Dolly Varden On the Fly

Dolly Varden On the Fly

Fly Fish For Dolly Varden

The Dolly Varden offers the angler a great battle on light tackle. Dolly Varden is one of the finest of fishes for the dinner table. Dolly Varden is an overlooked species by fly anglers. There’s so many species to target in Alaska and Dolly Varden on the fly is not the main target. Those who have enjoyed these members of the char family are happy with the disinterest and ready to have them all to themselves. The ferocious strikes and powerful runs rival any of the trout family. Their need to feed after the long winter makes for a fly reel screaming day. Dollies almost always winter in fresh water and therefore offer excellent ice fishing opportunities.

Once old man winter releases his grip on the last frontier and the lakes become free of ice the Dolly Varden becomes very active and begins to feed aggressively on alevins, fry, smolt, insects and crustaceans. It is at this time that the angler is in for a treat both in fun as well as in table fare as the Dolly Varden is delicious but remember it is easy, when the fish are biting this well, to remove too many fish from a particular fishery which could hurt the population for years to come.

Dolly Varden tends to school at the inlets and outlets of lakes waiting for the spring migration of young salmon. The hungry Alaskan Dolly Varden will attack schools of alevins, fry and smolt frothing the water’s surface as they hurry to devour the young salmon stunned by the attack. When an angler in the know sees this they can’t get their lure or fly into the mix fast enough and will have to calm down before they are able to make an accurate cast.

Flies For Dolly Varden

When fly fishing for Dolly Varden in freshwater the salmon egg pattern is hard to beat. Anytime during the warm season, even before the salmon run begins, Dolly Varden will devour a salmon egg pattern. Dolly Varden are not as highly pressured in Alaska as other species. You might think you don’t have to present a perfect drift. However, you will notice an increase in strikes when the drift is natural.

The season is short here in Alaska and spring turns to summer before you know it. Summer means salmon and lots of them. Dolly Varden will follow the King salmon, Chum salmon, Sockeye salmon, and Pink salmon as they make their way up the many rivers and creeks. This is a great time to chase the Dolly Varden on the fly. Their diet shifts from young salmon to unborn salmon, the salmon egg.

The salmon egg is high in protein and becomes a vital part of the Dollies diet as winter is fast approaching. Anglers, at this time, should focus on gravelly areas of creeks and rivers. Deep pools may hold several good Dollies but don’t overlook pockets in fast- moving waters. Dollies like to hide in fast water, even in the shallow runs, waiting for an egg to drift by. Dollies are quick and it may surprise you where a Dolly may be hiding as they materialize from a very small pool.

 

Dolly Varden On the Fly
A Dolly Varden in full spawning colors caught on a fly in a small stream in Alaska

Woolly Bugger For Dolly Varden

Dolly Varden are prolific feeders. When the time comes to feed up for the spawn they gorge on salmon fry washed into estuaries throughout Alaska. Dolly Varden, like so many of Alaska’s species, needs to fatten up for the winter. It is during this time that Dolly Varden devours salmon eggs and rotting salmon flesh drifting down the creeks and rivers. When the Dollies are eating salmon fly there are many patterns that will work. This includes Clouser minnows, matukas, and probably the most popular fly for catching springtime Dollies is the Woolly Bugger.

The Woolly Bugger stripped through the water represents the salmon fly just fine. Dolly Varden are not that picky and will eat up about anything the right size with a little action. My favorite Woolly Bugger was the bead head Woolly Bugger. The bead added just the right amount of weight to keep the Woolly Bugger under the surface even when stripped quickly.

Egg Pattern For Dolly Varden

In the fall, after the salmon have spawned, the salmon eggs are dislodged from the gravels and float with the current downstream. This is where the Dolly Varden, Rainbow Trout, and Cutthroat Trout are waiting. The Dolly Varden knows that these salmon eggs are high in fat and is the perfect food for preparing for the winter. The Dolly Varden was once thought to be a detriment to salmon populations. They were once despised and targeted for elimination. There was even a bounty put on the Dolly Varden. Angler turned in the tails for a bounty. The angler was paid by Game & Fish. The bounty was canceled because of too much cheating. More Coho salmon tails was turned in than Dolly Varden tails. The remaining number of tails were more rainbow trout than Dolly Varden.

