The Founding Fish [NOOK Book]


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 ...
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The Founding Fish

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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 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.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
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
From The Critics
There are many descriptions one might give to the writing of Pulitzer Prize winner McPhee—entertaining, wry, surprising, inventive—but the quality most prominently on display in his newest work is uncompromising thoroughness. The book recounts the complete history of the delicious fish known as the shad—not just of hunting, cleaning and eating the fish, but of the famous men who caught it (William Penn, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln among them), the writers who penned heartfelt tributes to it, the biologists and ichthyologists who try to uncover its secrets and the animal activists who fight on its behalf. It is likely that no one will ever write another book quite like this one, a book that manages to relate every possible snippet of shad lore while at the same time offering up humorous tales of the author's own fishing expeditions. The book will no doubt emerge as a must-read for those already enamored of shad. For the rest of us, it serves as an example of nonfiction writing at its finest—intimate and suggestive, authoritative and convincing. Author—Beth Kephart
Beth Kephart
There are many descriptions one might give to the writing of Pulitzer Prize winner McPhee—entertaining, wry, surprising, inventive—but the quality most prominently on display in his newest work is uncompromising thoroughness. The book recounts the complete history of the delicious fish known as the shad—not just of hunting, cleaning and eating the fish, but of the famous men who caught it (William Penn, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln among them), the writers who penned heartfelt tributes to it, the biologists and ichthyologists who try to uncover its secrets and the animal activists who fight on its behalf. It is likely that no one will ever write another book quite like this one, a book that manages to relate every possible snippet of shad lore while at the same time offering up humorous tales of the author's own fishing expeditions. The book will no doubt emerge as a must-read for those already enamored of shad. For the rest of us, it serves as an example of nonfiction writing at its finest—intimate and suggestive, authoritative and convincing.
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.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374706340
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 9/10/2003
  • Sold by: Macmillan
  • Format: eBook
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 368
  • Sales rank: 489,303
  • File size: 366 KB

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.


"John McPhee ought to be a bore," The Christian Science Monitor once observed. "With a bore's persistence he seizes a subject, shakes loose a cloud of more detail than we ever imagined we would care to hear on any subject -- yet somehow he makes the whole procedure curiously fascinating."

This is his specialty. A New Yorker writer hired in 1965 by another devil-is-in-the-details disciple, William Shawn, McPhee has taken full advantage of the magazine's commitment to long, unusual pieces and became one of the practitioners of so-called "literary journalism," joining a fraternity occupied by Tom Wolfe, Tracey Kidder, and Joan Didion. He hung on during the Tina Brown days, when the marching orders were for short and topical pieces. And the magazine's current editor, David Remnick, was once a student of McPhee's annual writing seminar at Princeton University.

The temptation is to brand McPhee a nature writer, since he spends so much of his professional life trekking through the outdoors or scribbling notes in the passenger seat of a game warden's pickup truck. But his writing isn't so easily labeled as that. Instead, he has the luxury of writing about whatever strikes his fancy, oftentimes plumbing childhood passions. In fact, his big break as a professional writer combined two of his favorite things: sports and Princeton, his home since birth. In 1965, he finally got published by The New Yorker with a profile on Princeton basketball star Bill Bradley. The piece later became his first book.

He wrote for the television program Robert Montgomery Presents in the late 1950s and was on staff at Time in the ‘50s and ‘60s, frequently pitching pieces to his dream publication,The New Yorker. That particular success eluded him until Shawn picked up the Bradley piece and then spent hours with him editing the piece the night the magazine was going to press. In a 1997 interview with Newsday, McPhee recalled that experience: "I said to him, 'This whole enterprise is going on and you're sitting here talking to me about this comma. How do you do it?' And he said, 'It takes as long as it takes.' That's the greatest answer I ever heard."

The same might be said of McPhee himself. He has written what, for many, is the definitive book on Alaska, Coming into the Country. "With this book,The New York Times said, "McPhee proves to be the most versatile journalist in America." He spent 696 pages on the geological development of North America in Annals of the Former World. He explored man's battle to tame mudslides and lava flows in The Control of Nature. He considered the birch-bark canoe in The Survival of the Bark Canoe. He caused a bit of head-scratching over the topic of his 17th book, La Place de la Concorde Suisse: the Swiss army.

