Dolly Varden and Searun Cutthroat seem to occupy the same niche and thus should have very similar behaviour. Dollies are, in their ocean phase, so silvery it is hard to get a decent photograph because they are inevitably over exposed. But in that surface will be the faint yellow and pink spots that become so prominent when the fish have been in freshwater for some time, and turned blue. Searuns are less silvery in the ocean and with the dark spots above and below the lateral line, along with their namesake – an orange ‘slash’ under each side of their ‘chin’, or throat.
Behaviourally both salmonid species could not be more different. Searuns are more widespread in Van Isle waters, while Dollies are predominantly found in waters to the North of Campbell River a more limited range on our island. On the mainland side, the drainages can have large numbers of Bull Trout a related char species that can reach 11 pounds. I have never caught a Dolly on a WCVI stream, but have not fished them all – yet.
Both Searuns and Dollies are typically under two pounds though the occasional one may reach four pounds. There are credible accounts of the rare Searun reaching 7 pounds. And cutthroat do have freshwater non-anadromous resident cousins, though in our waters the same cannot be said of Dollies (and no Bulls either).. Cameron Lake, for example, has given up cutthroat in the low teens and the record is a 41 pound behemoth from Pryamid Lake on the mainland.
But in Puget Sound drainages, I have watched with veiny teeth Dollies sit just above the fishing boundary in the Cascade River. Large fish of five to ten pounds were clearly visible but zero below the marker. There they rested, the main-stem Skagit below being turbid and salmon filled. These may have been resident fish, due to their size, distance from saltwater and presence in an area of large urban populations.
Both species have salt- and fresh-water phases. In saltwater, Searuns are typically found as opportunistic nomads cruising from creek mouth to creek mouth. Virtually always they are found in water three, or less, feet deep, which makes them key species for some fly guys that make their living targeting these fish by moving from stream to stream in a day’s fishing. Fish half an hour, and if a Searun is not spotted, move on to the next stream on your list. Searuns inevitably reveal themselves rolling on the surface even when there is no apparent feed – insects in saltwater being rare.
As a diminutive trout, it makes sense for Searuns to be in very shallow water where larger mouths that would eat them seldom venture. A safe niche for a small fish that, like steelhead, are too bold for their own good. The adage is: if you see them you will catch them, and that includes putting a fly more than ten feet away from the fish. They are on the move and biting. That’s why we like them. Bazan Bay in Sidney being just one well-known Searun spot in our area. One wades in and casts a fly.
Dollies on the other hand tend to spend time among the kelp and divers often see them tooling around. This means they are more dominant than Searuns because such water can be as much as 60 feet deep and the ling and other large mouths need be avoided. But Dollies live among them, a distinct difference, different feed, different dominance and wariness.
Searuns are vastly more opportunistic than Dollies, coming into estuaries daily. While they have months of preference, including summer, arriving just before salmon, and eating eggs during the spawn. They also can arrive in much larger schools than Dollies. Searuns are also opportunistic in terms of spawning, and may spawn anywhere from January to September, in small streams off main-stems when rain allows. Anglers need to know Searun habits in a dozen drainages to have good fly fishing on an annual basis. Much knowledge. Oh and it is quite common in the Victoria area to find these fish at mid-tide levels.
Dollies tend to enter estuaries just after the ebb when the flood begins to push. While they may enter at such times in large schools, they are more like chinook that happen to be in the same place as other chinook, not because they school, but because the structure and feed draw them to a definable spot at the same time.
Once on-shore, Dollies will be seen frequently on the surface, typically sipping at or whacking whatever freshwater hatch is flowing out at the same time. Keep a Tom Thumb for such times, and back up as the fish enter, keeping them below you. They will whack the dry fly to smithereens and keep on whacking it even though, with floatant, it looks like a blob.
Minnow patterns will work for both species in estuarial situations, including epoxy minnows, amphipods, along with handle bar flies and a standard Mickey Fin for Searuns. A standard Muddler will do for both, but once in freshwater, Dollies have a preference for blue, not a first choice for Searuns. Dollies seldom hit pink in saltwater.
Both species spawn in freshwater. Dollies come in for this purpose in late summer and hold until the water temperature, in October, hits 10 degrees. After spawning they tend to mass at the bottom of deep pools, surprisingly staying out of the way and hesitant, until spring where they move back to saltwater.
Searuns, on the other hand, typically winter in saltwater, entering freshwater for feeding and spawning, based on the system’s calendar. You will often see them in spring, keeping close to spawning steelhead. They hybridize with summer steelhead, presumably because they spawn sooner than winter steelhead, and in systems where there are fewer summers. Then Searuns go back to saltwater after being found more than ten miles above the salt during the spawn.
Cuttbows have behaviour that is a mix of steelhead and cutthroat. They definitely will chase and out whack what a cutthroat will hit – the casting pattern for cutthroat is every two feet, and based on woody debris, whereas cuttbows are found with rocks as well as logs and the last 30 degrees of the swing, more like steelhead. And orange is a colour of preference, and why, as I have mentioned, I tie simple orange marabou Rats along with Popsicle style marabou red over orange over yellow.
You can tell the percentage of cutthroat or steelhead – they can hybridize over several generations – the fish has in it. More steelhead and the fish will jump several times. More cutthroat and the fish will seldom leave the water, preferring to dive. At 50/50 the fight is on the surface.
And Dollies have a habit, also suggesting dominance, of one fish dashing in to hit a female salmon in the side, resulting in disgorged eggs that the other Dollies scarf up. This behaviour has led, not on Van Isle, some anglers to make a point of killing all Dollies on the grounds they result in fewer salmon. Never seen this myself, and certainly would not kill a Dolly, but it is a common tale.