Somebody will probably get mad about this, but I’m going to classify pretty much everything tied with zonker strips under the broad heading of Zonkers.
Before we start, you need to know that a Zonker strip is just a strip of rabbit fur with the hide still attached. Imagine taking a skinned rabbit and cutting in into quarter inch thick strips. Those strips are zonkers. I have yet to figure out why they’re called that.
What Does a Zonker Look Like?
Since this is a group of flies, rather than a particular pattern, it can look like a lot of things. They all, however, have some features in common since they’re all tied with those rabbit fur strips.
What you’re going to see in common among all these patterns is a long tail of rabbit fur, usually extending out past the hook.
You’ll see a lot of them weighted on the front with a bead or conehead and even sometimes a weighted underbody to help get them down into deep water.
The original Zonker came with a big set of eyes on the front as well. This is still a relatively common feature, though it’s by no means ubiquitous.
What Does a Zonker Fly Pattern Imitate?
The Zonker is a pretty versatile pattern and is usually tied to resemble a baitfish. Variations have accounted for most, if not all, of the common baitfish patterns in both fresh and saltwater around the globe.
Besides baitfish, however, a few patterns, such as the Bunny Leech, imitate leeches (obviously). When you put zonker strips in the water, they’ll eventually get saturated. When that happens, you get a great pulsating, squishy, kind of look as the fly moves in the water. It makes for a perfect imitation of the swimming characteristics of a leech.
History and Success
The original Zonker was tied by Dan Byford, sometime in the 1970’s. It quickly gained a reputation around the world as both a big, bright, but realistic baitfish imitation and as being extraordinarily easy to tie. In fact, the previously mentioned Bunny Leech is the only pattern I can tie consistently with any success.
The other thing the Zonker patterns have going for them is longevity.
I’ve got flies that I used while guiding for pike in Canada’s Northwest Territories fifteen years ago. Some of them have probably been through a hundred sets of pike teeth in their lifetime, yet they still haven’t quite fallen apart. I’ve been told that the rabbit fur will sometimes even outlive the hook.
How do you fish a Zonker?
Zonkers are versatile patterns and how you fish them depends a lot on which one you’ve got and where you are.
For the purposes of this article, I’m going to break down the Zonker into two categories. Typically, if I’m fishing a Zonker, I’m either trying to imitate baitfish, or I’m trying to imitate a leech.
Fishing Baitfish Patterns
The first thing to remember if you’re not used to throwing these kinds of patterns is that size can matter. A lot of fly anglers get nervous about casting a 5-or-6-inch streamer. It seems a little overkill and we’re a group that tends to like gentle, delicate presentations.
I’ve heard the argument that fish will bite at the long tail. Typically, big, predatory, fish will take this pattern hard and fast.
Remember, with a Zonker you’re targeting large, predatory fish, and you don’t get to be a big fish by timidly nipping at the tail of your prey.
You can vary your retrieve a lot when you’re fishing this pattern and there’s no set right or wrong way to do this. Try things out and see what works. I’ve had success with gentle, slow stripping. I’ve also had success with rapid, long stripping (like when you’re trying to get your fly back out of the water in a hurry). I’ve had success letting this pattern dead drift in a fast current and then pulling it back upstream in front of predatory fish.
Just remember that you’re trying to simulate a baitfish that’s frightened of the fish you want to catch.
Fishing Leech Patterns
This was one of our go-to techniques when I was guiding, especially in slow backwaters and along the edge of weed beds.
When your fly hits the water, let it sit and sink for a little bit. If it hasn’t been in the water yet, this may take a little bit of time. Once it’s sunk, begin to strip it back in.
Go fairly slow on this retrieve as leeches aren’t fast swimmers and you’re trying to get that rabbit fur to pulse and bunch up as it moves.
While some of these patterns are fairly niche, having a few Zonkers in your box is almost a requirement given their ability to imitate so many species of baitfish. A classic Zonker is the perfect streamer for those that don’t want too many cluttering up their box.