There are not many things that keep me awake at night but the draw for the One Fly does. There was a time when it was all very relaxed. On the Saturday prior to the competition we gather for the Guides briefing and way back when we started on 2008 we used to draw both the beats for the guides and the contestants. How we would laugh and josh as the names came out of the hat, safe in the knowledge that any snafu could be rectified away from public gaze
Jason Askey-Wood with his winning fly
Now in this age of transparency (dreadful word) and in a bid to notch up the drama, it was decided that we would hold the contestant draw on the morning of the One Fly itself. Oh, how I live in fear of it going wrong. In 2016 I peered into the hat to pull out the 36th and last name to see nothing. Looking up I saw 72 expectant faces eager for the starting gun. Piers Morgan's Stockbridge Christmas lights disaster had nothing on this, though I am probably one of the few to feel his pain. Back in the hat I ran my finger under the sweatband that dislodged the final bit of paper. Crisis averted. This year, I am happy to say, no such heart-stopping moments as the draw dodged the first of many heavy showers that were to typify the day.
This wasn't going to be an easy year. We have had a wet, wet winter and I haven't seen the chalkstream aquifers pumping water this high and fast since the floods of 2013/14. In some respects it is actually more pronounced. Back in 2014 the volumes were receding by April; this year they were still on an upward curve though the peak is now past. So anyone on the lower beats would have to cope with lots of water, fish still hiding out and in some cases poor clarity. But that is the challenge of the One Fly; you draw your beat and you adapt accordingly. And plenty adapted very well.
A well tied winning fly after 18 fish.
Top billing is really shared by Jason Askey-Wood and Grant Harrower, though Jason shaded Grant to the overall title by just 10 points, which is simply the difference of one fish being one inch longer. Or in Grant's case hanging onto his fly (worth 75 points) which he lost with still ninety minutes to go. But hey, that's why we call it the One Fly. Regardless it was a pretty amazing fishing day by both of them with 41 fish between them, Jason with 18 on the River Kennet at Benham Estate and Grant on The Greyhound beat catching 23. In all the three dozen anglers caught 217 fish between them, all of which were released, with everyone bar three catching at least one fish. The biggest fish of the day was by the guide/fisher combo of Michael Jacobsen and Kris Kent who landed a monster 24" brown on the Orvis Ginger Beer beat at Kimbridge.
It was a great day. We came. We fished. We got wet. And we marked the start of a new chalkstream season, in the course of which we raised over £2,500 for the Alex Lewis Trust. In ending I have to give special mention to the winning Guide Gary Allen to accompanied Jason Askey- Wood, donating his £500 winning cheque to be split equally between the Alex Lewis Trust and another cause close to the heart of his family. Thank you Gary.
Click here to see the photos from the day.
Stockbridge: shopping valhalla
Plenty of us who live within easy striking distance of Stockbridge have concluded that with the ubiquity of internet shopping all our consumer needs are now met online and by the occasional foray into the fly fishing capital of Britain.
Elaine Sperber. I'm sorry, I made her do it .........
I understand those of you who live in more metropolitan parts might think of us, to use that Del Boy term, as carrot crunchers but we are happy with our butcher, baker, greengrocer, florist, post office, two chic delis, coffee shop, wine store, a whisky shop on the way .... well, I won't go on but we jam a lot into one single, and relatively short, High Street.
However, we have been deficient in one important area: a bookshop. Amazon is all very well but there is nothing like browsing the shelves, reading the back covers and flicking through the virgin pages to unearth a new author or rediscover one you had long forgotten. Well, I am delighted to say The Bookmark now has to be added to my list above.
The shop has been opened by Elaine Sperber, an American who long ago came to our shores and lives in a village not so far away. For most of her professional life she was in the TV and film business, Head of Drama for Children's BBC, where she commissioned 53 series including hits Tracy Beaker and Stig of the Dump, with a whole raft of other independent film and TV producer credits to her name.