The itinerary, at first blush, might not always be compelling, but in McPhee's hands, the journey is its own reward.

"Mr. McPhee is a writer's writer -- a master craftsman whom many aspirants study," The Wall Street Journal said in 1989. "For one thing, he has an engaging, distinctive voice. It is warm, understated and wry. Within a paragraph or two, he takes us into his company and makes us feel we're on an outing with an old chum. A talky old chum, to be sure, with an occasional tendency to corniness and rambling, but a cherished one nevertheless. We read his books not so much because we're thirsty for information about canoes, but because it's worth tagging along on any literary journey Mr. McPhee feels like taking."

Good To Know

The son of a doctor, McPhee credits his love of the outdoors to the 13 summers he spent at Camp Keewaydin, where his father was the camp physician.

His devotion to the perfect sentence came from a high school English teacher who assigned her students three compositions a week, an assignment that included an outline defending the composition's structure.

Bill Bradley made McPhee his daughter's godfather.

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    1. Also Known As:
      John A. McPhee
    2. Hometown:
      Princeton, New Jersey
    1. Date of Birth:
      March 8, 1931
    2. Place of Birth:
      Princeton, New Jersey
    1. Education:
      A.B., Princeton University, 1953; graduate study at Cambridge University, 1953-54
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt

  ONETHEY’RE IN THE RIVERI 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.Below the Lambertville-New Hope bridge that evening, I was using a shad dart of my own making. 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 holstered 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-ball 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?”Hartzel had been shad fishing more than thirty years. He spoke of fifty-shad days. Since page 1, line 2 of this enterprise is “Position counts”—that is, a person in the right place can bring fish in steadily while a neighboring line is scoreless—I said as he was leaving that I thought I would fish awhile just where he had fished. “Good idea,” he said. “Be careful. This is a treacherous river. Start in that little eddy behind the rock there, and then move out a little.” With my arms above my head, twitching, I started in the eddy behind the rock there, and soon edged out closer to the channel. I fished for two hours just where he had fished. I caught nothing. I felt no hits. My fishing diary from that day says, “When I played basketball, I was very much less effective when I went to the right. When I dribbled, I sometimes had to glance at the ball. I had no reverse pivot. I didn’t roll. I sucked. And if I didn’t know it before, I know now that there are Larry Birds in the river. Joe DiMaggios. Ben Hogans. Reds Grange.” The annual run was about over, and as I was leaving the river another fisherman asked me how I’d done for the year. “About fifty,” I said. He said, “That’s quite a season.” By that standard, Gerald Hartzel has a new season every time he leaves home. The diary continues: “There is more to the association of Delaware River shad fishermen than a bunch of people whose success uniformly depends on the presence and mood of the fish. If it’s the last thing I do on this earth, I’m going to have a fifty-shad day. It’s that or live forever.”

