Other Fish in Alaska

Alaska’s coastal waters are habitat for an abundant population of Dolly Varden. There are two varieties of Dolly Varden in Alaska’s waters – southern and northern. There are both anadromous (living in both freshwater and saltwater) and freshwater varieties of Dolly Varden in the state’s lakes and rivers. They belong to a fish group called char, distinguished from salmon and trout by the black spots and speckles on their sides.

Young Dolly Varden are a silver color with an olive green to brown color on the dorsal surface and many orange to red spots on their sides. Mature males develop vibrant red hues on their lower body. The lower fins are reddish-black – white on the leading edges. Mature females look similar, but their colors are less vibrant. Southern Dolly Varden mature faster (5-6 years) than northern Dolly Varden (5-9 years). Males’ mortality rate after spawning is lower than females due to the fighting in which they engage during the process. Only approximately 50 percent of Dolly Varden live long enough to spawn a second time. Dolly Varden live an average of 10 years. 

The Dolly Varden is a stream-spawner, usually during the fall from mid-August to November. Depending on her size, the female may deposit six hundred to six thousand eggs (the northern breed lay much more) in depressions, or redds, which she constructs in the streambed gravel by digging with her tail fin. The male Dolly Varden doesn’t participate in the building of the nest; he fights and sports with other males. When the female is ready to deposit her eggs, the male moves to her side and spawning begins. Eggs and sperm are released into the redd simultaneously. The eggs develop slowly in cold-water temperatures. The eggs hatch generally hatch four to five months after fertilization. After hatching, young Dolly Varden obtain food from their yolk sac and usually do not emerge from the gravel until this food source is consumed. Emergence usually occurs in April or May for the southern Dolly Varden and in June for their northern cousins. Young Dolly Varden rear in streams before beginning their first migration out to sea. Their growth is slow during this time, a fact that may be attributed to their low level of activity. Young Dolly Varden often prefer to remain on the bottom, under stones and logs, or in undercut areas along the stream bank, hidden from view. They generally feed from the bottom at this stage. By their third or fourth year, most Dolly Varden are ready to migrate; this migration usually occurs in May or June. The Dolly Varden, once at sea, begins an interesting pattern of migration. 

Dolly Varden, after their first seaward migration, usually spend the rest of their lives migrating to and from fresh water. Southern form Dolly Varden pass the winter in lakes, while most northern Dolly Varden do so in rivers. Those Dolly Varden which were hatched and reared in a lake system carry on annual feeding migrations to sea, returning to a lake or river each year for the winter. Southern Dolly Varden, which do not originate from lake systems do seek a lake in which to winter. Research shows the Dolly Varden chooses these lakes at random.

The Dolly Varden is one of Alaska’s most prized sport fish. The Dolly Varden is unique; it is the only member of the family Salmonidae that has readily adapted to the numerous small- to medium-size nonlake streams that enter Alaska’s saltwater areas. The importance and popularity of the Varden rise in direct proportion to the rise in human population and fishing restrictions.

To fish successfully for the sea-going Dolly Varden, intricate knowledge of its migratory habits is mandatory. The best Dolly Varden catches may be found during the summer months, as the mature fish return to their home stream to spawn and feed in August and September, most coastal streams in Southeast Alaska and up through the Aleutian Chain. Fishing near spawning salmon, in deep holes, and at creek mouths on incoming tides produces fantastic results. Lake fishing for sea-run Dolly Varden can be good from late August through November. The fish begin entering lakes in late August and are in prime condition after their spring and summer growing season. Ice fishing in lakes during the winter can also provide excellent sport for those willing to brave the elements.