Dolly Varden: What are they? In simple terms, they are char which puts them in the Salvelinus family with brook trout and lake trout and their close cousins, bull trout and arctic char. The origin of the name seems to have come from the McCloud River in California during the 1870s where the local char was given the name Dolly Varden. There was a Charles Dickens character from the play “Barnaby Rudge” named Dolly Varden and the women’s fashion of the time was to wear printed dresses reminiscent of the spots. Years ago, I guided a woman who claimed to be from the family who started the name.
The Kenai river system has both resident and anadromous dollies. Dollies have a unique life history in that adults will travel far from their natal streams. They will feed in the ocean and then move into fresh water rivers and streams to feed on juvenile salmon or eggs. The Kenai is a large river with lots of food and we see Dollies (Char) of all shapes, sizes and characteristics. I’ve seen some that look like the pictures of dollies and Kundzha Char coming from Kamchatka. Dollies typically range from 12” to 28”. Adults are often in the 22-24” range. I have measured dollies from the Kenai up to 32” and once lost the battle to a dolly that was so large; I can’t even talk about it.
One of the great things about trout fishing in Alaska is that Dolly Varden are often present, homing in on the same food sources. As such, the tactics and equipment used are generally the same as for rainbow trout. Rods from the typical 5wt trout stick to 7 and 8wt switch and spey rods have their place. My standard single hand of choice for the Kenai is a 10’ 6 or 7wt fast action rod. These rods are capable of handling 8wt floating lines and make throwing indicators or heavy steamers a reasonable prospect. They will hopefully be tested by some of the larger dollies, rainbows and likely connect with a few sockeye or silver salmon.
I am a big fan of larger arbors for quick line pick up and prefer spools of approximately 4” for my 10’ rods. Backing capacity of better than 100yds is nice with a smoothly flowing drag. There are plenty of great reels out there. I feature Ross and Sage on most of my rods.
We do the majority of our trout/dolly fishing with floating lines. Airflow “Ridge Supple Impact” and Rio “Grand” or “Indicator” lines are great choices. Sink tips and clear intermediate lines can be nice for throwing steamers if you have a second rod. Spey and Switch rods can work well by overlining 3 line sizes or matching them up with a suitable Skagit system.
Our average leaders taper to tippets ranging from 8-12lb or 2x to 0x. The exception would be dry flies or smaller nymphs on 3x.
While Kenai River Rainbow Trout are world renowned, the Dolly Varden is often overlooked until anglers begin catching them. Dollies are beautiful native char and deserving of respect. I’ve seen plenty of dollies take runs deep into backing and they will sometimes jump. What they will always do is pull with the strong headshaking determination char are known for. In various stages of mature coloration, dollies are a brilliant and beautiful fish.
Rainbow Trout, Dolly Varden Char, King Salmon, Sockeye Salmon, Silver Salmon, Pink Salmon, Steelhead