August 30, 2016
By Charlie Meyers and John Barr
When you play a system at the gaming tables of Las Vegas, you're sure to lose your money systematically. Yet when it comes to fly fishing, there's a system that pays off nearly every place, every time.
Barr's three-fly method removes most of the agonizing gamble that comes with deciding what trout might choose to eat on any given day and where. John Barr, who conjured up the solution from his tying bench in Boulder, Colorado, calls it the "Hopper-Copper-Dropper," an alliterative way to describe a setup that is as risk-free as angling ever gets.
Barr didn't invent the three-fly method. Anglers have been tossing–and tangling–multiple-fly rigs for years. But he has refined that approach into a system that has not only proven itself on Colorado's hard-fished waters but around the United States.
Casting two- or three-fly rigs takes a slight modification in your rig and casting stroke, but it pays dividends in the end. This approach isn't for everyone–and it's not for every fishing situation. Be sure to check the regulations for waters you fish and make sure you can use more than one fly. In some areas it may be illegal to fish with more than one hook at a time.
The Triple Threat
A three-fly rig increases your odds by presenting more flies to the fish. While it's not unusual to take a trout on a different fly on successive drifts, the system really shines when conditions are tough and you have difficulty finding a fly that works.
Some of the best testing grounds for effective patterns are the hard-hit Colorado streams such as the South Platte. On such streams, Barr has noticed fish shy away from indicators and split-shot. The BC Hopper doesn't spook fish like an indicator would and the Copper John catches fish–which is a more effective than a split-shot that just sinks your fly. Additionally, you get a more natural drift using a Copper John as weight rather than a split-shot.
The BC Hopper
Most often tied in tan to imitate a large hopper or Golden Stone, the BC Hopper can be tied in black to mimic a cricket or cicada. Use orange foam or color the bottom and this versatile fly suggests the salmonflies of the West.
A splash of yellow yarn above the elk-hair wing signals the BC Hopper's primary purpose as a highly visible strike indicator. The elk hair and foam in the high-floating hopper can support two heavily weighted nymphs without sinking. Stick-on indicators, some yarn indicators, and small foam or cork indicators often sink if they are used with a nymph and split-shot, losing their ability to suspend your flies and help you detect strikes. But the BC Hopper is more than a strike indicator. It also hooks its share of fish.
The foam body (an element refined by Charlie Craven at Rocky Mountain Angler in Boulder, Colorado) and the extensive use of super glue at each step of the process makes this fly bombproof, and many have attested to its ability to take lots fish without showing signs of wear.
Fishing the BC Hopper, Barr and others have found that fish take the pattern before and after hopper season. During one October excursion to a high-elevation stream, Craven discovered that trout would come to the BC Hopper in cold water.
"We still got a few takes on the dry," Craven said. "During the right time of the year, it gets a lot of attention. It sure beat the heck out of the zeroes you get with yarn indicators."
Craven also points out another, almost inadvertent advantage of the BC Hopper.
"It's a lot more fun to watch than a regular indicator. As a result, you're more ready to respond when a fish takes the Copper or Dropper."
The core of this system is Barr's Copper John. Refined by Barr in 1996, this fly emerged in 2001 as the number-one seller in the Umpqua catalog, the successor to the Hare's Ear and Prince as the first nymph anglers pull out of the box. Laced with lead and copper wire and sporting a flash of color to augment a basic mayfly profile, this pattern dives quickly to the strata where trout feed and hold.
The Copper plunges quickly to the depth you desire, yet drifts much more naturally than a nymph with extra weight pinched on the leader. With a dozen or more wraps of lead, a copper abdomen, and a bead head, the Copper John boasts a sink rate roughly equivalent to the anchor of the Queen Mary. Yet it also maintains an enticing profile that seems to imitate a wide variety of insects.
Choosing Your Copper. In the beginning, the body of Barr's fly was natural copper, but he later added patterns with red, green, and black wire to his fly box. He's now been experimenting with chartreuse, blue, and silver with good success.
With so many colors of wire available, it can be hard to choose what color Copper John to fish. When in doubt, the copper-wire Copper John is a good choice. For years that's all Barr used, and the color is no less effective now that there are more colors to choose from. At times it pays to show fish many colors to see which one works, but you can also match the size and color of the Copper John to insects that have been, are, or will be emerging. Barr believes that insects don't have to be present for fish to key in on a particular color or size.
For instance, he has found a correlation between caddis activity and the color green. If your area has a good population of free-living caddis such as Rhyacophila, a green Copper John is a good candidate. In the spring, Barr will often reach for a green Copper John first.
Chartreuse wire just became available last year through Wapsi. Because it is so new, it hasn't been thoroughly tested, but all reports suggest it works well as a caddis imitation and general attractor. Lefty Kreh says, "If it ain't chartreuse, it ain't no use." The color seems to have universal appeal to fish species, but freshwater anglers have been slower to catch on than their saltwater brethren. On Eastern streams, try using a chartreuse Copper John instead of a Green Weenie.
During June and July in Colorado, Barr looks for PMD or Yellow Sally activity to signal the time for the #16 red Copper John. While he can't offer a definitive and logical reason for the fishes' preference, the combination of a #16 red Copper and #16-18 Flashback PMD Emerger is a deadly combination whenever there are PMDs or Yellow Sallies around. In smaller sizes, red Copper Johns also imitate Chironomid larvae.
