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The Founding Fish by John McPhee

The Founding Fish (2002)

by John McPhee

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I have to admit to being a huge John McPhee fan. His books and essays are always interesting and Founding Fish about the American shad is no exception. McPhee always does his homework, seeking out the knowledgeable and then going further to double-check even their information. For example, one little tidbit is the myth surrounding the role of shad in saving the Revolutionary Army at Valley Forge. The prevailing wisdom, cited in numerous sources is that the shad run was early that winter and without the abundance of fish the army would have starved. Often cited as a source is a letter purportedly by Nathan Hale who, McPhee, points out had died in September of 1776, and so could have had little knowledge of Valley Forge events. (I was pleased to see that the Valley Forge Historical Society does not perpetuate the myth(http://www.ushistory.org/valleyforge/youasked/044.htm.)

The idea that early settlers also feasted on fish appears doubtful even though they were plentiful. Archaeological studies reveal few fish bones except among slave diets. It appears that, coming from beef loving England, they were eager to have a beef laden diet in the colonies as well. Washington caught thousands of shad at Mount Vernon, but used them mostly as fertilizer and slave food. It's a bony fish, and like the lobster, took many decades to be accepted as "upscale" in restaurants.

Like salmon, the shad is anadromous (running upstream,) but differs in that while the salmon dies after spawning at the end of its run, the shad can make the trip up and back to the ocean several times.

Only McPhee could take such an arcane subject and weave culture, history, physiology, and natural science so ably together. ( )
  ecw0647 | Sep 30, 2013 |
This book was a bit of a slog for me. It was like listening in on someone's fishing diary - 'this other guy caught x number of shad, but I don't know how he did it because I didn't catch any'. Interspersed was a lot of information about the natural history, biology, ecology of shad, and some history thrown in as well. McPhee (the author) spent a lot of time with shad fishermen, shad scientists, and shad scientist fishermen, and described what he learned both in terms of fishing techniques and fishery science. Which normally would have interested me, but I felt was written rather dryly. One of the most interesting sections was the investigation about the importance of a bumper crop of shad to George Washington's Revolutionary Army during the winter of Valley Forge and the lack of supporting evidence for this perhaps apocryphal story.

Overall, it's alright, I didn't catch any major errors and I don't have any major criticisms, but most of the sections and for whatever reason just didn't really keep my interest despite initial enthusiasm. ( )
  bfertig | Oct 17, 2010 |
Shad fishing in various rivers including the Connecticut River which is why it is of special interest to me. Holyoke Dam, the fish ladders, the prize-winning shad in Holyoke, the andromadous fish research station at Turners Falls, MA,
1 vote grheault | Dec 25, 2009 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0374104441, Hardcover)

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). Mostly, though, McPhee goes fishing for shad-standing for hours in the Delaware River in stocking waders and cleated boots, or gently bumping over rapids in a chocolate-colored Kevlar canoe. His adventures in the pursuit of shad occasion the kind of writing, at once expert and ardent, in which he has no equal.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:08:44 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

A study of the American shad traces its annual migrations and life cycle in both freshwater rivers and the ocean, focusing on those living in the Delaware River and discussing issues related to tidal power and catch-and-release campaigns.

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