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Alaska: Fishing for Dolly Varden

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Posted by David S on

My Alaska Fishing shares the secrets of the Dolly Varden char. Dolly Varden are in the same taxonomic family as salmon and trout; however, Dolly Varden are char, not trout. What does that mean to sport fishermen? Not that much. Many people refer to these fish as Dolly Varden trout because the look like trout. If you want to know how to differentiate between a Dolly Varden and  trout you simply have to look at the spots. The two fish are completely opposite in coloration. Trout species have a light colored body with dark spots. Dolly Varden have a dark colored body with very colorful spots. The spots on Dollly Varden are often bright red and/or yellow. The bright red and yellow coloring can also be found in patches on their head and fins. They make a very striking fish. Oddly, it is rumored that they got their name due to fashion. In the late 1800's there was a style of dress that was called the Dolly Varden, and it was a sheer top over brightly colored print. When you see a Dolly Varden char, the story makes sense. Be sure to come prepared: Alaska Fishing License and Stamps

Dolly Varden caught at Angler's Alibi Lodge - Alagnak River, Alaska
Dolly Varden caught by Rebekka Redd at Angler's Alibi Lodge - Alagnak River, Alaska

Dolly Varden Ecology

There are two species of Dolly Varden in Alaska. They are divided up size and by region.Though there are scientific differences what matters most to sports fishermen are the size of the fish and where to find them. Note: There is a variety of Dolly Varden that are lake bound and fairly small. For most of this article, we are referring to the Northern and Souther fish that are both freshwater and saltwater in their habits.  The Northern Dolly Varden is larger than the Dolly Varden found in the Southern part of Alaska. Northern Dolly Varden grow to be 16-22 inches (plus) in length and can weigh around 27 pounds. The Dolly Varden found in the South are smaller. On your Alaska Fishing Trip, you can fish for Dolly Varden in saltwater and freshwater. The Southern fish are lake bound, which causes them to dwarf in size, grow only to 4-6 inches in length. The Southern fish that are not lake bound grow up to 16 inches. They are equally fun to fish for, but their smaller size means less fight than the Northern fish. The Northern fish are fighters. Both Northern and Southern fish are smart, crafty, and they have tricks they use to free themselves. These are fish that put the word sport, into sport fishing. Alaska Fishing Lodges and Alaska Fishing Charters are tools that you can use to improve your Alaska fishing trip. 

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Where To Find Northern Dolly Varden

?The dividing line between Northern and Southern fish is the Alaska Peninsula. You can find Northern Dolly Varden from the North side of the Alaskan Peninsula all the way into Canada. Their Northern boundary is the Mackenzie River. From the Alaskan Peninsula, they range south to the Susitna drainage area in South Central Alaska. That makes up a larger area to find them. The best place to find Northern Dolly Varden is around Bristol Bay and Kodiak Island as well as the Kenai Peninsula, Prince William Sound, and the Susitna River drainage area. The best months to plan your Alaska fishing trip for Dolly Varden  in freshwater are July, August and Sept. Some areas begin the peak run as early as June and others have a peak run that runs as late as October. An Alaska Fishing Guide will know the best bait or lures to use. The longest peak run is in Bristol Bay and Kodiak Island, and that runs from June through October. The best month to fish for this beautiful fish is August because nearly every freshwater location is experiencing a peak run.

Where to Stay South Central Alaska Fising Lodges: Alaska Fly Fishing Camps, Redoubt Mountain Lodge, Arden's Kenai Lake Escape, Alaskan Wilderness Outfitting company. 

Habitat and Habits of Northern Dolly Varden 

A fully mature Dolly Varden is around 5-9 years old. Extremes for Southern fish can be ten pounds and up to 28 inches. The extremes for the Northern fish are 20 pounds with a length of up to 30 inches. Large Dolly Varden are similar in size to most salmon. One of the great things about these awesome fish is the fact that they can spawn multiple times before they die. They typically spawn every other year once they reach sexual maturity. Northern fish can lay up to 10,000 eggs. Young fish spend between 2-4 years in freshwater before they make their way to the sea. They return by the end of summer to spawn. This is a time of amazing change for these fish. They change their habits, their bodies morph into adults, and even their behavior changes. Many Alaska Fishing Lodges have guides. Guides often have the best equipment, and understand the feeding habits of the local Dolly Varden population. Use an Alaska fishing guide improves the quality of your Alaska fishing trip. 

Where to Stay Southeast Alaska Fishing Lodges: Wave Dance Custom Charters, Petersburg Sportfishing Charters, Lisianski Inlet Lodge, Full List of Alaska Fishing Lodges.

Charters and Guides Southeast Alaska: Shelter Lodge, Southeast Retreat and Quest Alaska Lodges

Feeding Habits

Like other members of the Salmonid family, Dolly Varden are opportunistic carnivores. An important note when fishing for Dolly Varden is that what works well as bait or lure in one region will not work at all in the next. The fish are very much tied to the ecology of the rivers that they inhabit. One common theme among all habitats is their fondness for salmon eggs. It is not uncommon for Dolly Varden to follow the salmon upstream simply to feed on poorly buried salmon roe. Besides salmon roe, a chief portion of their diet is aquatic insect naiads. They will also feed on flying insects if hungry. The larger fish are found in the still waters and deeper pools. They feed on other smaller fish, insects, crustaceans such as crayfish, and amphibians. 

Fishing For Dolly Varden

One of the great things about fishing for Dolly Varden is that their habitat and habits overlap with other outstanding game fish, such as rainbow trout. During the peak salmon run, the best bait to use is salmon roe or flies/lures that imitate salmon roe. In late spring and early summer (when the winter has been harsh) the primary diet of Dolly Varden is small juvenile fish such as smolt salmon and trout. Lures, which flash or imitate small fish, work well. This, of course, is dependent upon where you are in Alaska as this fish feeds on what is available in the streams. They have regional tastes for food. Other possibilities would be flies that resemble aquatic insect naiads, frogs, and crayfish. These are all prey that the Dolly Varden recognize.  These fish are smart. They are often overlooked by local fisherman because they are so common, and by the fact that there are so many other fish available. Do not be fooled. These fish fight. They are well known to those who fish them for breaking fishing line. They call the technique the Dolly Varden Roll, and no, it is not a dance move. The fish, if given too much slack will roll itself up in the line and then bolt. The result is a few explanative statements and a really good story about the one that got away. It is a scene you will relive for a long while. 

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