is an assortment of journalists, photographers and fisher-types, including Italian photographer Paolo Marchesi from Bozeman, Montana.
Arriving exhausted and blistered at the river, we take off our hiking shoes and soothe our sore feet in the cold water. We wade in up to our thighs, soaking our sore muscles. Towering 2,000-foot granite cliffs rise straight above, bookending a river bathing in blue.
Paolo, who hiked down with his craft two days earlier and has been fishing his head off ever since, soon joins us. He's a diehard fly-fisherman, and he says the Black Canyon has lived up to its billing. The hatch hasn’t been huge, but he's landed plenty of lunkers.
The Warner Trail has deposited us below all of the canyon's notorious and sieve-ridden Class V and VI rapids, which make it one of the country's top multiday 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 one tandem craft askew, sending it into the drink while we pass by on the left. Later, we face another Class IV, this time with better results.
While today's rapids curtail our fishing a bit, in between are slackwater sections where fish are slurping.
At the end of day, Paolo tops the list with seven fish. For my part, I got skunked, which I'm relatively used to, but I did get a few good looks and tugs.
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.
A couple people fish from shore, but it's slowed down, so we pack up and move downstream.
We look for the splash marks on the cliffs; that's where they're feeding. I throw one, it hits the rock, plunks in the water and then 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 — a minor miracle for me.
After a quick beachside lunch, I grab my rod only to see a salmonfly perched just inches above my own fly. It's a good sign that we're using the right vittles.
As we near the Chukar Trailhead, the place where outfitters and privates can access the lower Gunnison Gorge with only a milelong hike, I see Paolo the photographer lining up a shot upstream. I paddle 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 another quintessential fishing moment down here, so perfect as to be cliche.
"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.”
During 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.
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.
Camping below Chukar the next day, I 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 how strong a 12-inch brown is here," another fisherman says. "They're powered by salmonflies."
I borrow an extra rod and fish some more, casting to shelves, banks and riffles, catching a couple more while navigating Class III and IV rapids until the 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.
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