THROWBACK: The Case of the Purloined Pelts

(from the Spring 2011 issue)

The fly-tying community is shocked to learn that one of its rising young stars is arrested for stealing rare museum bird skins, but there’s a silver lining to the story.

[by Morgan Lyle]

The world of tying full-dress salmon flies has occasionally attracted some shady characters peddling contraband feathers of rare birds, but no one had ever heard of a feather merchant breaking into a museum to steal priceless exotic bird skins. This past November, however, British police announced the arrest of 22-year-old Edwin Rist of Claverack, New York, for committing just such a crime. The theft was all the more shocking because Rist and his younger brother, Anton, are considered fl y-tying prodigies who make the most complicated patterns and earn lavish praise from the masters of the craft.

Edwin, a musician who earned an associate’s degree at age 17 and was scheduled to graduate from the Royal Academy of Music in London this summer, pleaded guilty on November 26 to burglary and selling what prosecutors said was $30,000 worth of feathers from the Lionel Walter Rothschild Collection at the Natural History Museum in Tring, England. Most of the feathers have been returned. Rist’s lawyer told the court he was trying to raise money to buy a new fl ute.

Rist admitted casing the museum before the June 2009 burglary, convincing museum staff to show him the collection by posing as a photographer working with an ornithologist. He returned weeks later under cover of darkness, smashed a window with a brick, grabbed the skins, and fl ed. He missed the last train back to London and spent what must have been a long night in the station with his bag of bird skins, waiting for the first train in the morning. One English tabloid dubbed him “The Pelt Panther.”

This magazine went to press before Rist’s scheduled sentencing in January. He faced up to 10 years in prison on the burglary charge and 14 years for selling stolen goods, said Janet Hart, a spokeswoman for the Crown Prosecution Service. Through his family, Rist declined comment for this article.

The Fly-tying Community Is Shocked

“It’s a shame about Edwin,” said Dr. Rockwell Hammond of Fall City, Washington, winner of the Creation Classics category in the experts division of the 2010 Irish Open fly-tying contest and a member of the Northwest Atlantic Salmon Fly Guild. “I’m shocked. Our club members are reeling.” The Rist brothers visited the club twice.

“I remember one fly-fishing show I was at when this guy followed me into the men’s room. He had one of those aluminum attaché cases…It was like a coke deal. He opened it up and it was full of jungle cock skins”

The arrival on the market of hard-to-find feathers made news in the salmon fly-tying community, said Phil Castleman, proprietor of Castle Arms, the venerable salmon fly-tying materials supply house in Springfield, Massachusetts.

“Six months ago, I had a couple of calls asking, ‘Do you know this fellow who’s selling all this stuff from England?’ I said that I knew who he was, but I didn’t know where he was getting it,” Castleman said. “A lot of the birds were extinct. There was a lot of stuff I had never seen, and I’ve been kicking around this business for over fifty years.”

Most of the materials needed to make authentic salmon flies can be obtained legally from businesses like Castle Arms or FeathersMc in White Lake, Michigan, but they’re not cheap; some rare feathers can fetch hundreds of dollars. That kind of money has sometimes proved too tempting for unscrupulous individuals to resist.

“I remember one fly-fishing show I was at when this guy followed me into the men’s room. He had one of those aluminum attaché cases,” said celebrated Fly Tyer columnist Dick Talleur. “It was like a coke deal. He opened it up and it was full of jungle cock skins. And I once saw two guys get arrested at a show in Massachusetts.

“We haven’t had any problems with the legal people in some time,” Talleur added. “I’m now afraid that good people who are trying to do it properly are going to be under the gun.”

Free Feathers for Fine Flies

The Rist case is a setback to a fly-tying community that is working to distance itself from unethical practices, but there’s a silver lining in this dark cloud. FeathersMc proprietor, John McLain makes available, free of charge, one of the most expensive and desirable components of many salmon flies: Kori bustard feathers. Through a partnership with the Kori Bustard Species Survival Plan, administered at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., bustard feathers that fall from captive birds during molting are collected by zookeepers and sent to FeathersMc for distribution at no cost to fly tiers. You can now have feathers that once sold for hundreds of dollars apiece just for the asking, plus postage and a donation to the Species Survival Plan. (See feathersmc.com for details.)

There’s even a salmon fly dressed by renowned tier Bud Guidry mounted on one of the signs at the Kori bustard enclosure at the National Zoo; it’s a reminder that—the Tring Museum caper notwithstanding— fly tiers are becoming part of the solution instead of part of the problem.

“We raised more than $2,000 for the Species Survival Plan in the past two weeks,” McLain said in early December. “It truly is a success story.”

Kori bustard feathers have long been prized by Atlantic salmon fly tiers. Their long fibers are easy to use when making married wings, and they possess a very fine and unique vermiculation in colors ranging from sandy tan to silvery gray. Kori bustard is a great material for making fishing flies, too. Grasshopper wings, wet fly wings, Muddler wings, Teeny Nymphs, Pheasant-Tail nymphs, Spey flies—the possibilities are endless using the tail, wing primary, marabou, and other feathers.

A Kori bustard is as big as a large turkey and is native to Africa. It is listed in Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, meaning it is not threatened with extinction at present, but could unless trade is tightly controlled. The main threat it faces is loss of habitat. With only 150 Kori bustards in captivity, their feathers are unlikely to become common on fly-tying benches, but knowledgeable tiers know they are enjoyable to use and make effective flies.

“There’s a reason the original salmon fly tiers used these feathers when they could have used anything and everything,” said John McLain of FeathersMc. “Now we have that opportunity again.”

To learn how to get your own Kori bustard feathers, visit McLain’s Web site, www.feathersMc.com.

Interested in learning more about the Rist case? Pick up a copy of The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson. More info at www.amazon.com/Feather-Thief

Morgan Lyle is Fly Tyer magazine’s official investigative reporter. And yes, in his real life, Morgan is a reporter; his byline has even appeared in the New York Times. Morgan lives on Long Island