I love zonkers! They are great looking flies with a lot of volume and motion, and the zonker style lends itself well to many types of small fish and worm imitations.
Before I started writing this article I had only a vague idea about the origin of the zonker style of flies. I did some research and discovered a bit about the history of this great tying technique.
Going through my bookshelves gave me a few hints. Both Perrault's Standard Dictionary of Fishing Flies and Hellickson's massive Fish Flies Encyclopedia named Dan Byford as the originator, and quoted an almost identical pattern as the Zonker.
Once I had Byford's name, it was a lot easier to find more sources online, and both Steve Schalla on his own home page and Barry Ord Clarke on Partridge's web site as well as Dave Skok on Saltwater Flies name Dan Byford as the zonker inventor, so it seems like the source of this brilliant fly and the particular tying method is quite well established.
I will not try to account for Dan's pattern in detail, but my conclusion from the many references that I have found is that we are talking a baitfish pattern with a Mylar tube body, a black or purple wing made from a strip of rabbit and large head with fairly prominent eyes.
My own zonkers
The first zonker patterns appeared right about when I started tying flies, and that's many years ago. My own zonker experience started with something that actually looked quite a bit like the original Byford zonker with a bright Mylar body and a black rabbit wing. But for reasons that I will cover later on, my zonkers soon developed into something different.
Looking for zonkers on the Global FlyFisher will lead you to quite a few pages. Some of my own really early flies were zonkers. In the beginning of my zonker career I tied them with rabbit, because that was what you got (and to a large extent still get) when you bought commercially cut zonker strips. But rabbit can be very long haired, and using it often leads to big flies.
I like my flies for sea trout to be smaller, and soon started experimenting with cutting strips from other types of skin for my zonker flies.
How to (traditionally) tie a zonker
The original Byford-zonker was tied with a technique, which I also used when starting out, and which is still the most common one prescribed for zonker patterns.
You finish the body to just behind the head, tie in the zonker strip in the front, finish the front of the fly and the head. After this you start the thread again in the rear of the body and catch the zonker strip there, tie it down, whip finish and varnish over the rear wraps.
This secures the strip fore and aft, and provides a nice fur wing all along the the whole hook shank.
My problem with this approach is that the fur strip has a tendency to sag when the skin gets wet. The wet skin will become soft and a bit longer, and on my flies, that often means that in stead of a nice and tight wing, I get a soggy fur strip that "hangs" on the side of the fly or forms an arc over the body.
Some zonker tying instructions show a method where you tie in the strip in the rear first. Then you tie the body and pull the strip forwards to the hook eye, tie it down and cut off the surplus. I don't particularly favor any of these methods. Finishing and starting the thread and sagging skin. Nope, that's not for me.
Because of the sagging, I now tie all my zonkers with a rib that holds the fur strip tight to the body in the full length of the fly. This also avoids any finishing and starting the thread underway, which I generally dislike. I also rarely use Mylar or other types of tubing for the body, because the oversize tube and the tight rib don't combine well as I see it.
I mostly use a plain, smooth tinsel body, a braided thread or yarn or dubbing. The key to a zonker that looks good to me is a tight contact between the zonker strip and the body.
Another trick is to wet the skin on the strip to make is soft and stretchable. When you tie it in tightly fore and aft it will become even tighter when it dries and stay tight when the fly gets wet again.
You can of course also glue the skin to the body, which is a technique that is sometimes recommended in zonker patterns. I personally avoid glue in my flies, and dislike the thought of securing materials with glue rather than tying them on or securing them with tying thread or other materials such as the ribbing, but it is of course one way to avoid the sagging.
Enough dislikes! Below I describe the method that I like.
Ribbing through the wing
Ribbing the wing in place takes a bit of practice and here are a couple of tips that can make it easier and form a more durable wing-body connection.
Tie in ribbing the full length of the hook shank, starting in front and sticking out to the rear. Tie the body as you please with tinsel or dubbing and make sure an ample amount of ribbing sticks out in the rear of the fly.
You don't need to cut the zonker strip to its final length before it's tied in. Having the full length of the strip to hold on to actually makes the whole process easier, and you can trim the tail once the fly is done, and you have all the proportions in place.
When starting the wing, cut the skin tip triangular and remove a bit of the fur to make the tie-in bump smaller. Secure the strip well in the front, and don't squash too much hair down.