The great Buddy Grucela, whose domain of the American shad runs from Easton to Portland, Pennsylvania, was a bank fisherman when he was young and often had fifty-shad days. He is the author of “The Original Guide to Better Shad Fishing on the Delaware River” (Grucela, Easton, 1980), of which I have six copies, one of them covered with shad blood and puffy from river and rain. It’s on a shelf between C. Boyd Pfeiffer’s “Shad Fishing” (Crown, New York, 1975) and Henry B. Bigelow and William C. Schroeder’s “Fishes of the Gulf of Maine” (United States Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 1953). When Grucela was thirty-five, he was more or less forced to get a boat, because shad fishermen had become so numerous that he needed to get out onto the water to find a position that counted. In a manner of speaking, he had to accept a cut in pay (“I caught more shad from shore than ever from the boat”), and, while he wasn’t exactly hemmed in by other floating fishermen, they were pretty close. His favorite anchorage was two hundred yards upriver from the tributary Martins Creek. A lot of people followed him there. One morning, he had a buck shad on his line running upstream, running downstream, leaping, tail-walking. It jumped into another guy’s boat.Grucela: “I knew the guy. He’d been catching nothing for three days. He wouldn’t give me the shad. He said he needed it to prove to his wife he was shad fishing. Some guys can fish in a hatchery and catch nothing. He was one of those guys.”Buddy Grucela did not require another experience like that one to cause him to arrive at the river routinely before dawn. “The shad aren’t stirred up yet,” he explains. “The more they’re stirred up, the spookier they get. At daybreak, it’s just you and the geese, man.”If, say, three hundred thousand shad come up the Delaware River, three hundred thousand shad come to Buddy Grucela. Or something near it. Shad are long-term spawners, doing it nightly for many nights, and they seem to prefer to be well above Trenton. Easton to Portland is twenty miles of river. A claim could be made that those twenty miles relate to the American shad as the Doaktown pools of the Miramichi relate to the Atlantic salmon. To the Delaware River Shad Fishermen’s Association—a conservation group that tries to keep the river healthy—Easton to Portland is, by and large, where the dues payers are in April. Halfway up the reach is Foul Rift, a quarter mile of haystacks and standing waves, the preëminent rapid among the several hundred in the Delaware. A few miles south—close to Martins Creek, Pennsylvania—is a ledge of white water that slants downstream from right bank to left, its base the base of Buddy Grucela.He grew up in Martins Creek, to which his grandfather (originally named Grutzela) had emigrated from Poland to work in the cement plant. Buddy’s father worked in the cement plant, and so, eventually, did Buddy. When he was a kid, he saw big silver fish in the river in spring and had no idea what they were. In his twenties, he was catching so many shad he carried them home on a tree limb. After the cement plant closed, in the nineteen-sixties, he worked in a mill that was generous with vacations. He took them when the shad appeared, and, as long as the run lasted, spent all day every day on the water. Later, working as a traffic director on a Delaware River bridge, he was rebuked for fishing on the job.No piece of tackle is more effective for a fisherman than his own daily data: weather, water temperature, water volume, lure, line weight, line density, and many an etcetera. Just the act of recording such things imprints them in cumulative memory, and you move forward learning where to be and what to do when. Grucela’s sense of the run and the river is so refined in this respect that he envisions in his season a single apex day. Not that he wouldn’t go out on the Ides of March or give it a try on the Fourth of July. At the latitude of Martins Creek, though, if his season were somehow restricted to just one day the day would be the twenty-fourth of April. Year upon year, it has been his best day. In the off season, just thinking of April 24th will cause him to smile like a winning coach, and say, “When you’re fishing, nothing beats catching fish.”On the twenty-fourth of April, above Easton, the roes are in the river—April 24th and a week or two on either side. “The roe run comes in two parts—the early roe run and the late roe run. Then you get a late buck run—real small and too young, precocious bucks.” Shad are not always swimming near the bottom of the water column, as some shad fishermen inflexibly believe. Grucela starts low, then removes weight incrementally until he finds the level of the fish. All that notwithstanding, he will state summarily, “The secret of shad fishing is depth.” And he adds, “That’s why they kill them with downriggers.” Grucela spurns downriggers—devices that pinch your line far below your hull and keep the dart at depth. He prefers to do the fishing himself. “I just throw my dart and let it rattle in the current.”He uses two rods, a dart on one line, a flutter spoon on the other—no droppers, no doubling up (two lures on one line). A flutter spoon has the slim shape of the leaf of a white willow. He pays it out behind his boat and leaves it in the water, fluttering. The dart he casts repeatedly, retrieving it after its swing through the current. A machinist custom-made his dart mold. If Buddy Grucela were a golfer, he would not be attracted to an iridium driver. His gear is conventional, starting with six-pound line. He keeps a small split shot within twelve inches of the dart, so minor debris will collect on the shot and not on the hook. When the river is full of aments, also known as catkins (flower clusters of willow, birch, or alder), the split shot catches the catkins.Record American shad have been caught in the Delaware River (eleven pounds, one ounce) and the Connecticut River (eleven pounds, four ounces). Buddy Grucela is certain that he had one heavier than that. After the dart stopped in mid-swing, and the moment of stasis was over, this fish, close to the surface, went straight up the river. Grucela watched it go, wondering what would happen next. This happened next: “He swam right by me like a shark. He was going upstream and he saw me. He looked me in the eye. Then he came right at the boat like a torpedo. He’s coming right at me, and I’m reeling fast. He went under the boat, right under me. He bent the rod tip under the boat. He broke the rod off. All I had in my hand was the reel and the handle. That fish—I’m telling you—was a record shad.” It was also, beyond doubt, a female. Shad fishermen can’t seem to help virilizing gender when they tell stories about big, powerful animals.Grucela owns a piece of undeveloped, parklike riverfront land, tight between the water and Pennsylvania 611. Under a red granite tombstone there is Redgie, his Doberman of fifteen years. Redgie died watching television with Buddy Grucela. Toward the end of shad season, a bright-red tulip blooms beside the headstone, on which are carved two fish, one bearing the date of Redgie’s birth and the other the date of his death. Etched above the fish is a dog bone bearing Redgie’s name. In the Redgie years, after Grucela hooked a shad, Redgie watched the action until the fish was beginning to lie on its side. Then Redgie went after it. He went into the river like a bird dog and retrieved Grucela’s shad. One day, a carp pulled Redgie under.

