Dolly Varden Char

 an image of a dolly varden char fish on a white background
Dolly Varden in non-spawning coloration.
NPS Photo: Lexa Meyer

(Salvelinus malma)

Other names: Char, Dolly

The namesake for this species was derived from a character in Barnaby Rudge, an 1841 novel by Charles Dickens, who wore brightly colored polka-dot dresses. Dolly Varden in ocean coloration are typically silver with pink spots along their sides and white leading edges on the pectoral, anal, and pelvic fins. These markings intensify as the fish approach spawning readiness. Males also develop hooked jaws tinted orange and a red-orange tint to the fins. Individuals within populations of this species are known to exhibit both sea-run (anadromous) and stream resident life history strategies. Anadromous fish typically rear in fresh water for three to four years, migrating seaward in early spring. They return in late summer/early fall to spawn or rear in lake systems. Dolly Varden typically spawn after their second summer of rearing in the marine environment and can attain lengths of up to 36 inches but are typically 12-20 inches long. Similar to cutthroat and steelhead trout, Dolly Varden spawn in subsequent years (up to two or three times). Because this species has a more ventrally located mouth, it feeds more on benthic or bottom dwelling insects compared with rainbow and cutthroat trout.

an image of a dolly varden char fish in spawning colors on a sandy surface
Male Dolly Varden char in spawning coloration.
NPS Photo: Craig Murdoch

Abundance, distribution, and natural history

273 records currently exist for this species but only about 70% of records provide abundance information. Dolly Varden have been observed in 65 stream systems within the park.

Char are thought to be a primary colonizing species in newly emerged (
i.e., deglaciated) streams because of their habit of moving among different streams during the year. They move into streams in the spring to consume out-migrating salmon smolts and later in the summer enter streams with spawning salmon to feed on salmon eggs and occasionally carcasses. Fry and juveniles have been reported in Park streams from May through early November. Spawning adults have been reported slightly later from the end of July through early November. Individuals are likely present year round in some systems where they rear, spawn, and overwinter.

a bar graph depicting the monthly recorded fish abundance for dolly varden. June and August have the highest recorded numbers.
Relative (averaged across records) Dolly Varden stream residency for all life stages. Values in parenthesis indicate number of records for each month (total n = 188 records).

Conservation measures and concerns

Dolly Varden are a common species in freshwater throughout Southeast Alaska and in park streams. Liberal sport harvest limits (e.g. 10 fish daily) for this species exist for most waters in Southeast Alaska. Isolated stream resident forms are more susceptible to overharvest because of slower growth (adults are usually less than 8 inches long) and low reproductive rates. Small, spatially and genetically isolated resident populations of Dolly Varden occur in Falls Creek (Kahtaheena River) near Gustavus and in Stonefly Creek in Wachusett Inlet above insurmountable waterfalls.

Dolly Varden from different populations often aggregate in watersheds containing lakes to overwinter. Identification and protection of these critical overwintering habitats is paramount.

Last updated: February 8, 2018

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Gustavus, AK 99826


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