Leave the thread hanging where the skin is tied in, and grab the fur strip and tighten it over the back of the fly. Use a dubbing needle or your closed scissors to separate the hair where the rib starts. Some tyers moisten the hair a bit to help this process. I usually keep it dry.
Grab the rib and pull it up on the back of the fly and over the fur strip towards yourself. Stick your dubbing needle into the fur right in front of where the rib crosses. Make the first wrap perpendicular to the hook shank. This will make sure that the tail is parallel to the hook shank and stays parallel. Again be careful that you don't squash any hairs in the process.
Go down on the front and up the back of the hook again. The next wrap goes forward at a 45 degree angle. Poke the needle through the base of the hairs at an appropriate angle where the rib will end, and separate the hairs. Lay the rib into this groove, wrap it down the front of the fly and up on the back. Make sure the skin strip isn't twisted or curled and that as few hairs as possible are caught under the rib. Pull upwards in the rib to tighten. Repeat this process until you reach the front of the body. Four to six wraps will look nice on most flies depending on the hook shank length.
You may feel that you need an extra hand or more fingers in the beginning, but you will soon be able to control all materials and steps, and keep the skin and rib tight all through the process, which is paramount for a good result.
The short zonker strip wing
A recent development in zonkers has taken place particularly in Scandinavian salmon flies, where hair wings of the past have been replaced by short zonker strips. This is predominantly seen in short tube flies, where replacing a single bunch of hair with a single, short zonker strip can be a convenient way of getting a nice wing.
Tying in hair will often lead to bulky lumps of butts and thread, often located where a hackle is to be tied in or a neat, small head is supposed to be formed. The hair wing butts can make the final steps of the fly more difficult and can result in a clumsy looking fly.
Using a short strip of rabbit, nutria or racoon skin can give the same wing size and shape, but since the skin holds the hair, you don't need to handle the bulky hair butts.
Cut a skin strip no more than 1-1½ centimeters in length (a little less than half and inch), trim the front end of the skin to a triangle and tie that in, and you will have a nice wing, which adds very little material under the thread, but still produces a voluminous wing. Many tiers taper the skin making in wide in front and narrow or a point in the back. I usually use a straight strip of skin. This type of zonker wing has no rib.
We have a whole article that covers this technique, and you can also look at our patterns the Black Ghost Tube and the Pet Blue NJ and compare to the Raven NJ or the Très Bien, which use a traditional hair wing in several sections. You can see how small the difference actually is in the final fly.
Using the hook
I have used a different method on several patterns of my own. I don't remember where this technique comes from and I will certainly not claim it as mine, but I have used it and like it. It's perfect for an easy attachment of a zonker strip, but only useful on patterns that you want to fish upside-down.
You tie the body of fly as you normally would, but leave out any tail. Tie eyes or other weight on the top of the shank to turn it over and then finish in such a manner that you have the thread hanging right behind the eyes. If you want to rib through the skin strip, the rib is tied in the rear of the fly pointing away from the hook.
Punch a hole in the zonker strip (or use the hook) and pass the strip over the hook point. Pull it tight towards the rear of the body, rib it and tie it down behind the eyes. Finish off the fly with a hackle or a muddler head or whatever you prefer. You can see this technique used in The Kluting. This gives you an upside-down zonker that is quite compact and where the materials disguise the hook point almost fully.
I rarely let the front of the zonker wing be the finish (or start if you don't look at the tying sequence) of the wing but use one of several techniques:
- A small hair "wing"
This trick consists in tying in a small bunch of the same hair as the strip itself right in front of the skin strip on the body or the bare hook. This will result in a nice taper, hide the skin and blend naturally in with the hair on the skin.
- A hair "hackle"
Here you form a dubbing loop of tying thread, add a bit of hair, very likely the same as found in the zonker strip (add a small strip and clip away the skin). The you spin it an wrap it a couple of times. This will hide the bump and form a nice collar on the fly.
- A feather hackle
A normal hackle is tied in on the skin bump and the bump is covered with thread to form a tapered base. Wrap the hackle 3-4 times, and you have a nice cover over the skin. Soft hen hackles work best here, and tie them the classical way, tip first and curved side forward.
These methods help hide the small bump of skin that forms where the wing is tied in and the ribbing tied off. You can of course also tie the head over this bump, but I find zonker flies where the wing starts right behind the head to be less harmonic than the ones, which have a nice collar, and mostly finish with a hackle, oftentimes in combination with the small front wing.