Gradually, I got some of my line back that evening by the bridge pier in Lambertville, but only to watch it go out again. After twenty minutes, I had not moved the fish two feet upcurrent. It didn’t come out of the water. It didn’t even come up in the water. It acted like a shad. It went to the right. It went to the left. It lingered in reaches broadside to the current. The fish was so strong it just would not come toward me, and it felt very heavy. I was using one of my Daiwa SS 700 lightweight reels, with no backing. They don’t carry much line. I was using six-pound test. Now thirty minutes had passed. The fish went downriver in another long run against the drag. Ed Cervone’s pebbly chatter was turning quizzical, his mind an open pamphlet. He was thinking, What is the problem here—the fish or the fisherman? Edmund Cervone, behind me, said nothing. Edmund was an instinctive, natural, absolute river fisherman. On various outings, fish had come to his line while avoiding his father’s and mine. You learned things from Edmund. You learned, for example, that small darts catch shad. The smaller the dart the more shad. Edmund was a college student, however, and could not afford much time on the river. His father and I, being teachers, were not similarly burdened. Many a day we had sat in the boat catching nothing but each other’s words, and pondering the psyche of the planet’s largest herring. We were sharing the river with half a million shad, whose interest in us was inverse to our interest in them.Ed Cervone is the sort of person who, when he is fishing, might as well be chained among the shadows in a cave. No nuance of depth or color is too subtle to prevent his frequent adjustments of style. Chartreuse? Orange and black? Red and white? Gold? Low? Medium? High? He changes his dart, returns it to the water, and speaks: “In a field that is filled with ignorance, everyone is an expert.” In the education of secondary-school students with dyslexia and many other learning disadvantages, Ed is a highly reputed practitioner of a variety of effective techniques, many of which he devised. He is a pioneer in his field. But not in this one. His doctorate may be in psychology, but these ocean fish are too much for him. Groping for reason, he essays, “What they do today they will not do tomorrow.” For that one, I’d give him credit for a ton of insight. “You and I know as much as they do,” he offers. “Or as little.” Among other things, the fish are apparently aware of what Ed is thinking: “I was fishing two days ago. People covered themselves with shad—except for me. I can’t get desperate because it is transmitted through the line into the water and the fish know it.”You can learn a lot about shad just from their appearance. Their bodies predict what they can do. Nowhere is this as emphatic as in the deeply forked tail—the caudal fin—which is tall, and, as seen from the side, narrow. It is not as tall, narrow, and deeply forked as a tuna’s tail, but it’s getting there. It has the high aspect ratio (span versus width) associated with extreme high speed. The dorsal fin, like a sail rising up from the shad’s back, is centered—midway from nose to tail. Dorsal fins in various fishes can be forward, or aft, or anywhere along the back. The centered ones speak of an ability to swim steadily, sustaining high speed. The range of the American shad is from northern Florida to the Labrador Sea, and within the range a typical individual will swim two thousand miles in a year. They return to their home rivers after four or five years. One look at that forked tail and you know that the fish is active in the middle of the water column and not sitting around on the bottom like a bullhead catfish, whose tail is so rounded it looks like a coin. A trout has a rounded tail as well, and, as a swimmer, is one notch up from a catfish.I am indebted for these descriptions primarily to Willy Bemis, an anatomist of fishes, who is a professor of ichthyology at the University of Massachusetts.A shad in clear water, seen from above, is very dark greenishblue, with an almost metallic lustre. Its flashing sides are silver, its belly white. The body is deep, meaning that in outline it more closely resembles a zeppelin than a snake. The body is laterally compressed, meaning that in cross-section it is not fat. The largest shad I’ve ever caught weighed a little over six pounds and was two feet long, a not uncommon size. The scales are deciduous, diaphanous, and the size of dimes. In their treelike rings and other markings a practiced eye can discern the age of the fish and whether it has spawned before. Chemical analysis of a scale will reveal—among other things—what river the fish was born in. A deciduous scale is loose and comes off easily. A fish with the mobility and flank speed of a shad needs a loose-fitting scale in order not to be constrained. The fins, taken altogether, are like the stabilizing feathers of an arrow. The spines of the pectoral fins are right-angled levers. The pectoral fins are steering mechanisms, anti-roll devices, and brakes; and when they are not in use they are faired into the body, like retractable landing gear. A shad is supremely streamlined—a concept that came into hydrodynamics in the nineteenth century and was also known as “fish-body form.” Under broad, shieldlike, adipose eyelids, the eyeballs are faired into the head. You can predict from a shad’s large eyes the effects on its behavior of vision and light.

