Day of the Dolly Varden

Posted: Friday, May 14, 2010

"Pray for rain."

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Abby Lowell / Juneau Empire
Abby Lowell / Juneau Empire

I keep hearing that phrase like a CD skipping on a dirt road.

And lately Mother Nature has obliged.

But, please, pray for rain.

Because I'm ready to shake the dust from my waders. I'm ready to wet a few streamers, to feel that mighty fight on the end of my line. My trusty fly rod has been idle for too long. It's time again for the tip to bend, the tippet to stretch and for my fingers to linger with the scent of fish.

But first, we need rain.

On a sunny May day the dollies were out, slapping the surface, and flopping about like children in a kiddy pool. This, however, was not a Dolly Varden play date. Plenty of poor salmon smolts were the target of this small-scale feeding frenzy.

That's one good thing that's come from the warm days of April which brought a welcome reprieve from the otherwise dingy and damp ones that roared in with spring. With all our sun came a seemingly early fishing season.

Fry have exhausted their yolk sac and have emerged from their gravel nurseries. And, the opportunistic Dolly Varden are honing in.

So I tied on a loaner fly from the tying table of Tony Soltys, who's fished the Juneau waters for years. It was an altered clouser minnow pattern tied sparsely with a light-colored SF Blend, a synthetic material Soltys said is being used often on the East coast.

In my hand it seemed stale, but in the water it came alive with just the right amount of movement and dive.

Oh, and it caught fish.

Cast after cast to roaming pods of dollies was the key to success this day.

"Strip it," I was told. "But not too fast. These fish don't try too hard."

I caught and released nearly a dozen Dolly Varden and Cutthroat trout.

These dollies were between 8 and 12 inches long, making them mature fish that were likely on their way to salt water from their winter residency in local freshwater lakes. It's at the mouth of rivers, streams or just off beaches that fisherman will likely find these feisty little char from now until June.

But as quickly as the adrenaline rose with the feel of that first tug on my fly line, it diminished as the dollies disappeared.

A few flopped on the surface.

I swapped flies. My pink streamer with a trailing hook was denied. I swapped again. Zip. Not even a chase.

Brad Elfers, owner of Alaska Flyfishing Goods, offered up a bright spot in the fishing forecast.

"I think it will pick up another notch pretty soon," he said of the Dolly Varden fishing. "DIPAC must be releasing the chum fry soon."

This annual release is like an all-you-can-eat buffet for the dollies who will feast on fry now, then mingle with adult salmon later in the summer, and pick up stray salmon eggs once they begin to spawn in local streams.

Hence their whereabouts are somewhat predictable, but not always. Elfers recommended fishing Gastineau Channel at the base of the Douglas Bridge, (on the Juneau side) and the Sheep Creek area. Every year at the right time, these locations faithfully produce.

In the meantime, higher stream levels as a result of rainfall will help oxygenate the water and facilitate the food chain by flushing the fry downstream.

My five-weight rod was perfect for the outing and even my disheveled leader didn't seem to perturb the dollies, when they were biting, anyway.

So get out there, wet a line and enjoy the sun.

But, please, when no one's looking, do a rain dance for the dollies.

• Contact Outdoors editor Abby Lowell at

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