Dandy Dollies of Far-North Alaska

A conversation with Fish Biologist Randy Brown

North Slope Dolly Varden in spawning colors. 📷 USFWS
Randy stands on the bank of the Canning River in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. 📷 USFWS/Katrina Liebich

Randy, we know you’re based in Fairbanks and work the northern parts of Alaska. How do Dolly Varden fit into the fish community there, especially on the North Slope?

a silvery dolly varden held in the water
a silvery dolly varden held in the water
A chrome sea-run Dolly Varden from Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. 📷 USFWS/John Wenburg
Back half of an Arctic Grayling from Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. 📷 USFWS/Katrina Liebich

In terms of those big Dollies, they occur where the freshwater food choices aren’t so great but the ocean has abundant food. Let’s talk about that.

The Upper Canning River (left) and Marsh Fork (right). 📷 USFWS/Randy Brown
a small dolly varden in someone’s hand
A mature dwarf Dolly Varden. Note the parr marks (barring or spotting on the sides to blend in with a freshwater environment). 📷Alaska Department of Fish and Game/Audra Brase
Shublik Spring emerges from a mountainside in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge before flowing across tundra and into the Canning River. It flows at the same volume and temperature (~5.5ᵒC) all year, every year. Radio carbon dating indicates this ancient water was last exposed to the atmosphere 1,200 years ago. 📷 USFWS/Randy Brown

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a pretty special place. People don’t tend to think about the fish maybe as much as the caribou or the crazy diversity of birds that come here from all over the world to breed. If somebody wanted to go fish in Arctic Refuge, is that possible? Can you do a float? What do you need to think about to plan a trip like that?

For someone who hasn’t seen Arctic Refuge and the area north of the Brooks Range, what’s it like?

A river braids its way across the north slope of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. 📷 USFWS/Lisa Hupp
dall sheep on a snowy slope
Dall Sheep. 📷 Brad Benter

Where can you find Dollies on the North Slope of Alaska?

word cloud Dolly Varden facebook comments with colorful dollies
We asked our Facebook audience to describe this Hula Hula River Dolly Varden and here’s what they came up with. Compiled by USFWS/Katrina Liebich

Is that coloration where they get their name from?

A collage showing the variation of Alaska’s char species, including Dolly Varden, Arctic Char, and Lake Trout. Compiled by USFWS/Katrina Liebich

How do you tell the different char species apart?

Lake Trout up close held in the water
An Lake Trout from Arctic Refuge. 📷 USFWS/Katrina Liebich
A Dolly Varden with a hooked lower jaw
Male Dolly Varden with a large kype (hook jaw). 📷 USFWS/Randy Brown

They appear to be very similar in form and behavior to salmon and trout — are they a good sport fish?

There used to be a bounty on Dolly Varden in the early days. You’d get a payment if you turned in their tails because people were concerned Dollies were eating young trout and salmon.

So would salmon eggs be a good lure choice?

If someone were to fish for them, they’d want to get something maybe big and flashy — like a spinner — that might work well to entice a strike?

Fascinating stuff. Thank you so much, Randy. To all you fish fans out there: we hope you get out and enjoy All The Fish!

Stories from Alaska by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

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