JUDD LAKE, ALASKA — Brett Prettyman flips his egg fly into the rolling Coal Creek riffle and watches as his strike indicator floats downstream barely 5 feet before darting out of sight.
His reel screeches as the fish on the other end of the line sprints for a deep hole, then hunkers down without budging.
"He went deep and stayed there awhile," says Prettyman, of Salt Lake City. "Then I saw a flash."
Five minutes later, fishing pal Tim Zink of Washington, D.C., puts his mitts around a fine specimen targeted this day in south-central Alaska — a 25-inch Dolly Varden, its belly full of sockeye eggs.
"It was the Dolly of a lifetime," Prettyman says.
In the lower 48, Alaska is known for big fish — exemplified by the mammoth kings of the Kenai River and the barn-door halibut pulled out of the Gulf of Alaska.
But the state's vast river systems are also home to excellent fall fly-fishing opportunities requiring nothing heavier than a 5-weight pack rock.
Call it Alaska Lite, where matching smaller fly gear to smaller fish means plenty of hook-ups and epic battles with unique species that don't look or behave like the salmon, steelhead and trout targeted in Southern Oregon.
Arctic grayling with their splotchy bodies and sailfish-like fins rarely top 18 inches, but they will suck down just about any dry fly tossed their way in small streams such as the Chena River outside of Fairbanks.
Twenty-something-inch rainbow trout possess impressive hues and splotches when caught out of streams such as the Talachulitna River flowing out of Judd Lake. But unlike the insect-sippers of Southern Oregon, these rainbow feed on the spawned-out and rotting salmon carcasses and readily attack flies meant to imitate chunks of dislodged flesh.
But none of Alaska's light-rod fish are as plentiful, unusual or as easily duped as the Dolly Varden.
Though often mistaken for trout, Dolly Varden are a member of the char family. Adults have dark bodies with small, almost translucent spots of pinks, reds and purples, and they are perfect targets for 5-weight fly rods and dry lines during the fall sockeye spawn.
"They're all tied to a healthy salmon run," says Mike Overcast, owner of the Tordrillo Mountain Lodge, a fly-in lodge on the Dolly Varden-rich Talachulitna River as it flows out of Judd Lake. "You have a healthy salmon run, you have a healthy Dolly run."
This fall, thousands of sockeye made it up the Talachulitna, and the Dollies followed right along. They often mill together by the hundreds in small pools and on spawning beds. The smaller, darker Dollies literally belly right up to the larger and bright-red sockeyes, seemingly sucking the eggs right out of females.
"The big ones go right to the redds," Overcast says. "And they just gorge themselves."
But no Dolly wants to see a loose egg get away.
Talachulitna Dollies will bite egg patterns despite having scores of eggs still in their mouths. That's why it's important to match the batch by getting egg patterns to look as much like sockeye eggs as possible.
In Alaska, that doesn't mean fine yarn balls spun onto small hooks.
Dolly Varden prefer simple plastic beads. Red, orange or pink beads touched up with nail polish to imitate sockeye milt.
That's why you won't see a fly-tying vise at the Tordrilla Mountain Lodge. But there is a potato with toothpicks sticking out of it, holding freshly altered beads for the next day's trip.
"Believe it or not, the beads look more realistic than a spun fly," Overcast says. "It's easier to get color varieties and match what's really out there."
The toothpicks also have dual uses.
Alaska fly-fishers suspend these beads a few inches above their hooks, using the broken-off ends of toothpicks to hold them in place. A single split-shot weight another six inches up the leader and a strike indicator set at about five feet finish off the rigging.
This tactic doesn't seem to reduce hook-ups while allowing for easier catch-and-release fishing.
"It works better and it's better for the fish, too," Overcast says. "You never get them where the hooks get into the back of their gills."
During September, Dolly Varden can be found almost wherever sockeye are spawning. Sockeye rarely bite, so patient anglers who let their eggs float slowly amid the finning salmon usually avoid them.
Dollies are sometimes intermixed with rainbows also targeting the eggs. Patterns are best floated drift-free, either cast upstream or side-to-side while mending the floating line to reduce drag.
At times, Prettyman and his cadre of fellow egg-chuckers each had Dolly Varden on their lines simultaneously, each making fierce runs up and down Coal Creek before being unhooked.
Most run 16 to 18 inches, with Prettyman alone accounting for dozens of Dollies over 20 inches on one September afternoon on the Talachulitna.
"Catching all these Dollies is pretty amazing," he says. "It's the most fish I've ever caught fly-fishing."