Delightful Dolly Varden



Fishing may be tiring, but it is always a learning experience that demands focus, concentration, attention to details, and lots of practice.


August 16, 2008




Karel and I just got back from a camping and fishing trip and I certainly had an experience like nothing that I am used to. But I think it would be fun to share it with you.


Karel and I arrived at the campground—a two hour drive from Anchorage—early afternoon on Tuesday and left just before noon on Friday. Ordinarily, we enjoy tent camping, but this time, we decided to try a rental camper. This has been an unusual summer for us. It has been cooler, cloudier and wetter than most; also, there has been an unusually high number of bear sightings throughout this part of Alaska.


After we got set up and looked around, Karel unfurled her chair and settled in with her book and I got started with my fishing. Karel just wanted to get out and relax. I wanted to catch some Dolly Varden and this small stream is a local favorite for this fish.


First, a little background. Dolly Varden—Dollies—are usually not favored among anglers compared to rainbow trout. Usually, they are not as large, they rarely jump when hooked, and during most of the season, they are not so photogenic. Never the less, many anglers like to fish for them, especially when they are abundant and from a stream like this which is small and pleasant to fish.


Dollies—and other fish, too—become concentrated during mid and late summer when and where the salmon become concentrated on their spawning grounds. When the salmon spawn, some eggs do not get buried and are greedily consumed by fish, birds, and other critters. This stream has a strong run of sockeye salmon which begin to spawn during early August and it has a reputation as a good place to catch Dollies. My plan was to take advantage of this abundance to enjoy several good days of fishing. I should not have been surprised but a funny thing happened on the way to the stream.


Over a period of four days, I fished nearly twenty hours. I started out getting mostly nothing. I was pretty disappointed and frustrated after a day and a half of effort. Few people were doing well but most people were catching some fish. I had a few hits and landed two, I think.


Everyone I talked to was using the same thing. Beads. Beads that mimic salmon eggs. These small plastic beads are the lure of choice when trout are feeding on salmon eggs. There are three tricky parts. They need to be the correct size, the correct color, and they must be presented properly—drifted along the bottom at the correct speed. Therein lies the problem.


I experimented with at least a dozen different combinations sizes and colors of beads. I added more weight. I tried less weight. All worked equally well. I kept asking how others were fishing and adjusting. I could see Dollies and I could make drifts very close to the fish. They did not seem to mind and they rarely responded. The stream just did not live up to its reputation.


Eventually I blundered into the magic bullet or the ruby slippers. I don’t usually worry about how many fish I catch and I don’t usually keep score but if I catch only one or two, it is easy to remember and, I discovered, when the catching is fast, it is also easier to keep a count. I was not trying to run up a big score and I was back to fishing and beginning to relax.


I spent more than half of my fishing time not catching fish, but after I discovered the right combination of size and color of the bead and weight of the sinker, the exact opposite results absolutely made up for the slow fishing. While I fished eight and a half hours with the right setup, I hooked over eighty Dollies and landed about sixty-five. In other words, I hooked Dollies at an average rate of nearly a fish every six minutes. There were at least two 15-minute periods during which I landed five fish each. There were some small fish, of course, in the 8–10 inch range, but more, I think, in the 12–18 in range. The largest I measured was 21inches and lost several that probably were longer. All were catch and release.


What was the magic bullet? Ruby red bead, faceted, and daubed with off white nail polish. No one would have picked it. It did not resemble a fresh salmon egg at all. Finally, as my fishing trip neared the end, I experimented some more. I did not change the weight, but I tried two hand-tied flies made to resemble a salmon egg. One resembled the color pattern of the good bead. No fish. I tried a bead that was slightly larger, mottled, and more orange, than the good bead. Nothing. Back to the original ruby. Five fish in five minutes . . . two from the same run I had just covered with the other bead. Oh, and one fish had another hook with a bit of line and a bead embedded in the edge of its mouth.


I enjoy fishing and I usually catch some fish, but I am not used to catching lots of fish. This was a new experience for me. I am not used to hearing people say: “What are you using?”


Every trip becomes a new learning experience. I learned or relearned that fish are almost always ready to eat. Keep changing and trying different setups until you find the key. Multiday trips are better than daytrips. This was a great experience because I was able to learn and finally got some fish. If I had made a day trip, I would have said the fish just were not hitting.


Of course, there is much more to any trip such than fishing. Karel and I relaxed and escaped from our everyday life. We enjoyed a nice bonfire each evening and even roasted marshmallows and ate s-mores. We sipped on white and red wine with cheese and crackers or smoked salmon with cream cheese.


Karel started and finished a book—The Curious Incident of The Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon— while we were there. The TV set in the camper did not work, perhaps we were in a bad reception site, but we did just fine without it. We certainly would not have had it if we had stuck to our tent. We took walks. Karel wanted to pick berries. There was actually quite an abundance of lowbush cranberries just within the campground but they taste better after a frost or two. We did not do any berry picking together and when she had time to do it on her own, she read her book instead. We took walks, looked for birds and talked to other folks.


We determined that our experiment with the camper produced a mixed result. I was intimidated by its bulk as we went down the highway and it was complicated by the fact that it was rented. We have not had much experience with campers and struggled to decide where to stow our things; then, after they were stowed, we didn’t know where to look to retrieve them. We enjoyed the comfort and convenience but I felt confined by it. I was interested in driving to another part of the stream or to another stream altogether but did not want to batten everything down so we could move it. A camper is a lot more expensive than a tent, but renting one is a lot less expensive than owning one.


We always enjoy getting out and usually have fun playing in Alaska.


Talk to you later.




Oh, wait, there is more . . . Dolly Varden are delightful little fish which often are overlooked by anglers. Dollies are closely related to brook trout and lake trout and, they have a general resemblance to brook trout but without the wavy lines across the back. Most of the year, they are rather dullish in color but as they enter the late-fall spawning season, they can become downright gaudy.