In the fall, Barr fishes a lot of black Coppers. Black correlates with the Tricos and the dark Baetis that are abundant during this time, and Barr will often fish a #18 black Copper with a flashback Baetis or Trico emerger.
Lately, the color blue has created a commotion on trout streams in Colorado. Barr recalls a conversation with John Randolph, editor of Fly Fisherman, regarding the effectiveness of Charlie Meck's dry fly, the Patriot, which incorporates blue Krystal Flash in the body. Meck came up with the idea after reading a study about how rainbow trout in particular respond positively to the color blue. The Patriot seems to pull trout up when nothing else will and the blue Copper John has produced similar results.
Barr also created the silver Copper John for a reason. He often observed schools of fathead minnows in bass ponds near his home. He noticed that when there isn't good light and he couldn't really see the fish at all, each time a minnow turned it looked like miniature flash bulbs–little glints of light–as the fish turned. He developed the silver Copper to imitate the turning of scales that might trigger a grab. Barr says, "Silver is the glint of a baitfish, which might trigger strikes. It's a reaction bait. Does a spinnerbait look like a shad? I think the Copper Johns generally get a lot of reaction strikes. Fish don't try to find something wrong with your pattern; they look for something right with it. Fish don't think things over before they bite."
You should correlate the size of your Copper John with the depth of the water you are fishing. Use a large Copper John to get your fly down in deep water and a small Copper if you are fishing in skinny water. Barr also tries to correlate the size of the Copper with the size of mayfly nymphs, but if he needs to get his fly down, he fine-tunes the hatch matching with the dropper. The dropper is often the most imitative fly in the rig.
Barr generally selects the final fly in his rig to imitate the prevailing subsurface insect. Typically the Copper commands a trout's attention, either drawing a strike outright or bringing the fish to the Dropper, tethered nearby on a tippet 9 to 12 inches long. In this bait-and-switch, the Dropper may represent any insect in any size mayfly, caddis, midge, or stonefly. In many cases, you will only need to change this trailing fly once you select a Copper that gets your fly to the depth you want to fish.
In the early spring before any of the major hatches, Barr uses a midge pupa as the terminal fly. Early and late in the season, he uses a Blue-winged Olive Barr Emerger (with or without a flashback) or a PMD Barr Emerger. He doesn't use a bead on his terminal fly under most conditions, though there are no hard and fast rules.
"The notion is to give a trout a selection of whatever fly it might choose to eat at the precise depth it wants it," Barr says. "In the absence of an all-out hatch, trout generally are opportunistic feeders. They take any reasonable food replica they can get."
Trapper Rudd, who operates the Cutthroat Angler shop beside the Blue River in Silverthorne, Colorado, prefers muted colors in contrast to the flash of the Copper John.
"The first option should be matching the hatch, or at least the prevailing insect in the stream. On a coldwater river such as the Blue, that's often a midge or, just below the dam, a Mysis."
Rudd frequently chooses a small fly in the Barr Emerger series, such as the Beadhead Barr Emerger or the Flashback Barr Emerger, as his dropper.
Choose your leader length for the desired depth and action. For better turnover on the three-fly rig, Barr prefers a 71/2-foot leader with a fairly heavy butt section. Any standard manufactured leader will do, but Barr prefers fluorocarbon because it is more resistant to abrasion than mono, sinks faster, and is stiffer.
Barr uses 3X tippet for the Hopper, 4X from the Hopper to the Copper, and 4X or 5X to the Dropper. This step-down leader is critical to proper turnover; the stiff fluorocarbon also assists in getting the trailing flies to lay out straight at the end of the cast. The tag to the Dropper should be no less than 9 inches and no more than 12. In quiet currents and in smaller fly sizes, drop down one or more leader sizes to the Copper and Dropper.
Barr uses a simple clinch knot to attach the flies to the hook bends because that knot seems to hold better than the improved clinch with fluorocarbon. Some anglers who use this system attach the Copper and the Dropper with loop knots to increase the action of the fly in the water.
In addition to the standard dead-drift strategy, sometimes an occasional twitch or quick sweep of the rod tip triggers strikes from trout who presumably take the flash of the fly for the movement of a small baitfish. For deeper, swifter water, select a progressively larger size of Copper John or, when applicable, use two of these heavier flies.
In stillwaters, this three-fly rig is also effective. Because it allows an angler to precisely measure the depth at which trout are holding, the system also proves highly effective for dead-stick nymphing on lakes, ponds, and other slack water. Again, the Copper John serves as a nonthreatening attractor that both catches fish and sets the table for the Dropper. Vary the sizes of the Copper and Dropper while using lighter leaders.
Granted, the fish gods never intended normal human beings to cast three-fly rigs. But there is a way to do so with a minimum of torment. Slow the casting stroke a bit, yet smoothly accelerate both the backcast and forward stroke. Deceleration kills line speed and results in tangles and pile-ups. By accelerating the delivery, you'll get a much easier, tangle-free cast than you'd expect.
It helps to get closer to the action and shorten the length of the cast. If you must add distance, a helpful tactic is to extend the line downstream at the end of the drift, "river loading" the rod for a one-shot delivery without a backcast. When cast properly, the weighted Copper John causes less hinging, tangling, and snagging than a split-shot or twist-on lead weight.
Charlie Meyers is an outdoor editor for the Denver Post. He lives in Denver, Colorado. John Barr is a fly tier and lives in Boulder, Colorado.