Fishing in the Salmon Forest, Part 2: An Unfamiliar Abundance of Dolly Varden

Editor's Note: Conservationist blogger Hal Herring spent five days exploring and fishing Alaska's Tongass National Forest earlier this month. This is the second of five reports.

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Chad Shmukler with a medium-sized Dolly from Sheep Creek, showing a bead rig and heavy leader--the only method of keeping your rig if you hook a chum salmon by mistake.

Up until this point in my life, I've never tried to avoid catching the biggest fish in the creek in favor of the smaller ones. But here on Sheep Creek, only a few minutes from Juneau, the trick is to not catch the huge, green and red tiger-striped chum salmon that are spawning everywhere around you, thrashing and exploding in eight inches of water on the perfectly round redds they scooped out of the gravel for spawning, because you probably cannot land them. Valuable time will be wasted watching your bead egg rig and strike indicator disappear slowly upriver as if it were hooked to a golf cart driven by an old man with not a hurry in this world, or even worse, snagged on a giant salmon's dorsal fin, clearly visible in some shallow pool. But every time you wade out to try and unsnag it, the fish shifts, just out of reach, or decides to head upriver and break you off that way. We are standing literally in the midst of the spawn, on a short section of creek that snakes a few times across a flat of grass and mud and ends abruptly in the saltwater of the Gastineau Channel, with passing fishing boats, tugs, even a cruise ship visible in the near distance.

The target fish here is the Dolly Varden (Salvelinus malma malma), a kind of char, and they are everywhere, but unlike the salmon, you cannot see them in the shallow waters because their odd and beautiful colors of light rose or tangerine-colored dots against a gun-metal gray make them disappear in all but the very brightest direct sunlight, which is a rare commodity here in the rainforests of Southeast Alaska. The Dollies rule a sweet spot, invisible to the salmon-obsessed bald eagles that huff and hover overhead and bounce along the sandbars, beaks glistening with salmon fat. The Dollies live high on the hog, Hoovering up salmon eggs fresh from the fish themselves, and they seem to truly do as they please, wandering downstream to the saltwater at will, gobbling salmon fry as they emerge from the shallows and drift into deepwater for the first time in their short lives. The surreal beauty of the Dollies is matched by their ferocity. They are muscled-up fish, fast-running and leaping, every electric fiber of their being committed to survival.

The water makes a sizzling sound as it pours through the gravels, and your casts are short--20 feet or so--45 degrees upstream. The rig is a small pink bead, threaded onto a foot of 10-pound test with a loop in the running end. The bead is pegged tight with a toothpick against the line, the toothpick broken off so no wood shows. Three inches below the bead you tie a No. 8 circle semi-circle hook, and you are ready to go--just tie another loop in your leader, and attach the bead rig to that. The Dollies aren't leader-shy - they are not shy at all, living as they do in a kind of maelstrom of fast water and thrashing salmon. I fished the bead at first without an indicator pegged about six feet up the leader from the bead, and I caught fish, but watching my fellow fishermen--all of them better fly anglers than me--I noticed that there was something about the way the indicator affected the drift of the egg that made it more effective, so I begrudgingly re-rigged with what I kept calling "the bobber." And I started catching a lot more fish.

The Dollies strike the bead quick and short--a mere halting of the indicator is all you see or feel--and most are hooked on the side of the mouth as they sweep the egg. Everything is fast in this water, and the fish are mostly in the 12- to 14 -inch range, scrappy and hard-charging. After a dozen or so brought to hand, I wade upstream, under the highway bridge, to fish a stretch of water narrowed by boulders cased in deep green moss, overhung by white birch ( and hang a backcast almost immediately). The roar of a waterfall drowns out the noise from the road--I've reached the end of the spawning grounds, already. From here on up the creek is nothing but a series of falls, a hyper-aerated and freezing cold torrent dropping from some snowpacked alpine cirque above through forests and understory as dense as the walls of a tunnel. It seems a million miles away from the Gastineau Channel, from the salt, but it's less than a thousand yards. I wonder, for the first time, how could something so powerful - that incredible display of sea-run fish and just pure natural abundance on that 1000 yards of freshwater creek--be so fragile? But of course we had that same abundance in the lower 48, too, in every creek and river from Washington to southern California, and we traded it away. The original Dolly Vardens, named for a colorful female character in a Charles Dickens novel, were actually the very similar bull trout (Salvelinus confluentus). In the McCloud River of California where the fish was first named in the latter 19th century, it is has been extinct since the 1970s. We have reached the point where we can no longer take abundance for granted.

I come down out of the gloom to the flats. A family has pitched a tent on the sand and the kids are playing along the water's edge, huge chum salmon running upstream not three feet away. A very fit young woman yells for her dog, a Lab-cross type with a gallantly plumed tail, who is lost--lost--in chasing salmon. The dog gazes at her, panting, then turns and runs madly down the creek, salmon scattering before him. I hear her say, "That's it! You can find another owner! I'm leaving!" But she is trying to make a sneak on the dog as she is saying it.

She lunges, the dog leaps, and tears off again.

I catch another small Dolly, and Chris Hunt, the writer, flyfisherman, and Trout Unlimited communications savant, looms out of the high weeds. "We should probably wrap it up," he says. "We've got a floatplane to catch to go to supper."

Since I've never taken a floatplane to supper, I reel up fast and set off for the truck. "Besides," Chris says, "we'll be on pinks all day tomorrow, and then we'll go looking for some real Dollies after that." Real Dollies? "You know, 20 inchers or better. We'll have to go a little bit farther for those, but they're out there." He gestures to the Gastineau Channel, and beyond, where the mountains seem to reach to the clouds.