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The Founding Fish

The Founding Fish

4.5 2
by John McPhee

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John McPhee's twenty-sixth book is a braid of personal history, natural history, and American history, in descending order of volume. Each spring, American shad-Alosa sapidissima-leave the ocean in hundreds of thousands and run heroic distances upriver to spawn.

McPhee--a shad fisherman himself--recounts the shad's cameo role in the lives of George Washington


John McPhee's twenty-sixth book is a braid of personal history, natural history, and American history, in descending order of volume. Each spring, American shad-Alosa sapidissima-leave the ocean in hundreds of thousands and run heroic distances upriver to spawn.

McPhee--a shad fisherman himself--recounts the shad's cameo role in the lives of George Washington and Henry David Thoreau. He fishes with and visits the laboratories of famous ichthyologists; he takes instruction in the making of shad darts from a master of the art; and he cooks shad in a variety of ways, delectably explained at the end of the book. Mostly, though, he goes fishing for shad in various North American rivers, and he "fishes the same way he writes books, avidly and intensely. He wants to know everything about the fish he's after--its history, its habits, its place in the cosmos" (Bill Pride, The Denver Post). His adventures in pursuit of shad occasion the kind of writing--expert and ardent--at which he has no equal.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“The Founding Fish is . . . far more than a fishing book. It is a mini-encyclopedia, a highly informative and entertaining amalgam of natural and personal history, a work in a class by itself.” —Robert H. Boyle, The New York Times Book Review

“A blue-chip tour of the American shad.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Under McPhee's close eye, everything about this fish is fascinating.” —William Moody, The Christian Science Monitor

“A fishing classic” —The Economist

The Barnes & Noble Review
What Mark Kurlansky did for Cod, Pulitzer Prize winner John McPhee does for the great American shad in an account that's part history, part natural history, and one long engaging fish story. By his own reckoning, McPhee has "personally spent nine hundred and twenty-two hours" fishing for shad in the Delaware River, and in The Founding Fish he plunges us into his story as the shad begin to run. Recounting his battle with a roe shad that takes nearly three hours to land, McPhee then traces the history of the American obsession with this celebrated fish, which emerged in the Cretaceous and is now threatened by environmental degradation. From the Columbia River Gorge to the inlets of Maine, McPhee encounters enthusiasts like himself -- fish anatomists, ecologists, anglers, and an expert dart maker -- and even manages to involve Washington, Jefferson, Daniel Boone, and Pocahontas in his tale. Full of the kind of close observation and precise description for which McPhee is known, the book concludes with an anecdotal compendium of recipes for shad. Like any fishing trip with a seasoned angler, The Founding Fish is by turns leisurely and eventful, companionable and informed -- it's is a sure thing for McPhee's many fans. Deirdre Mullane
Publishers Weekly
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.
Library Journal
Alosa sapidissima, the American shad, is considered an early teleost one of the most primitive fish, hence the title. As in his other award-winning works, McPhee (Annals of the Former World) writes with an engaging style that keeps the reader turning page after page. Here he ruminates on the fish's role in nature and American history it was a founding fish in more ways than one. McPhee waxes poetically about fishing in the Delaware River, making shad darts (excerpted in The New Yorker), and cooking shad and shad roe. He handles common anthropomorphic writing tendencies with flair and wit: "[the shad] can't be said to be cocky, of course, but he suggests cockiness and pretension." Although this shad is native to the Atlantic coast and naturalized on the Pacific coast, the book may be of more interest to readers in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states, where place names in the book will more likely be recognized. Still, there are a lot of McPhee fans out there, so it is recommended for large public library collections and where his books circulate well. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 6/15/02.] Mary J. Nickum, Lakewood, CO Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A blue-chip tour of the American shad from McPhee (Annals of the Former World, 1998, etc.), maestro of the extended essay, if not the fly rod.

