Home sweet roam: Where the Dolly Varden go

Posted: Thursday, August 20, 2009

Fishing for rainbow trout and Dolly Varden is often an exercise in clearing the mind and enjoying the serenity of the river.

If you are lucky, the most pressing questions you'll have are what fly pattern or bead to use and where to cast.

That is not always the case if you work for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game or the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, especially on the Kenai River, and even more so if your work included surgically implanting radio tags in both species to learn about their migratory behavior.

Rainbow trout have a fairly routine life cycle; most spend the winter in either Skilak or Kenai lake and return to roughly the same place in the river each summer.

Dolly Varden are much more mobile with their migratory pattern dependant on where they spawn.

The agencies learned this by following dollies tagged in Cooper Creek, Quartz Creek, South Fork of the Snow River, and the upper Kenai River for three years.

Radio tagged dollies that spawned in the upper Kenai spent the winter in Skilak Lake, most of the summer below Skilak Lake, and returned to the upper Kenai for September and October.

Those that spawned in Cooper Creek, wintered in Skilak Lake, swam up the Killey River for June and July, returned to the Kenai below Skilak for a couple of months, and return to Cooper Creek to spawn in September.

Quartz creek dollies exhibit the most varied behavior. Some never left the creek. Of those that did, about two-thirds spent the winter in Kenai Lake, and one third in Skilak Lake the first year, with the opposite occurring the second year.

Summer residency was distributed between Quartz Creek, Killey River, the Kenai River between the lakes, and below Skilak Lake.

Most of the dollies that spawned in the South Fork of the Snow River spent one month there before descending to Kenai Lake to overwinter. In the summer, most moved to the upper Kenai River. Members of this spawning aggregate spent more of the year in a lake environment than any of the other groups.

This brief description of the seasonal movement patterns of some known spawning groups suggests that groups spawning in other tributaries also have unique patterns.

Biologists theorize that dollies have adapted to take advantage of good spawning conditions in their natal streams, winter refuge offered by the lakes and a variety of stream reaches where they have access to high value food in the form of salmon eggs and carcasses.

Clearly Dolly Varden have complex migration patterns.

Understanding these movement patterns makes the fishing experience more enjoyable as we speculate on the destination of the fish we have just hooked and released.

Unfortunately for me, knowing what they are likely to do in any month hasn't translated to increased fishery success. I still have to figure out where the fish are hiding and what fly or bead are they looking at today.

Bruce King lives in Soldotna and is regularly found staring at the river wondering what the heck is going on down there.

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