Book review: True bizarre crime story sizzles in ‘The Feather Thief’

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Just in time for summer reading, this engaging true-crime thriller is actually three books in one. As the title implies, this is one bizarre crime: on a June evening in 2009, 20-year-old American music student and accomplished fly tyer Edwin Rist smashed an alley window and hoisted himself into the renowned British Museum of Natural History in Tring with a singular purpose, to steal some of the world’s rarest old birds to finance buying a gold flute. This may seem an odd way to finance a $10,000 instrument, yet individual skins can sell for $2,500 or more in an underground fly-tying market bordering on the fanatical. After his arrest, Rist estimated he’d made northwards of $165,000 selling feathers to private collectors as well as through niche fly-tying forums and on EBay.

According to its website, the museum’s avian skin collection is the second largest of its kind in the world, with almost 750,000 specimens representing 95 percent of the world’s bird species. Included are nearly 700 skins collected by Charles Darwin and Capt. Robert FitzRoy during the six-year voyage of the HMS Beagle, and, more importantly for Rist, the extensive collection of Alfred Russel Wallace, that included rare originals needed to complete authentic Victorian flies. At one point in the book when Rist is in his late teens, his mentor gives him a bag of Indian Crow and Blue Chatterer feathers worth $250, enough to tie about two flies.

Like any of the world’s most precious substances the feathers for classic fly recipes are expensive — and usually illegal to purchase. About the only legal sources are great grandmother’s Victorian bonnet, complete with a Flame Bowerbird’s carcass, or the zoo, where perhaps a Resplendent Quetzal died of natural causes.

To understand the arcane world of showy feathers from rare or endangered birds, such as these, Johnson first introduces readers to a broad historical stage, one in which “the sun never sets on the British Empire,” and the greed for the exotic went unquenched, much like the sport hunting to near-extinction of the buffalo in our West. Women’s fashion fueled the slaughter of tens of thousands of exotic birds from the Malay Peninsula and South America for their intensely colored and sometimes iridescent feathers.Those same feathers were also thought to be best for catching fasting Scottish salmon as they came back from the ocean to spawn. Books such as George Kelson’s “The Salmon Fly” included the most precious materials — think orange and black seal’s fur — to build an engaging watery fusilade ensuring a hungerless salmon to strike.

The second section goes into detail about the heist, itself, how it was planned and what was taken. Science lovers will be particularly bereft when they realize Rist destroyed the tags on the 299 skins he stole that told where the specimen was collected, as well as when and other critical data, some in the hand of Wallace himself. As ornithologist Jessie Williamson wrote in her review of the book, “It’s hard to overstate the tragedy of destroying irreplaceable scientific objects. Natural-history collections are vital to our understanding of biodiversity, evolution, and environmental change, and they only grow more valuable with time. In the late 1960s, museums were critical to discovering the link between the pesticide DDT and eggshell thinning.”Kelson

Yet for what a British judge deemed “a natural history disaster of world proportions,” Rist did no jail time after pleading an Asberger’s defense, which leads to the last section, and most incredible, in which the author literally goes on a quest for justice worldwide to find and return all of the stolen skins to the Tring. After tracking Rist to Dusseldorf, the author sets up an interview with the thief, complete with a non-English speaking clandestine bodyguard outside his hotel room. Besides this dazzling piece of journalistic bravado — at this point, the cops had closed to case — Johnson also interviews a South African who is sure the rapture is forthcoming, a Norwegian, code name Goku, who may have been an accomplice and a tough American ex-cop, who now hosts a salmon fly-tying forum.

Engaging, infuriating and horizon expanding, this is one for your nightstand, one that will become a classic of fly-fishing literature.

See you on the river, Jim Burns

The Feather Thief

By Kirk Wallace Johnson

Hard Cover $16.20

Kindle $13.99

320 pages

 

 

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‘Carping’ about your summer reading list

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THE BIG FOUR, for those who hunt the mighty carp, include an oldie and three relative newcomers. (Jim Burns)

If you’re like me, you probably spend more time reading about fishing than actually tossing in a line. But when the prey is carp, the more time spent in front of a page or a screen, the better prepared you’ll be when you do actually have time to get on the water.