Suitably, and lucky for readers, there isn’t a dry patch in this story of a fish and its homewaters. It’s owlish, reflective, full of sustaining information you had no idea you wanted to know, but also warm and full of McPhee, a shad fisherman, with rod and dart and fly, of long standing. Still, he likes to have his companions along for the exploration (fish biologists and behaviorists, commercial fishermen, fishing friends and acquaintances who were born with the touch, shad and river historians), for they feed him all the colloidal material that glues the story—episodes of McPhee’s encounters with the fish—together. Readers tending toward hard science will be pleased with the clear-minded ichthyological material, while those whose slant is more in the direction of humanities will graze enjoyably on the historical and anecdotal parts. In one approach, we get to climb right into the fish’s skin, and in the other we get to climb into McPhee, which is a surprise and a pleasure in a writer known more for his shadowy presence than for stepping into the spotlight. The cargo of stories here—many bright with humor; there is even a chapter devoted to losing fish—is weighty enough to have required many days on many rivers (how did he find time to write all those other books?), yet McPhee’s ability to convey the wonder of it all is unfailing and inviting: You’re allowed to discover all the information, partake in all the anecdotes, right by his side.

"I'm a shad fisherman," says McPhee. True, but also a talented portraitist of the fish, a GilbertStuart of the species, and a William Hogarth, too, sticking an elbow into the ribs of his obsession.

Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt

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 west- ward, 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. Lake 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.

Below the Lambertville-New Hope bridge that evening, I was using a shad dart of my own malting. A small metallic cone, it trailed bucktail tied on in a vise. Its body was chartreuse. Its base was dark green. It was coated with clear gloss. Extending with the bucktail from the tip of the cone, its No. 2 hook was black and chemically sharpened. Because the hook shaft includes a right angle and the eye emerges from the side of the cone, a shad dart is hydrodynamically hapless. It flips and flops and buzzes around like a fly that needs killing. If it snags, you're likely to lose it. Snags happen often. Held in the water column by the driving current, my dart was out about seventy feet. Three of us were in the boat, close and tandem. I was in the middle, fishing over the shoulder of the skipper, Ed Cervone. Fishing over my shoulder was Ed's son, Edmund Cervone. Each of them had caught several shad, varying in sex, notable in size. I had caught two roe shad. The sun was setting. It was seven-thirty. Quitting time was upon us, but the rod in my hand was suddenly pulled by a great deal more than the current. The Cervones reeled in their darts and stowed their rods. They would wait and watch, as people do when someone else in a boat has a fish on the line. It felt heavy. It maintained for some time a severe tug without much lateral movement. "Female," I said. "Six pounds." Cervone the Elder, who has a doctorate in psychology, seemed unimpressed — seemed to be suggesting, through a light shrug, that he knew bullshit by its cover. He knew he wasn't fishing with Buddy Grucela. He knew he wasn't fishing with Erwin Dietz or Gerald Hartzel — living figures in the Cooperstown of shad. He knew that in my seven years as a shad fisherman I had risen steadily into a zone of terminal mediocrity. And he was well equipped to empathize. Ours was one of twelve boats below and around the western bridge piers. Nearly all the others had been doing well, too. When that fish of mine came on the line toward the end of the day, a guy in the boat next to us looked over and said, "It doesn't get any better than this, does it?" At that moment, thirty feet of line came off the reel against the drag. I thought the line would snap.

