The whole Dolly Varden and Bull trout saga has been going on for quite some time now. The big question has always been how do you tell them apart? Dolly Varden and Bull Trout look so alike but they are not as closely related as some of us might think. In fact they didn’t even evolve from a common ancestor. After much research the Dolly Varden is more closely related to the Arctic Char in the North, and Bull trout are more closely related to the White Spotted Char in Asia. Since these two species met in the Pacific Northwest, they have actually managed to coexist ever since.

Char, Trout and Salmon make up one large group called Salmonid. Even though they are relatives of Salmon they are more commonly known as Char. Char are distinguished from Trout and Salmon by the absence of teeth in the roof of the mouth, light coloured spots on a dark background, as well as no spots on the dorsal fin. For the longest time they were once believed to be the same species but recent studies (late 1980’s early 1990’s) say they have the ability to interbreed, perhaps that is why they get mixed up so often. By the end of this article you should have a bit clearer picture on how to tell these two commonly mistaken fish apart.

What Do They Look Like?

Bull Trout are long, slim fish with a large head in proportion to its body. Bull Trout can be identified by olive bodies with red and orange spots along each side as well as pale yellow dots along its back. They also have white leading edges on the fins and a translucent dorsal fin.


Dolly Varden have a trout like body but unlike Trout that have dark speckles on a light background they are more like Char and have light speckles on a darker background. Sea-Run (Anadromous) have dark blue on their upper head, upper sides and back with a silver to white belly. Freshwater Dolly Varden are olive green to brown on their upper sides and back, the sides are paler in colour with a white to dusky belly. The sides are marked with yellow, pale pink and orange spots which are much harder to see on Anadromous fish.

What Do They Eat?

Bull Trout eat other fish such as Minnows, Suckers, Sculpins and Sticklebacks. When available they will even eat Frogs, Snakes, Ducklings and small Mammals.

Dolly Varden eat smaller fish, insects and sometimes fish eggs when available.

Where Do They Live?

Bull Trout are found in Western North America from Northern Nevada through Montana, Idaho, Oregon and Washington once in Canada they will be in British Columbia, Western Alberta and into the Southern Yukon and the central portion of the North West Territories.

Dolly Varden are found in fresh and salt water of Eastern Asia as well as Western North America, from just south of the Canadian border all the way up through British Columbia’s Coast to the Seward Peninsula in Alaska.

What is their lifespan?

The lifespan of a Bull Trout is not well documented but are known to live as long as 12 years.

Dollies may live up to 16 years but any older than 10 years of age is quite uncommon.

What Lures Should I Use?

The best presentations for Bull Trout are ones that resemble bait fish since that is what they primarily eat. When using a spin caster rod try using jigs, spoons, spinners as well as minnows imitating crank baits. A few of my personal  favourites are: Len Thompson Five of Diamonds, Mepps Aglia and Black Fury, Panther Martins, Rooster Tails, and Blue Fox Vibrax. Please remember to use single barbless hooks as Brook Trout are catch and release only in most areas.

The best presentations for Dolly Vardens are small streamer patterns that imitate Salmon Fry or Smolts, small silver spoons and spinners, lures that flash and imitate small fish work well as well as Buzz Bombs in the 1/4 to 1/2 ounce weights. I have also read that many anglers swear by Swung Egg-Sucking Leeches.

A few Ways To Tell Them Apart:


Dolly Varden                                                                Bull Trout

Scientific Name:                        Salvelinus Malma                                                          Salvelinus Confluentus

Upper Jaw Shape:                     Short, usually doesn’t pass the eye                               Longer, usually past the eye

Number of Rays on Anal Fin:   10-15                                                                             Significantly more then the Dolly Varden

Head Shape:                               Round, medium sized head                                          Longer, broader head

Average Length:                        12-14 inches                                                                  12-20 inches

Average Weight:                         1-4 lbs                                                                            4 lbs

World Record:                            20 lbs 14 oz                                                                   32 lbs

Wulik River, Alaska, USA                                              Lake Pend Oreille, Idaho, USA


Who knew!

Dolly Varden is the smaller of the two fish and is distinguished by its polkadot markings.

Bull Trout is one of the most threatened and least known member of the Salmon family.

Some people say in the early 1870’s a group of Anglers were looking at some large Trout (known locally as “Calico Trout”) caught in California’s McCloud River. Someone said that there should be a better name for the species when a young girl suggested “Dolly Varden” after the character in the Charles Dickens novel Barnaby Rudge that she was reading at the time. Dolly Varden was a flashy dresser who wore a once popular calico print with pink spots on a grey background. Now is here the best part: the fish the men were looking at were most certainly Bull Trout, not the species we now call Dolly Varden as the two looked so similar!

Bull Trout are nicknamed the “grizzly bear” of the fish world for its fierce deposition and reliance on pristine unspoiled habitats.

Dolly Varden is the only fish in British Columbia with a first and last name, that is why both names are capitalized.

Bull Trout are picky about their habitat relying on the four c’s so survive: cool, clean, connected water and complex habitat (they require even colder water than salmon.)


A good thing to remember, Char are slow growing fish with some of the large ones being 10 years old; please handle them with care when releasing them back into the water. I hope that this article helps you next time you are out fishing and happen to catch a Dolly Varden or Bull Trout!




Bull Trout Versus Dolly Varden, What Is The Difference?

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