Four books can really ease the learning curve when it comes to catching this temperamental, magnificent fish. I’ve reviewed all of them separately, so follow the link if you want more.

Way back in 1997, three fly fishers spotted what would become one of the biggest fly-fishing trends of this century. Barry Reynolds, Brad Befus and John Berryman actually extolled catching this “trash fish,” when nearly everyone else was laughing them off the water. Well, he who laughs last, laughs best, as the adage goes. “Carp on the Fly” is the keeper classic I turn to, over and over again.

The chapter heads alone tell you there’s a full education within these pages, everything you need before you pull on those waders: Locating feeding carp (italics mine); what carp eat; presentation. And, interesting for you historians out there, the first chapter is entitled, “Why Not?” “Yes,” the first sentence begins, “this really is a book about fly fishing for carp.” Part of the fun of reading this book is its underdog approach.

In 2013, Kirk Deeter wrote “The Orvis Guide to Fly Fishing for Carp,” showing carp had arrived, now being ballyhooed by both a famous outdoor author and a famous company. The book is much slicker than its predecessor, and Deeter put in lots of water time to present the valuable tips contained within its pages. Four-color throughout, publisher Stonefly Press didn’t spare expenses or design talent: After all, So. Cal’s own Al Q. designed the front cover.

Orvis then followed up the next year with “The Orvis Beginner’s Guide to Carp Flies,” which I find a perplexing title. Penned by the admired Colorado carper Dan Frasier, and filled with flies from the sports most trusted tie-meisters, it, nonetheless, seems odd to me that the company puts the word “beginner” in the title, yet only provides recipes for the flies. If a beginner can look at, for example, Jay Zimmerman’s Backstabber, check out the recipe, and reproduce the fly, please let me know.

What makes the book a fun read is all of Frasier’s field work that tells the reader where and when to use the 101 patterns listed in the book.

Two years later , in 2015, Headwater Books published Zimmerman’s own magnum opus, “The Best Carp Flies.” I have purchased many dozen of dollars’ worth of very cool stuff to tie some of these flies, and can tell you I don’t (yet) have the tying skill to do them justice. Zimmerman gives you a deep, long dive into the art of tying. He sources the flies, telling us, for example, that the Carp Carrot first appeared in 1950! He talks creative process, development and “tank tinkering.” I mean, wow, this book is the real deal.

So, if the last time you put a boot into the water, the carp disappeared like you were a fox in the hen house, step back and do some summer reading. I’ll bet things improve thereafter.

See you on the river, Jim Burns

 

 

 

 

Book review: Author’s new carp flies book truly the ‘best’

HUNGRY? Here's a carp smorgasbord of deliciousness.(Jim Burns)

HUNGRY? Here’s a carp smorgasbord of deliciousness.(Jim Burns)

We’re currently in the salad days of books about carping, with Orvis releasing two during the last two years. Both are good, and, as they say “three’s a charm.”

For the carp enthusiast as well as fly-tying fanatic, Jay Zimmerman’s “The Best Carp Flies: How to Tie and Fish Them”(Headwater Books; $29.95) is that home run for which you’ve been waiting. Zimmerman is a wordsmith among his many other talents, penning two previous books. His care with the plume certainly shows, as the writing in this big volume is crisp, clean and engaging. I only wish the copy editor had taken more care with his marvelous prose.

After a straightforward introduction to the sport, as well as a guide to what should be on your fly-tying table, he gets into the meat of the book, 22 must-have patterns and variations. OK, so he didn’t include our river’s Tortilla Fly, but you’ll find such notables as the Swimming Nymph, Near ‘Nuff Crayfish and Barry’s Carp Fly. Each recipe comes with a couple dozen steps and color photographs. I mean, even in the era of YouTube, this book is exactly what you need to become a better fly-tier and fly fisher.image

Also, Zimmerman addresses those trying to tie the “next great carp fly.” His depth of knowledge will put you ahead in the next carp fly swap. He’ll have you checking your fly’s weight, buying a testing tank and, most probably, upgrading your equipment. This book pushed me over the edge to finally buy that rotating vise I’ve been craving. The book’s price of $29.95 is well worth admission to a greatly expanded carping world.

