The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson

By Larry Forte

Recently, club member Andrew Frutiger recommended I read The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson. I love fly fishing books, but this one is unique. It does not talk about fly fishing in some exotic location. It does not involve learning the meaning of life through fly fishing. In fact, there are only a couple of pages at the beginning that involve a stream and someone fly fishing. Yet, it is one of the best fly fishing books I have read over the past ten years.

The true story centers on a young man named Edwin Rist. He grew up as a musical prodigy in New England and he also loved tying flies. By the time he was 18, he was regarded as one of the best tiers in the fly fishing community.

His passion/obsession was the Victorian art of tying Salmon flies. Over 150 years ago, fly tiers used exotic birds, like the Bird of Paradise, to tie elaborate and very beautiful flies. The irony is that, for the most part, these flies where never fished. Instead, they were considered a work of art. The book reveals today’s subculture of Salmon fly tiers, including Edwin, who used bird skins collected over 150 years ago for their flies.

At the age of 21, while attending London’s Royal Academy of Music, Edwin broke into the British Museum of Natural History and stole hundreds of dead birds from the 1800s so that he could tie “authentic” salmon flies. He also began selling them to other tiers for thousands of dollars.

I don’t want to give away too much about the book, but it is a true story. The book discusses the history of these exotic bird skins and their importance to science. It is also part detective novel, as the author provides a great timeline of the crime and the follow-up investigation. Plus, it looks into the subculture of fly tiers who will spend an incredible amount of money for these bird skins.

What is disturbing is that they know where the bird skins came from and how they were stolen from the museum. They don’t care. What they care about is tying a salmon fly with the same materials that were used in the mid 1800s. It’s an enjoyable read. I highly recommend it.