When the fish had been on my line forty minutes, dusk had begun to gather. Forty minutes was twice as long as any shad had been on my line anywhere before. The bridge above, with its open-grate steel roadway, was humming with tires—cars in rhythm like breaking surf. On the bridge walkway were prams, strollers, couples on their way to dinner. In the festival ambience of New Hope and Lambertville, babies never sleep. People stopped to lean over and watch. They shouted encouragement. They hung around to see the fish. No fish. Just a taut line, a rod tip high, an occasional plunge or lateral dash, a stripping run downriver. This was a scene from the nineteenth century below the old green bridge over the wide river between the two steepled towns, with narrow streets among riverine houses. Downriver past rapids was a stone tower—Bowman’s Tower—rising from the top of a hill. And just above the bridge, off Lewis Island, Lambertville, a crew rowing a small boat was hauling a nine-hundred-foot seine in a great circle in the river, making—as the Lewis family has since 1888—a commercial catch of shad. I had essentially no time to look around, however. Past my rod and line, I was getting an increasingly concentrated, Warholian look at a small swatch of New Hope—sightseeing pontoon boats shutting down for the night, the many-windowed wall of the Club Zadar, the mansard roof and high-rising fly of the Bucks County Playhouse. Other shad boats were weighing anchor and departing. The boat next to us was about to leave, but its three occupants changed their minds and decided to stay and watch. More people collected on the bridge above. Because I’d been dealing with this fish for three-quarters of an hour, Ed Cervone—not for the first time—referred to me as “the Old Man” and to the river as “the Sea.” He would be saying that again, and again, as the sky turned a deeper gray, and then black.It’s a bad idea to horse a shad. That is, if you become impatient or for any other reason try to shorten the story by muscling the fish into submission, you’ll almost surely lose the fish. In the words of Buddy Grucela, “Shad have paper-thin mouths and under no circumstances will they allow themselves to be railroaded.” The maxillary and premaxillary bones, which constitute a large percentage of that big open mouth, run down its sides like a drooping dihedral mustache, and are very hard at the leading edge. A hook often wraps around that leading edge, penetrating the insubstantial membrane that lies behind. The hook is like a coat hanger swinging from a bar. The longer the shad is on the line, the greater the opening the hook will make in that thin membrane. Suddenly, the fish is gone. A fisherman doing everything right loses many shad. It’s a basic component of shad fishing. Not all shad are hooked in just that way, but most seem to be, and when they are netted—or the tension on the line otherwise drops—there’s usually no need to detach the shad dart; it just falls out of the mouth. The lower extremities of the premaxillary bones widen out like strips of durable plastic. If the hook lodges there, your chances of netting the fish are considerably larger. Of course, while the fish is in the water you’ve got no idea where the hook is and your only rational strategy is finesse.More time went by. I’d had the fish on the line for an hour, and then an hour and a half. The guys in the boat next to us—now the only other boat—finally pulled anchor and left, mentioning something about their wives. There were people on the bridge who had been watching earlier, and had gone off to dinner, and now had come back from dinner and were watching again. One of them shouted, “Are you still catching that same fish?” I nodded without looking up. In the darkness, I was staring instead at the black vertical rod against the disco lights of Club Zadar, which had grown ever brighter with the fall of night and were flashing colors on the river. While the fish moved and sounded, and came up a little, and then sounded again, it almost hypnotized me as I concentrated on the swaying rod against the whirling colors. Gingerly, I worked it to the left and the right, trying to move its head to one side and then to the other side, to confuse it, and try to get in charge of it psychologically. But I’ll tell you, I never got in charge of that fish psychologically. At nine-thirty, completing two hours on the other end of the line, it made the reel scream as it took off downriver like a tarpon.Tarpon? Well, hardly. But the Delaware is a river of prodigious fisheries, and for the past hour we had been doubting, speculating, wondering. What species could this fish be? It had been on the line more than five times as long any of