Trout Unlimited
Top Trout Flies Course

Lesson 3 – Copper John Nymph

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The Copper John Nymph

One of the Top 10 Trout Flies Ever Created

It just keeps getting better and better.  The Copper John is one of the all time favorites of many a beginner angler because of it’s ease to fish, ability to imitate a huge variety of insects and get down deep successfully.  It’s a top fly in nearly every other list you see out there and for good reason.  Let’s learn why this fly is so deadly for trout and break it down in more detail than you’ve ever seen before.

The Details

John Barr is the inventor of this fly and deserves our thanks for all he has done not only with this pattern and others but his service to the fly fishing industry and community.  It went through several years of design changes and when it finally landed, it was a work of art that not only was durable, fast sinking and enjoyable to tie, but it caught a ton of fish.

Now the pattern is sold by nearly everyone and comes in a ton of variations and colors.  All this aside, all the variations stick to the key components of a fast sinking, mayfly and stonefly imitating powerhouse of a fly pattern that excels at being the dropper in a dry dropper or part of any nymphing rig.

Let’s dive into the seasonality of this pattern as well as top colors and sizes to have in your box.


Graphs – Seasonality, Size and Color


The Secret to Why This Fly is So Productive

So what’s the secret of the copper john that warrants so much trout love?  First, it does an excellent job of imitating both a stonefly and a mayfly nymph.  With the wire body, it’s even easier to adjust the wire color from option to option to match specific species or colors you find in your water.  That kind of versatility can be found in some patterns, but with wire being so cheap and having so many options, it really is an excellent material choice that gives ultimate flexibility.

In addition to it’s ability to imitate insects well and having a cheap and versatile material like wire as the primary body material, it also sinks like a ship.  You may have picked up on my tips in the earlier lessons, but given the choice between a light nymph and a heavy nymph, you should choose the heavier nymph 9/10.  If the fish are suspended or near the surface eating nymphs or emergers, then you should go weightless, but otherwise the more weight the better for getting things deep.

A quick tangent here because it is important.  There is a trade-off with weight vs presentation.  The more weight, the faster it sinks getting it in the strike zone of fish, but you lose that natural float you get from a fly floating through the current cause you have a massive anchor attached to it.  Mastering that tradeoff is key in fishing and an important tradeoff to remember.

With all that said, I would still recommend more weight over less in nearly every situation as it doesn’t matter how good a fly drifts, if it isn’t in the strike zone, fish aren’t eating it.  The copper john however, is a great balance of inherent weight in the fly and life-like drift.  That balance is critical to why this fly is so successful.

So we know that a copper john imitates stoneflies and mayfly nymphs well, but let’s break down which colors and sizes and for each season these flies should be used per insect.


The Entomology Knowledge on This Fly

For any of the copper johns, all you need to do is match size and wire color to change the imitation for a mayfly.  For stoneflies, doing the same and adding some rubberlegs for a wider profile does very well.  Let’s go over all the options for each of the major mayfly species and stonefly species we as anglers need to imitate.

Blue Wing Olives – Baetis – BWO Mayflies
Sizes: #16 – #20| Color: Brown, Olive, Dark Olive | Seasons: Spring, Fall, Winter

We have discussed blue wing olives a lot in this course already, so hope it’s sticking for you.  One of the downfalls of a copper john is tying in small sizes.  There are quite a few steps involved in this fly and tying beyond a size #20 takes some serious skill and in reality, there are better patterns to imitate small stones and mayflies under a size #20 anyway like the WD-40 and pheasant tail.  So for smaller bugs like the BWO, you can tie them in the #16 – #20 range using olive, black, purple or brown wire for the body, but any smaller than that and you better have some magic up your sleeve.

Callibaetis Mayflies
Sizes: #16 – #22 | Color: Brown, Gray, Tan | Seasons: Summer and Fall

Callibaetis are also tied in smaller sizes, but what makes the copper john a good callibaetis pattern in lakes is its weight.  Tied in a size #16 – #20 on a long leader with some sink tip line, you can get down deep to the large trout who are too wary to come and rise to the surface except on special occasions.  The copper john tied in two wire colors is a slam dunk for imitating a callibaetis.  A black and silver commonly referred to as a zebra copper john is one of my favorites.  Also subbing the silver wire for matte white is a good option too.  Goose biots are used for the tail and come in a variety of colors so you can adjust that too for your liking or keep a brown or black and that will work fine too.

Hendrickson Mayflies – Nymphs and Emergers
Sizes: #10 – 16 | Colors: Brown, Copper, Pink | Seasons: Spring

The copper john thrives in sizes #10 – #16.  You can maximize the weight of this fly by using a tungsten beadhead, lead free wire wraps under the body and wire over the top.  You can’t get much heavier and the thin profile of the fly helps it sink as well.  For a hendrickson nymph, the standard copper color works great, and if you want you can adjust the tail color to match the wire colors for continuity.

