Dolly fishing?

Already?

Yes, as a matter of fact.

The fishing certainly won’t be as hot as in May. But the few fish you catch are likely to be a whole lot larger than those that appear later.

Over the years I’ve learned that the largest Dollies tend to sneak out of their winter lakes earlier than the peak of the run most anglers target in May. Timing of their movement is a little variable from one year to the next, but I have caught them as early as the first week of April.

I don’t expect to catch dozens per day as with the smaller fish in May, and I am not surprised when I don’t catch any at all on a particular day. But those I catch are almost always over 20 inches.

I suspect the trigger for their departure from lakes into rivers is timed with the movement of steelhead spawning in the river. I almost never find April Dollies in rivers without steelhead, and more often than not the Dollies congregate downstream from spawning steelhead.

It makes sense that this would be the realm for larger Dollies when you think about it. Steelhead are big and extremely aggressive when spawning. Smaller Dollies in the neighborhood just aren’t going to fare as well as the big ones.

I’m a little reluctant to cast blindly for Dollies while the steelhead are spawning, however. The steelhead are so aggressive and prone to striking while defending their nests that you’re almost certain to hook them if you cast too close.

And the small steelhead run in the Buskin River is protected. Even if you plan to release any you hook, it’s a bad idea to hook them in the first place. They’re not in the greatest shape after a long winter on limited rations, and the extra stress of a fight with an angler could well kill them and remove another spawner from the river.

I intentionally use light leaders no stronger than 4-pound test so I can break off a steelhead immediately if I hook one. Light leaders are just fine for the Dollies, and it’s better for the steelhead.

So how do I zero in on the Dollies? By first spotting the steelhead, of course.

Steelhead tend to spawn in faster, more exposed water than Dollies like. But if you plumb the first sheltered water downstream from the spawners, you’re likely to find hungry Dollies waiting for food kicked loose by the steelhead upstream.

I was pretty specific in saying “food” rather than steelhead eggs. Sure, the loose eggs drifting downstream are important Dolly food, but there’s a lot more going on as the steelhead stir the gravel for their nests.

For one thing, salmon eggs laid in the same place last fall have hatched in the gravel, and the fry are just waiting to gain strength before swimming up out of the gravel.

These fry that haven’t emerged from the gravel are barely formed and feature a distinctive orange or pink yolk sac, or remnant of the egg it hatched from. I don’t know of any spinning lures that resemble them, but fly patterns called Alevin do a great job.

If you’re not set up for fly fishing, you can always put a split shot on your line above an Alevin fly and cast it with a spinning rod, as well as cause it to roll along the bottom where it belongs. For that matter, a split shot on the leader is helpful for sinking Alevins even when you use a fly rod.

Along with eggs and fry, the steelhead spawning kicks loose aquatic insects that the Dollies relish. Almost any weighted nymph or bead head nymph will work, but I get the quickest, most reliable response from No.14 Bead Head Hares Ear nymphs.

I didn’t say anything about imitating eggs, did I?

I’m getting to it, but I find I have more trouble with steelhead hits when I’m using eggs, whether imitations or the real things. Steelhead love eggs!

I certainly use Glo Bug egg imitations for Dollies, but only when I’m sure I can keep them out of reach of the steelhead. I’m not a user of bead eggs so I can’t advise you there, but champagne pink Glo Bugs with a cerise spot are especially deadly for Dollies.

Even after hearing that flies work best even on a spinning rod, are you still reluctant to try them?

You won’t catch as many Dollies, but they can still be convinced to hit spoons now and then. I concentrate on the smallest sizes, especially in silver or silver and blue, but I have the best luck fishing them in a particular way.

I cast upstream from the Dollies far enough to allow the spoon to sink to the bottom before it reaches them. Then I let it roll and bounce on the bottom just like an Alevin.

You’re back in the realm of very light lines when using spoons, not only for breaking off steelhead, but also for imitating Alevin. I find the smaller the spoon, the better, and line heavier than 4-pound test often won’t cast the smallest spoons.

Ice clearing from lakes is even more variable than the timing of the migration of large Dollies into rivers. But if you can find open water on a lake, the fishing is often even better than in the connecting river.

You won’t catch as many big fish, but large numbers of Dollies tend to congregate in open water of lakes, especially at the heads of lakes where streams enter them. Just like the large Dollies in the river, those still in lakes concentrate around stream mouths to wait for food swept from upstream.

I don’t have much luck using egg or Alevin flies in lakes, except right in the stream mouth. But small streamers and nymphs can be deadly. For whatever reason the Dollies often respond better to faster retrieves, even though they aren’t in the best condition for fast chases.

Spinning lures, especially spoons, come into their own in lakes. You can cover a lot more open water than with a fly rod, especially on windy days. I prefer to use spoons in the 1/8-ounce range on lakes, with those on the heavy end of that range reserved for the windy days.

I like to “rock and roll” my spoons in lakes. I cast and reel line quickly until it’s tight, then raise my rod tip without reeling to cause the spoon to dart forward. Once the rod tip is a little short of overhead, I stop raising the rod, then reel just fast enough to keep the line tight as I lower the rod tip.

In the water, this causes the lure to stop moving forward and flutter toward bottom as you lower the rod tip. More often than not, the strikes come as I’m lowering my rod tip, so it’s especially important to time your reeling to keep a tight line at this time.

Whether in a lake or river, April Dolly fishing is as much about keeping warm as finding the fish. A good windbreaker or raincoat is mandatory, as is a good choice in warm, flexible gloves.

I am most comfortable if I put on a pair of thin plastic or rubber gloves first, then add a set of lightweight polypro liners. The inner layer keeps your hands dry, while the outer layer provides a little insulation, yet the combo is flexible enough for fine work like tying knots.

Sound like a lot of effort and discomfort for a small number of fish?

Maybe so, but at least it’s fishing!

Welcome to spring.

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