If you read California Fly Fish magazine, look for my detailed review in next month’s issue.

See you on the river, Jim Burns

Book review: New Orvis guide to carp flies delights, confounds

imageThe Orvis company is publishing a concerted effort to woo literate fly fishers intent on catching the difficult common carp. Witness “The Orvis Guide to Fly Fishing for Carp,” released in 2013, and now the follow-up, “The Orvis Biginner’s Guide to Carp Flies.”

I’ve yet to read Jay Zimmerman’s “The Best Carp Flies: How to Tie and Fish Them,” which was release just four days ago, but I imagine the grandfather of the sport, Barry Reynolds, who penned with co-authors “Carp on the Fly: A Flyfishing Guide” in 1997, must have a good laugh every now and again, for the fish has gone from the river scourge, to the hippest score an urban hipster can make. And, folks, that’s a good thing. Call it hip hop on the fly.

I find the presentation to be glitzy, with some very solid information, but this Orvis book by the reputable Dan Frasier left me wanting more. For example, the subtitle: “101 patterns & how to use them” is certainly addressed, and Frasier reached out to well-known carp sites and bloggers to find many of these patterns. Yet, each of them only merits a color snapshot, with the fly recipe. There are no in-depth instructions on how to tie the patterns, and that certainly belies the “beginner’s guide” part of the title.

Also, there’s a lively discussion of flies — divided into Meat, Nymphs, Dry Flies, Super Meat and Universal — as well as behaviors to watch for when choosing the correct fly. That’s good, but, again, I wanted more. Anyone who’s ever perused Gary LaFountaine’s masterwork “Caddisflies,” released in 1989, knows what a deep dive it can be when a fly fisher discusses fish behavior and edibles.

Perhaps that’s an unfair comparison: Orvis would never have published LaFountaine’s book.image

That said, as I turned to the section on eggs, my most productive pattern on our river, a name came off the page right at me. When I first began this site Gregg Martin frequently commented, and I count him as one of the friends I’ve made through blogging. His story goes from paratrooping to paralysis, and is one of real heroism and bravery. Of course, he also loved carping and sent me shots of his various eggs.

From the book: “Twenty-nine years after the accident, Gregg is still out there fly fishing. Where lesser men would have given up the fly rod and lamented their misfortune, Gregg devised fly patterns and fishing techniques that allowed him to be successful on the water he could access.”

Gregg Martin
gdjrb@q.com
71.33.105.219

As McTage knows my go-to fly here in SW Idaho is an egg tie, I don’t call it a glo-bug as I tie it with spun and packed material, mostly in different colors in one fly with one predominate. Such as peach marbled with salmon and yellow, oe such as the day before Thanksgiving when I took a late season fish on a size 6 white marbled with salmon, yellow and orange, or something similar. Of course I fish other flies, but a size 6 or 10 fly under an indicator, for me, works real well. I do not think they take them for an egg, I believe it’s just a visible piece of protein down there. The last one had the fly so deep I couldn’t see it, a first for me. I have seen your site before, how dog gone interesting your fishing.
Gregg

Bottom line: Give this book a read. Enjoy the color snaps and witty writing. Fumble through the flies at your vise. If nothing else, it will provide you with lots of inspiration, and will give you something to think about next time you’re stalking an L.A. River carp.

See you on the river, Jim

Book Review: ‘Orvis Guide to Fly Fishing for Carp’

It's been 16 years since the classic "Carp of the Fly" hit book stores. Now, author Kirk Deeter takes readers into the 21st Century with "The Orvis Guide to Fly Fishing for Carp." (Jim Burns)

It’s been 16 years since the classic “Carp on the Fly” hit book stores. Now, author Kirk Deeter takes readers into the 21st Century with “The Orvis Guide to Fly Fishing for Carp.” (Jim Burns)

The discerning reader divides non-fiction books about fly fishing into two categories: “how to” and “dream on,” and it’s a rare merger that can satisfy a reader’s desire for both. Yet, author Kirk Deeter manages just that in his new “The Orvis Guide to Fly Fishing for Carp.”

