Named for Charles Dickens eponymous character with a predilection for brightly spotted dresses, the Dolly Varden char is indeed a flamboyant dresser, especially during spawning season. Occurring in almost all regions of the state, in both fresh and salt water, the Dolly is the most frequently available of all the salmonid species. Dolly Varden are available from April to November, however, the best fishing for Dolly Varden occurs during the months of June, July, and August. The average Dolly is between 16-22 inches, and 1-4 lbs. That being said some locations they grow to gargantuan sizes. In fact, the state record Dolly Varden is larger than the state record silver salmon!
Early in the season the best Dolly fishing occurs around the mouths of rivers, in estuaries and along the beaches as these hungry fish gorge themselves on salmon fry out-migrating to the saltwater. Around early July, as the salmon start to fill up the rivers, Dollies will begin heading back to the freshwater where they eagerly anticipate the egg drop. Mid-July through September you will find Dollies behind spawning beds eating as many eggs as possible. Once October hits the Dollies move into their own spawning habitats before heading back to their overwintering locations, often times a large lake.
While Dolly Varden, bull trout and arctic char all look extremely similar, they are in fact all separate species. The range overlaps a bit and sometimes science and deductive reasoning is the only way to tell the difference between bull trout and Dollies.
A 5 or 6wt is a good rod choice for targeting Dollies. During spring and early summer when the majority of the fishing takes places in the saltwater, a fast action 6wt is our choice. Having a rod that can overcome a headwind will allow you to be able to fish more frequently. As the summer progresses and we start throwing beads either a 5 or 6wt works great. Like steelhead rods for indicator fishing some people like to go with a 9'6" rod to help with mends and roll casting.
The average Dolly isn't going to require a drag that can stop a freight train. If you are heading up to some of the trophy areas for Dollies however, a reel with a strong drag can be the difference between landing or losing the fish of a lifetime. We always recommend a machined and anodized reel for Dolly fishing in S.E. AK. Chasing these fish in saltwater is a ton of fun and having the added durability will help in the long run if you can afford it.
A standard weight forward line is what you want when fishing for Dollies. In the early season a line designed for throwing streamers and cutting through the wind is very helpful. Moving into the summer you will want to think about swapping out you line. A nymph/indicator line really shines once the salmon start laying eggs and the Dollies start keying in on beads. You will be doing a lot of mending, roll casting, and long drifts. A line with a long head for control will allow you to be a more effective angler.
Dolly Varden are fish eaters, almost exclusively in most places. After ice out the Dollies hang around the mouths of rivers to catch the plentiful bounty of salmon fry and smolt that are making their way out to the ocean. Small Clousers or other baitfish imitation patterns work the best from May till early July. Once the salmon are spawning the Dollies quickly start to key in on eggs. Beads have all but replaced Glo bugs here for a couple reasons. Beads can be painted to better mimic the eggs in the water and beads are much better for catch and release fishing.