PMD – PME – Pale Morning Dun aka Sulphur Mayflies – Nymphs and Emergers
Sizes : #14 – #20 | Colors: Yellow, Tan, Cream, Orange | Seasons: Summer and Fall

PMD nymphs when tied in a copper john pattern are best fished deep during the morning or mid day when trout are wanting PMD’s but none are rising yet.  Get a deep sinking fly like the Copper J and you’ve got a fly that works all day until the hatch starts, then get out the dry flies and finish the evening in style.  Yellow or orange wire works well here.  I personally enjoy a two tone of brown and orange up the body with some yellow krystal flash off the back/top of fly to show the yellow wing case split action we talk about so much in the course.


Isonychia or Slate Drake Mayflies – Nymphs
Sizes: #12 – #18 | Colors: Brown, Black, Tan, Yellow | Seasons: Summer and Fall

Iso nymphs were a match made in heaven for copper johns.  Iso’s are down deep until they crawl out to emerge and a heavy copper john is just the pattern you want to get down deep.  Tie in solid colors or mix the colors shown above to imitate your specific species or nymph you see in your local streams.

Green Drake Mayflies – Nymphs
Sizes: #12 – #18 | Colors: Olive, Dark Olive, Brown, Gray | Seasons: Summer and Fall

Another stellar match, tying an olive or dark olive copper john gives a great profile and color match to a green drake nymph.  Adding some olive or brown rubberlegs to this pattern doesn’t hurt either.  These are a great summer bug to fish under a hopper or a stimulator for some good ole fashioned dry dropper action!


March Brown Mayflies – Nymphs
Sizes: #12 – #18 | Colors: Brown, Copper, Silver | Seasons: Spring

March browns are well imitated by copper johns in brown, copper and silver.  We use the colors found in wires as the primary colors and a march brown only needs a few options to imitate it well.  These are a spring time bug so keep them sizes #12 – #18 for your best success.


Little Black Stonefly Nymphs

Sizes: #12 – #18 | Colors: Black | Seasons: Early Spring

There are these little black stoneflies that commonly get overlooked in the spring that will be very active as snow melts and water color gets murky.  These little guys hatch and hang out on the snow, so that’s your signal for spotting them.  Size #12 – #18 black copper johns are the best imitation I’ve found for these as they get down deep and are just the right size.  Adding some rubberlegs doesn’t hurt either as the stoneflies flail their legs alot in the current and rubberlegs creates an accurate struggling stonefly nymph profile.


Golden Stonefly Nymphs

Sizes: #8 – #14 | Colors: Copper, Gold, Black/Gold | Seasons: Year Round

Can’t go wrong throwing a golden stone if you know they exist in the rivers you fish.  Stoneflies like cold, well-oxygenated waters, so as long as you have a little elevation and are away from the city life, you likely have stones in the river.  A rubberleg copper john in gold wire or gold and black wire is an excellent way to imitate a golden stone.  you can even use a jig style hook to make a great euro bomber nymph that sinks fast and has a great stonefly profile.  This is one of my favorite variations of a copper john and it’s always in my box when I’m fishing my home waters of Colorado.


Salmonfly Nymphs

Sizes: #6 – #12 | Colors: Black | Seasons: Year Round

Salmonflies are the most well-known stonefly around and can get up to 3 inches long.  They get that big right around early summer and the hatch often coincides with runoff on rivers.  A copper john is a good imitation but needs a little adjustment to hit the nail on the head.  First, you’ll want to use a curved shank hook like a scud hook or something.  Salmonfly nymphs when in the water roll up similar to that of a rolly-poly that we all used to torture as children.  That curved hook plays a vital role in the correct profile to the trout.  Lastly, instead of peacock herl for the underside, use a little orange or pink dubbing.  Right by the head, salmonflies have a little orange hot spot and I believe this makes a big difference for success as an angler.

You can fish these year round and during the hatch months of May to July, go bigger in sizes.  Each month after that, go down a size as the majority of the large bugs will have left the river at that point (hatched) and all that is left is the smaller, still growing insects.

Identify the Signals the River Provides to Learn When to Fish It

There are several great signals the river provides during certain seasons to know when a copper john is going to produce well.  I have found less luck in clear water and more luck in cloudier waters with copper johns.  I’m sure others have different experiences, but I believe the flash of the wire and the thick profile is a good cloudy water bug and outperforms other patterns during the same periods.  Here are a few keys to watch out for and what flies to throw when you see these signals:

  1. In early spring as the snow melts and the river gets a little cloudy, but there is snow still on the banks, throw small black stoneflies (i.e #12 – 18 black copper johns)
  2. After a rain the previous days or when flows have come up, a good time to throw any copper john, but primarily the bigger variations that imitate a dislodged stonefly nymph
  3. When the fly shop says a mayfly hatch is happening in the evenings, a copper john fished in the nymph variation of that mayfly during the day down deep often produces consistent fish.
  4. If you have a dry fly on and you aren’t catching fish, tie this on as a dropper, problem solved
  5. Need to get down deep with a 2 fly nymph rig but don’t want to use split shot? Use a copper john with a tungsten beadhead and lead free wire wraps
  6. If you are seeing fish on the banks but not rising in early to mid spring, they are often eating stonefly nymphs.  Tie a copper john stonefly variation and hit the banks with this pattern for success


