Still, it seems a long step from the beauteous Dolly Varden of Charles Dickens to a fish whose second-most-popular name is bull trout. It's not that the Dolly Varden isn't a handsome fish; it's just that it has some habits that have given it something of a bad reputation.
The Dolly Varden is not wary or graceful like a trout; it's a voracious feeder, a vacuum cleaner of river bottoms. It gobbles up the eggs of salmon and steelhead and their hatching fry as well. It even has been known to eat mice, moles, frogs and small birds. It is extremely vulnerable to all angling methods, but especially to bait and spoons. Often it is caught by steelhead fishermen, and its fight pales in comparison with that of the steelhead or any other trout. The Dolly Varden rarely jumps, preferring instead to fight in a series of short rushes. Dollys of two to five pounds are common, and fish of more than 10 pounds are not exceptional in Alaskan waters. Though fish of such size will put a healthy bend in any rod, they seldom fight as long as their size would indicate.
At one time there was a widespread notion that the Dolly Varden was an evil creature whose habit of eating fish eggs and small fish posed a threat to the survival of salmon and steelhead. Overlooking the fact that salmon and steelhead had somehow managed to survive for thousands of years despite the predatory habits of the Dolly Varden, anglers began a sort of informal campaign to eradicate the species. Because it was easy to catch, it was caught and killed in wholesale quantities, and logging-camp inhabitants frequently joined in the fun by dynamiting pools in which Dollys were known to congregate. It wasn't long before the Dolly Varden became relatively scarce in rivers south of the Canadian border.
But nowadays, when even the snail darter is grudgingly conceded a right to life, there is a somewhat more benevolent attitude toward the Dolly Varden. Its numbers are gradually increasing, and some anglers even have begun to assign a sporting value to it, especially when there aren't any steelhead around—as increasingly there are not.
The Dolly Varden is a fall spawner; sea-run fish begin to enter the rivers in September, close on the heels of the fall salmon runs. Spawned-out kelts recover rapidly and return to the sea in the spring, and there is an increasingly popular April fishery in the Skagit estuary of Washington.
My first encounter with a Dolly Varden came while fishing for steelhead in the North Fork of the Stillaguamish about 60 miles south of Seattle. My fly was taken at the tail of a riffle by a strong fish that ran well, and I thought surely it was a steelhead. But the fish broached at the end of its run, and I caught a glimpse of green and gold and knew immediately it was no steelhead. It proved to be a fat, handsome Dolly, whose uncharacteristically vigorous fight was a result of the fact that my fly was stuck in its dorsal fin rather than in its mouth.
"Hello, Dolly," I said to it as I removed the fly from its fin and returned it to the river. It didn't look anything like any hat I ever saw.
Since then I have caught Dolly Varden all the way to Alaska, where they are extremely numerous and are still sometimes regarded as something of a nuisance. I've even coaxed a few sea-run Dollys to take a dry fly, although such an esoteric act seems against their general principles.
My strangest experience with a Dolly Varden came while dry-fly fishing for summer steelhead. The fly had just touched down after a long cast across a pool when a six-inch steelhead smolt rose and took it. Immediately I gave slack, in hopes that the little fish would not hook itself, but a gentle tugging on the line soon signaled that it had. I stripped in line rapidly, hoping to release the fish as quickly as possible but not paying much attention to it, when suddenly there was a much stronger pull on the line.
Looking down through the clear water of the pool, I was amazed to see that I was made fast to a fish four times as long as the one that had taken my fly, a fish that was twisting and turning powerfully in the current. Slowly I played the fish until I could see its jaws were clamped around the six-inch smolt that had risen to the fly. The fish was only an arm's length away when it finally released its grip and swam past me, almost brushing against my waders—and I could see then that it was a big, mean-looking Dolly Varden, obviously disappointed at having to give up what it had thought would be an easy meal.