All trout and char, to some extent, are predators — even the little fish that swim in small water and eat virtually nothing but insects.
But there are true predators in the salmonid world, and these are the fish that make fly fishers tremble. They’re big browns that feed on smaller fish and, during the fall spawn, attack out of sheer anger. They’re giant Kvichak River rainbows that gulp the eggs from spawning trout and salmon. They’re even migrating cutthroats that move from big water into small water to spawn in the spring — I’ve enjoyed great success using small streamers for these running trout, and I tie the streamers to resemble smaller cutthroat trout. Yes… cutthroats are cannibals.
But my favorite predator in the trout and char universe is, without a doubt, the Dolly Varden. I spent a rainy week in Alaska recently with some great fishing buddies, and we hit one of my favorite places on the planet — a far-flung stream on Prince of Wales Island, where Dolly Varden make up the bulk of the catch, and every fish is, in its own right, absolutely incredible.
But what I love most about the Dollies in this middle-of-nowhere stream is their penchant for attacking streamers — it’s a visual rush that’s tough to beat. Yes, you can chase the predatory char with the pegged-bead setup (and it works very well), but it doesn’t provide the heart-stopping follow and grab that comes with going after these big anadromous fish with streamers.
The best part, at least for me? These fish seem genuinely reluctant to let a potential meal get away. Dollies, unlike the salmon with which they share the streams, really do eat in fresh water — they aren’t just hitting flies out of reflex or instinct. This makes them prime targets for a streamer danced just on the edge of structure, where it might look like a struggling baitfish that’s just about to escape.
That’s when the magic happens — when the Dolly, all colored up for the fall spawn, sprints from under a rootball or from the depths of the dark water at the edge of a drop-off and attacks the fly. And when you can see it all happen?
The salmonid world is full of predators, but it’s the Dolly that does it for me.