Dolly Varden (Salvelinus malma Walbaum) are locally abundant in all coastal waters of Alaska. Two basic forms of Dolly Varden occur in Alaska waters. The southern form ranges from lower Southeast Alaska to the tip of the Aleutian Chain, and the northern form is distributed on the north slope drainages of the Aleutian Range northward along Alaska’s coast to the Canada border. Anadromous and freshwater resident varieties of both forms exist with lake, river, and dwarf populations being found among the freshwater residents. Little is known of the habits of Alaskan nonmigratory Dolly Varden.

General description: Young Dolly Varden have about eight to ten wide, dark parr marks or oval blotches which contrast with the mottled olive-brown color of their body. The sea-run fish are silvery with an olive-green to brown color on the dorsal surface and numerous red to orange spots on their sides. The mature males become brilliant red on the lower body surface and the lower fins become reddish-black with white along the leading edges. Mature females are similar but are less brightly colored. Males develop an extended lower jaw which hooks upward, fitting into a groove which is formed in the upper jaw. A hook also forms in the females but is considerably less developed.

Dolly Varden belong to a group of fish called char. The light spots on their sides distinguish them from most trout and salmon which are usually black spotted or speckled.

Life history: Dolly Varden spawn in streams, usually during the fall from mid-August to November. The female, depending on her size, may deposit from 600 to 6,000 eggs (2,500 to 10,000 in the northern form) in depressions, or redds, which she constructs in the streambed gravel by digging with her tail fin. The male usually takes no part in these nest building activities and spends most of his time fighting and chasing other males. When the female is ready to deposit her eggs, the male moves to her side and spawning begins. Sperm and eggs are released simultaneously into the redd.

The eggs develop slowly in the cold water temperatures usually present during the incubation period. Hatching of the eggs may occur in March, four to five months after fertilization. After hatching, the young Dolly Varden obtain food from their yolk sac and usually do not emerge from the gravel until this food source is used. Emergence usually occurs in April or May for the southern form and in June for the northern form.

The young Dolly Varden rear in streams before beginning their first migration to sea. During this rearing period, their growth is slow, a fact which may be attributed to their somewhat inactive habits. Young Dolly Varden often remain on the bottom, hidden from view under stones and logs, or in undercut areas along the stream bank, and appear to select most of their food from the stream bottom.

Most Dolly Varden migrate to sea in their third or fourth year, but some wait as long as their sixth year. At this time, they are about 5 inches long and are called smolt. This migration usually occurs in May or June, although significant but smaller numbers have been recorded migrating to sea in September and October. Once at sea, they begin a fascinating pattern of migration.

After their first seaward migration, Dolly Varden usually spend the rest of their lives wintering in and migrating to and from fresh water. Southern form Dolly Varden overwinter in lakes, while most northern Dolly Varden overwinter in rivers. Those hatched and reared in a lake system carry on annual feeding migrations to sea, returning to a lake or river each year for the winter. However, southern Dolly Varden originating from nonlake systems must seek a lake in which to winter. Recent research indicates that they find lakes by random searching, migrating from one stream system to another until they find one with a lake. Once a lake is found, these fish may also conduct annual seaward migration in the spring, sometimes entering other stream systems in their search for food.

At maturity, Dolly Varden return to spawn in the stream from which they originated. The fish possesses the ability to find their “home” stream without randomly searching, as was the case in their original search for a wintering area. Those of the southern form that survive the rigors of spawning return to the lake shortly thereafter, while northern form Dolly Varden usually overwinter in the river system in which they have spawned.

Most southern form Dolly Varden reach maturity at age 5 or 6. At this age they may be 12-16 inches long and may weigh from 1/2 to 1 pound. Northern Dolly Varden reach maturity at age 5 to 9 after having spent three or four summers at sea, and may be 16 to 24 inches long. Mortality after spawning varies depending on the sex and age of the fish. Males suffer a much higher mortality rate after spawning, partly due to fighting and the subsequent damage inflicted on each other. It is doubtful that much more than 50 percent of the Dolly Varden live to spawn a second time. A small number may live to spawn more than twice. Few southern Dolly Varden appear to live longer than 8 years. Northern Dolly Varden may live as long as 16 years, but individuals over age 10 are uncommon. Maximum size for southern Dolly Varden is between 15 and 22 inches and up to 4 pounds; however, occasional 9- to 12-pound lunkers are reported, especially in northern populations.

Sport fishing: Dolly Varden are one of Alaska’s most important and sought-after sport fish. The fish is unique, as it is the only member of the family Salmonidae, excluding salmon, that has readily adapted to the numerous small- to medium-size nonlake streams that enter our saltwater areas. Its importance and popularity can only increase as our population increases and further restrictions are placed on heavily used salmon streams. To fish successfully for sea-run Dolly Varden in Alaska, one should have knowledge of their migratory habits. Since the Dolly Varden migrate to sea from lakes in the spring, a lake outlet stream, stream mouth, or associated beach should be good from April through June. Good Dolly Varden fishing can be found in salt water during May, June, and July. As the mature fish return to their home stream to spawn and feed in August and September, most coastal streams in Southeast Alaska and up through the Aleutian Chain provide good fishing for Dolly Varden. Try fishing near spawning salmon, in deep holes, and at the creek mouth on an incoming tide. Lake fishing for sea-run Dolly Varden can be good from late August through November. The fish begin entering lakes in late August and are in prime condition after their spring and summer growing season. Ice fishing in lakes during the winter can also provide excellent sport for those willing to brave the elements.

Like its close relative, the Eastern brook trout, the Dolly Varden is excellent for eating. Catch one which has been has been at sea for awhile, and you have a fish unsurpassed in quality. The flesh is pink, firm, and full of flavor. For variety, try smoking some of your catch, or try cooking it wrapped in foil with a little butter, salt, pepper, and lemon juice in the hot coals of a beach fire.

Dolly Varden will usually strike readily at almost anything the angler offers. During the spring, try small spinning lures in the lake outlet streams and in salt water. Streamer flies, resembling small fish, can produce surprising results along the saltwater beaches during the spring and summer months. Coastal streams in August and September can produce excellent fishing for those using spinning lures or a single salmon egg bounced along the bottom. Occasionally flies, both wet and dry, can be successfully used in both streams and lakes. A sea-run Dolly Varden caught on light spinning tackle or fly rod will produce a fight not easily forgotten.

Text: Dennis Hubartt
Illustration: Ashley Dean
Revised and reprinted 1994