After decades of reading scripts and books for a profession Elaine has a massive fund in literary knowledge and this is reflected in the diverse and fascinating books she stocks. Give her your literary brief and in a flash she'll have a selection that will open new reading doors. The Bookmark is handily located a few doors down from Robjents and directly opposite Orvis.
The Feather Thief
I don't really like to cut and paste entire articles; it seems a bit of a cheat. But below I have reproduced in full Maggie Fergusson's review last week in The Spectator of the Kirk Wallace Johnson book The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession and the Natural History Heist of the Century.
The truth is I haven't had a chance to read the book, but even if I had I could not better the Fergusson review. I suspect you, like me, as you read the piece will wonder where it is all going but for anyone with an interest in fly fishing, and fly tying in particular, it will suddenly hit you right between the eyes.
"They don't look like a natural pair. First there's the author, Kirk Wallace Johnson, a hero of America's war in Iraq and a modern-day Schindler who, as USAID's only Arabic-speaking American employee, arranged for hundreds of Iraqis to find safe haven in the US. In the process, he developed PTSD, sleepwalked through a hotel window, flung himself from a ledge and plunged, nearly, to his death. Then there's the stranger-than-fiction Edwin Rist, a brilliant young flautist who, on a pitch-black night nine years ago, in pursuit of an obsession with rare bird feathers, risked years in jail in one of the most brazen and bizarre museum heists ever accomplished. Yet Johnson and Rist are made for one another. Within pages I was hooked. This is a weird and wonderful book.
On the evening of 23 June 2009, Rist, then a 20-year-old Royal Academy of Music student who hoped one day to play principal flute for the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, performed in a concert of Haydn, Handel and Mendelssohn. Then, having taken his bows, he gathered wire-cutters, an LED torch, latex gloves, a diamond-blade glass cutter and what must have been a tardis of a wheely suitcase, and caught a train to Tring in Hertfordshire. From the station, he walked to the Natural History Museum, once the private repository of Walter Rothschild, the highly eccentric second Lord Rothschild, who rode about in a carriage pulled by zebra. Gifted to the nation in 1937, the museum is home to one of the finest collections of stuffed mammals, ornithological specimens, reptiles and insects in the UK.
Breaking a window, Rist hoisted himself into the museum. He had originally planned to be swift and selective, but as he began to fling open the white steel cabinets of dead birds he was seduced into a kind of feeding frenzy. It would later be some small comfort to the museum curators that Rist bypassed Darwin's sizeable collection of finches, and the skins and skeletons of the Dodo and the Auk, concentrating instead on birds that appeared more colourful and exotic: Resplendent Quetzals, gathered in the 1880s from the Chiriqui cloud forests of western Panama and nearly four feet in length; 14 skins of the Lovely Cotinga; 37 Purple-Breasted Cotinga; 21 Spangled Cotinga; 37 Birds of Paradise; 24 Magnificent Riflebirds; 12 Superb Birds of Paradise; four Blue Birds of Paradise; 17 Flame Bowerbirds, and so on. When he finally dragged himself back outside, there were 299 birds stuffed into his suitcase.
Many of the birds Rist had stolen had been collected by one very remarkable man: Alfred Russel Wallace, a self-taught naturalist from a humble background who, in the mid-19th century, worked his way deep into the gloomy forests of the Malay Archipelago, hunting down mammals, reptiles and birds, funding his expeditions by selling off duplicate skins. He lived on a diet of alligator, monkey and turtle, and was prey to malaria, vampire bats, serpents and pirates, all the while collecting creatures of otherworldly beauty, many of which had thrived undiscovered by human beings for more than 20 million years.
Killing birds in pursuit of the study of natural history has, perhaps, some justification. But in the wake of Wallace's discoveries came a late-Victorian rage for incorporating them in women's fashion. In what became known as the Age of Extermination, hundreds of millions of birds - parrots, toucans, quetzals, snowy egrets, ospreys - were killed mainly, though not exclusively, to adorn hats. One merchant peddled a shawl made from 8,000 hummingbird skins.
