Nobody believed I was really going to give up, did they? That last thread on Dolly Varden got pretty heated, with a lot of “facts” about the state of Dollies in the Skagit and whether it was OK to fish for them flying back and forth. I guess we pretty much determined that some think it’s OK and some don’t. I don’t know that we cleared up how the fish are doing or the difference between Dollies and Bull Trout. FishPirate provided some pretty authoritative info, some of it contrary to my understanding, so I did some research to check up on what I thought I knew. (I don’t really know it all; I just play one on the Internet.) FP was pretty accurate on most counts, but I did manage to fill in some blanks. I offer the information for what it’s worth. According to folks at USFWS, they do consider lab techniques for making distinctions between Dollies and Bull Trout through DNA analysis reliable and accurate. (But Jamie Glasgow, the Science Director at Washington Trout, believes there is some controversy involving inconsistencies between various DNA techniques, and Curt Kraemer at WDFW seemed to back that up.) What everybody agreed on was that the morphometrics (distinctions using physical traits) were unreliable, even under rigorous analyses. Kraemer says that some fish he identified as Dollies using the Hass protocol turned out to be Bull Trout under DNA analysis (and vice versa). Glasgow said point blank that claiming you can make the distinction using morphometrics “is crap,” that there is so much variability between individual populations that it’s nearly subjective. Apparently even Hass himself acknowledged in a presentation to a Bull Trout Conference in Calgary that while in principle his protocol is accurate, it is so “difficult” that the likelihood of “error” in the field may make it inappropriate as a tool for making the distinction between Dollies and Bull Trout. (The folks “in the field” might have a different take on it.) The gist is that it’s not likely you or I will make an accurate distinction. At any rate, USFWS believes that identification is difficult enough, and that the techniques for making a distinction are controversial enough that they are getting ready to go ahead and list Dolly Varden in the Washington Coast/Puget Sound DPS (not ESU, whatever) as Threatened under the ESA, based on their “Similarity of Appearance” to Bull Trout. In other words, any ESA-related regulation that applies to Bull Trout will apply equally to Dollies, making ANY distinction moot. It is true that almost all of the char in the Skagit and on the coast are actually Bull Trout, especially the anadromous fish, which are what everybody here seems to be interested in. As it turns out, in Puget Sound/Washington Coast, it’s the dollies that are the resident fish, generally confined to headwater reaches, and the Bull Trout that are the sea-runs, contrary to popular belief (and fairly contrary to the life-history forms in other parts of the respective species’ ranges). Kraemer says that he did a rough estimate of the adult Bull Trout population in the Skagit back in 1998, and came up with about 10,000 adults. Pretty good, but not ten times the adult steelhead population by a long shot. That includes the entire anadromous reach of the Skagit Basin (The Skagit, Sauk, Suiattle, White Chuck, Cacade, Jackman Creek, Bacon Creek, etc), so that’s not very high density (my very unscientific thumbnail puts it at less than 30 fish per mile; of course it’s unlikely they are spread out that evenly, but you get the picture). I suppose that’s not bad for anadromous fish, especially one as aggressive as a Bull Trout, which makes for decent fishing, I guess. Kraemer also claims that the population is growing. He bases that on spawning surveys in a single index reach for the entire basin, but his numbers are pretty encouraging, even if his extrapolation is a little disconcerting. Personally, I tend to take Kraemer with a grain of salt, but everyone I’ve ever talked to acknowledges that Curt has done a lot of good work on Bull Trout in the Skagit, and knows as much as anyone. My opinion is that Curt, like just about everyone else at WDFW, tends to err on the side of harvest, sport or otherwise, but the Bull Trout on the Skagit do appear to be doing well, for now at least, and as everyone has said, it’s legal to fish for them there. Hell, it’s legal to kill two, so knock yourselves out, especially if you plan to C&R. On the other hand, one more time, IT IS NOT LEGAL TO FISH FOR BULL TROUT ON THE PENINSULA! Nobody has very complete data yet on the coast rivers, but the Park Service has determined that nearly all the char in the mainstems of the big park systems (Hoh, Quinault, Queets) are bull trout. (The Quinault has some dollies in the mainstem, and other systems have resident dollies above barriers.) They do not yet have a good handle on relative abundance (current or historical) but they have started some long-term and medium-term studies that will help them determine distribution, migration patterns, and trends in relative abundance. In the face of current uncertainties (not to mention the listing), they are giving the fish the benefit of the doubt and have closed all park waters to fishing for bull trout AND dollies. WDFW has followed suit in waters outside the park. If you do catch a char “incidentally” you are required to return it unharmed to the water as soon as possible. That means no measuring, admiring, or picture taking. When you do go out to incidentally catch bull trout while you’re “fishing for steelhead” or “fishing for cutthroat” you will probably not get busted. After all who can prove what you intended to do with that black and white reverse spider? But if managers at WDFW or the Park Service decide that it’s getting to be a problem, they could impose some tackle restrictions (like say, no weighted flies or sinking lines), or close certain areas (like the South Fork Hoh), or close all fishing in the river, in order to get a handle on the “incidental” catches (and related mortality). That’s what WDFW did last year when they banned weighted flies on the NF Stilly to stop the idiots from harassing chinook. In other words, you could be screwing the folks who really are fishing for steelhead or cutthroat, not to mention stressing Threatened Bull Trout.