What is a Dolly Varden? How to Identify This Char Species

What is a Dolly Varden Feature Image

Dolly varden are a salmonid species found in the Pacific side drainages of North America including Canada, Alaska and Washington State.

Dolley varden are also found along the Pacific coast of Russia south to Japan and Korea.

While often mistakenly referred to as a type of trout, dollies are actually a char species.

Telling trout from char is actually very easy by looking at their spots. Char have light spots (white or yellow to red) on a dark body, while trout have dark spots (brown to black) on a light colored body.

Dolly Varden (Salvelinus malma) Species Profile

Dolly varden 2
Dolly varden are common in Alaska and Northern Canada

Dolly varden are an attractive fish with red highlights on their fins, tail and on the tip of their jaws when in their spawning colors.

There are both sea run and freshwater resident dolly varden populations with the freshwater fish preferring lakes and large rivers.

Where they become trapped in small streams, dolly varden become dwarfed.

Sea-run dolly varden can be found in a range of habitats including brackish estuaries to coastal seas.

What’s with the name Dolly Varden?

Dolly Varden Quadrille music sheet cover wiki wide

Dolly varden got their name from a fish caught in California. The name was supposedly coined by the grandmother in the family who caught the fish who was taken by the bright colors and thought it resembled the fashion of the time in ladies dresses – a muslin dress worn over a bright colored petticoat. Their scientific name is salvelinus malma.

General Description

Merediths Record Dolly Varden
This record dolly varden has the characteristic pink spots and white leading edges to its fins

Dollies have dark colored sides(ranging from grey through the brown or olive green) fading to white on the bellies. They have pale spots ranging from pale pink to yellow.

Their appearance is very similar to both bull trout and artic char.

The characteristic red highlights in all three species occur when the fish are spawning. These are most prominent in the makes

Like most salmonids, the anadromous forms of dolly varden are lighter and more silvery in color and tend to darken when they enter fresh water.


Young Dolly Varden have 8–12 dark, irregularly-shaped vertical bars (parr marks) on their sides straddling the lateral line. The characteristic spots tend to develop when juveniles reach 3–4 inches in length.

Dolly varden vs bull trout vs arctic char

Dolly Varden look like, and are often confused with, Arctic char and bull trout.

Here are some key differences to help you tell them apart:

Dolly Varden

  • The spots on Dolly Varden are small – smaller than the pupil of an eye
  • Dolly varden have a slightly forked tail
  • Dolly varden usually spawn in streams
  • Spawning male Dolly Varden develop a more pronounced “kype” or beak when spawning

Arctic Char

  • Arctic char are usually a darker bronze in color
  • Artic char have larger spots
  • Artic char usually live and spawn in lakes for their whole life cycle
Arctic Char
An Arctic Char: note the translucent dorsal fin. Other than, it is very similar on this angle to a dolly varden

Bull Trout

  • Bull trout tend to have a large head in proportion to their body
  • Bull trout have a translucent dorsal fin
  • Bull trout have white leading edges on their fins
Bull Trout
Bull Trout: Note the large head in proportion to its body

Life History

In Alaska, which is noted for large dolly varden populations, two distinct forms are recognized: southern form dolly varden and northern form dolly varden, with the northern form maturing more slowly but reaching larger sizes (up to 30 inches and more than 20lbs vs 16 inches and 10 pounds for the southern form).

Growth and Reproduction

Dolly varden are relatively slow growing reaching maturity at between five and nine years. According to Alaska’s fish and game authorities, the southern form live up to eight years and the northern form up to 16 years.

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.

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.

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.

What do Dolly Varden Eat

Dolly varden are opportunistic carnivorous feeders eating insects as young then transitioning to larger prey such as crawfish, other fish and salmon eggs.

Dollies often follow the main Pacific salmon runs feeding on stray eggs, and later in the cycle on salmon fry.

How to Catch Dolly Varden

Dolly varden 4

Adult dolly varden tend to remain relatively low in the water column, close to the stream bed.

Deeper diving lures resembling bait fish are effective, along with spoons and spinners will work, or streamer patterns if you are fly fishing.

Fly fishing is a great way to pick up dollies on the fly, ideally with a sink tip line and egg sucking leech type patterns.

There are many fishing lodges in Alaska that will take you out and show you how to catch Dolly Vardens. Matthew Williams is a local guide in Alaska who’s been helping people catch Dolly Varden for years. 

“Before salmon return to the rivers to spawn, try fishing for dollies in and around river mouths with small flashy baitfish imitations to match the hatch of juvenile salmon fry entering the ocean,” Williams sats

“Before the salmon enter the river in full force, dollies will swim up the river staging to feed on salmon eggs during the spawn. Try fishing deep pools or riffles where salmon hang out.

“The best flies are flesh-colored streamers either pink or orange and strip the fly back at a constant pace. For conventional tackle try vibrax spinners in sizes #3 and #4 in pink or purple colors for the most success.”

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has some great info on fishing for Dolly Varden, with tips suggesting:

“Try fishing near spawning salmon, in deep holes, and at the creek mouth on an incoming tide. Fishing for sea-run Dolly Varden in lakes can also be good as they migrate into lakes from late August through October, and are in prime condition after their spring and summer growing season. Ice fishing in lakes during the winter can also provide excellent angling opportunities. A sea-run Dolly Varden caught on light tackle can be an experience not easily forgotten and like other char, the Dolly Varden’s pink, firm flesh is full of flavor.

“Knowing that Dolly Varden hang out at the stream mouths and in the near-shore environment during the spring, and that they are feeding on emigrating pink salmon fry will lead anglers to try small spinners and or fly patterns imitate small fish. As the salmon fry grow and migrate along the saltwater beaches and shoreline during late spring and summer months try using slightly larger streamer flies and lures which imitate small silver colored fish. Coastal streams in August and September can produce excellent fishing for those using spinning lures or fly patterns which imitate salmon eggs drifting downstream.”


The movements of dolly varden are quite variable.

The anadromous fish obviously head out to sea and usually remain relatively close to shore, although fish are recorded to have travelled between the US and Russia. Like the freshwater resident dwelling fish, they overwinter in lakes or rivers.

Southern form dolly varden tend to overwinter in lakes while their northern form of dolly varden will overwinter in streams or rivers.

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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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