As the birds' numbers dwindled, they became worth more than their weight in gold. When the Titanic went down in 1912, the most valuable and highly insured commodity in its hold was 40 crates of feathers. Not surprising, then, that when Rist hurried back towards Tring station, he was carrying $1 million worth of feathers. He had been in the museum three hours. The security guard, glued to a football match, had failed to notice the alarm indicator blinking.
Johnson is a master of pacing and suspense. We learn the details of Rist's crime at the very beginning of the book, but for a good few chapters we are kept wondering whether he'll be caught, and, if so, how; whether Johnson will get to meet him, and whether he is now behind bars, or out free in the world playing his flute.
The other burning question, of course, is what inspired such an outlandish crime. Edwin Rist was brought up in Claverack, a small town north of New York City, and home-schooled by parents who bred labradoodles for a living, and who devoted themselves to nurturing enthusiasms in their two sons. Edwin was just 11 when he caught by chance on television a demonstration of how to tie a fly for trout fishing. He was instantly captivated - and very soon as preoccupied with fly-tying as with his flute. He befriended a retired ornithology professor willing to sell him bird skins on the cheap. A zookeeper at the Bronx Zoo sent him feathers from the autumn moult of the Macaw, Spoonbill and Tragopan. He took a job chopping logs to fund his new addiction, but the rarest, most gorgeous feathers - and therefore the most elaborate flies - remained, financially, out of his reach. Meantime, what had begun as a hobby had become an obsession.
Over the internet, Rist became part of a shady 'feather underground', a community of (all-male) fanatics who had no interest whatsoever in fishing - 'People don't actually fish with this shit, right?' one tells Johnson - but who would go to almost any lengths to lay their hands on exotic feathers to tie flies. 'God, Family, Feathers' was the motto of one, while another described fly-tying as 'like a drug, nothing else matters, nothing else compares'.
Rist's new cronies were a disparate lot: a blacksmith, a retired detective, a dentist (what is it with dentists and endangered creatures?). But they had in common a breathtaking hubris: a belief that they could slice apart some of the most beautiful creatures in the natural world, and put them back together to make something more beautiful still. Dyed feathers just wouldn't do. 'The knowledge of the falsity eats at you,' Rist tells Johnson when they finally meet for an eight-hour hall-of-mirrors encounter during which Rist tries to persuade Johnson that he is not a thief, and that by snatching the Tring birds he was actually saving the lives of birds in the wild.
And how did Johnson become so obsessed with Rist? As he struggled to overcome his PTSD, he took up fly-fishing as a therapy. One day, as he stood waist-deep in a river in northern New Mexico, his fishing guide told him of Rist's crime. Johnson knew nothing of rare birds or salmon flies, and had no experience of tracking thieves; but, like Rist himself, he became fixated - as tenacious in his pursuit of truth and justice as any fly-tyer in pursuit of feathers. His ambition: to find out whether it was really possible that Rist worked alone, and to restore to Tring all 299 of the stolen birds.
There's no great climax to this tale, but it's a tribute to Johnson's storytelling gifts that when I turned the last page I felt bereft. The odd, but obvious, solution? To seek out his first book, To Be a Friend is Fatal, a memoir of the Iraq war."
The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession and the Natural History Heist of the Century by Kirk Wallace Johnson is published by Hutchinson. £20.
More chances to prove, or improve, your intellect. Answers, as ever, at the bottom of the page.
1) After which saint day on April 25th is the Hawthorn fly sometimes known?
2) We have just celebrated Beltane, the day halfway between spring and summer. When is it?
3) When were the first Bank Holidays officially granted by law in the UK?
Have a great holiday weekend!
Simon Cooper email@example.com
Founder & Managing Director
1) St Mark's Day
2) May 1st, May Day.
3) The Bank Holidays Act 1871