Alaska Fish: Dolly Varden

Alaska Marine Highway
Alaska's State Flower is the "Forget-Me-Not. Forget me not flowers are very fragrant in the evening and night time, though there is little or no scent in the daytime. They can be annual or perennial plants. Their seeds are found in small, tulip shaped pods along the stem to the flower.
Though similar to, and often confused with, trout, Dolly Varden are actually a char (Salvelinus sp). To tell a char from a trout, look at their spots—char have light spots (white or yellow to red) on a dark body, while trout have dark spots (brown to black) on a light body.

There are two forms of Dolly Varden in Alaska, which differ in number of vertebrae (62–65 for southern form and 66–70 for northern form) and in number of chromosomes (82 for southern form and 78 for northern form). In addition, northern form Dolly Varden can attain a much larger size (up to 27 pounds) than southern-form fish. The southern form ranges from Southeast Alaska throughout the Gulf of Alaska to the south side of the Alaska Peninsula and the Aleutian and Kodiak islands. The northern form ranges from the north side of the Alaska Peninsula northward to the Mackenzie River in Canada, and in the Susitna drainage in Southcentral Alaska. Both freshwater-resident and sea-run populations occur in both the northern and southern forms. Freshwater-resident Dolly Varden are often dwarfed (maturing at 3–6 inches), and are most-commonly found in small headwater streams without easy access to the ocean, or in land-locked lakes and ponds. Dolly Varden may also choose to remain in fresh water if they have access to a large, productive lake or river, in which they may grow to a similar size as sea-run Dolly Varden.

Juvenile Dolly Varden (and freshwater-resident adults) vary in color depending on the waters they inhabit. In clear streams and lakes, young Dolly Varden are usually olive-brown, but in glacial streams they are pale silver-gray. While living in freshwater before going to sea, young Dolly Varden have 8–12 dark, irregularly-shaped vertical bars (parr marks) on their sides straddling the lateral line. Pale white or orange to red spots, brightening at the onset of maturity, begin to develop when juveniles reach 3–4 inches in length.

While in the ocean, and for a short time after entering fresh water, adult sea-run Dolly Varden are silvery with a faint green sheen overlain with light orange spots. Once they reach fresh water, this silvery appearance transitions into greenish-brown with dark-orange to red spots. As spawning season approaches, males become brilliantly colored with red, black and white bellies, black gill covers, bright orange to red spots, and bright orange and black fins with a bright-white leading edge. Males also develop a strongly-hooked jaw (kype). Female spawners develop similar characteristics, but to a lesser degree.

Freshwater forms of Dolly Varden have olive-brown (when in clear streams) or pale silver-gray (when in glacial streams) sides overlain with orange to red spots. As spawning season approaches, adults develop spawning colors as described above for sea-run Dolly Varden. Dwarf freshwater forms often retain parr marks as adults.

Dolly Varden are carnivorous, feeding opportunistically on a variety of prey. Prey species and feeding techniques vary greatly between regions, habitat types, and seasons, depending on food availability. Juveniles feed primarily on the stream bottom in slow-flowing areas near the banks. Their diet often consists mostly of winged insects and the larvae of mayflies and midges. As they grow, Dolly Varden redistribute to deeper pools and eddies where they eat crustaceans, salmon eggs, and small fish, in addition to insects.

Although Dolly Varden do eat salmon eggs and salmon fry, they have not been found to be significant predators in areas where their feeding habits have been studied. They primarily eat drifting salmon eggs that would not have hatched anyway. They are more of a scavenger than a predator. In cases where they eat salmon fry, Dolly Varden primarily feed on pink salmon. Their ability to capture these is directly related to fry abundance. Thus, more fry are eaten when large numbers are available, and the overall effect on the salmon population is less significant. When other fish such as Arctic char, cutthroat trout or young coho salmon are present, Dolly Varden have always been shown to be the least effective predator.

After feeding at sea during the summer, southern-form Dolly Varden whose home stream has an attached lake usually return to that same lake each winter. However, southern-form fish originating from a stream without a connected lake must find a lake in which to over-winter.

The Dolly Varden is one of the most widely-distributed salmonids in Alaska. It occurs throughout the coastal areas of the state from Southeast Alaska across the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea into the Beaufort Sea to the Mackenzie River in northern Canada. It also occurs in streams in Interior Alaska and the Brooks Range. Elsewhere, their range stretches along the Pacific coast of North America from Washington State to the Arctic coast of Canada, and along the Pacific coast of Russia south to Japan and Korea.


dolly varden are found in Alaska waters

dolly warden swimming near alaska

Alaska Fish:

Alaska is home to more than 627 species of fish, according to the Alaska Division of Tourism.

Learn more about Alaskan fish

Arctic Char Arctic Grayling Burbot
Dolly Varden Halibut Lingcod
Northern Pike Salmon Salmon Shark
Trout Whitefish