Fly fishing for Dolly Varden is a must-do for any obsessed angler. Dolly Varden are popular for their beautiful colors and because they are very easy to catch! Dolly Varden fly fishing can be done across the arctic and subarctic regions of north America, but Alaska is the best place to target them.
What to Expect when Dolly Varden Fly Fishing
Dollies are notorious for eating the eggs of spawning salmon and the flesh of salmon after they die. The pursuit of these fish is incredible, and it will lead to gorgeous places. If you are using the right fishing techniques, they can be some of the easiest fish to catch on the fly.
- Expect eager fish: Dolly Varden are opportunistic feeders. With short seasonal windows to capitalize on feeding, they eat first and think second. In the scenario of fishing near spawning salmon, dollies have been observed recklessly robbing eggs from salmon redds, an approach that rainbow trout are comparatively much more calculated in (especially around aggressive and toothy chum salmon!). This simply means that they are usually easier to hook than rainbows!
- Expect the fight: Very similar to catching trout, dolly varden fight well! Typically, on bigger fish, you’ll get a couple good head shakes and a couple short runs. Maybe even the odd jump or two. Pound for pound, these fish fight harder than trout in the lower 48 as they eat salmon protein!
- Expect an awesome photo: It is no secret that colored-up fish from the char family are some of the most photogenic fish in the world, and dolly varden and arctic char lead the category! Not to mention, they live in some of the most stunning places – so, if your grip-n-grin is taken with proper fish handling, you should have an awesome backdrop as well.
- Expect to handle the fish with respect: Bring a net. Depending on the fishery, you could very well be handling twenty plus dollies a day. While it is fun to catch this many fish, handling each fish with respect keeps the fishery intact – please keep them wet.
All About Dollies
Dolly Varden are not technically trout, they belong to the char family and have a very similar shaped body which historically caused the confusion. Dolly Varden are also often mistaken as arctic char, their close cousin.
Lifecycle: Dollies spawn in the late fall and sometimes even early winter in rivers or streams. In some watersheds dolly varden display a ‘dwarfed’ capacity and only reach 6-8” in length. While not all dolly varden are anadromous, many of them do spend part of their life cycle in the ocean and return with the salmon in the summer and fall. Unlike salmon, dollies can go back and forth to the ocean multiple times.
Identification: In the fall, Dolly Varden are easy to identify as they begin to “color-up” into their spawning forms. When displaying spawning colors, dollies backs are commonly emerald-blue, with bellies turning vibrant reds or pinks. Males will display significantly hooked jaws (kypes). Outside of spawning season dollies coloration is often silvery to gunmetal blue.
Fun Fact: Alaska Department of Fish and Game has identified two distinct species of dolly varden within the state. A “southern type” and a “northern type”. The geographical line of distinction is the Alaska Peninsula. The “southern type” inhabits the south side of the peninsula down through Southeast Alaska and the “northern type” subsequently inhabits the northern side up through the arctic.
There’s more than just a geographical distinction, they are genetically different as well. The “southern type” tend to be smaller and have 82 chromosomes; the “northern type” have 78 chromosomes and have produced the Alaska state record.
Where to Fish for Dolly Varden
In Alaska, dolly varden can be found in almost every coastal watershed. They range from southeastern part of the state up throughout the arctic rivers. Stronger populations are often found in rivers shared with salmon.
The Kenai peninsula has easy access for anglers trying to catch dollies on the road system. They can be found in almost all waterways on the peninsula.The Kenai River itself is a very productive fishery for dolly varden and is known to put large “clowned up” dollies in the fall.
When to Fly Fish for Dollies
Resident dolly varden can be caught year round in Alaska – even under the ice in the winter. However, most anglers who specifically target these gorgeous fish in the fall when the males begin to display their bright spawning colors. The other reason anglers love to target dollies in the fall is because they are usually obese on salmon flesh and eggs and twice their normal size!
What Set-Up to Fish for Dolly Varden
Since dollies come in a variety of sizes the best fly rod can vary from fishery to fishery. However, we are big believers in rigging for the fish you want to catch, not necessarily the cookie-cutter sized fish that will be keeping you busy most of the time!
With that in mind, we recommend standard 9 ft fly rods in 5-7 weights to be optimal. While 5 weights are a lot of fun, slinging heavy streamers or lobbing bead rigs means that 6 or 7 weights are more efficient. Especially, if that famous Alaska wind has anything to say!
FlyTramp recommendation: Scott Wave (6 wt)
Matching the reel weight with the rod makes your set-up more enjoyable to cast. It also gives it it that balanced feel in the hand. While most dollies will not take you deep into the backing, having a good drag system should not be understated. We live by the motto “buy nice or buy twice.”
FlyTramp recommendation: Iconic Fly Reel 5 Plus
Weight forward floating fly lines are our favorite for dolly fishing! We like when one line covers all the methods we might use in a days’ outing – whether thats turning over heavy streamers or lobbing heavy bead set-ups.
FlyTramp recommendation: Scientific Anglers Amplitude Textured Floating Line
Leader & Tippet
In Alaska, you can leave your tapered leaders at home. Guides make their own. Usually, it’s about 7 feet of monofilament as the leader with 16-24″ of fluorocarbon as the tippet. (Mono 15-20 ib, flouro 12 lb)
FlyTramp recommendation: Maxima 15 or 20 lb test
What flies to use for Dolly Varden
FlyTramp 5 recommended dolly flies:
- Beads (correlate to current spawning salmon)
- Senyo’s Egg Raider sculpin
- Dolly Llama
- Flesh Flies