Dolly Varden

Fishing for dolly varden is getting started in Kodiak.

KODIAK — Any day now, I expect Dolly Varden to get serious about their annual spring migration to the sea. After a long winter on limited rations in lakes, the warming water and promise of plentiful food will launch them on their way.

The dollies might be small, but their run is a big deal. It’s the first fishing of spring for many anglers, and after a long winter indoors, any fishing is good fishing.

To make the most of the fishing, it’s important to know more about the dollies and their principal prey, pink salmon fry.

The dollies are slim, in fact, downright skinny after a long winter. Sure that makes them hungry, but it also makes them pretty selective. Along with their weight loss, they’re also weakened. They’re simply not going to invest a lot of effort and energy holding in fast water or chasing fast prey. Instead, they’ll hang out in more sheltered water and large pools waiting for the food to come to them. And if a potential meal is moving too fast, they simply won’t bother to chase it down. 

The salmon fry fit the bill nicely for dollies. They’re small and weak, barely able to make headway through the water and dependent on the downstream movement of the rivers to help carry them to sea. But, there’s another important thing to know about salmon fry.

They do most of their moving in low light, even darkness. Early mornings and late evenings and even darkly overcast days are prime time for fishing because the fry are most active then.

During the hours of bright daylight, they stick to shaded waters and the extreme shallows right along the shoreline.

So, you need to adjust your timing, location and methods to match.

In my experience, early mornings are best because it takes a while for the fry to find shelter for the coming bright hours. Even if you’re a little late arriving on the water, you can look forward to a few hours of good fishing before the midday lull.

Evenings on the other hand take a while to develop. The action builds as it gets darker, but it’s especially good on clear days that can keep you on the water well past your normal bedtime.

Of course, all isn’t lost during the bright hours, but the fishing is certainly more challenging. You need to leave the big pools and seek out smaller pockets of protected waters, especially those sheltered and shaded by overhanging alders.

Ideally, you also need to cast well up into the shallows and retrieve back out into deeper water, just as a fry in the shallows might be spooked out and away from shelter along the shoreline.

On narrower stretches of river, you can accomplish this by casting all the way across to the far shore. 

On wider stretches, you need conditions that allow safe wading down the middle of the river so you can alternate casts to the shorelines on either side of you as you work your way downstream. Clearly, you only want to do that in shallower waters with bottoms well suited for wading and avoid high-water days.

Accurate casts are the order of the day during the bright hours, because the closer you can land to the shore the better.

The next challenge to overcome is the small size of the pink salmon fry. You need to do that while also moving your offering slow enough to attract the interest of the Dollies.

The best lures I’ve found are spoons, but only those not much more than an inch long. Worse yet, most spoons aren’t designed for slow retrieves. They’ll sink right to the bottom if you’re not careful.

I’ve found an interesting solution. 

I’m especially fond of spoons intended for ice fishing. They’re thin and ultralight for maximum action while jigged up and down, which means they flutter nicely on slow retrieves when cast, yet aren’t prone to sinking to the bottom.

There’s a problem in casting them with spinning rods, however.

They’re so light that even a little line resistance coming off the reel will greatly limit your casts and dramatically affect your accuracy.

I confess that I haven’t tried them yet with limp lightweight braid, but with monofilament the challenges are best met with a soft 4# test, and 2# test is even better.

With line that light, accuracy in casting takes on new meaning when trying to thread your casts up close to shore under overhanging alders, even if it’s no problem on the bigger pools in low light.

However, as well as those ultralight spoons work, I’ve found a better solution. Try small, slender bucktail streamer flies, even on your spinning rod.

Hang one or 2’ to 3’ below a clear casting bubble, and you’ll have the right size and light weight with no issues about bottom snags on slow retrieves.

I use them mostly only fly rods, however. I’m a fly caster of long experience, so it’s not much of an issue sidearm casting to reach back under the alders. 

Using a fly rod with brush behind you on the bigger holes is problematic, however, unless you’re well practiced in roll casting.

In my experience, the best streamers in low light are sparsely tied with black and white wings and slender silver bodies. I’m especially fond of Clauser Deep Minnows tied with small bead chain eyes. The eyes are an important feature, but if too large they cause issues with sinking on slow retrieves.

For midday fishing back under the alders, black and white will certainly work, but olive and white usually works better. I’ve had good luck with dark brown and white, but the brown needs to be darker than usual brown bucktail to really produce.

Here’s a bit of advice if you’re buying flies rather than tying your own.

Commercially tied bucktail streamers and Clausers are far too bulky. Don’t be afraid to play barber with them, clipping off about half the hair. Be sure to do it close to the head though so you slim the profile while you’re clipping.

Especially on weekends and after work, dolly fishing can get a little crowded close to town. You can spot the larger holes that are easier to fish by the number of cars parked there.

I’ve learned to concentrate on areas without cars to find better fishing.

If that’s not producing due to high water or bright sunlight, I give up on the river entirely and move down to its mouth where it dumps into the ocean.

You’ll usually find bigger dollies there and no people. 

There’s usually a current along the shoreline in most places, and it’s important to determine which way the current is flowing.

Most of the Dollies will be laying in wait on the down-current side of the river mouth where the river current tends to produce eddies that hold salmon fry and other foods while allowing the dollies to avoid the stronger currents rushing out of the river.

As May progresses, keep your eyes open for another development on some rivers. I’ve caught my first red salmon of the year as early as May 9, and most years manage to do it before May 20 or so.

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