A long-awaited new book by the nonfiction master, winner of the Pulitzer Prize Few fish are as beloved-or as obsessed over-as the American shad. Although shad spend most of their lives in salt water, they enter rivers by the hundreds of thousands in the spring and swim upstream heroic distances in order to spawn, then return to the ocean. John McPhee is a shad fisherman, and his passion for the annual shad run has led him, over the years, to learn much of what there is to know about the fish known as Alosa sapidissima, or "most savory." In The Founding Fish McPhee makes of his obsession a work of literary art. In characteristically bold and spirited prose-inflected, here and there, with wry humor-McPhee places the fish within natural history and American history. He explores the fish's cameo role in the lives of William Penn, Washington, Jefferson, Thoreau, Lincoln, and John Wilkes Booth. He travels with various ichthyologists, including a fish behaviorist and an anatomist of fishes; takes instruction in the making of shad darts from a master of the art; and cooks shad and shad roe a variety of ways (delectably explained at the end of the book).
- New York Times Notable Books of the Year
In his newest (after Annals), McPhee leads readers out to the river-pole and lures in hand-to angle for American shad. McPhee knows where the fish are running, so to speak, and he opens with a tall tale about his long vigil with a giant roe shad on the line. Night falls, a crowd gathers on a nearby bridge to watch and still the fish refuses to roll over; however embellished, it's a comic story. He then probes the natural history of the shad, known as Alosa sapidissima and traces the fish's storied place in American history and economics. The shad manages to turn up, at least in legend, at George Washington's camp at Valley Forge; it waylaid Confederate General Pickett in the defense of Richmond and hastened the end of the Civil War; it even played a minor role in John Wilkes Booth's murder of Lincoln. McPhee consults specialists like a fish behaviorist, an anatomist of fishes and a zooarcheologist who studies 18th-century trash pits to see whether Washington indeed ate shad at Mount Vernon. The author studies under a master shad dart maker and in an appendix gives recipes, too. McPhee reaffirms his stature as a bold American original. His prose is rugged, straightforward and unassuming, and can be just as witty. This book sings like anglers' lines cast on the water. It runs with the wisdom of ocean-going shad. (Oct.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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Farrar, Straus and Giroux
September 10, 2003
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Excerpt from The Founding Fish by John McPhee
They're in the River
I hadn't been a shad fisherman all my days, only seven years, on the May evening when this story begins -- in a johnboat, flat and square, anchored in heavy current by the bridge in Lambertville, on the wall of the eddy below the fourth pier. I say Lambertville (New Jersey) because that's where we launch, but the Delaware River is more than a thousand feet wide there, and, counting westward, the fourth of the five stone bridge piers is close to New Hope, Pennsylvania. Yet it rises from the channel where the river is deepest.
American shad are schooling ocean fish, and when they come in to make their run up the river they follow the deep channels. In the estuary toward the end of winter, they mill around in tremendous numbers, waiting for the temperature in the cold river current to rise. When it warms past forty Fahrenheit, they begin their migration, in pulses, pods -- males (for the most part) first. Soon, a single sentence moves northward with them -- in e-mails, on telephones, down hallways, up streets -- sending amps and volts through the likes of me. The phone rings, and someone says, "They're in the river."
No two shad fishermen agree on much of anything, but I would say that if a female takes your lure you know it from the first moments, or think you do, and you're not often wrong. If you have a male on, you may be at first uncertain, but then he displays his character and you know it's a buck shad. The roe shad is often twice the size of the buck shad. She may weigh five to six pounds, while he weighs two or three. Shad don't exactly strike. First there's a fixed moment -- a second or two in which you feel what appears to be a snag (and might be); then the bottom of the river seems to move, as if you are tied to a working trampoline; and you start thinking five, six pounds, big fillets in the broiler, the grained savor of lemoned roe; but now this little buck shad -- two and a half pounds -- takes off across the river, flies into the air, and struts around on his tail. He leaps again. He leaps once more and does a complete somersault. He can't be said to be cocky, of course, but he suggests cockiness and pretension. He's all show and no roe. She doesn't move. Her size and weight are not at first especially employed. Yet here is the message she sends up the line: If this isn't bedrock you'd be better off if it were; if you're in a hurry, get out your scissors. She stays low, and holds; and soon you are sure about the weight and the sex. Now, straight across the river and away, deep, she strips line, your reel drag clicking. She turns and moves back, an arcuate run. You're supposed to keep things taut but often she'll do it for you. When, rising, she rolls near the surface, she looks even larger than she is. She, too, can leap, can do a front flip, but she obviously knows that her shrewdest position is broadside to full current. It's as difficult to move her as it would be to reel in a boat sideways.
Like salmon, shad return to their natal rivers and eat nothing on the spawning run. Like salmon swimming two thousand miles up the Yukon River, migrating shad exist on their own fat. So why do shad and salmon respond to lures, Up and down the river, almost everybody has an answer to that fundamental question, but no one -- bartender or biologist -- really knows. A plurality will tell you that the fish are expressing irritation. Flutter something colorful in their faces and shad will either ignore it completely or snap at it like pit bulls. More precisely, they'll swing their heads, as swordfish do, to bat an irritant aside. They don't swallow, since they're not eating. Essentially never does a hook reach the gills, or even much inside the mouth. You hook them in the mouth's outer rim -- in the premaxillary and maxillary bones and sometimes in the ethmoid region at the tip of the snout, all of which are segments of the large open scoop that plows through plankton at sea.