John Kumiski shares his experience to help you know the best fly to use for Dolly Varden
Dolly Varden are the Pacific northwest’s version of the eastern brook trout. Taxonomically both are in the genus Salvelinus. They look alike. They even feel alike. And like brook trout, Dollies lack fine discrimination skills and will strike most lures and flies readily.
Unlike brook trout, most of Alaska’s Dollies live in saltwater for part of the year, which makes them an anadromous fish. In the Goodnews River, where I do my fishing, Dollies winter in the river, leaving in early spring to feed in the sea. Once the sockeye and chum salmon start to run up the river, the Dollies follow them back in to feed on the egg bonanza the salmon so generously provide. Indeed, the main reason male salmon develop the grotesque hooked and toothed jaws while spawning is to protect their redds from ravenous Dolly Varden.
After the salmon finish spawning, adult Dollies start thinking about spawning themselves. They become even more beautiful as their colors intensify, and they spawn in September and October. After spawning they spend the winter in the river, dropping into the sea early in the spring.
Now, if you want to catch Dollies there are any number of ways to do it. The simplest, most effective way is to use an orange, 12 millimeter plastic bead as a lure. Peg it to the line a couple inches up from a size 8 hook. Use a split shot as needed to get the bead down a bit. You might want to fish it under a bobber. Find an area where chum and/or sockeye salmon are spawning and cast the bead around the redds. Fifty and 60 fish days are not at all unusual using this technique. It is really too easy.
Longtime Goodnews River Lodge guide Jeff Dann skates the beads along the surface and finds it quite effective. I have never seen a salmon egg skating across the surface but that doesn’t deter the Dollies.
You can also find Dollies holding on flats along gravel bars. When you find them like this, a Polar Shrimp or an egg-sucking smolt pattern cast upstream of the fish and allowed to drift into them is deadly. If the light is right you can sight fish for them while wading, tremendously entertaining and effective.
But like lots of other fishing, the most fun you can have with Dollies is getting them to strike at surface flies. Big Dollies will hit mouse patterns skated across the surface just like rainbow trout will. You make your cast quartering downstream and keep the line tight. As the fly skates you may want to pop it a little bit. You’ll have lots of fish come up and look and not take because the fly is just too big for them. You’ll also have a lot of strikes and misses. This is part of what makes the exercise so entertaining.
The best fly to use when using this skating technique is the Dolly Gurgler. Tied on a number six hook, the Gurgler is an adaptation of Jack Gartside’s Gurgler. The foam used is a bright orange color so it’s easy for the angler to see. You fish it as just described for the mouse pattern – cast it quartering downstream and skate it against the pull of the current. You’ll still miss a lot of strikes, but when it’s good you’ll release a couple dozen fish. It’s very effective and a heck of a lot of fun.
So if you want to up the entertainment value of your Dolly fishing, put the hardware, streamers, and beads away and tie on a Gurgler. It’s hard to find more entertaining fishing than gurgling for Dollies.
John Kumiski www.spottedtail.com