Any time now the Dolly Varden will begin their migration to the sea from their winter home in lakes. The timing varies a little from one year to the next, but sooner or later their slender silver forms and hungry mouths will materialize.
Sure, you could wait until others find the fish, then head out for a sure thing.
But there’s a very good reason to be the first to find the Dollies.
My 40-plus years on Kodiak waters have taught me to expect the biggest Dollies to be the first to leave the lakes.
Sure, you can catch a lot more fish once the run is in full force, but they average between 10 and 15 inches. The early fish often top 20 inches!
Fishing methods for those first fish out of the lakes will be different from what you might have experienced later in the run.
Those later fish are concentrating on the millions of salmon fry struggling along the surface and especially the shoreline. But the big fish start their run before the appearance of the salmon fry.
So what’s going on?
I finally figured out that those early fish have found a different food source to lure them out of lakes.
They actually appear to follow the steelhead as they leave the lakes for their spring spawning runs.
Sure, the Dollies are interested in steelhead eggs that get spilled into the water, rather than gravel. But there’s an even better food source that appears sooner than steelhead eggs.
Steelhead start digging their nests, or redds, long before they actually spawn. And in the process they dislodge salmon alevins, or partially formed fry, from the gravel.
The salmon offspring haven’t developed enough to swim freely in the current and migrate. They hatched from the egg sometime previously and are merely resting helpless in the gravel as their bodies continue growing into a form that is capable of swimming.
And when kicked free from the gravel by the digging steelhead, they’re an easy and nutritious meal for the waiting Dollies.
Alevin are very small, barely more than an inch long. They have slender silver bodies with almost no fins. Most distinctive of all, they have large eyes and a yolk sac.
The yolk sac is actually the remnant of the egg from which they hatched. It’s orange like a salmon egg and protrudes from their belly in a form almost like the original egg.
As the alevin continues to grow and change into a fry, the yolk sac feeds the alevin as it is absorbed into its body.
That might seem like too much detail until you consider how those elements combine to form the distinctive appearance of an alevin. Slender silver body, no fins, big eyes and an orange yolk sac, all in a package no more than an inch long.
Have you ever seen a spinner or spoon that resembles an alevin?
I certainly haven’t.
You have to go to the fly display at your favorite sporting goods store to find anything close. Once there, you are likely to find several choices, a sure sign that fly fishers have been onto the importance of alevin for a long time.
Most alevin flies you see are tied with silver bead chain or lead eyes to help sink the fly and hold it near bottom, just like the living alevin.
But in my experience that weight isn’t heavy enough to keep the fly close to the bottom except in shallow water or slow currents. In deeper, faster water, even fly fishers have to add weight to their leader to get alevin flies to bounce bottom as they should.
There’s not a reason in the world you can’t do the same thing with a spinning rod.
Sure, you need to add a little weight to your leader to cast flies. But with alevin flies the shot actually works in your favor.
Finding those early large Dollies requires walking and a good pair of polarized sunglasses. They scatter along the river in very specific locations.
As you move along you might or might not see the Dollies themselves, but in fact you’re looking for those spawning steelhead. And it’s important to see them before you start casting.
Spawning steelhead are aggressive and won’t tolerate the close approach of any other fish, including Dollies. Being realists and hungry, the Dollies simply wait downstream for the current to bring the alevin and eventually the steelhead roe to them.
That works in your favor, because you really don’t want to hook the steelhead anyway. They’re protected on one local river in any case, but they’re scarce in all of them and deserve our efforts to avoid disturbing their spawning.
Once you spot the steelhead, aim your casts downstream from them so they don’t see the fly. Then allow the fly to sink to the bottom and bounce along just like a real alevin.
You’ll know in short order if there are any Dollies waiting for a free meal.
The larger Dollies don’t wait around in the river long. They move quickly out to sea for the rich diet that waits.
It pays to visit the river mouth and nearby beaches each time to look for Dollies in the river, especially as the main run starts and the crowds of anglers converge later in the month.
Even as the crowds enjoy great fishing for the smaller fish in the river, you can enjoy solitude on the beaches while scoring larger fish.
You’ll still find a few larger fish in the rivers, even as the Dolly run moves into full force. Now and then you’ll catch them on streamer flies in the shallows, mixed in with the smaller Dollies enjoying the easy feed.
But once again it pays to use different tactics if you want to key in on the larger fish.
For the most part the large Dollies are going to pick the best holding water as they wait for food. That means deeper water with some protection from the current, yet close by the faster water that is carrying the salmon fry.
Look for the bigger Dollies at the head of holes, as well as behind obstructions in faster water downstream from the holes. It also pays to get your offering down deep to reach them, rather than expecting them to come all the way to the surface for a meal.
I like weighted streamer flies for this action, especially fished in tandem with an alevin fly about 18 inches behind it. The best weighted streamer pattern in my fly box is a black-over-white Clauser Deep Minnow in size No. 8 or No. 10, whether delivered by a spinning rod or a fly rod.
It’s certainly too early to expect the flood of Dollies out of their winter lakes. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t Dollies already in the rivers!