There is much confusion as to whether Dolly Varden is in the char family or is it simply a bull trout? Fishermen and biologist have debated this question for years. Presently, the species that run these western Washington rivers are now classified by the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife as bull trout, a separate species from Dolly Varden, but still call them Dolly Varden.
Dollies are sometimes looked down upon by fishermen. This injustice began years ago when declines of salmon were blamed on Dolly Varden. It was believed, back then, that they ate too many salmon eggs and fry. Between 1921 and 1940 there was a bounty put on Dollies where anglers were paid for the tails. The bounty was lifted, with evidence showing that man is primarily responsible for the decline of salmon.
These fish typically range in size from 12-22 inches, but can grow as large as ten pounds in these western rivers. Dolly Varden is a pretty fish with olive green backs and colorful sides similar to a brook trout.
Smaller Dolly Varden tend to eat terrestrial and aquatic insects. Stone-flies and leeches seem to be a delicacy for these aggressive feeders. It’s been reported to me that egg-sucking leech patterns will produce some heavy hits. As they grow larger they begin to prey on other small fish. Tie on a streamer and hold on tight!
Typically Dolly’s do not hold in the faster current. Similar to steelhead, they tend to hold inside of the seams in the slower water. They tend to prefer a mixture of half gravel, half rock bottom, with a slight slope.
There are two easy techniques you can use to fish for Dolly Varden, while still being able to catch steelhead. The first technique is plugging a hole with either a Rapala’s or Hot Shots. Run them close to your boat, only twenty five feet should do the trick. The second, is bottom-bouncing nightcrawlers close to the bottom—which is pretty much a sure thing. You’ll often see the fish nearly choking on a nice, juicy worm. They are irresistible!
On my first guide trip, we nailed a few Dolly Varden, which resulted in my clients leaving happy, and at the same time, I felt fulfilled seeing them enjoy the action. When the hook is set and you feel that strong pull back, you are loving life! Dolly Varden are not only fun to catch, but you’ll enjoy a decent fight and a great view of this colorful fish.
Despite all the confusion, misidentification and their bad reputation, these fish have proven to provide excellent sport fishing opportunities.