The game warden near Egegik reported that 24 Alaska Natives and six white residents turned in tails in 1929 and 1930. There were more than 60,000 trout tails delivered. They were paid for at the rate of five cents each amounting to about $3,000.00.

People once believed that Dolly Varden was eating the eggs of salmon. The thought process was that this feeding behavior depleted the salmon population. This thought was dispelled when a feeding study was done. It was found that Dolly Varden gorged on salmon eggs. However, they were eating the eggs already dislodged from the gravels. These eggs would not have hatched anyway. Dollies will linger in pockets and lazy lies just outside the current waiting to gobble these dislodged eggs as they drift by. This makes fly fishing for the Dolly Varden so much fun with classic trout angling in the greatest place on earth.

Dolly Varden played a significant role by eating the dislodged salmon eggs. By cleaning the drainage of dislodged eggs they leave a nice clean environment. This is all part of the cycle so vital to the ecosystem in the water systems of Alaska. It is no wonder that during the salmon spawn that the egg pattern is the go-to fly for Dolly Varden. Some anglers use glo-bug yarn while other fly anglers prefer the bead for catching these feisty fish. The beads are available in so many colors that they make it easier to match the color of the flies based on the time within the spawn at that time.

The egg pattern is the go-to pattern in the fall for Alaska Dolly Varden on a fly rod. However, the egg pattern will also work in the spring in moving water. A Dolly Varden finds it very hard to pass up a salmon egg drifting along with the current. Moving upstream and casting at a 45-degree angle allows the egg pattern fly to drift along naturally with the current. In Alaska, the drift doesn’t have to be perfect to get a bite. In fact, always allow the egg pattern to swing at the end. Many times a Dolly will follow the fly downstream and only strike when it stops drifting and the swing allows the Dolly Varden to catch up and eat your egg pattern.

Dolly Varden, like many fish in Alaska, are not drift shy. The Dolly Varden in Alaska is not as accustomed to pressure as other fishing locations where the same fish are fished for every day within the same body of water. These fish, while they do return to the same river or stream they have been, for most Dollies, out to sea. This time spent at sea will obviously relax any wariness they might have adopted during the previous fishing season. The fishing season is short. They spend much more time not being harassed by anglers than being targeted.

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Fly Fishing In Alaska

Fly fishing gear is a fun way to target Dolly Varden on small creeks and rivers. They can also be fun and very effective at catching Dolly Varden on the fly offshore provided the wind cooperates. A 9-foot 5 or 6 weights is my choice for all but the tightest areas. The longer rod will help in the wind, but when fishing small creeks and rivers I prefer an 8-foot rod. Fly fishing is my favorite way to catch Dolly Varden. Dollies in the salt will hit just about any dark-colored streamer like a wooly bugger or Clouser. Green and blue streamers also do well when fly fishing for Dolly Varden in saltwater.

Where To Catch Dolly Varden Trout

To check a run, drift an egg pattern through the fast runs. If a Dolly is there it will move to take the egg if it comes anywhere near it. I know it’s hard to fish some of these runs as you probably, like me, prefer the big deep pools. This is fine but remember everyone else likes the big deep pools as well and you might find that these runs may be your secret weapon to landing several Dollies, especially on a crowded stream as anglers pass these runs for the deeper pools.

Freshwater Dollies, during spring and summer, are olive green or light brown in color. They average 12-14 inches in length but do regularly reach much greater size. In the fall, anglers fortunate enough to land a Dolly may wonder what they have in their net as the coloration is spectacular. The bright red body and multicolored spots rival any trout. Anglers compare the Dolly Varden to bull trout where they co-exist.

Dollies are caught with a fly rod and spinning gear. The Dolly Varden is found in open water or up creeks. Dolly Varden are also found in many of the river systems throughout Alaska. If using spinning gear nearly any spinner or spoon will do. I’ve found that Dolly Varden loves greens and blues. You can cast a spoon a mile, even when the wind is blowing in.

