Dollies and Bulls- implications and sport fishing?


Active Member
OK, a bunch of questions and observations here. I really enjoy fishing for Dollies/Bulls- I like fishing the upper reaches, and they spend time in those waters. I think they're wonderful fish, if not the best fighters, but great biters and beautiful, tough fish. I just returned from B.C. where I was doing some C&R/research fin clips, catching Dollies/Bulls from 5-15 lbs, 18-30+ inches. Strong, fat, broad shouldered sea run fish that make the Skagit population look silly (and short & skinny)- I mean we caught dozens. Not far from Vancouver. And not north either (i.e similar drainage as the north sound rivers).

So, what's the deal? These fish obviously bring out passions- mostly against targeting them. Dollies were a trash/bounty fish not long ago, but now the threat of Federal listing and serious regulations are the rule- Fly Fishing Northwest Magazine had a mis-step last year, printing an article about the great fishery on the Quinault, only to learn targeting Dollies is prohibited in that water, leading to an editorial apology in the following issue.

Are Dollies/Bulls more endangered than native Steelhead and Salmon? What is the status of the population? What is the real difference between Dollies and Bulls, and why should Dollies be free game yet Bulls protected (at least in Puget Sound)? I don't claim to be an expert, but the studies seem to show that Dollies and Bulls interbreed, further confusing things, even though they appear to be distant, not close, cousins. What are the ethics involved fishing these wonderful, wild, and from my incidental catch experiences, bountiful fish? I think it's fair to say that the "rules" of Washington State are confusing, erratic, and haven't proven to benefit either fish or sportfishers. Obviously, the state could use a healthy dose of common sense. Assuming that won't happen in my lifetime, I'm interested in the perspective from my fellow flyfishers about this challenging and great local sport "resource."

Sea-run Cutts have gone statewide C&R, how about doing the same with sea-run Dollies/Bulls? And this "targeting fish" loop hole enforcement- what the hell good does it do? The Regs here are bull and we all know it- Salmon/Steelhead/Dollies/Etc feed off the same food sources in every river (eggs, minnows, etc). Just C&R/selective gear the stretches where preservation is a priority and we'd be a hell of a lot better off.

Sorry for the ramble, all opinions appreciated. I'm totally confused about the goals of the "regs" and the ethical situations that they lead to. I'm particularly confused when it comes to Dollies/Bulls, where there is no valid data regarding population numbers, behavior, or even distinguishing between them. Are they, in fact, the same population, only different in the way that, for example, Coho differ from the Skagit and the Sauk? (If you've incidentally caught Coho on the Sauk you will agree that they may be quite different in size/color/behavior than those in the upper Skagit, yet they are considered the same fish taxonomically.) Any and all insights greatly appreciated to this rambling and far reaching post! But mostly I'm interested in real knowledge about the Dollie/Bull sportfishing situation (I already know the specific river regs- basically OK to fish the Skagit/Sauk and tribs and no to everywhere else). Cheers!


Interesting collection of links found here:

also (with questions/observations):

Basic Dollie/Bull ID info (anal fin rays):
Scott Craig WA Bull/Dollie page:
Bull Trout extinct in California: (What about "Dollies"?)
UBC Study:
Montana Bull ID test: (relevance to our sea-run population?)
I enjoyed your post though I have no answers. I agree with the C&R Selective Gear idea especially in the spawning tribs where they cannot be targeted but will be caught. I have always enjoyed fishing for them (C&R) ever since I landed a 5 or 6 pounder on the Sauk once while fly fishing for steelies. I have thought about fishing BC waters myself this late summer or fall and would enjoy the pleasure of landing a few larger dollies. I have seen the size of larger fish decline over the past few years in Washington waters although the overall numbers seem stable. Give fish biologist Kurt Kraemer a call and he should shed some light on the answers you seek.