us had ever required to bring in a shad. We now decided that it was not a shad. It felt like a shad in strong current, but the passage of so much time made us think elsewhere. The Delaware is the premier wild-rainbow-trout river in the eastern half of the United States. Ed Cervone and I had watched a shad fisherman catching a rainbow only ten miles north. The big native rainbows, though, were two hundred miles up the river. Besides, no rainbow could ever qualify to be this fish. Once, after I threw a shad dart into the current far upriver, the dart swung into a fish that felt like a shad with a bad cold. It moved around like a shad, but it just felt, by comparison, weak. It turned out to be a fat native wild rainbow, a beautiful fish, not much under two pounds.There were numerous alternative possibilities. Edmund mentioned the muskellunge. If an alligator had the swimming skills of a barracuda, that would be a muskellunge. Muskies are lone ambush hunters, as much as six feet long, and are not uncommon in the Delaware. With two hours behind us, Ed Cervone dismissed the notion. “They give up,” he said. “They roll over.”A walleye? Never. “A walleye would be fatigued in five minutes.”A striped bass? Never. “A striped bass would be fatigued in ten minutes. Stripers fight very, very strongly—savagely. However, after a certain point they fade. They exhaust themselves. They use up their oxygen. Once you control the first few rushes it’s awfully hard to revive them. They give up. They roll over.”A carp?Edmund: “Whatever it is, if we catch it we’re going to eat it.”Ed: “A carp wouldn’t fight like that.”Me: “Oh, yes it would.”I remembered shad fishing one evening at the Trenton power plant when a guy had a carp on four-pound test. Carp can be three feet long, and his was not far off it. He struggled more than an hour. The power plant is on Duck Island, below the Trenton fall line, and the tide was coming in. The best shad fishing from Trenton downriver is said to be on the incoming tide. Duck Island is as far as you can drive along the river down Lamberton Road in Trenton. Then you put on your waders and walk at least half a mile around a high chain-link fence to an artificial bay at the edge of the river—a square bay, where the power plant discharges its cooling water. The water is warm, and fish collect there. More than two dozen fishermen were present that Monday evening, some in boats, some closely spaced along the shore, fishing in the effluent pond, the warm, man-made eddy. A kid caught a big roe shad while I watched. The same kid had a shad on his line every ten or fifteen minutes. I caught nothing. I was going too low—amateurishly using a quarter-ounce dart. It was sinking fast, and travelling under the shad, which were at the surface, where the warmth was. The kid was using a small green dart. I had nothing but the big darts. As dusk came, the shad were breaking water, hitting lures, working up a frenzy. But I could not hook one even while rods all around me were bending. The man with the carp at long last landed it. He used my net. The carp probably weighed twenty-five pounds. I was discouraged, walking back to the car. I was discouraged by my own failure and discouraged by the scene I had just left: a bay of right angles raked with lures and fed with hot water that brought in the fish.Edmund: “Maybe it’s a catfish.”Ed: “That is a distinct possibility.”While fishing for stripers, Ed had caught a “huge blue cat” in Trenton. The biggest catfish I’d ever seen—far larger than any I’d seen in the bayous of the Atchafalaya—came out of Lake Carnegie, in Princeton. Eventually, we agreed all around that the fish on my line was probably a big channel cat—a catfish with a head at least the size of a basketball. Two hours, fifteen minutes. By now, that’s what it felt like.When Edmund mentioned a sturgeon.Ed: “Yes! Yes!”Me: “A sturgeon?”Ed: “A spawning fish that goes up the river and has tremendous energy.”Me: “I know what a sturgeon is.”Ed: “That’s it. Completely possible. They never give up. Eventually, you have to go in and wrestle them. You don’t land them, you capture them. I saw one by the 202 bridge a few years ago.”Looking up the river in daylight from New Hope, you can see the 202 bridge.For that matter, a man I once talked to had seen a six-foot sturgeon in New Hope. Eventually, we agreed all around that the fish on my line was a sturgeon.When a shad is foul-hooked-caught in the tail, or another fin, or any part of the body other than the mouth—the shad loses its grip on reality, sprints away in total rage, and thrashes the river on erratic vectors. It is very difficult to hold on to a foul-hooked shad. This fish, of course, could be a foul-hooked shad.

