Many of my home waters have creek chubs and sculpin darting around the river bottom rocks and gravel. I’ll often agitate the river bottom with my wading boots and watch them inch up to grab tidbits of food. This is a signal to think about tying a zonker onto your fly line.
To get the whole back story, I should explain what a “Zonker Fly” is.
Zonkers are streamer flies on hooks sized 4 to 12, characterized by having a strip of fur (rabbit, squirrel or mink) tied on as the wing, with a shiny body and prominent eyes. The fur strip will pulsate with the current mimicking the action of fins, with shiny sides representing the reflective sides of a baitfish.
In the right water depth and current conditions zonkers are my “go to” streamer. The darting action that a fly fisher can imitate will trigger those elbow jarring strikes that make streamer fishing so much fun.
What are Right Water Conditions for Zonkers?
On my home rivers a moderate current is perfect for actively fishing with a zonker. I know “moderate” is a very general description. I’m not talking about deep whitewater conditions. If you’ve spent any time on a river, you’ll notice that when larger rocks make up a large percentage of the bottom structure its because they’re heavy enough to stay in place in stronger currents.
Those fist size rocks and larger are a perfect indicator of a moderate current. Behind these rocks will be the finer gravel bottom back currents and eddies. Those same moderate current rivers will usually follow the pool, riffle, and run – river anatomy.
My favorite depth for swinging zonkers is between 3 and 5 feet. Much deeper than 5 feet and it becomes difficult to get the fly down to the fish. Shallower than 3 feet will usually yield smaller fish and if you’re tossing a 4 inch or bigger zonker the strike rate will be lower.
How to Setup a Fly Rod for Zonkers
To really make a zonker work the streamer needs to swing as freely as possible from your fly line. I fish with floating line 90 percent of the time. A floating is versatile and flexible, it allows me to change my setup without carrying extra spools or reels. A sinking line might be best if you’re exclusively going to toss a deeper running fly like a zonker.
I’ve got a great article about streamer fishing with floating line – HERE.
With a faster action 9-foot fly rod in the 5 to 7 weight range spooled with a quality floating fly line like Scientific Anglers Amplitude or SA Mastery (those are Amazon links to check reviews and prices). On to the fly line, I’ll attach a sinking tip. I make my own sink tips with either RIO T14 or T17 (another link to Amazon to check it out) below I explain how in the YouTube video to make a sink tip.
A good starting length for a DIY sink tip is 4 feet. I make a variety of different length sink tips for different currents and depths. If you just want to buy a sink tip, I’d recommend the Orvis POLYLEADER (Amazon Link) it’s a kit that will allow you to change the sink rate with different sections.
Guide Tip: Fluorocarbon is expensive. You can save quite a bit by using spinning gear lines line Berkley Vanish. You will lose a little bit of the suppleness that a branded fly fishing tippet has, but the “invisibility” is comparable with both.
I attach the streamer onto the tippet with a double surgeon’s loop. Here’s a link to a YouTube I did that shows this simple knot. YouTube https://youtu.be/JMtl25-mmXk
Remember streamers need to be fished deep, but a heavily weighted fly is going to have less action. The balance is to keep as much weight off the fly as possible and still get it down.
My fly box has both unweighted and weighted zonkers. If my setup using the sinking tip doesn’t get the unweighted fly down tickling the bottom, I’ll tie on a weighted version.
If that doesn’t work, the next step is to use a longer section of sink tip to pull the floating fly line down.
Guide Tip: Casting a heavy fly and a sink tip requires you to strip in a good length of fly line and lift the line up out of the water depths before making a back cast.
How to “Fish” a Zonker
Zonkers like many streamers are meant to be actively “fished”. Adding a downstream mend can wiggle the fly or stripping in a foot of line and letting the drift out again will make that fur flutter and pulsate like the fins of a batfish.
Sculpin and chubs live on the bottom. They’ll dart from rock to rock picking up small nymphs and food morsels.
You’ve got a nicely weighted system when the fly is touching those rocks and boulders. Remember you imitating those bottom hugging sculpin. Trout will also be hugging the bottom to get out of the current and conserve energy.
Guide Tip: check the hook point often. Tapping rocks is the quickest way to dull a hook. Sharpen with couple strokes using a diamond hook hone
To get the zonker deep and length to the sinking tip or tie on a weighted fly.
I’ll cast ¾ across and immediately add a mend as soon as the fly hits the water. The mend gives the fly a chance to sink and puts some action into the fly as the line straightens. If you’ve cast across faster currents a belly can form pulling the fly unnaturally. To fight this belly, I’ll lift my rod tip and add another foot or so with an upstream mend.
Slowly swinging your rod tip in an upstream direction, then swinging back downstream adds a curl of fly line which “wags” the zonker like a dogs tail.
Stripping line-in and releasing is my preferred action. I’ll vary both the speed and length of line until I find a pattern that works. Start with a slow 6–8-inch strip in and let the line go until the slack is removed.
The combination of the line swinging across the current along with the stripping action creates the magic. Make sure your drag is set correctly because the strikes are from fish on the move. Most times setting the hook isn’t even needed.
Where the Fun Begins Tossing Zonkers
To really up your streamer game start swimming your zonker around and along side river structure. Think about how a chub will swim up stream around a boulder. A quick strip up, then swing in front of the rock, then drop back.
Picture a battered old log wedged into the bank. Swinging a streamer over to the log and stripping a zonker parallel up stream in a dancing fashion mimicking baitfish grabbing food even makes me hungry. 😎 With a comfortable length of line out, you’ll get a rhythm to your cast. It becomes second nature to cast across and strip line in or out targeting fishy spots.
One of the best videos out is from the folks at tightlinevideo. They add a bit of red as a collar, which imitates the gills.
3 Favorite Colors and Sizes of Zonkers
What’s the Difference Between Zonkers, Muddlers and Zoo Cougars?
Yes, all these streamers look similar and all are super effective. They are slightly different though.
- Zonkers, typically have a tube Mylar body below the hook and a pronounced eye.
- Muddlers, will have the fur body like a Zonker, but the head will usually be made with spun deer hair. The flash on the body is made by wrapping tinsel around the hook shank.
- Zoo Cougars, have a golden mallard wing, a spun deer hair head and a tail made from marabou.
Last Cast with a Zonker
While fishing on the white river years ago below Bull Shoals Dam, we hit the famous Shad Kill. This is when a school of threadfin shad https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Threadfin_shad get sucked into the dam and get killed or stunned. The trout go into a feeding frenzy during these events. A white zonker is the perfect fly to simulate these baitfish.
I’ve written more about fly fishing in Arkansas in this article. What I can say is that catching over 100 trout in an afternoon can be tiring.