The dichotomy may lie in the type of writer each category draws. How-to writers predominately dwell on the acquisition of a skill set: fly tying, for example, can include anecdotes about where a fly is best used, or the genius of the hand behind an original fly, but usually the writing forms tight bands of knowledge around a skill with prose that may be interesting, but pedantic.

On the other hand, dream-on books are more a subset of adventure travel writing, a pastime honed by the Brits on their wide-ranging, sun-never-sets, escapades. I’m thinking here specifically of Chris Santella’s “Fifty Places to Fly Fish Before You Die,” the modern-day, bucket list approach to adventure travel writing.

Many “dream-on” books stand the test of time precisely because that snapshot of an adventure has been so vividly captured and eloquently composed. I’m thinking of Charles McDermand’s “Waters of the Golden Trout Wilderness,” and of Ray Bergman’s “Trout,” both of which leave readers dreaming not of the future possibilities, but of worlds that have been lost.

The last book I remember to combine  the qualities of making us better fly fishers, as well as stoking our desire to get out and do it is Sheridan Anderson’s “Curtis Creek Manifesto,” a marvel with the subtitle, “A Fully Illustrated Guide to the Strategy, Finesse, Tactics and Paraphernalia of Fly Fishing.” I would wager that Anderson captured many a novice’s imagination as he envisioned exactly where to perform that initial “Curtis Creek sneak.” I still vividly remember getting down on my hands and knees on the catch-and-release section of the Owens outside Bishop, Calif., savoring that, possibly, using my newly acquired stealth, no trout would spot my otherwise hulking frame.

In essence, books that combine both qualities are rare and possess the kind of magic publishers seek while devouring manuscripts in the hopes of finding what will keep a book in print to become a “perennial.” Case in point, the manifesto was originally published in May, 1978.

It’s been 16 years since the classic “Carp on the Fly” broke very new ground by advocating catching what was then widely considered a garbage fish. While trying to figure out exactly what was going on with carp on the Los Angeles River, I turned to it over and over again. You can find with a little searching on this blog, its table on water temperatures and carp.

That seminal book by Barry Reynolds, Brad Befus and John Berryman begins with the sentence, “Yes, this really is a book about fly fishing for carp,” and goes on to cover everything about the fish from habitat, to stalking, to proper fly presentation.  I’m careful with words like “classic,” but this definitely is one, with a homespun feel aided by black-and-white photographs. The cover always struck me as odd, a whimsical line drawing that shows a carp contemplating a tasty crayfish. Instead of predator and prey, the two seem about to begin a conversation.

The cover shot for Deeter’s book shows a freshly released bruiser-of-a-carp in shallow, clear water. There’s no ambiguity in this shot. Any fisherman would want a piece of this fish. And the art throughout the book will draw readers to dreaming, whether of the flats of Lake Michigan or even of the Los Angeles River.  I did yearn for more information in the captions.

Illustrator Mary Kelley penned useful, even inventive graphics to help readers understand this elusive prey. In one, “Grading the Presentation Zone,” she uses grades from A to F around a carp’s head and upper body to represent the strike zone.

And Deeter knows his way around prose, deftly fielding even the least-exciting of topics. He begins, “When I told my mother I was writing a book on fly fishing for carp, her first response was, ‘Why would you do that?’ ”

It’s his breezy style that pulls all the elements together and lifts this book from the ho-hum to something much more. By the end of the book, readers know a reasonable amount about this wary adversary, its traits, behavior, and the best ways to catch him.

My question to myself right now: how can I possibly be writing this glowing review about a book that has a corporate logo plastered on its cover? While Deeter deftly makes his generic recommendations based on rod length and weight, the photographs tell the tale of an Orvis purchase. Ditto nets, waders, wading shoes and fishing pliers.

Still, because of the thorough research, enviable and obvious time on the water, gripping prose and spot-on photography, readers probably won’t wince when it comes to product placement.

Oh, and the Curtis Creek sneak? Peruse the pages and you’ll find it, along with a thorough education from this decade’s most useful book on a growing obsession.

See you on the river, Jim Burns