After quickly catching my daily limit of pink salmon during a recent fishing trip to eastern Hokkaido’s Churui River, I spent the next couple of hours pursuing smaller game, the oshorokoma, Japan’s little native Dolly Varden char. This is a fish that makes up in looks and spunk what it lacks in size.
Having caught Dolly Varden in Alaska I was curious about their Japanese cousins. I swapped my salmon tackle for a 71/2-foot, four-weight fly rod and set off to find some fish.
The main Churui River was filled with aggressive salmon that had pushed all the smaller residents out of the prime holding areas. After scouting around I located some oshorokoma in a tributary brook. I carefully crept up to a smaller pool and gently dropped my line into the water.
A half dozen small fish seemed to materialize out of nowhere and raced for the chance to be the first one caught. I spent the next hour or so being entertained by these obliging little fellows. I recommend using barbless hooks so that you can release these tiny scrappers with the minimum of harm.
This is a fish with a collection of interesting names. The name oshorokoma comes from the Ainu language and roughly translates into English as “swims with its rear.” The fish’s scientific name is Salvelinus malma. Salvelinus, meaning “little salmon,” is the genus name given to members of the char family; the species name malma is the Russian name that was first used to describe this fish on the Kamchatka Peninsula.
The fish’s common English name comes from the works of Charles Dickens. The original Dolly Varden was a beautiful, spirited young girl in the novel “Barnaby Rudge.” The character was so well known that her name was applied to a gaily colored dress fabric popular at that time.
A group of taxonomists who were impressed by this fish’s beauty christened it Dolly Varden. The color pattern that Dollies exhibit can vary considerably. The typical coloration is a silvery green with white spots on the back and pink or red spots on the sides.
In autumn when these fish are spawning their colors can only be described as spectacular. The males turn a vivid green on the upper sides with a bright orange or red splash of color on the lower sides and belly, and brilliant orange or red spots randomly distributed along the flanks. Mature females are similarly but less vividly colored.
In regions where Dolly Varden are sea-run fish or reside in large rivers their size can be measured in kilograms. In small streams or alpine lakes the fish are tiny. Here in Japan the oshorokoma only average 14-18 cm in length. Dollies can be aggressive feeders that will hit lures, flies or bait.
For the lure angler, a tiny black spinner fished on light tackle is a good choice.
In Japan, fly anglers should use a four-weight or lighter outfit. Small dry flies, wet flies, or nymphs can all work. Salmon egg imitations can be very effective fish catchers.
Bait anglers can’t go wrong using real salmon eggs. It was once thought that their appetite for salmon eggs and smolts was causing great damage to Alaska’s salmon population so in 1921 the United States Bureau of Fisheries initiated a misguided bounty program aimed at eradicating Dolly Varden.
Bounty anglers were paid 21/2 cents a tail. The tails were cut off the fish, salted, and strung 40 to a makeshift wire ring. At times Alaskan card players even used the tails as poker chips. The scheme was discontinued after it was found that most of the tails turned in for the bounty belonged to species other than the Dolly Varden.
The Dolly Varden’s range in the west goes from Oregon through British Columbia to Alaska, and in the east from the Bering Sea down to Korea and Japan.
In Japan it is native only to Hokkaido, where it can be found in the central, eastern and northern portions of the island. The streams of the Shiretoko Peninsula are considered to be among the best spots to find oshorokoma.
I doubt that it would be worth making a trip to Hokkaido just to catch oshorokoma, but if you happen to be in the neighborhood, you just might have fun making their acquaintance.