Black Stones and Zonker Pie

Adam Russo, from Lancaster PA, introduced himself by email, thanking Rivertop Rambles for being an interesting and informative blog. The young fly-fisherman offered to tie a few of his Zonker specimens that he’s found to be especially effective in north-central Pennsylvania (where he and his family have a cabin) and send them to me as a token of his thanks. That sounded interesting and I gladly sent him my address.

Adam’s Zonker (1 of 4)

The Zonkers soon arrived, and I was eager to try them out. Adam fishes this weighted streamer fly with both floating and sink tip lines, depending on stream conditions. He says the pattern works well all year round and is very easy to tie. He wraps the hook with wire, adding weight, then ties the strip in at the bend. Next, he wraps the fur strip toward the head, securing the business with several whip finishes and a touch of glue.

a winter tree, not me

I stepped into the Allegheny on a chilly day with the water running a little high and off-color. I gave the Grey Zonker a cast upstream, then thought of Adam Russo who was hoping to come up to his cabin in early March and maybe find some action with the Black Stonefly hatch. It wasn’t long before I hooked and lost a nice fish on the Zonker fly, a pattern I hadn’t used in several years.

I left the river pool and headed downstream, passing a couple of fishermen setting up for lunch at their truck. One of the guys said hello and I probably acknowledged them with a similar greeting. Minutes later I was ready to cast a Woolly Bugger into the flow when one of the fly anglers approached me with a “Hey, are you Walt?” greeting and, allowing that I was, I felt the world shrink to about the size of a #8 Zonker. “You must be Adam,” I said. He and his fishing pal had driven north a little earlier than planned.


The guys had done pretty well fishing on the upper Allegheny, catching at least one big brown, if not more. Before I met the fellas, I knew I was fishing behind them because I’d seen fresh tracks in the snow, and later I told them, given their expertise, I was lucky to have landed a couple of standard-sized hatchery trout. We had a good conversation at their truck. Before we headed off in separate directions, I thanked the guys for reaching out, and promised Adam I would stay in touch and let him know how the flies and fishes got along.

Two days later I was on the stream again, and this time the weather was downright wonderful, with a partly clouded sky and air temps in the high 60s. Pretty nice for a February day in northern Pennsylvania. Buckets were getting hung on maple trees for sap collection. And the first Black Stoneflies were appearing above the headwaters.

Stonefly hatches are a sign of spring in my neck of the forest. Fishing was slow. I didn’t catch a thing while casting with a stonefly nymph, but several nice trout, including a wild and colorful brown, went for a scrambled Egg fly and one of Adam’s Zonker specials. I enjoyed thinking I was gonna serve the winter fishes a slice of Zonker pie, a chocolate-colored, messy-looking tidbit that’s designed for well-fed trout expecting to expand their dietary horizons. One brown took the offering as it swam enticingly down the current.

a wild one from the woods

I really like the way these flies dance in the water. They exude the natural motions of a slimy spring thing loosened by the rain and snowmelt.

Like a waiter in a restaurant, I served a Zonker for dessert. The customer took it and fought me hard. I brought the trout to my hand, said I’m sorry, and let it go. I never got a tip.

Adam’s Zonker (2 of 4)



About rivertoprambles

Welcome to Rivertop Rambles. This is my blog about the headwaters country-far afield or close to home. I've been a fly-fisher, birder, and naturalist for most of my adult life. I've also written poetry and natural history books for thirty years. In Rambles I will mostly reflect on the backcountry of my Allegheny foothills in the northern tier of Pennsylvania and the southern tier of New York State. Sometimes I'll write about the wilderness in distant states, or of the wild places in the human soul. Other times I'll just reflect on the domestic life outdoors. In any case, I hope you enjoy. Let's ramble!
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18 Responses to Black Stones and Zonker Pie

  1. Brent says:

    I’d comment on what a small world it is, but that might be as much the product of a fairly tight-knit community of common interest. Either way, that’s a funny coincidence. Is the zonker pie a specific variant on the overall pattern?