Among the spectators on the bridge, a cop appeared. He shouted, “Does one of you guys down there own a green Jeep?”Ed Cervone shouted back, “Yes, Officer, I do.”“Well,” the cop continued, with the slightest pause. “Your wife called. She wants you home. She thinks you’re dead.”Laughter on the bridge—9:50 P.M.It was not true that Marian Cervone was concerned about her husband. By her own account, the man is too unpredictable to worry about. She wasn’t worried about Edmund, either. It was my wife, Yolanda Whitman, whose mind had been crossed by the ultimate possibility. This was a few years before the sudden bloom of cellular phones. I had no way to tell her why I was late, and deliberately breaking off that fish never crossed my mind.Yolanda seems to remember the evening with total recall. For one thing, it was my turn to cook. “By nine o’clock, I was just plain mad,” she has said for the record. “You were dithering too long. I was waiting for my dinner. You were taking your sweet time, failing in your responsibilities.”Yes.“At some point after that, I shifted from mad to concern. You had fallen out of the boat. Gone through the rapids.”The rapids, not far from the bridge, cross a diabase ledge and are tumultuous in spring.“It was pitch black. Cold. I imagined you with hypothermia in the river. So I called Marian. I told her I was worried because your absence was ‘out of character.’”Marian must have marvelled that someone could seriously use a phrase like that about a husband. Marian said she would call back if she learned anything. After hanging up, she called the Lambertville police. She said her husband and son and a friend were out in a boat and had not returned “way beyond the time” she expected them. Would the police check the boat-launch parking lot and see if a green Jeep was there? The woman on the other end of the line said the police surely would.A while later, the police called Marian, and Marian called Yolanda, who continues the narrative: “While I waited, a tear or two actually squeezed out. I had let myself wander into the impossible. Perhaps I was madder at Ed than at you—who knows? After Marian called back, I was again spitting mad. She said, ‘They’re still fishing.’”Two hours, thirty minutes. At last the fish had come up enough in the river so that the people on the bridge caught glimpses of it as, now and again, it canted—silver flashing—and changed direction. We heard them go “Ooh!” We heard them shout, “Wow, what a huge fish!” When we, in the boat, finally got a glimpse of it, we thought it enormous, too. Toward the end, I kept pressing it, tightened the drag even more, a risky, foolish thing to do. I just hoped it would not make a sudden run. If it did so, at least I had turned off the anti-reverse button, and the reel could spin free. Buddy Grucela, page 22.The fish was close now. When it saw the boat, it dived. After it came up, and saw the boat again, it took off for the bottom of the river, slowly to rise once more. At some point in the last five minutes, Edmund tried for it with the boat net and missed. I finally worked it up to the side of the boat. It was still swimming, unspent. It did not roll over. It never gave up. On the second try, Edmund got it into the net, and the dart dropped out of its mouth. He brought into the boat a four-and-three-quarter-pound roe shad.

