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Spring Dollie Fever in the Mighty Fraser

By Rodney Hsu, Fishing with Rod | Published in May 2001

Fraser river bull trout in spring

While fishing on one cool afternoon in spring 1997, I discovered a new fishery that can be very exciting for anglers at all ages. I was trying out some new tackles, a brand new 6 feet Shimano spinning rod fitted with a small Daiwa eggbeater. I casted and retrieved my orange 1/8 ounce Croc spoon again and again, expecting to hook nothing that day. All of a sudden, a strong hit was felt on the other end of the line. My reflex quickly jerked the rod back, hooking the unknown. The fish didn't seem that big, but it sure was fighting well, staying out in the current and refusing to come in. After several minutes of great fight on my new light tackle, the fish was about to surface and show itself from the muddy Fraser freshet. At last, a silver body appeared right by the rock where I was standing. I knelt down and prepared to tail the fish. When I discovered what I have caught, my face was filled with expression of shock and excitement. It was a dolly varden!

Since my first dolly in the Fraser, I began to do some research on this beautiful species. Where they live, where they go during the winter, and of course most importantly, how big do they grow? The information that I have found is quite exciting, showing there are many dollies that can be caught in the Fraser system, almost throughout the entire year. Dollies are known as amphidromous fish, meaning they will move between freshwater and ocean for the purpose other than spawning. Unlike the pacific salmon, they do not die once they spawn in the rivers. Dollies can be caught almost anywhere and anytime. Most of the time it is a surprise bycatch for salmon anglers, or kids who are fishing for smaller ocean fish on local jetties. They belong in the char family, which also include the lake trout, brook trout and arctic char. Dollies have a close relative, which is the bull trout. Morphologically, both species look almost identical. The only differentiation that you can make is size, dollies rarely grow larger than 50cm, whereas bull trout can reach over 1m long! For most anglers across BC, both species are referred to as dollies. The colouration of dollies is spectacular. They have a silvery body with large white dots. Juvenile fish in streams have these red to pink spots on their back, while larger and oceanic fish often loss these spots. They have large mouths, capable to swallow large preys. The tail is wide, making it an excellent swimmer that is capable to produce a sudden burst of acceleration when hooked.

Sounds easy to catch doesn't it, since these fish can be found year round? Not really! There are certain periods of the year that are extremely good for dolly fishing. The key for any type of fishing is to find out where and when the fish are, since no fish can be caught if they ain't there. Dollies will follow their major food source. Like cutthroat trout, they will hunt for salmon fries during spring as they migrate down the Fraser River into the ocean. During the summer months, they often terrorize the small fish in the estuaries, and as adult salmon return to spawn, they will follow back to the spawning ground to feed on roe. Therefore, the best time to experience some hot dolly action in the Fraser River is often during spring and autumn.

Most of my dollies have been accidental catches when I was fishing for salmon or squawfish in the past. Lately however I have targetted them specifically. In the Fraser River, dollies can be found at any of the bars below the Pitt River junction where anglers normally fish for salmon. It's best to do lots of exploring. As for tackle, I usually stick with a light spinning outfit, similar to what you would use for pink salmon. Most of the fish you encounter would be between 1 and 3 pounds, but occasionally you do come across a 12 pound monster. Back in 1997 while barfishing for salmon in the Lower Fraser around November, I caught and released one such monster. At the time, I thought it was almost impossible to see dollies in that weight class, but since then I have heard many other catches of big dollies such as that. As for terminal tackle, I like to stick with a croc spoon around 1/8 ounce for spinning, simply because of its narrow design, which perfect for spinning in slow Fraser water. When it comes to colour, I have always used orange or pink, especially during the fall period. During spring time, I like to go with metallic, with or without green/blue/silver plates on one side, to represent the chum salmon fries. You can also bar fish with roe. Your roe needs to be very fresh, dollies can be picky eaters. Although they are agressive, I've found their bites are very precise and fast, making striking at the right moment difficult. When bottom fishing, I like to use a rod with a very sensitive tip, which allows me to see every single bite. Try to present your roe in smaller size. I find that I do very well with no. 1 or 2 hooks. Overall, just be alert, dollies are much sneakier than salmon, they have the tendency to grab the bait and run.

Sustaining the population of wild char

Although it sounds like these beautiful fish are very abundant, we should not take it for granted at all. Past studies have shown that dollies are extremely slow growing fish, compared to their salmonid cousins. In Southern BC, this fishery is strictly catch and release. Anglers should practice this fishing method with care, minimizing the amount of time that the fish is stressed when hooked. After all, who would want to harm such a beautiful fish species? In Japan or other East Asian countries, dollies are almost impossible to catch, and most catches are extremely small such as palm size. Often when anglers from Japan see the size of our dollies, they can only sigh with disbelief. Please treasure what we have, once the fish are gone, they will never return.