Dietz and Hartzel are waders, bank fishermen, and you'd usually encounter them far upriver — at least three hundred miles above the sea buoy — where the Delaware is narrow, is punctuated with riffles and rapids, and has cut a deep gorge in the Pocono-Catskill plateau. The night air, cooler than the water, makes a thick early mist there. If you wanted to fish near a monumental figure like Dietz, and possibly be there ahead of him, you had to be on the river before dawn. As the light came up, it revealed a dark silhouette in the drifting vapors, standing on a rock catching fish. He always knew how many. "How many is that?" "Eleven." I could fish near him until the sun was high, doing everything he did, and catch nothing, or one or two. Nearing retirement, he was a mason then, in New York City construction. He lived in Queens. Somewhere in my fishing diaries I wrote: "He recovers his dart and casts anew faster than anyone I've ever seen. He brings fish in rapidly, and swiftly releases them. Then his dart is in the air. He is very sensitive on the jig, his rod tip high, his twitch minimal. While I am fishless, Dietz's rod is electric with excitement. Two. Three. Four. He works fish. I watch. And watch. He loses a dart to a snag. Cool. He is idle. Out of it. I am casting — two, three, four. The numbers refer to casts but not to shad. At last he finishes tying on a new dart, and he flings it into the river. It swings through the current, and his rod is bent by another fish. How . . . Does . . . He . . . Do . . . It? After he casts, he holds his rod at a forty-five-degree angle. His wrist flicks almost imperceptibly at a consistent rate of about once a second. He says he can feel the shad bump the dart in the center of the current, bump it again, and then go for it. His line and his lures are identical with mine. I imitate him as precisely as I can. He hooks fish, I hook water." As Gerald Hartzel stepped into the upper river at five-thirty of a June morning — after driving more than three hours — his shad net would be bolstered on his back so that its hoop rose above his head like a circular antenna. He reached for it often. He used a five-and-a-half-foot rod with four-pound line and an ultra-light reel. He had a long wooden staff that floated on a tether beside him. He was slim. Six feet. Polaroid glasses. On his brown hat were two fishing licenses. Sewn on both his hat and his vest was the orange-and-green emblem of the Delaware River Shad Fishermen's Association. He cast with a short direct punch from eye level, as if he were throwing a dart not so much at a fish as at a tavern wall. As one such morning began, he caught a shad, and then another, but not rapidly, and he seemed puzzled. Then, arms up, he began to hold the rod high before him, as if he were reaching for a shelf, and, in quick succession, he flipped up the tip, up again, up once more — fish on the line. Rooted in fast water, apparently tireless, he caught shad after shad after shad, always with his arms extended high. His darts were very small. Across the morning, they were in the water an amazing percentage of the total time. He was efficient in the rhythm of his casts. Page 1, line 1: If your dart is not in the water you are not catching fish. Jigging — twitching — the line, he gave complete attention to each moment of every swing, his eyes swinging, too, like a long-bah hitter's. After fishing downstream from him, I quit when he did. In four and a half hours, I had caught six shad, including one roe that I kept. In the four and a half hours, he had landed twenty-one shad. Wearily rubbing a shoulder, he said, "Did you see what I had to do?"

Copyright © 2002 John McPhee

Meet the Author

John McPhee was born in Princeton, New Jersey, and was educated at Princeton University and Cambridge University. His writing career began at Time magazine and led to his long association with The New Yorker, where he has been a staff writer since 1965. Also in 1965, he published his first book, A Sense of Where You Are, with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and in the years since, he has written nearly 30 books, including Oranges (1967), Coming into the Country (1977), The Control of Nature (1989), Uncommon Carriers (2007), and Silk Parachute (2011). Encounters with the Archdruid (1972) and The Curve of Binding Energy (1974) were nominated for National Book Awards in the category of science. McPhee received the Award in Literature from the Academy of Arts and Letters in 1977. In 1999, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Annals of the Former World. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

Brief Biography

Princeton, New Jersey
Date of Birth:
March 8, 1931
Place of Birth:
Princeton, New Jersey
A.B., Princeton University, 1953; graduate study at Cambridge University, 1953-54

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Founding Fish 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
As always, McPhee is great. No one is better. But why the Andy Rooney rant near the end about catch and release fishing? Is McPhee getting crotchety as his hair silvers? Yes, one can indeed puncture the pretensions of yuppified fly fishermen, and yes, fishing is, no matter how you cut it, still a blood sport. But the benefits of catch and release fishing are evident in the exact stretch of water McPhee fishes -- the upper Delaware. This is one of THE great wild trout streams in the US, and catch and release, even if only 50% effective, contributes to that. Hmm. Mini-rant of my own. McPhee is great. Wonderful detail. Wonderful style.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I love bothJohn Mcphee's writing and shad fishing. Anyone so inclined must read this book. But, Mcphee badly needs an editor. First the highly technical aspects of the book require maps and illustrations. Mcphees excellent descriptive skills cannot satisfy this need.. Second, the book's almost encyclopedic coverage is at times defeating. Too often the book smells of the lamp rather than fish. One example is the tediously long destruction of the myth that a shad run saved the Continental Army at Valley Forge. No matter, buy the book and call for a revised tighter, technically illustrated text.