Fly of the Month: Tiny Copper John

In comparison to many ETU members who have decades of experience, I am still relatively new to fly fishing. I don't have that huge wealth of experience that the veterans carry around. Perhaps that is why I am amazed by those moments when everything seems to come together on the stream as fish move toward a fly I have tied.

It happened in early September on the lower Yellowstone River when I had large cutthroats aggressively chasing my Charlie Boy Hoppers. It was really exciting to see big dark heads emerging from the deep to devour the fly and bend my rod nearly in half.

I had another “oh my” moment several years ago in Eleven Mile Canyon during a mid-winter outing there. I had brought along some #20 Tiny Copper Johns that I had learned to tie from Ed Engle's book Tying Small Flies.

Using a standard rig for nymphing, I immediately hooked a nice Brown. I continued to fish the same fly and kept landing one fish after another. It blew me away how such a tiny fly could move fish so well. I know a #20 is not an especially tiny fly and that many folks routinely use much smaller patterns, but that didn't detract from the magic of the moment for me.

Engle's book had attracted my attention earlier that year at one of the local fly fishing shows. I bought a copy and started trying my hand at tying these small minimalist flies. I found a wealth of information in this book with a lot of good advice about materials, patterns and tying techniques for small flies. Ed's companion book, Fishing Small Flies, completes the story that I find essential for understanding fly fishing on our local tail waters.

The Tiny Copper John is a good example of an easy tie that proved very effective for me in the dead of winter. It’s also a great fly the rest of the year in Colorado. I have tried tying the larger version of the Copper John with only limited success. I can never seem to get my final product to look as nice as the ones available for purchase. But this smaller sparse cousin is much less complex and is easier to tie. I find I am able to create it consistently with good results.

To some extent, the instructions in this recipe diverge from Ed's recipe, partly because I had different materials and partly because I used slightly different techniques. To get Ed's unaltered recipe, check out his book. If you don't yet have the book, consider purchasing it. It's a good investment.

Tie up some of these diminutive Tiny Copper Johns or variations and find a place for them in your fly box this winter when fishing our Colorado tail waters. They may help you create some great memories!


Hook: TMC 100, TMC 2487BL, TMC 2488BL (TMC 2487BL is what I had available)
Thread: Brown Uni-Thread 8/0
Bead head: 1.5 mm tungsten nickel bead
Tail: Brown hackle fibers
Body: Lagartun fine coated copper wire
Thorax: Peacock herl
Shell-back: Mylar 1mm wide ribbon (available on spools)

Tim’s Tying Instructions

  1. Before starting, get in the mind-set that you are going to tie a very sparse fly.
  2. De-barb your hook if it is not already barbless, and mount it with the point up in your vise.
  3. Install the bead and re-mount the hook in the traditional point down fashion for tying.
  4. Start your thread behind the bead and wrap evenly back to the bend.
  5. Tie in 8 to 10 hackle fibers to form the tail and wrap forward to the bead. Trim the butt ends of the hackle fibers before reaching the bead.
  6. Wrap back a few wraps and tie in the copper wire. After making a couple wraps over the wire, carefully pull the working end of the wire through the wraps to eliminate the tag end. Alternatively, you can just trim the tag end. When tying in the wire, position it either on the top or the bottom of the hook shank. I find it is helpful to align the wire at a 45-degree angle to the hook shank when tying it in, making it easier to trap the wire under the thread.
  7. Wrap your thread back to within one wrap of the tail tie-in point, keeping the wire positioned straight along the shank.
  8. With widely spaced wraps, advance the thread to a point about one-third of the shank length behind the eye. Widely spacing the wraps helps reduce bulk in the body.
  9. Wrap the copper wire forward in even closely adjacent wraps to form the body. The first wrap of the copper wire should be positioned right at the tail tie-in point.
  10. Tie off the copper wire and trim the tag end.

    Ed Engle suggests to not tie in the wire as described above. Rather, he just starts wrapping the wire at the base of the tail and wraps forward to form the body. Finally, he trims both tag ends and pinches the ends of the body so the wire is tightly against the hook shank.
    This reduces bulk in the body because it eliminates the underlying wire and a lot of thread wraps. He says you can coat the body with super glue to help prevent the wire wraps from unfurling with use but that it is not necessary.
    In the pictured fly, I used finer wire than Ed and tied the wire in to produce what I believe to be a bit more durable fly without too much bulk. But you be the judge. Ed is a way more experienced tier and angler than I am, so you might want to follow his advice instead to produce a sparser and perhaps better proportioned fly.

  11. Tie in the mylar ribbon with a pinch wrap at the front of the body on top of the hook shank. Mylar is slippery, so will tend to slide around the hook when you tie it in. When tying in, hold the mylar on the near side of the shank so that when you tighten your pinch wrap, the mylar slides into the correct position on top of the shank.
  12. Tiny Copper John
  13. Tie in one strand of peacock herl. I tie in the fine tip of the herl after trimming away about an inch of the most delicate fibers. Using the butt end of the herl may produce too much bulk in your fly's thorax.
  14. Tiny Copper John
  15. Make about four or five wraps with the herl to form the thorax. Tie off immediately behind the bead and trim the tag end.
  16. Tiny Copper John
  17. Draw the mylar ribbon over the top of the herl to form the shell back. Tie off immediately behind the bead and trim the tag end.
  18. Whip finish and apply a tiny amount of head cement, if desired, to complete the fly.

In his book, Ed Engle includes a step that adds legs using dyed mallard or lemon wood duck fibers. I have found that getting them properly positioned and proportioned can be tricky and have opted to leave them out for the sake of simplicity.
The Browns in Eleven Mile Canyon did not seem to take exception to my legless variation!

Tiny Copper John

By Tim Stechert. Photos by Tim Stechert