It was during this time that had started building custom fly rods. I sold them for years and wanted to build one for Randy to thank him for the trip to his cabin and a halibut trip earlier that year as well. I built the custom fly rod on a St. Croix rod blank. To me, St. Croix made the best blank for the money. I built Almost all of my early fly rods on St.Croix blanks.

The featured image for this page was after an epic day of fishing in my favorite estuary at the mouth of my favorite creek in the world. I caught dollies until my arm was hurting. I landed all of the Dolly Varden that day on the fly rod in the image. The fly rod that I built for Randy. He never knew that I fished it before giving it to him until a couple of years ago when he posted an image of him holding a grayling and what looked like the St. Croix fly rod that I built him 20 something years before. Randy confirmed that it certainly was and it meant a lot to me to see one of my fly rods still catching fish. Here is that photo from a trip with his dad.

Dolly Varden And Estuaries

An estuary is the tidal mouth of a large river or creek, where the tide meets the inflowing freshwater. 

Dolly Varden is found in three stages. A sea-run Dolly Varden that migrates from freshwater to saltwater to spend time in the ocean and/or saltwater bays. These bays are estuaries fed by freshwater inflows throughout Southeast Alaska. The Dolly Varden mingle here gorging on salmon fry and other aquatic morsels that are plentiful in these diverse areas. They feed relentlessly before moving into the freshwater inflows to spawn. Fluvial forms live in moderate to large rivers migrating to and utilizing smaller tributaries within that flow to spawn. There are Dolly Varden that are found in deep, cold lakes and they grow much larger due to their lethargic lifestyle. They migrate into tributary streams to spawn.

I was fortunate enough to drift the Newhalen River many times and caught many large Dolly Varden that migrate into the Newhalen River to spawn and eat salmon eggs and eventually the flesh from the dying salmon after they spawn. These Dolly Varden live in Iliamna Lake. It is the largest lake in Alaska and the third largest lake in the United States, and the twenty-fourth largest in North America. It is deep and cold and these Dolly Varden gets big.

My favorite place to catch Dolly Varden in Alaska was open water. You can find Dollies near creeks and rivers that flow into the ocean. In Southeast Alaska, where I chased Dolly Varden, you might find Dolly Varden stacked up where the freshwater meets the salt. Some of these inlets might only be a trickle of water but still hold many Dolly Varden. I believe that Dolly Varden, like salmon, would stop along their migration route anywhere there was fresh water.

Even if the tributary is too small for migration, the freshwater gave them pause. They stop to see if it might be where they were going. Or, maybe there was some sort of forage washing in that made them stop. Nevertheless, it was eventually found that these places were excellent spots to catch Dolly Varden. The fly rod is responsible for a lot of Dolly Varden each year. I also noted that few other anglers fished these small confluences and the Dolly Varden were ready to strike.

St. Croix Custom Built Fly Rod About The Photo

St. Croix custom fly rod
One of my custom Fly Rods 30 years later. Still catching fish.

 

 

There’s a story behind the custom-built St. Croix fly rod seen in the featured image on this page. I was about 25 years old when I found my way to Alaska. I had just completed aviation maintenance school in Colorado. It was the second deer season that I was there when a co-worker and friend asked me if I would like to accompany him and another friend of ours to his cabin on Admiralty Island in Southeast Alaska to hunt Blacktail deer. No arm twisting needed to accept this invite. I began planning the trip. It was one of the most exciting hunts of my life still and for sure then. I killed 4 deer in as many days and the nights in the cabin were great.

Here is a great video of fly fishing for Dolly Varden in Alaska

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About Ken McBroom 216 Articles
Ken McBroom is an accomplished outdoor writer and photographer. Growing up in Lynchburg Tennessee allowed him many opportunities afield as a boy and young man. Later in life, after Desert Storm, Ken’s wanderlust took him to Alaska to live and work and experience the last frontier. Married now with two beautiful children, Ken now calls Kentucky home where he continues to communicate our American outdoor traditions and the lifestyle it offers.