Presentation Tips on the Fly

We have hinted around this for a while in this lesson, but the copper john is a depth charge of a fly.  It gets down deep, quickly.  The best presentation tips here are to plan for that kind of sink rate and keep your depth on your nymph rig appropriately set to be just above the bottom of the river.  The first 18 inches off the bottom of the river are commonly referred to as the strike zone.  This is where fish feel comfortable enough to eat without being scared off and they will move freely, left and right, up and down to feed on nymphs as they drift down.  Copper johns make it in this zone with ease, but here are a few additional tips when fishing copper johns to maximize your success fishing it:

Don’t leave him by his lonesome

Copper johns always do best for me in a 2 fly set up. As the dropper in a dry – dropper set up, or as the first fly in a 2-fly nymph rig or as the middle fly in a 3 fly nymph rig. They are often the heaviest fly in the rig so setting them up in the right order is important. Just remember that it will be on the bottom and flies below it will be higher than it and flies in front of it will be higher in the water column as well. So if it’s the first fly in a 2 fly rig, it will make a V shape and same goes for being the middle fly in a 3 fly rig. A copper john produces best with other flies around it, so let him be social and catch fish.

They do well with movement too

I’ve had many occassions where I have let the copper john rise to the surface at the end of my drift by just stopping my rod and letting the current pull my fly upward. If you are fishing a hole you know has fish and you can’t get them to eat with your set up, try twitching it upwards every so slightly, try to move the nymph an inch or less up in the column then settle back down to where it was. This creates reaction strikes from trout who instinctively eats things that move. On days where fish seem to be “off” and not biting, they are usually just looking for a unique presentation, not a unique fly. Change up the way the fly moves and you can find success on the hardest of days.

Works well behind streamers

When fishing streamers trout will commonly “short strike” the streamer meaning they just grab at the tail and miss the hook. If you put a copper john 6 inches behind a streamer, they often eat the copper john on the strike and you can catch a lot of fish this way. The added weight and it’s streamline profile helps it drift and move well along with the streamer. I can’t for certain tell you why this works so well, but I can tell you it works very well, the reason is just a bit of a mystery to me at the moment.

Copper johns aren’t difficult to fish and they do a lot of the hard work for you as an angler. It’s a great fly to have on anywhere in your rig, but listen to the tips above and you’ll find the most success.


Common Variations and Ways to Modify the Pattern for Success

There are nearly endless ways to variate on a copper john.  This makes it one of the most enjoyable flies for me to tie because my attention span is short and I get easily distracted.  You can always change and adjust the following on the fly to make endless variations:

  1. The Wire Color:  You can go single wire, double wire or triple wire (on sizes 6 – 10) for endless color combinations
  2. The Goose Biot Color: Changing up the tail to match the wire colors allows for endless variations as well.  Try matching the wire colors exactly, or doing the opposite and adding red or chartreuse goose biots, something bright to get their attention
  3. Beadhead –  you can do brass or tungsten beadheads.  In addition there are many colored beadheads out there these days, changing the color to match the wire or tail can make for some very attractive flies to both the angler and the fish

In addition to all those variation types, here are a few that are a bit more specific:

Euro Jumbo John

This is one of my all time favorites. A jumbo john has rubberlegs on it and looks like a picture perfect stonefly. When you add a jig style to it, and keep it thin, it sinks faster than any fly I can tie that actually still produces fish. It is one of my all time favorite flies and variations of a copper john I have many of in my box. We use the same legs that you use on a pats rubberleg instead of actual rubber legs as the gleam and movement on the legs is superior to rubber. Tie this variation in larger sizes #6 – #16 at the smallest and you’ll be in good shape with this as your heavy fly in your nymph rig.

San Juan John

It was likely one beers too many that brought me to this variation, and I have fished it on some of the most pressured waters and for whatever reason, fish love it. It’s a san juan worm, but then you tie a copper john over the back of it. It’s like the copper john is riding the san juan like a cowboy rides a horse. I’m pretty sure this abomination confuses the fish to the point where they simply eat it to get it out of their waters, but it works well for me especially in winter and in periods of murky water. Its just a standard copper john with Chenille laid on the hook first and tied off. Simple right? And a hilarious name in my opinion.

Copper Stone

Using Json realistic nymph legs is a great way to imitate a stonefly nymph with a copper john. It’s a unique material that is extremely lifelike and imitative. Tying a gold wire underbody and laying this on top makes for a good looking stonefly imitation and worth a spot in your box.


Image Gallery of Variations and Colors of the Fly

The copper john is one of the most enjoyable flies to fish and it brings a wealth of confidence to beginner anglers and has endless possibilities when buying the inexpensive wire to tie them.  We hope we’ve done more than enough for you to have a place for them in your box.

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Lesson 1
Lesson 6
Lesson 2
Lesson 7
Lesson 3
Lesson 8
Lesson 4
Lesson 9
Lesson 5
Lesson 10

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