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It was my first summer of work as a biologist in Alaska when I heard the Dolly Varden referred to as "Squirmin Vermin." I was using minnow traps baited with salmon eggs to capture juvenile salmon and I recall how efficient Squirmin were at eating all of the bait as well as any fish they could get in their mouths. I quickly adopted a negative attitude towards Squirmin for compromising my effort.
Snake-like in appearance when young and having a fancy for salmon, it is easy to guess how the name got established. Squirmin are found in salt and freshwaters of North America and eastern Asia and typically spawn in streams during the late fall. Eggs develop slowly given their cold water environment and young fish usually emerge the following spring.
Juvenile Dolly Varden rear in freshwater and anadromous forms usually go to sea after three to four years. Fish reach maturity at five or six years of age and can spawn more than once. Size can vary greatly and in Southeast Alaska fish range 12 to 16 inches in length with the occasional 5-pound fish being seen.
Over the years, I've grown to appreciate Dolly Varden and often describe them as the coyote of the fisheries world. They are opportunistic in nature and will eat just about anything they can get in their mouths. In our neck of the woods they gorge themselves on salmon eggs, carcasses, fry and smolt. This taste for salmon and its direct competition with man has given these fish a bad reputation over the years.
At one time even a bounty was placed on Dollies. Fisherman were given a cash reward for their tails, yet it was later discovered that most of the tails were from other trout and coho salmon so the program was abolished. Today we understand that other predators, Mother Nature and man all play significant roles in salmon production. This understanding and an increasing popularity as a game fish have slowly cleared Squirmin Vermin's name.
From a recreational perspective, Dollies are fantastic game fish with voracious appetites, lots of fight and good abundance. In Juneau, these fish usually are the first and last fish I target annually.
In the spring, fish are bright silver and very aggressive. They mass at favorable feeding grounds near freshwater outlets and along sandy beaches in search of salmon fry, sandlance and other prey. It is not uncommon to catch dozens of Dollies and I have had numerous 50-fish days in the spring! I usually get ice on my line by late March and although winter hasn't quite released its icy grip, the fishing can be outrageous.
When pink and chum salmon start to spawn in mid-summer, you can bet that Dollies are not far behind anxiously waiting to feed on eggs and carcasses. At this time of the year, I always make it a point to commune with Dollies.
In the fall, Dollies search out gravel in the upper stretches of salmon-producing systems to spawn. Dark in color with vivid orange spots and striking white- and yellow-tipped fins, these fish often are my last hookups of the year.
Ed Jones is a fisheries biologist who loves to fish. For further information concerning sport fishing opportunities or regulations in the Juneau area, call the Division of Sport Fish at 465-4270.