Elk hair caddis dry flies

Elk hair caddis dry flies work especially well on dolly varden.

KODIAK — Most of us have heard of the great trout fishing in other parts of the country and around the world. If you’re a fishing crazy like me, you’ve probably even dreamt about them.  

New Zealand and Montana are high on the list for good reason. They have big trout and lots of them. 

Each fall, friends from those storied waters visit us for silver salmon, and I’ve joined the Montana folks on their home waters to sample their great trout fishing. We haven’t made it to New Zealand yet to take advantage of reciprocal invitations to fish. You can guess that it’s high on our list!

As much fun as it is to fish for silvers with them each fall, that’s only half the story. In addition to heavier fly rods for salmon, these friends also bring lightweight rods for Kodiak’s searun dolly varden.

Travel all the way to Kodiak’s for silver salmon and bring a trout rod? With their broad experience, they seem to know something we don’t know. They place Kodiak’s dolly varden fishing on the list of world’s best.

It’s easy for us to take Kodiak’s dollies for granted, especially with such great silver salmon fishing each fall. Certainly, when expecting silvers that can reach over 15 pounds, dolly varden are a disappointment. They’re easily outgunned by the heavier gear used for their bigger cousins, and at times they can be a downright nuisance.

But, put away the big rods and meet dollies with lightweight trout gear and the picture changes.  They’re strong! And on the rich diet in Kodiak’s rivers and ocean they can grow to sizes rivaling the storied rainbow and brown trout on more famous waters.

In truth, our friends’ visits aren’t timed quite right for the best dolly fishing. Coming in September, they miss the peak action starting in late July and extending through August.

Sure you can catch lots of dollies in September, and well into October for that matter. But the real fun starts about now and fades as summer transitions to fall. I like to think of it as a case of the dollies’ enthusiasm overwhelming their good sense.

That’s because dollies run into Kodiak rivers right along with the pink salmon, and often even arrive before them. The promise of rich salmon eggs strewn into the water as pinks spawn is overwhelming.

Traditional trout fishing is so good for dollies starting now because they never seem to learn an important lesson. The pinks don’t spawn right away and time must pass while they wait they’re ready.

Oops! The dollies arrive at the table before the feasting can begin!

They have little choice but to feed on other stream life while they wait. That’s our signal to break out the trout gear and dig deep for flies that imitate insects.

While dollies love fish as well — and you could certainly catch them on streamer flies or spoons — there’s a problem with that approach. The pink salmon are extremely aggressive in their battles leading up to spawning, and any small fish that gets in their way will be attacked. 

You’ll certainly catch pink salmon on streamers and even egg flies, but it’s a better idea to leave them alone to spawn while focusing on fishing methods that mostly escape their notice. More than that, the upper rivers also close to salmon fishing starting August 1 and you have to avoid hooking pinks.

For the best dolly fishing without interference from pink salmon, you have to resort to flies that resemble insects, specifically the insects actively sought by dollies.

While you can certainly catch dollies by rolling nymph flies along the bottom, that’s problematic once the pink salmon horde descends on a river. There are just too many of them and snags are frequent.

It’s far better to concentrate on dry flies that stay above the pinks but draw enthusiastic interest from the dollies.

Here’s where it gets tricky. Timing and weather are important for the best dry fly fishing, and you have to learn some new tricks if you’re schooled in the ways of other trout.

Timing is important because the best dry fly action happens when caddis flies are on the water. That happens in the afternoon and evening, especially on sunny days. You might have noticed the caddis flies without recognizing them. They look for all the world like tiny moths hovering over the water and swimming on the surface.

The new trick comes in how you fish a caddis dry fly for dollies. Conventional dry fly fishing for trout focuses on a “dead drift,” when you cast your fly and manage your fly line in such a way that the fly drifts naturally on the current with absolutely no drag from your line and leader. It’s challenging to do that in many situations, but important for best results for other trout species.

But remember the sight of those caddis flies on our river dancing across the surface and leaving wakes, which in fact means they’re laying their eggs.  Their skittering on the water seems to drive dollies wild. Meanwhile, they almost completely ignore the same fly fished with a dead drift.

There are important refinements to waking caddis flies. If the fly moves too fast across the current as it swings back to your side of the river after a cast, the dollies aren’t interested. It has to wake slowly across the surface with brief pauses just like a real caddis fly.

To do that, you angle your casts downstream and across to the far bank, but the moment your fly line lands on the water flip a small bow into it toward the other bank. Fly fishers call this “mending” line, and you have to do it several times as the fly swings back across the river to your side. Any time you suspect the fly is moving too fast, lift your fly line a little and flip it toward the far bank.

It’s nowhere near as complicated as it might sound, and you’ll catch on quickly. Especially when you’re rewarded by a strike each time you manage to mend the fly and slow its swing across the river.

Early in the pink salmon run you’re likely to find dollies anywhere in the river from holes to riffles. Move slowly downstream and watch for dollies flashing below the surface. And especially keep your eyes open for the surface rings and splashes as they grab caddis flies.

Once the pinks start to spawn, you can count on dollies to be waiting for eggs just downstream from spawning pairs. Even though they are waiting for eggs, dollies can’t seem to resist caddis flies passing overhead. It’s important to spot the pinks and pass your flies downstream from them, because every now and then a pink will grab a caddis fly passing in front of its nose.

Size and color matter in choosing your flies, though in truth the dollies will hit almost any waked dry fly now and then. The best I’ve found is called an Elk Hair Caddis, especially versions with gray bodies. They have buoyant wings that greatly help keep them afloat as they wake.

Larger versions like #10 or #12 are easier to see and to tie on your leader, but you’ll catch twice as many on a #14 version. And you’ll double you catch again on a #16. I’ve tried versions as small as #18 with no improvement in results; my old eyes have trouble these days tying them onto a leader.

Because hair and feathers soak up water it pays to dry your fly after each fish so it will stay on the surface longer. You can tell when I’m into hot dolly fishing by all the wet spots on the front of my shirt from drying flies.

It also pays to use a dry fly “floatant” on your flies. It’s a liquid or paste sold in fly shops and you simply rub it thoroughly into a fly before you start fishing.

On good days, flies can become so waterlogged that it’s even better to tie on a fresh fly while setting aside the wet one to dry. Considering all the alder and will bushes along Kodiak’s rivers, it’s also a good idea to carry extras to replace the ones you lose.

If the pink salmon fishing gets a little stale for you in the next month or so before the silvers arrive, dig out your trout rod and give dry fly dolly fishing a try. It’s more fun than you can imagine — until you try it. I can bet you’ll be planning a second adventure, and soon.

(4) comments


Hank, I just finished reading your article today (7-23-19) and I am a bit confused about your comment that the upper rivers are closed to salmon fishing starting August 1st. I can't find that info anywhere in the fishing regulations. Can you clue me in on where you got that information?


Uh-oh.... My age is showing. For all my 40 years on Kodiak the rivers above the highway bridges have been closed to salmon fishing from August 1 through September 15. I checked the regs and called ADF&G to confirm that regulation was withdrawn 2 years ago, and I missed it. It's great to be updated, and thanks for that. But the spawning pinks are in such poor shape for catching or eating, I'd still avoid them as much as possible. We need the future generations they represent, but it's also a lot more fun to catch the dollies among them.


I'll be on the Rock the first two weeks of August. Hope to run into you on the water. We will be staying in the Chiniak an area which I have not yet fished. I enjoy your columns very much.


Looking for your silver report

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