brook trout from linn run

Fishing with the Copper John fly

The Copper John is one of the most popular and effective nymphs around. This is a fly that regularly catches fish all over the world. The fly is named after the copper wire used for the ribbing. It also carries the name of its originator, the American fly tier and angler John Barr. Mister Barr created the fly in the early 1990’s. It’s now used all over the globe.

The Copper John is a heavy nymph that gets down deep quick. Since that where most real nymphs are found, this helps the fly catch fish. Of course the look of the fly helps too. The tight wraps of wire over the back half of the fly look a lot like the segmentation found on real nymphs. Take a look at a live mayfly or stonefly nymph and you will see what I mean. Heck, even freshwater scuds and some worms sort of have it. Add to that the lively feather legs in the front and you have a pretty realistic fly that looks like a lot of what trout and other fish eat.

How to fish the Copper John

Does the Copper John look like a mayfly nymph, stonefly nymph, caddis larva, midge larva or something else entirely? I am not convinced that fish bother to make the distinction. It looks like a nymph and that is all that really seems to matter. Sure you might find some “educated” fish that have been caught and released several times that would turn their nose up at the fly. But a lot of trout will snap up any Copper John that comes drifting past them.

You can fish a Copper John on traditional fly gear, a tenkara rod, or even spinning gear. I’ve done it all and caught plenty of fish. A Bead Head Copper John is actually one of my favorite flies for tenkara fishing. Just tie it to the end of your line and work all the likely spots. With spinning gear, attach a few split shot to your line then peg a float like a Nakazima Ball Float a few feet up the line from your Copper John to give you some casting weight. If you’re fly fishing just watch your line for a take. Or attach a strike indicator to your line and keep an eye on that. When a fish takes the fly the indicator will pause, move, or go under water.

trout fishing Linn RunThis Pennsylvania brook trout took a Bead Head Copper John

No matter what gear you use the presentation is basically the same. You want to get make your nymph to appear naturally to the fish you are trying to catch. The main thing is to get a natural or “dead” drift. When you’re fishing in moving water, you want your nymph to float naturally with the current in almost all cases. If your fly is weighed down by the drag of your line it will leave a wake. If you have too much slack the current might grab your line and whip the fly downstream faster than the natural flow. Avoid that and maneuver your line so that the fly drifts at a natural speed.

Of course there are times when you will want to put a little action on the fly. Especially if you are fishing in still water like lakes and ponds. Or when the dead drift is not working. You can retrieve a Copper John like you would any other lure. Bounce it up and down in the water by twitching your rod tip. Pull in a little line then let the lure sink. Hold your line tight and let the nymph swing with the current. Mimic the motion of real aquatic insects. This will also catch fish.

Copper John tactics and applications

Copper John flies can be used in almost any situation. I really mean that. I’ve even caught fish with Copper Johns when ice fishing! They look like any number of aquatic creatures that fish eat. They’re compact yet heavy enough to sink rather quickly. Then they have realistic features plus a bit of shine. They’re great flies.

The earliest Copper John flies I saw did not have a bead or any epoxy on the wing case. They were tied with copper colored wire. These days there are a variety of Copper Johns available. Most Copper John flies I see now have bead heads. That helps them sink even faster. Some also have rubber legs. Then there are all the different colors of wire that are used. You can still find naturally colored Copper Johns. But you can also find green wire bead head Copper Johns with flashbacks and rubber legs! They can all work. I find that the versions tied with black wire are the most versatile. I’ve caught everything from brook trout in Linn Run in Pennsylvania to panfish in the Carolinas, and from arctic char in Iceland to cutthroats out in Colorado on Copper John flies.

BH Copper John flyThis Bead Head Copper John has caught a lot of fish

One really effective way to fly fish with a Copper John is to use a dropper rig. First you tie on a high floating fly like a foam hopper at the end of your leader. Then you tie a three or four foot piece of leader to the bend of that floating fly. To the end of that piece of line you attach your Copper John. Now you have an attractor fly on top that also works as a strike indicator for your nymph below. Trout will take the hopper or hit the Copper John which will sink or move the hopper on the surface. Sometimes they will grab the Copper John and the hopper both!

One way to match this style of fishing with a spinning rod is to tie a high floating popper on your line. Then tie a 3 or 4 foot long piece of line to the bend of your popper hook. At the end of that line tie on your Copper John. Cast out and let the popper sit. Fish may hit the popper or take the nymph below the surface which will move or sink the popper. If nothing happens move the popper a little. Then let it sit again. Repeat these until the rig is back to the bank. This is a good way to catch crappie, bluegills, trout and even bass.

Where to buy Copper John flies

The Copper John is one of those flies that you can find pretty much anywhere. I don’t imagine there is a fly shop in the United States that doesn’t carry at least some version of the Copper John. It’s that popular. On the other hand, a shop could certainly sell out of Copper Johns. I have seen empty boxes in shops before. That’s why I do my best to make sure my fly boxes are stocked up before I head out the door.

BH red copper john flies

You should be able to walk in and buy Copper Johns from any fly shop you see. Places like Angler’s Emporium in Western Pennsylvania and Little River Outfitters in East Tennessee always seem to have a variety of Copper Johns on hand. Some big box outdoors stores even carry them. But if you can’t grab the flies in a store for whatever reason then just order some up online. These days you can even get Copper John flies from Amazon.

The Copper John isn’t particularly difficult to tie either. So if you’re into tying flies, or you want to get into it, look into tying your own Copper Johns. You need thread, hooks, copper wire, goose biots, Thin Skin, and peacock herl. You can also add things like beads, rubber legs, and epoxy if you want.

It doesn’t really matter how you get your hands on some Copper John Flies. As long as you have them and fish them right you should catch a lot of fish in a lot of different situations. I have used these flies all over with great success. I bet you will too. You can’t really go wrong with a Copper John. So tie one on and get ready to catch fish.

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