Active Member
Just a couple of points: Sea-run cutthroat are not catch-and- release statewide. They ARE catch-and-release in all of the state's saltwater regions and the release of wild cutthroat is mandatory in many of the streams of southwest Washington, but most coastal and Puget Sound streams have a two fish, fourteen-inch minimum size regulation for all trout. The main Stillaguamish was only made catch-and-release for everything (in the way of gamefish) but hatchery steelhead a couple of years ago.

The latest research seems to indicate that the "Dolly Varden" that we've been catching in the Sauk and Skagit all these years are actually Bull Trout. It seems that northwestern Washington is the southernmost extension of the range of the Dolly Varden, where they are apparently restricted to the very upper reaches of the watersheds where they do occur.

In a personal communication from WDFW biologist Curt Kraemer, I was told that there has been a tenfold increase in the Dolly Varden (or as it now appears, Bull Trout) redd count over the last ten years in the Sauk/Skagit system; that is, after implementation of the Kramer-proposed 20-inch minimum size limit for them. In 1991 the average number of char redds was 3.7 per mile, in September of 2001 it was 37 per mile. Would that steelhead were so easy!

I understand that a biologist with sufficient field experience can usually differentiate between a Dolly Varden and a Bull Trout with a fairly high degree of accuracy, but making certain becomes a matter of average lateral line scale counts, number of gill rakers, number of pyloric caeca -- you know, that sort of thing (or, today, DNA analysis).


Banned or Parked
Everyone seems to have a different opinion on the bull trout situation. In Montana, Swan Lake is the only place where it is legal to target and keep bull trout. In BC, many regions have C&R required on streams, but still maintain a limited catch & keep fishery on lakes. However, it is still legal to fish for bull trout in streams. I have mixed feelings on this, as I believe bull trout can easily handle the stress of being caught and released, but I have witnessed (and reported) many local bait-chucker types keeping bull trout with complete disregard for the regulations. If there were a no-targeting rule in BC streams, it would be easy to identify the perpetrators, as they typically just cast large jigs and spoons at the base of waterfalls. In those locations, it is very easy to distinguish this technique from that used to catch the small resident rainbows. Unfortunately, this would also restrict legitimate C&R fishermen from enjoying this species.

To try and prove that someone is specifically targeting bulls is pretty difficult in this state. Their habitat and feeding habits dictate that they are susceptible to the same techniques used for salmon, steelhead, and even trout. I'm starting to believe that the no-targeting rule is in place only because it would be considered irresponsible not to. I'm sure the state was under a lot of pressure from the federal government to enact a bull trout recovery plan, and this seems to be a standard regulation.

I grew up in northern BC and have fished for bulls on many occasions, using everything from tiny dry flies and nymphs to 4 inch marabou patterns. It's not every day you can catch 2 dozen 10" bull trout on a dry, but it happens nonetheless. I once caught an 18" bull on a sunken, worn-out, wingless elk hair caddis at the end of a successful day of trout fishing. On yet another occasion, I watched a large (10lbs.+) bull rolling on the surface in a bay on a large reservoir. I've grown to enjoy fishing for this species mostly for the versatility of the fish. Within a 2 hour drive of where I lived, you could always count on bull trout, even when rainbows were scarce. Couple that with their size (pushing 20lbs+ in some locations) and you've got a great sport species in a place where resident rainbow seldom surpass 16".

I like the idea of having certain streams with healthy populations where it is legal to fish for this species, but if those rules are going to be exploited by others I will gladly back down for the fish's sake.
My wife and I found a resident population of Bull Trout in an often bypassed little lake in the Paseyten Wilderness several years ago. This lake is the first one on the upper Lost River so some of you will recognize that landmark. What was interesting was the number of these trout we saw caught by another protected specie, the River Otter. In 2 days I observed this Otter catch and eat at least 5-6 fish, all over a foot long & some 15-16". It was easy pickings since the fish were congregating under the log jam at the outlet & there were a lot of them. A couple years after our visit came the change to protect Bull Trout but I'm sure that lake was totally cleaned out by that one Otter.

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