If you grew up anywhere in the Lower 48, there’s a high probability that your very first fish on a fly was a bluegill.
Their abundance and willingness to take the fly (even a poorly presented one) have made bluegill a favorite of beginning fly – and conventional – anglers for eons.
Of course, there are no bluegill in Alaska – but you do have Dolly Varden which are the perfect beginner fly fishing species.
Dollies in Alaska aren’t lavished with the reverence that the state’s rainbows receive. In fact, they are often considered a nuisance…gasp…even a “trash fish.” But let’s give these guys some credit here! Dollies are sporty little guys and exhibit some of the same attributes that make bluegill such popular fare down south. Most notably:
Where you find one, you usually find a bunch of ‘em — and they love to bite. Plus, they can grow to several pounds! What’s so wrong with that?
So, if you are yearning to give fluff chucking a try, these “bluegill of the North” are a great place to start. Their aggressiveness makes picking a fly pattern easy and you can get away with a dry (floating) line in just about any situation.
Okay let’s get you outfitted first. I like a 9-foot, 5-weight rod for dolly fishing, but you can go up to a No. 7 or 8 if you are fishing big water with larger fish.
Now, here’s the beauty of it: you don’t need a $700 rod and a reel that cost more than your first car to catch dollies. Something you found for $20 at a flea market is fine when you are just starting out.
Sure, fancy new materials make modern rods much lighter and give them crisper actions…but first things first! Go catch a few fish first and then, if you really get into the sport, consider upgrading your equipment.
As far as line goes, get a floating, weight-forward line that matches the weight of your rod. In other words, a 5-weight line is designed for a 5-weight rod. You can sometimes go up one weight of line to make a rod cast better, but let’s just keep things simple here and stick to the manufacturer’s suggestion ratings.
Next, you’ll need a leader attached to the end of your fly line. The easiest way to go is to purchase a knotless tapered leader. Nine foot is about right and you’ll notice fly leaders will have a tippet rating that has a number followed by X. It’s a bit confusing in the beginning because fly leaders are identified by their diameter in thousands of an inch, not breaking strength.
Remember that a smaller number means heavier line: 0X is 15-pound test while 8X is about 1.5-pound line. For general dolly fishing, something like a 4X (6-pound) or 3X (8-pound) will be fine.
Dolly Tips & Techniques
The easiest way to start hooking dolly varden on the long rod is to tie on a No. 2-8 purple Egg Sucking Leech and head for the water. This fly will catch dollies like crazy…rainbows, grayling, silvers, chums and kings will hit it too so be prepared!
Dollies migrate to stream mouths and lake outlets in the spring to pick off out-migrating salmon fry and that’s where you should try first. Cast slightly down and across the current, give the line an upstream mend (lift) and then start stripping the fly in with you non-rod hand.
Let the bug drift in an arc downstream until it’s immediately downstream of your position and then re-cast.
Strikes “on the swing” like this can be fierce so there won’t be much doubt as to what’s going on when a dolly smacks your offering.
Dolly varden are notorious for eating flies right out of the surface film, but if you feel like maybe you’re not quite getting down enough, try adding a splitshot to your leader 12 to 18 inches above the fly.
As summer salmon start pairing off and dropping eggs, it’s time to start fishing yarn bugs or beads under indicators (otherwise known as bobbers). When dollies get onto the eggs, you can really catch a bunch of them!
The basic rig goes like this: The indicator is set to about twice the water depth and then one or two pegged beads at the business end of the tippet.
The idea here is to try as best you can to match the size and color of the eggs the salmon are releasing. Dollies (and particularly rainbows) can get pretty dialed into a particular look of an egg and ignore anything that doesn’t fit the color and profile they are looking for.
The indicator rig is a bit more of a pain to cast, but it gets easier with time. Toss straight out or slightly upstream and then mend the line upriver by lifting it with the rod tip, to keep any bows out of it.
If you get one section of line that’s getting pushed by the current faster then the rest, it creates excess drag, pulling the entire rig downstream at an unnatural pace.
It takes some practice to get the whole “dead drift” thing down, but that’s the beauty of dollies…you bead could well off the bottom, swinging through the run at Mach 2 and you’re still going to get bit.
Later in the fall, when the salmon die off, flesh flies will be the ticket. Dollies fatten up for the upcoming winter by chowing down on chunks of dead salmon meat so your flies should be whiteish-tan in color to match the washed out meat.
You can fish flesh flies just as you would beads or on the swing.