Hello, Dolly — or just a bunch of bull?

Pot or kettle? Tomay-to or tomah-to? Dolly Varden or bull trout? I mean, what’s the deal – they’re the same, right? I hear people refer to Dolly Varden and bull trout as the same fish, using the names interchangeably without losing an ounce of sleep over the matter. Then I hear of others who will not stand for such a gross and inaccurate generalization. This second group of enlightened folk point to conclusive evidence that the two fish are genetically unique and therefore separate species. With science behind the separate classifications I don’t know that it can be called a debate, but there is certainly enough confusion as to what the differences are that it’s worth looking into.

Let’s examine some similarities: First, they’re both fish. Next, they’re both of the family Salmonidae, which includes salmon, trout, chars and some other stuff. They are referred to as bull trout and Dolly Varden trout. This is where the confusion begins, as neither are actually trout but rather char (remember kids, trout have a light background with dark spots; char have a dark background with light spots). Until 1980 they were classified as the same species: Salvelinus confluentus. After that the Dolly Varden acquired it’s own separate identity and became known as Salvelinus malma.

According to Wikipedia – the authority on fish biology, period – the bull trout “is native to the cold, clear waters of the high mountains and coastal rivers of northwestern North America. Like other species of char, the fins of bull trout have white leading edges. Its head and mouth are unusually large for salmonids, giving it its name…bull trout are an indicator species…Bull trout reproduction requires cold water and very low amounts of silt, both of which are negatively impacted by road building and logging. Additionally, the bull trout’s need to migrate throughout river systems may be hindered by impassible fish barriers such as dams.” It also points out that the bull trout is listed as a threatened species under the U.S. Endangered species Act.

Excellent information.

As pertaining to the Dolly Varden, Wikipedia has this to say: “…is found in coastal waters of the North Pacific from Puget Sound to the Lask Peninsula and into the eastern Aleutians, along the Bering Sea and Arctic Sea to the Mackenzie River.”

Good to know.

At this point we start to see at least a somewhat clear distinction based on the fact that Dolly Varden seem to be more coastal-ish dwellers and are not found as far inland as the bull trout (Idaho and Montana). However, they do have overlapping ranges and similar appearances, so the confusion continues to grow for those who fish in one of those overlapping ranges, such as Washington state (from where I hail). From the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife, which is known for publishing regulations that require a PhD in Navigation and Deciphering: “Bull trout and Dolly Varden look very similar…both have small, pale yellow to crimson spots on a darker background…(blah blah blah)…compared to the Dolly Varden, bull trout are larger on average with a relatively longer and broader head. In Washington, both species are present in the Puget Sound area.” Read that again: Larger on average. Which leaves room to assume that one could catch a large Dolly Varden that is bigger than a small bull trout. And what of the “relatively longer and broader head”? Relative to what–each other, or relative to the size of fish that are bestowed with a much smaller head?

Uh…OK. I am not completely bull trout-headed and I accept that they are separate species: Separate species that have overlapping ranges and look so much alike that the average accomplished angler wouldn’t know the difference, especially if that person had never previously caught either clearly distinct and separate species. I read elsewhere that “bull trout and Dolly Varden were confused by anglers and biologists until 1978…” Wait a minute – I thought it was 1980? And who says the confusion ended then (in either 1978 or 1980)? It’s 2009, and after either 31 or 29 years the confusion still abounds. In fact I think I’m more confused now than I was before I started compiling this data. And I doubt I’m alone in my befuddlement.

So widespread is this confusing issue that one can easily imagine the streamside conversation between two fishing persons: One who has just successfully caught a magnificent fish bearing small, pale yellow to crimson spots with a dark background in a cold, clear river that is tributary to a body of salt water; the other, a doubting, resentful and fishless angler:

“Yee, HAW!!! Just done caught me a BULL trout!”

“I beg your pardon? You, sir, are errant in your ways on two fronts: Foremost, that is no trout; bull or otherwise. Clearly it is a Dolly Varden, and your feeble command of the English language abhors me.”

“You beg my Parton? It’s a Dolly?  Oh, I git it – yer referrin’ to the nice pectoral fins on this here bull trout! Heh heh. That’s a goodun!”

