John McCoy is the Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette’s award-winning outdoors writer. His "Woods & Waters" page appears weekly in the Sports section of the Sunday Gazette-Mail.
In 32 years of outdoors writing, John has had articles published in Field & Stream, Outdoor Life, Bowhunter, North American Whitetail, Hatches and other publications. His works have earned more than 50 state, regional and national awards for writing and photography.
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This week’s Gazette-Mail column takes a look at a little-heralded crime that has sent shock waves through the worldwide community of people who tie full-dress Atlantic salmon flies:
We sportsmen like to think that the pastimes we adore are as pure as wind-driven snow, but then something like this comes along:
A 22-year-old American was arrested earlier this week for the alleged theft of 299 rare bird skins from a British museum. Authorities believe the young man was selling the pelts to people who tie full-dress Atlantic salmon flies.
The news hit me like a cold salmon to the face. You see, I too tie full-dress Atlantic salmon flies – fancy Victorian-era patterns tied with brightly colored feathers, tinsels and flosses.
Most of the materials for these flies are easy to come by. Floss is downright cheap. Tinsels are affordable and readily obtained. Many of the staple feathers – dyed turkey, barred wood duck flank, bronze mallard flank and golden pheasant – can be pricey, but are available from any number of legitimate dealers.
Some full-dress patterns, however, call for feathers that are rare, difficult to obtain and absurdly expensive. Feathers from red-ruffed fruit crows, blue chatterers, bustards, toucans and quetzals are prime examples. They’re hard to come by because many of the species are endangered or protected.
There’s a market for these feathers because some tiers like to make their flies “period-accurate,” with materials specified by the Victorian-era anglers who designed them. One 19th-century pattern, for example, calls for two red cock-of-the-rock crest feathers; two light blue chatterer feathers; two light red cock-of-the-rock feathers; two dark blue chatterer feathers and two orange cock-of-the-rock feathers.
Some of those birds are endangered. All of them are protected to some extent. Most of the feathers from those species still available legally were plucked from old taxidermy mounts or Victorian-era ladies’ hats, and routinely sell for $8 to $15 or more per feather.
The young American – Edwin Rist of Claverack, N.Y., a student in London – knew full well the value of the birds he’s accused of stealing from the Natural History Museum at Tring. Rist had been a salmon fly tier since his mid-teens. The flies he tied often contained period-accurate feathers, which he reportedly purchased with money earned by doing odd jobs.
A year ago when the Tring burglary occurred, there was widespread speculation within the salmon fly tying community that some of the stolen bird skins might eventually come up for sale on the Internet.
That’s exactly what occurred. Several red-ruffed fruit crow skins showed up for sale on Rist’s website. Their presence raised eyebrows, but few if any within the community put two and two together until after Rist’s arrest.
It had long been suspected that some of the feathers floating around on the open market had unsavory origins. Without documentation, it was impossible to know whether the feathers were legit, were poached from the wild, or were plucked from stolen museum specimens.
Now those in the fly tying community – me included – are taking a hard look at the zeal with which we once pursued period-accurate feathers. We’re also looking for ways to reduce the financial incentive to traffic in illegally obtained materials.
We’ve already had one success. Five years ago, zoos that raise speckled bustards started providing free molted feathers to interested tiers. The program virtually eliminated the sale of high-priced, illegally obtained bustard plumage.
Might we find something similar for chatterers, crows, toucans, cocks-of-the-rocks and birds of paradise? We hope so.
Until that happens, there are easily obtained and perfectly legal look-alikes for almost all those rare feathers. We need to learn to be content with those.