Rip Baits for Spring Dollies
Story and photos by JD Richey
Okay, so most spring fishing opportunities are still a ways off, but there is definitely light at the end of the tunnel. One of the first viable fisheries that opens up in the early season is for Dollies. The ravenous char start to congregate in the spring around creek mouths, eager to intercept the clouds of out-migrating salmon fry and smolt that appear as the ice begins to thaw, offering anglers a nice opportunity for some good light-tackle, cabin fever-squelching fun.
The early Dolly action is a big meat show. The juvenile salmon are typically around in staggering numbers and all that protein is just what the doctor ordered for the char after a long, lean winter. In other words, leave your small stuff at home. Anglers tossing No. 22 Zebra Midges need not apply! These fish are keyed in on live bait and not much else is going to draw their interest.
This, folks, is rip bait country!
The Rip Bait
There’s a whole host of gear you can throw at spring Dolly Varden. Basic silver spoons and spinners work well, as do epoxy smolt patterns and marabou streamers. For my money, however, I like to borrow a page from the bass angler’s playbook and fish rip baits. Though not often used in cold water, these little minnow-shaped bass getters are deadly on meat-eating char. Extremely versatile, rip baits are neutrally buoyant, swim like a baby fish and can be worked quickly through moving water or slowly in the still stuff.
There are a lot of quality rip baits out there—flip through the pages of one of the big tackle catalogs and there’s a good chance you’ll get a little overwhelmed by all the choices. Just try to find one that closely matches the size and color of a baby salmon. My favorite is Lucky Craft’s Pointer 65 in the Rainbow Trout and American Shad finishes. They’re a bit pricey (typically around $14 a pop), but the little Pointer 65s have an erratic side-to-side darting action that I just don’t think any other lure can touch.
I run my rip baits stock out of the package with only a couple minor modifications: I’ll either pinch the barbs or switch the trebles out to singles. Be sure to tie your line direct to the bait—swivels and clips will compromise the lure’s action.
As the name “rip bait” implies, the basic technique is to “rip” the lure aggressively through the water with a combination of sharp pops of the rod tip and corresponding turns of the reel handle. Ideally, you fish these things from a position above the water (as in a bass boat), with the rod tip pointed down and across your body towards the water. Obviously, that’s not practical in most stream-fishing situations, so a modified approach is in order. Depending on the water I’m fishing, I’ll hold the rod parallel to the water or with the tip slightly up.
I generally start out with a rip-rip-pause-rip-rip-rip-pause type of retrieve and then experiment from there. The fish will tell you how they want it on a given day—just keep varying your cadence until a pattern develops.
When you’re tossing a rip bait in stillwater, the majority of the bites will come when the lure’s lying motionless on the pause. It’s a different deal, however, in moving water. You still want to throw pauses into your retrieve but they need to be a lot shorter in duration. Perhaps it’s better to think of them as “hesitations” instead, but they’re still extremely important. I think it’s that change from the darting action to the stop that really makes Dollies want to eat the lure.
Depending on the type of water you’re fishing, casts can be made directly up- or downstream, though the down-and-across swing seems to draw the most grabs.
Where to Look
Obviously, open water is a key to success in the early going. On lakes, the mouths of creeks will typically open up first—and are great spots to find char with baby salmon on the brain. Lake outlets, where the current starts to form, are also prime spring Dolly hunting zones.
In rivers, Dollies like to post up behind logjams, where they can ambush food moving downstream with the current. Tributary stream mouths are also excellent—and maybe the best spots of all are where side sloughs enter the main flow. The young salmon will seek these areas that are out of the current, and the Dollies are sure to be close by.
You will also find hungry char on the insides of seams where fast water meets slow and behind sand and gravel bars.
In the saltwater, the mouths of any known pink salmon streams are sure to hold char as well. I generally like to fish them as the tide is falling so that the smolt are more concentrated—but you can catch char at all phases of the tide.
While nobody makes a technique-specific rod for throwing small rip baits for char, there are some light bass rods designed for drop-shotting and small darter heads that fit the bill pretty nicely (check out Lamiglas’ Excel 702S, which is under $100). Basically, you want a rod with a soft tip and a little bit of beef in the back end—something that won’t collapse on the hook-set.
Pair the rod up with a quick-retrieve spinning reel loaded with quality 8-pound mono. Braid will also work, but the inherent stretch of mono helps keep a big char pinned better when it decides to try to annihilate your plug.
Longtime guide JD Richey is a contributing editor for Fish Alaska magazine. He can be reached at www.fishwithjd.com.