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The Dolly Dilemma

Citation 30' Dolly Varden Kanektok River
Citation 30′ Dolly Varden Kanektok River

When my father-in-law moved to Alaska in the late 70’s there was a bounty on Dolly Varden. It was something like 5 cents a Dolly, I assume paid upon receipt of a beautiful carcass. The thought was the Dollys were destroying the Pacific Salmon eggs, therein destroying the population. Thankfully the state of Alaska moved beyond this mentality and kinda recognized the fact that we as humans were the ones hurting the salmon numbers. Still arguably overfished commercially but at least anglers weren’t paid to recreationally kill fish.

So, besides the fact that the State was giving them a bad rap, there is no commercial value to the species. In other words there’s no set nets with holes specifically designed to harvest Dollys, there’s no seine nets with Dolly quotas, no longliners would venture in to their domain. Add to that the fact that Dolly Varden spawn in the same systems the Salmon do but they live to see another day. Instead of spawn til you die it’s more like spawn til you’re colored up like a psychedelic lollipop and then eat some more and return to the ocean. Dollies can spawn upwards of 7 or 8 times in a lifespan. That’s a lot of Dollies!

More than you can wrap your head around. On the Kanektok and Goodnewswe have two runs of them, an early season hawg run, and a late season babydoll run. This results in an infestation of the system. Last year, 2017, they estimated our sockeye salmon run over 50,000 fish and I can say without a doubt there were 5 times that many Dollies.

So you may ask what’s the dilemma? The dilemma is solely based on guiding for these voracious predators. With so many in the system all feeding on eggs it’s hard to get a fly in the water without them grabbing it. On some of the big Red beds there’s so many Dollies anglers’ numbers multiply by the minute. I’ve had guests go from a few to over a hundred in about an hour and a half. So what do you do after you’ve caught that many? “I want to do something different ” is what I hear a lot. Of course you do, you’re tired of getting destroyed by hard fighting 20+” fish that never quit. There’s so many Dollies that they outcompete the resident Rainbows, literally consuming their grounds with numbers. As a fly fishing guide can you imagine taking off the hot fly just to give the net some relief? We do it daily in Southwest Alaska!

Dolly Varden Goodnews River
Dolly Varden Goodnews River

On the subject of nets, we all carry nets and hook outs. It is imperative to give these fish the utmost respect on a good release. Barbless hooks are not only part of our permit but critical for the health (and wealth) of all the fish but especially Dollies. They fight harder and harder the closer they get to the net and have a tendency to twist violently. We prefer the hook to just pop out; as evidenced below:

Or the highly acclaimed “shake and bake”
​Exhibit A:

We’re incredibly fortunate to have such a dilemma and the biggest reason for this is because Alaska is still truly the last frontier. We can not take this rare last place for granted, and our 6 million acre Togiak National Wildlife Refuge is as important as ever. Support Alaska and visit this awesome place!!!

Dolly Varden Kanektok River
Dolly Varden Kanektok River

The origin of the name Dolly Varden is from a Charles Dickens novel called “Barnaby Rudge.”  Dolly Varden was a lady character in the book who was known to wear very fancy and pretty dresses.  The pattern of “Dolly Varden” was a popular pattern for embroidery and sewing in the 19th century.