So there we have it. They are in fact separate species. Referring to both as “bull trout” is inaccurate and displays a lazy ignorance. So if you’re fishing in an area known to support both species, study up. Know the difference. If you catch a Dolly, call it what it is: It is not a bull trout.

In case you were wondering, I’m no biologist so I honestly can’t tell you the difference between a Dolly or a bull by looking at them. And in the event that anyone ever asks me if I’ve ever caught one or the other, I was previously prepared to say yes because I’ve caught one of each. Or so I thought. I caught one on Rock Creek in Montana, so let’s reference that fish as a bull trout. The other one was caught on the Skykomish River, which is in the Puget Sound region, which therefore lies within the range of both species. I was told by the experienced angler who was correcting my casting flaws at the time I caught this fish that it was a Dolly. But now I am beginning to question the accuracy of that, and think perhaps the Skykomish fish may have been a bull trout. It’s safe to assume that they weren’t both Dolly Vardens because those fish are definitely not found in Montana. I was excited when I caught the Montana fish because it was my first bull. When I caught the Washington fish I was excited because it was either my second bull trout, or my first Dolly. They sure looked the same to me. All I know for certain is that I’m looking forward to the day when I have caught 6 of each: Then I can say I’ve caught six of one – half a dozen of the other.

Clear as  mud?  Just when I thought I was beginning to grasp the difference and was ready to publish my findings, a discussion on an internet fly fishing forum arose about this very topic. I thought the timing was ironic since I had long before started my research for this blog post – so much for my career as a cutting-edge journalist.  The discussion I am referring to only served to further cloud the waters surrounding the matter of the bull trout/Dolly Varden debacle. I learned from this particular forum that the Dolly Varden of Washington (the state – not DC – just to avoid any confusion) are found only in the headwaters of a few mountain streams in the Olympic and Cascade mountains, usually above permanent barriers to the migration of anadromous fish species, and that these fish usually don’t achieve any significant size. Usually, just to be very clear. Another participant in this discussion stated that they had caught several Dolly Varden over 20 inches. In my unaccomplished opinion, 20 inches is not insignificant.This discussion also revealed that the large, anadromous char found in Washington rivers tributary to Puget Sound and the Pacific Ocean are bull trout (S. confluentus). This same discussion included one participant who actually called the head of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, and was told the following: “The fish in the Sauk and Skagit are bull trout. The only true Dolly Varden that are in the state are in small isolated areas and can not be legally fished for…”  If you recall a few paragraphs above here I listed information found on the website of the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife that is contradictory to what the head of Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife said about bull trout/Dolly Varden.  Suffice it to say I am now officially confused, as I am sure you are as well. And for good reason, because even the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife can’t seem to agree on a clear difference in regional distribution between the two fish.  So apparently, if one believes what one reads, I may have caught two bull trout and not a single Dolly Varden.  Goll durnit – just when I thought I’d done something interesting and noteworthy! Oh well, it’s more fitting this way, what with me being The Unaccomplished Angler and all.

Bull Trout caught on Rock Creek, MT

Bull Trout caught on Rock Creek, MT

Dolly Varden/Bull Trout caught on the Skykomish River, WA

Dolly Varden/Bull Trout caught on the Skykomish River, WA

In conclusion on the matter of bull trout vs. Dolly Varden, I recommend you disregard everything I’ve written and just go fish.  If you happen to catch something that looks like the fish in these photos, marvel in it’s beauty, handle it gently and release it back into the water quickly: It’s a native char of some sort.

Native Char of some sort.

Rock Creek Native Char of some sort.

Another Native Char of some sort.

Skykomish River Native Char of some sort.


  1. Jergens

    Wow, I’m confused???

    • admin

      Come on Joe, really? I thought I cleared things up pretty well!

  2. Schpanky

    You lost me at “Hello Dolly”…. but I came back in at “just go fish”… 🙂

    • admin

      So, “Schpanky” – what you’re saying is you were confused?

  3. rich schaaff

    I often refer to them as bull vardens or sometimes
    dolly trout but more commonly refer to them as FISH

    • admin

      And indeed that is what they are, Rich. Why do they need a label anyway, right?

