Issue: April 2003
The Founding Fish

Every January, as the old year cedes to the new, the Washington Post publishes its “what’s in and what’s out” list, just to keep all of us bumpkins hip. This year, the Post deemed that snakeheads are out (thank heavens) and shad are in. Hmm. Shad. A most surprising fish - feisty, crafty, tasty, bony - an “orthopedic nightmare,” as John McPhee puts it - and one that has used the Chesapeake Bay for centuries, en route from the ocean to the rivers of its birth to spawn. They also run up the Delaware Bay and far up the Delaware River, which is where McPhee opens his remarkable tribute to his favorite fish, the one he loves to chase and study and eat.

    From his home waters on the Delaware he takes us on a journey north to the Mirimichi River in New Brunswick and south to Alabama’s Gulf coast and Florida’s St. Johns River, with plenty of stops in between, including the Pamunkey Indian Reservation in Virginia. Along the way we meet scientists, fishermen, historians, biologists, zooarchaeologists and McPhee’s shad-fishing buddies. Through them we learn more than we thought possible about the American shad and its history, biology and behavior - as well as the people who have a passion for catching shad. One of the book’s funniest sections is McPhee’s firsthand accounts of shad fishermen’s behavior in the quest for their Holy Grail, position: “Shad fishermen are fraternal and are not customarily greedy, mean, belligerent, or coldly indifferent. Still, the topic we have at hand here is the importance of position . . . From time to time, I have encountered a small, slight shad fisherman from Philadelphia whose eyes are oscillating beads. If, arriving on the scene he sees you with a fish on your line, he will wade straight to you and all but climb on your back to see if he can cast from your shoulders.”

    McPhee is one of America’s most talented writers - his sentences and words alone are enormous fun to read. But his curiosity is itself a natural wonder. There is no aspect of shad too mundane for his attention, no part of its history too minute for his joyful examination. Consider, for instance, his historical exploration of Pennsylvania’s Stewart fishery, established on the Susquehanna River between Plymouth and Wilkes-Barre in the late 1700s: “The fisherman did their fishing after dark. They drank ‘old rye.’ Customers bartered with them, paying whiskey for shad. They were also paid with leather, iron, cider, maple sugar (‘one good shad was worth a pound of sugar’) and cider royal (cider and whiskey). A bushel of salt bought a hundred shad. Walter Green, of Black Walnut Bottom, ‘gave twenty barrels of shad for a good Durham cow.’ ‘‘

    I’m not a fisherman and wouldn’t know a shad dart if one snagged me between the eyes. But this is a wonderful book, appealing to anyone who loves history, fish stories and the natural world.