Dolly Varden Trout

This post was last updated on August 28th, 2021 at 12:42 pm

The Dolly Varden Trout is found in the coastal range, and is very similar in appearance to the endangered bull trout. Dolly Varden char/trout are not endangered, at all, and are found in a very large habitat range. Because of this, you want to be able to tell the two apart, especially when angling in areas where both these fish might be present. They are also close relatives to the brook trout. To learn more about how to identify these fish, where they name comes from, their habitat, and more, read on.

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Photo of dolly varden provided by: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

All About the Dolly Varden Fish (Salvelinus malma malma)

Dolly Varden Identification

Dolly’s that are landlocked are a dark, deep olive color on the back, with the sides appearing the same color, just slightly lighter. You may also notice pale yellow spots along the back, as well as red-orange spots along the sides. During spawning season, a bright orange streak appears long the belly of mature males, and their spots along their body will suddenly appear brighter. Oceanic Dolly Varden may simply appear a nearly silver color, and do not normally have such bright colors on their body, especially when spawning.

Origin of Name

Dolly Varden has (and is) used as a name for several fish species, not just one, and in several areas of the world. This was originally the name of a character in a Charles Dickens’ novel, Barnaby Ridge, who was known for wearing very bright and loud clothing. Originally, the bull trout, when first found in California, was also known as Dolly Varden. Both of these fish change colors to very bright during spawning season, hence the name because of their own “bright attire,” that often echoes autumn colors in the forest.

Dolly Varden vs Bull Trout

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A nice Dolly Varden trout

There are a few characteristics that separate the appearance of the Dolly Varden trout from the bull trout. The Dolly Varden fish has a more rounded body than a bull trout, a less prominent hook of the lower jaw, and a smaller head. Even for experts, these two fish can appear to be very similar, and both are classified as char. In other areas, the Arctic char was once also known as Dolly Varden trout because these fish also look somewhat similar in coloration, body type, and size. These three fish may even occur in the same areas together, making identification even more complicated.

Where to find Dolly Varden Trout

The Dolly Varden trout is not very particular about their habitat. These fish are found in a very large geographical range in the Northern Pacific. They have been found in the Puget Sound, as well as along the peninsula of Alaska, and into the Arctic sea, across the Bering Strait to Russia. Some of these fish populations may migrate to the sea at some point in their life, while others may simply remain in the same streams and stay landlocked throughout their whole lives. Both the Dolly Varden and bull trout can be found in areas of Washington and some other coastal areas, like Alaska and British Columbia. The bull trout, misnamed as the Dolly Varden, most likely no longer exist in California.

Dolly Varden Size and Length

The Dolly Varden is a very large fish. When mature, these fish can reach weight up to and over 20 pounds. The northern form of this fish in Alaska can reach up to 27 pounds. The bull trout is also a very large fish. Strains of the Dolly that move to sea, are almost always large and longer, reaching up to 24 inches in length. Freshwater bound fish are normally only 3 to 6 inches long. These fish can also live for a long time in the wild, in some cases around 16 years.

How to Fish for Dolly Varden Trout

There are lots of fishing opportunities for this fish in a variety of places in the US, Canada, and in Russia. Since they spawn nearly every year, there are very large populations of these fish, and they are in no danger. Anglers should take care, though, to not mistake bull trout for these fish, as bull trout fishing is limited because of their endangered status. Mostly, the same techniques for trout also work for these fish. As mentioned before, these trout are thought to be extinct in California, though there have been scattered reports of them being caught there.

Other Use of the Name Dolly Varden

The name Dolly Varden are used for other types of species of fish. For many years, this name was used for some char found in Britain. This name is still used for another species of fish that appears in the Sea of Japan. Although these same fish appear in Russia, the Russians often call them belyi golets. In some other areas, the name may also be used to refer to the Arctic char. The Southern Dolly Varden, an entirely different species of fish, are also often referred to by this name.

Dolly Varden Trout FAQ

Do Dolly Varden Trout have scales?

Dolly Varden trout only have small scales, so they don’t always need to be scaled before cooking. You might find it necessary to scrape the fish’s skin with a descaler or the dull side of a knife if you catch a larger trout, probably over 14 inches or so.

Is a Dolly Varden a trout or salmon?

It is in the genus Salvelinus of true chars, which includes 51 recognized species, the most significant being the brook trout, lake trout and bull trout, as well as Arctic char.