Kodiak Daily Mirror - Dolly Varden Fun
Dolly Varden Fun
by Hank Pennington
Jul 22, 2014 | 143 views | 0 0 comments | 35 35 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Dolly Varden (File Photo)
Dolly Varden (File Photo)
This is a magic time of year on Kodiak Island.

There are so many options for outdoor fun, it can be tough to decide which to choose today, tomorrow or the next day.

It’s also easy to overlook some really prime opportunities. Red salmon, pink salmon and king salmon are in rivers, and now silver salmon are mixing with the kings and pinks offshore. Halibut are appearing in good numbers and good sizes, too, not to mention the fun of rockfish crashing bait schools.

Of course, deer season opens in a couple of weeks, and ptarmigan season will open about three weeks after that.

Even if you don’t resort to rod or gun, the hiking and photography as well as camping and birding are outstanding right now.

It’s just as well the days are so long, because with so much to do it’s hard to find time to sleep in any case.

But I want to add one more element to the confusing array of options.

Are you a lover of really good “classic” trout fishing?

Sure, the Dolly Varden are numerous and hungry in the ocean, and that’s an exciting option I failed to add to the already long list. But starting now, the Dollies in rivers will provide some of the best trout fishing to be had anyplace in the world.

I’m not kidding.

We have friends who come to Kodiak from the hallowed trout rivers of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado and even New Zealand. To an angler, they’ll back my claim of world-class trout fishing in the familiar rivers of Kodiak’s road system.

Yet virtually no one who lives here bothers to wet a line for them.

With so many other fishing options, it’s easy to understand how folks get distracted from classic trout fishing, but they’re really missing out.

Each spring, sea run Dolly Varden descend from their winter lakes to gorge in the ocean. Along the way, they’re briefly intercepted by avid anglers suffering from a winter without fishing.

But in truth those fish on their way to the ocean are pretty marginal fishing fare. They’re skinny and weak from a long winter on limited rations, even as they make up for it in numbers to be caught. Give them a couple of months to feed in a rich ocean, and it’s almost like catching a different species of fish. The Dollies are now fat and strong. They hit hard, and they really put a bend in a rod. I’m always amazed at the difference.

You’ll also discover they’ve grown a lot in length as well as girth in their short visit to the ocean. I see a whole lot more big Dollies in the fall than I ever encounter in spring rivers.

Their usual pattern is to key on the pink salmon returning to their home rivers and heading upstream. The Dollies follow in their wake prime for a feeding binge on pink salmon eggs.

But to the great benefit of anglers, a good number of Dollies jump the gun when returning to the rivers. Some actually run upriver ahead of the pink salmon run, while even more swim right along with the pink salmon.

And all this happens before the pink salmon actually start to spawn.

It results in good numbers of large Dolly Varden in the rivers, all hungry for an egg feast but without an egg in sight.

That spells opportunity for serious trout anglers. No matter how you prefer to fish, the Dollies are enthusiastic to find anything to eat while waiting for the pink salmon to start spawning.

If you prefer spin fishing with spoons or spinners, I’d head upriver for Dollies as soon as possible. Once the pink salmon arrive in numbers, it’s very hard to get any hardware past them to reach the Dollies.

If you plan to keep the Dollies and don’t mind deep hooking a few along the way, then by all means baits can be very productive, especially single salmon eggs or cured roe. Dollies can’t leave either alone, even as they suck it deep down their throats.

But in truth the fall run of Dollies up road system rivers is the realm for fly fishing.

Sure, you can catch Dollies with abandon using egg patterns, but it’s also an opportunity to use nymphs and classic wet fly patterns. Remember that until the salmon spawning starts, the Dollies have to resort to insects and small fish that populate the river.

Small streamers can be wickedly effective for Dollies, and especially the big Dollies. Talk about smashing strikes, especially early and late in the day. All that will change in the next couple of weeks, even if the Dollies are hand in ever-greater numbers.

Problems arise from the pink salmon themselves. They’ll hit almost anything below the surface. Aside from the fact that spawning pink salmon are no prize, they’re also protected in most upriver sections after Aug. 1.

That doesn’t mean you have to stop Dolly fishing. Instead, you have to change your tactics. If the pink salmon are going to hit anything you put below the surface, switch to fishing on the surface.

You can have a ball fishing dry flies right now before the pink salmon become problematic, but in fact it’s about the only way you can fish once the rivers blacken with them.

Dolly Varden feed enthusiastically on dry flies. You can float a dry fly right over the top of the pink salmon and they won’t show any interest. But the Dolly Varden among them will come right up to take the fly.

That’s an important distinction as we pass through August because in my experience the biggest Dollies, the behemoths as big or bigger than the pink salmon, in fact lie right among the salmon.

The smaller Dollies are chased into the shallower tail-outs of pools and riffles where they provide exciting action, but the biggest seem impervious to the aggression of the salmon.

Almost any dry fly will work, especially in the afternoon or evening. My favorite is an Elk Hair Caddis, but there’s a trick to using it or any other dry fly for that matter.

If you cast the dry and let it simply float naturally downstream with a classic “drag-free drift” you’ll catch the occasional Dolly, for sure.

Angle your cast a little downstream and cause the dry fly to skate or “wake” actively across the surface, and the Dollies go wild. They’ll chase down the fly like a great white shark intent on fresh seal for dinner.

Over the next couple of months the trout fishing on Kodiak will get better and better, with the biggest Dollies usually arriving around mid-August. Break out your light spinning rod or fly rod and head upstream for a taste of some of the best trout fishing in the world.

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