I tie flies, but, I don’t consider myself a fly-tyer. I will tie out of necessity when I have absolutely nothing else that I can distract myself with or when I must have some flies for my next set of clients. I have tied patterns as small as a size 28 midge and as large as a make-believe great white shark fly on a hay hook.
Yes, I do get satisfaction from catching fish on my own creations — but luckily, I haven’t become obsessed with tying, which leaves me time for other chores and more fishing time of my own. But, for you tyers and non-tyers alike, I came across a very interesting story in National Geographic (OK, my wife showed me) written by Simon Worrall about a kid who did become a little “touched” in the art of tying.
Edwin Rist is a virtuoso flautist. He was born in New York City and home-schooled, then at a fairly young age the family moved to the Hudson Valley. When he was around 10 years old, he came across a video about fly-tying. He became completely transfixed by what was on the screen, racing around the house looking for materials to start tying his own flies.
At the beginning it was trout flies, which are ugly-looking things made to look like real insects. He started competing in fly-tying festivals and conventions around New England. And at one of these shows, he came across the booth of a master salmon fly-tyer, who had about 60 shockingly beautiful salmon flies that employed up to a dozen different species of bird feathers wrapped in intricate patterns around the hook.
That was when something switched in his brain. He started taking lessons to master this craft, and he was amazing at it. But he was constrained by a lack of the authentic feathers. He always dreamt of being able to tie the recipes that were mapped out 150 years or so ago. Tying just one of these flies may cost the tyer $2,000 or more for the materials needed for the project.
Avocation had become obsession, locking him in a kind of fly-tying arms race with other practitioners of the art. In the realm of salmon fly tying the more exotic and spectacular the feathers, the greater the kudos, and the more money to be made from selling them. I would like to add here that 99.9 percent of these salmon fly tyers don’t even fish. What?! Rist doesn’t. Never did!
Our gifted flautist/fly tyer was in London attending the Royal Academy of Music when he decided to do something about his “addiction.” One night in 2009, the now 20-year-old Edwin broke into the British Natural History Museum at Tring, one of the world’s greatest repositories of exotic birds. He stuffed a suitcase with nearly 300 of the rarest, most dazzling specimens — the magnificent riflebird, the resplendent quetzal and the superb bird of paradise, among others — and vanished.
Edwin had cased the museum previously, gaining access under false pretenses by posing as a student photographer. He used the opportunity to take photos of a lot of the birds he would later steal. He also photographed the hallways and locations of each cabinet, as well as entry and exit points, to plot his heist.
Over the next seven or eight months, he mapped out what he would need, creating a Word document titled “Plan for museum invasion.” He also prepared a shopping list of things he’d need: A diamond-glazed glass-cutter, a wire-cutter, thousands of zipper bags to sell the stuff to the fly-tyers once he got it, and a pair of latex gloves he stole from his doctor.
On the night of June 23, 2009, he performed at a concert in London, boarded the train up to Tring, which is about a 45-minute ride, dragged his empty suitcase up a dark alley that runs directly behind the museum, climbed up, snipped away the barbed wire, then tried to cut the glass away. He didn’t succeed, so he ended up bashing it out with a rock. He then wedged the suitcase through the opening, climbed in and was there for hours stealing 299 of these birds.
He lost track of time to such an extent that he missed the last train back to London, so had to spend the night a couple of miles away from the scene of the crime with about $1 million worth of birds in his suitcase, nervously hoping no one would descend upon him. Rist had stolen not only a bunch of birds and feathers, but also 150 years of notable research and history leading to the banning of DDT products.
Because of his theft, studies on the levels of mercury in our oceans will be left unfinished. These birds held answers to questions that scientists hadn’t even thought to ask yet! We have no clue what technologies are going to exist in 100 years to allow us to interrogate the same birds that Alfred Russel Wallace, explorer and scientist, interrogated. And so Rist blew a huge hole in the scientific record.
“Impossibly strange” was Kirk Johnson’s reaction when he heard about the crime while fly fishing in northern New Mexico. “I found it so bizarre as to be captivating,” he says. “It struck me as impossible to hear about a museum heist of dead birds carried out by a student flautist to meet the insatiable demand of salmon fly-tyers and not want to learn more.” Finding out more led Johnson on a years-long quest detailed in his book “The Feather Thief,” published by Viking.
Eventually the law caught up with Rist. He went to court, but the judge gave him no more than a slap on the wrist. He’s now living in Germany, performing as a flautist under a different name, according to Johnson.
Maybe the nest time I think I need to tie some flies, I’ll pick up this book and read it instead.
Capt. Rex Gudgel is a fly fishing guide in the Boca Grande area and an International Federation of Fly Fishers Master Certified casting instructor. If you’d like to get casting lessons, book a trip or just need more fly fishing info, contact him at 706-254-3504 or visit BocaGrandeSlamFlyFishing.com or CastWithRex.com.