I still have the dart—secured with monofilament to a small piece of cedar shingle. It was only the second dart I had ever retired. On a bookshelf, I propped it up beside a dart of the same weight and colors, with which, on an upriver day the spring before, I had caught seventeen shad without changing or losing the lure. The chemically sharpened hook was a novelty I had succumbed to in a catalogue. That shipment of hooks was uneven, to say the least. Some of them were so weak they were bent out straight by the force of tugging shad. But not this one. Despite two hours and thirty-five minutes in the shad’s mouth, the curve of the black steel looked as it had when I made the dart and festooned it with bucktail in a vise. At home, I studied the fish with a magnifying glass. It had not been hooked on the top of the head or in any other place on the outside. It was not foul-hooked. It was hooked in the roof of the mouth, very near the front, slightly off the midline, to the right. I saw a narrow hole there, and I put a toothpick in it, which did not come through to the outside. The connection of hook and shad had been something like a trailer hitch.Mindful of the species’ paper jaw and its legendary fragility, I would one day lay a shad on a dissecting table at the University of Massachusetts and show Willy Bemis just where my fish had been hooked.“How would you describe that, Willy?”“It’s the ethmoid cartilage of the braincase. It’s the part of the braincase that everyone would understand as, regionally, the nose. One solid cartilaginous structure forms the braincase during early development. This is the anterior tip of it. The brain is back in the center of the head. Most of the braincase is protected by bone, which would make it a very tough place for a hook to latch on to. But once you’ve got a hook past the bone and into that little piece of cartilage, it doesn’t come out. If a hook goes through that, it’s going to hook on to the fish in a very serious way. There’s no way that fish is ever going to throw that hook.”The monofilament line felt sandpapery. When I took it off the reel, it contracted instantly into coils from a hundred and fifty-five minutes of twisting. A thick mass of bunched contracted circles hopelessly intertwined, it looked like something an owl dropped.I sent the reel to the Daiwa Corporation, in California, for an assessment. They wanted $54.40 to fix it, because the shad had bent the pinion gear, the shad had bent the drive gear, the shad had damaged the oscillating system and gone a long way toward wearing out the drag system. The reel required two new gears, a new pawl, a new worm shaft, and three new drag washers.I still have some of the scales. They report the shad’s age as three. For a female that young to be on the spawning run is more than uncommon. It’s rare. The scales record strong growth in the river in the first summer, as the egg turned into a larva, and the larva into a juvenile. They record normal growth in the ocean in each of the following years. Then they show the shad coming back into the river—two years earlier than most females do.Soon after that evening in Lambertville, I told this story to Richard St. Pierre, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Headquartered in Harrisburg, on the Susquehanna River, he is a shad specialist, who has worked as a shad consultant on the Hudson River, the Columbia River, and the Yangtze. He said that it must have been a letdown for me to learn that the fish was not a striped bass or a sturgeon or a muskellunge “but just a shad.”It was not in any sense a letdown, I told him. I’m a shad fisherman. I was fishing for American shad.Copyright © 2002 by John McPhee
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Table of Contents

They're in the River 3
A Selective Advantage 24
Amending Nature 52
Farewell to the Nineteenth Century 68
Spawning and the Outmigration 85
A Competitive Advantage 103
The Shad Alley 136
The Founding Fish 148
The Portable Rock 192
The Compensatory Response 212
Absent Without Leave 230
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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 20, 2003

    Great, but why the rant?

    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.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 9, 2003

    John Mcphee needs an Editor

    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.

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