  4. Nerveracker

    Yeah so which is it? Dolly Varden, Bull Trout.. I guess without tissue samples and blood tests, and comparing the DNA from each fish, the world may never know. Kinda reminds me of that commercial for the Tootsie Roll Tootsie Pops. How many licks does it take? and now some naturally occurring hybrids between the two? Ummm.. who’s even more confused now? Bullarden? Bully Varden? I dunno, I guess they’re bull trout here in Oregon.

    This copied from a website
    “Much ado is often made of the differences between very similar fish. While arctic char have long been prized for their beauty and succulent sweet flesh, Dolly Varden char have not always had the same cachet.

    And then there are bull trout. Now the focus of major conservation efforts in Alberta, British Columbia, and the western United States, bull trout were thought of as garbage fish only a few decades ago.

    In fact, these three members of the char family are extremely difficult to tell apart. Yukon fisheries officials are now relying on genetic tests, the only conclusive way to tell one species from another, to confirm which species live where in the territory. …”
    copied from http://www.taiga.net/yourYukon/col141.html if you wish to read the rest dealing with differentiating between Arctic Char, Bull Trout and Dolly Varden. But, to me those first 2 paragraphs say it all, and the positive identification should be left up to those willing to do it (and the ones that have ample time on their hands and a large surplus of extra Benji’s laying around). I can tell you this much, I won’t be the one. So, for now, it looks like that could have been either one! Nice CHAR! Aptly named now as such! It is what it is.


  5. FlySwinger

    What this discussion boils down to is, “What’s the definition of a species?” As I understand it, species are determined when populations either don’t share the genetics to produce viable offspring or they don’t interbreed due to some isolating barrier, be it time or space. Either there’s some physical obstacle preventing them from breeding (like the Great Divide) or they breed at different times. Another barrier would be that, although the two populations look similar enough to our eyes — they just aren’t all that attracted to each other. Take the mule-tail deer for example. Every once in a while, mule deer and whitetails will interbreed, but probably because they just can’t find what they’re looking for.

    If Dolly Varden breed at different times or in different locations from bull trout –even when their ranges overlap– they could be different species. If their spawning areas overlap and they can interbreed to produce viable offspring, they would be subspecies at best; otherwise they would be the same species grouped into populations of varying genetic expression, and these groups would be analogous to what we call “races” among people.

    That’s just what I understand. I’m no ecologist (working on it), but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express.

  6. admin

    Flyswinger, no doubt you are wiser than I, and your words have assured me that I have caught at least one, maybe two species of native char! I’ve stayed at a Holiday Inn Express at least once, though it may have been twice. Not sure. Like the bull trout/Dolly debacle, those motels all look alike.

  7. Jane

    I wanted you to know how much I enjoyed your post. I too have been scratching my head over the taxonomic conundrum, especially the fact that I cannot actually find the alleged 1978 report (Cavender, I believe) that distinguished the two fish genetically. It was the 70’s, what did they know about genetics, anyway. I was about to launch in writing some sort of field note on the whole mess when I came to the FUCK IT JUST FISH part. And then I realized that the winter must be getting to me.

    • admin

      Thanks for chiming in with your thoughts, Jane. We may never solve the puzzle, and I decided to stop worrying about it. Winter can be the time of year we walk a fine line between insanity and near insanity.
      Spring is just around the corner…be strong. Go fish as soon as your waters are able.

      • ben

        Thanks for the article, but I found more pertinent information within the comments afterwards. Your article did NOT clear up any of the many differences between these two species. I also don’t appreciate the wordiness of this article, since there was NO clear answer given . I am as confused as I was before your article was read. Thanks for that! And thanks for wasting 2.7 minutes of my life! Yes, the WDFW does the same exact thing as you; no clear answers! You may as well apply for a job there! You’ll get it, no doubt! Hearing you attempt to sum things up in a drawn out and wordy manner, while providing no facts, is a waste of my time. You are a shitty blogger/journalist. Go work for the WDFW…

        • Kirk Werner

          Thanks for stopping by—I’m pleased that I could help clear up a confusing but important matter—it’s what I am here for.

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