Salmon fishing at Saltery Lake Lodge can be such a high-energy, arm-exhausting endeavor that sometimes it’s a welcome luxury to spend a few hours chasing smaller game on light tackle. The Dolly Varden, a species of anadromous (sea-running) char, could not be a more perfect handmaiden to the Sockeye, Pink, Chum and Coho that they follow into our river systems.
Most Dolly Varden (Dollies for short) is relatively small, usually ranging between eight and twenty-five inches. Dollies preserve their ocean chrome well into their tenure in fresh water, waiting until late August to assume their stunning black, orange and blue spawning colors. Their abundant pink spots make it a hard fish to mistake for another – they are named after a Charles Dickens character from the novel Barnaby Rudge, a lady who wore long, pink-spotted dresses.
Dollies usually follow a week or two behind the first run of Sockeye salmon in late June, and don’t stop running until well into September. During July and August, the Dollies mostly feed on salmon fry in the rivers, and they will attack lures and streamer flies with an almost startling viciousness. In the later part of the summer, they switch to primarily eating stray eggs dropped by the spawning salmon, and concentrate in the lake, Lake Creek (the small stream that feeds Saltery Lake), and the uppermost half-mile of Saltery Creek, right below the lake. During this time, they provide (literally) constant action on drifted beads and flesh flies.
Although they are much smaller than the salmon, and can sometimes feel like pests when they’re racing Coho to your fly or lure, the Dolly Varden is a peerless light-tackle gamefish. Their aggression borders on mania, they are visually breathtaking, and in the opinion of many of the staff they taste just as good, if not better, than salmon.
Whether you’re watching a dozen fish charge your fly as it swings through the current or waiting for that twenty-incher to emerge from the downed tree, you may find it difficult to control your pulse when fishing for Dollies. Often overlooked and underappreciated, the Dolly is a guide favorite that offers seemingly limitless ways to have fun while catching them. They’re downright literary.
Rod: 2-7wt single-handed (2-4wt rods can be used when bead fishing on Lake Creek, but are not recommended for streamer fishing in rivers)
Reel: 2-7wt normal or large arbor with a good drag
Line: 2-7wt floating (sinking lines are rarely necessary)
Leader/tippet: 5X-2X (Dollies are only line shy about once per presidential administration, so select your leader and tippet strength based on how much of a challenge you want; straight 6-12lb monofilament is also perfectly acceptable)
Flies: sparsely-tied Clouser Minnows in sizes 6 to 2, small Deceivers, really any baitfish pattern that’s not too large for their mouths, and small flesh flies for later in the season
Beads: anything that is even close to the same size and color as a salmon egg (bring indicators, bead stoppers, the smallest shot you can find, and strike indicators that are any color but orange or red – you’ll have fish slashing your indicator incessantly otherwise)