The Dolly Varden is type of salmonid that is native to the Pacific Ocean in both North America and Asia. What very well could be the most beautiful fish on the planet, Dollies live in cold water tributaries of the North Pacific. This is a fish who’s nomenclature constantly sparks debate. Technically a Char, Dolly’s tend to overlap/be confused with Arctic Char and even Bull Trout. We put the semantics aside and just know that they are one of our favorite fish to target!
Dollies can be both anadromous or spend their entire lives in freshwater. Back in the 1920’s Dolly Varden were considered a nuisance species because they would feed on salmon eggs. This actually led to paid bounties being offered on Dolly Varden in southwest Alaska. Now a days, they are more accurately known to feed on salmon fry but not to a detriment or feed on salmon eggs that were drifting down the river and not going to hatch anyways. How the Dolly Varden got their name is actually an interesting story and, similar to the fish itself, one filled with misidentification.
The name originates from a Charles Dickens novel, “Barnaby Rudge” where the main character was a young girl with bright red cheeks name Dolly. In the 1860’s a popular dark green fabric with red dots took on the name Dolly Varden. A fish with colors that matched this dark green fabric was being caught in Northern California and it also eventually inherited the name Dolly Varden (even though it was actually a Bull Trout but they didn’t realize that until decades later). Mistaken identity aside, Bull Trout and Dolly Varden are two different species but the name stuck with the latter. Now a days, the more common misidentification in Alaska occurs between the Arctic Char and Dolly Varden. Many rivers actually hold both species. Physical differences between a Dolly and Arctic Char are minimal. Typically Dollies boast a larger kyped jaw of males. They also tend to be darker and have more spots.
In general, Arctic Char spent their lives exclusively in the freshwater where young Dollies spend a few years in the river before migrating to the ocean. The estimated spawning age of the fish is 5 to 9 years, at which point they return to the stream in which they were born. Unlike salmon, they do not all die after they spawn.
Name games aside, they are some of the coolest fish on the planet. They are numerous in our waters and always aggressive. When in their spawning colors, it is said that a Dolly is “dressed up in their clown suite” and we can see why!
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