    • It’s a tight-knit community but when you think about it, the coincidence begins to fray toward the remarkable. I mean, there’s a lot of fishing space between Lancaster and Coudersport, especially in winter when fly-fishing is less popular than skiing or bowling, at least around here. Zonker pie is a half-baked variant of my own imagination rather than the overall pattern. It’s a crazy world out there.

  2. Walt – thanks for a lovely story this morning. The fly fishing community is indeed small but it is still amazing that two guys who live quite a distance from each other would meet on the same stream the same day!

  3. Les Kish says:

    Signs of spring? The July PMD hatch usually signals the onset of spring in Montana. It may be delayed ’til August this year!

    • Les, I thought you’re living in a trout-filled paradise where seasonal changes simply mean a shift in favored fly patterns. But seriously, if it’s cold right now, remember that the PMDs are working overtime to make a sweet appearance when the time is ripe.

  4. plaidcamper says:

    Thanks, Walt, for dishing up this great story serving today, laden with wonderful photographs and memorable phrases. I love the idea that the world can shrink to the size of a #8 zonker (allowing for the fact that my knowledge of all things zonker is limited…), makes things seem manageable!
    Signs of spring? Enjoy!

    • I’m dishing up some thanks back at you, PC, under the illusion that spring signs are hatching from the waters of our lives. There’s still a month of winter left to go, of course, and with everything out of whack the way it is, I wouldn’t be surprised if spring comes later than that. Anyway, it’s fun to speculate and to pretend that life is like a zonker and gets manageable every now and then.

  5. Bob Stanton says:

    This is the upside of the internet: the chance to connect with people, without the drivel and dross of the standard social media channels. In that regard it works wonderfully. Plus, sometimes you get free flies!

    • The flies, past and present, are a wonder, and the fine connections made to sensible people are the upside, as you say. The drivel and dross of standard media, and the unimaginable use of energy, on the other hand, is why we opiate our lives and head out to the stream. Thanks Bob!

  6. Meeting unexpected people on the river is a great gift, especially with a side order of Zonker Pie. Great story and one that is appreciated.

  7. JZ says:

    An outstanding gift given to you Walt. Nice to see that the pattern proved productive on that brown. That trout may have never tipped you out the door, but Adam sure had. That kind of generosity seems to be more than prevalent in fly fishing circles. On the other hand, It seems that spring may be closer than first thought. As the weather seems to have taken a turn for the better. I fished two past Saturdays for the first time in a while. There was still a lot of snow as I hiked along a dirt road a little more than a mile and trampled down a steep ravine to get too water. No tracks were seen except that of deer and a dead turkey, mostly buried in the snow and neatly preserved do to the cold . I fished down-stream mainly and the few brookies that came to hand attacked my small streamer with vengeance. There feisty nature and colorful disposition made the long journey too the mountains meaningfully exquisite. I always find peace in these silent quarries. Glad you found peace to my friend…

    • Glad to get your update, JZ, and pleased to hear that you’re finding some peaceful winter outings with the brook trout. I caught a couple yesterday that retained some gorgeous coloration.
      I agree with you about the gift that I reported on. The fly-fishing fraternity may be small but it’s something that keeps the spirit soaring.
      L. and I are heading south to fish the famous limestone waters in the rain for a couple of days and to see if we can find some interesting places to hang around. Maybe I’ll have something to report about, as well. Hope you have a good weekend, too.

  8. loydtruss says:

    Love that Zonker Pattern, just curious what type of retrieve were you using short jerks or a slow steady retrieve? I assume the trout were taking the streamer just under the surface film; absolute gorgeous stream you were fishing. Thanks for sharing

    • Bill, This Zonker has a lovely natural motion in its dead drift and I would add to it with occasional twitches of the rod. Its a weighted fly, sinks readily but could be fished higher up in the column. Retrieve was generally with a short jerk motion. Thanks for the appreciation!

  9. I love this. Other people’s patterns always seem to fish really well, especially since it means deviating from all the tried and true patterns. Glad to see the fish are biting out your way. They’re pretty tight lipped around here.

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