Dolly Varden vs Arctic Char: Key Differences Explained

Learn the simple ways to tell the difference between Dolly Varden and Artic char by looking at their size, tails, jaw and gill rakers.

Dolly varden and arctic char occurs in the same waters in the Pacific basin and look very similar.

Both fish are fine looking animals. They have bronze colored flanks with pink spots.

Both species can be anadromous (they spend time at sea before spawning) although lake and river dwelling populations exist too.

And both species have white leading edges on their fins and take on a bright orange or red glow on their undersides and fins as they enter spawning mode.

But there are ways to tell them apart, as we explain in this article.

Dolly Varden vs Artic Char: 5 Key Differences

  1. Arctic char attain larger sizes with fish reaching 30lbs or more vs the 20lbs for dolly varden
  2. The spots on arctic char are larger than on a dolly varden
  3. Arctic char have a more deeply forked tail
  4. Dolly varden have fewer gill rakers (16-23 vs 23-30)
  5. Spawning dolly varden have a larger kype

Dolly Varden vs Artic Char: Distribution

In North America, dolly varden are found from Alaska south to British Columbia and into the United States Pacific Coast through Washington, Idaho and Oregon.

Artic char, on the other hand, are only found in northern regions from northern Canada up to Alaska.

See also: Record dolly varden caught on fly tackle

Dolly varden and arctic char spawning

World Record Dolly Varden Feature Image
A big dolly varden caught on fly tackle

Dolly varden spawn in between September and November depending on conditions. They look for gravel beds in smaller streams and rivers.

The fertilized eggs remain in the gravel for up to five months and the hatchlings, or alvelin, stay under for another month or two gaining nutrients from the egg sack, before dispersing into the stream.

Dolly varden can spawn multiple times, unlike the various Pacific salmon species who die after reproducing. In general, dolly varden may spawn up to three times during their lifetimes often skipping a year or two.

These dolly varden that choose to go to sea tend to do so in the 2nd 3rd or 4th year in freshwater and depart around May returning to spawn at the usual time.

Arctic char, on the other hand, spawn in lakes and tend to reach maturity between six and nine years.

Most fish spawn once every two years.

Spawning takes place between August and October. Eggs are fertilized and deposited over jumbles of substrate or shoals of gravel.

Dolly Varden vs Arctic Char: Feeding

Both species feed on a range of items from zooplankton as young fish through to insects and other fish, as well as salmon roe.

Dolly varden in particular will follow salmon runs upriver feeding on eggs that get dislodged in the current.

Fishing for Arctic Char and Dolly Varden

Arctic char 1
Freshly caught arctic char in a northern lake

Both are fun fish to catch and can be pursued in similar ways. For lure anglers this means spoons, crankbaits and jerkbaits resembling bait fish and for fly anglers streamer flies such as the egg sucking leach and similar patterns.

Anglers like to target dolly varden as they gather to spawn and begin moving upriver to their birthplaces.

Arctic char can be caught through the year when ice coverage permits.

Dolly varden vs Arctic Char: Eating Quality

Both fish have similar flavours – like a cross between trout and salmon – and are high quality eating fish. Artic char have a light pink flesh whereas dolly varden have a more creamy flesh color.


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Rick Wallace is a passionate angler and fly fisher whose work has appeared in fishing publications including FlyLife. He's appeared in fishing movies, founded a successful fishing site and spends every spare moment on the water. He's into kayak fishing, ultralight lure fishing and pretty much any other kind of fishing out there.
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