Book Reviews



Founding Fish 

by John McPhee

Review by Richard Sheppard


I spotted this John McPhee title on the "freebie" shelf at the local bagel store, and grabbed it on a lark. McPhee's thorough journalism is usually enjoyable depending on the topic; sometimes his meanderings go far a-field. And while seldom boring, his musings can sometimes fall into the category of "too much information." More often than not, though, McPhee offers informative reading with nice attention to detail, answering his readers' curiosity in service to of his own; a worthy combination. In this instance, he applies himself to the seemingly humble Shad fish, a river-spawning and sea-living fish species of no particular note except McPhee enjoys catching and eating them. While he is thus engaged with hook, line, and sinker, one suspects, he "killed two fishies with one stone" to mix a metaphor. "Hey, I spend countless hours fishing for shad, let me write a book about them." This result, The Founding Fish, turns out surprisingly well for this reader, and if anyone is even remotely interested in nature topics or fishing, will for you too.

When he hooks a topic, McPhee seldom lets it get away. He covers the entire realm of this seemingly ordinary fish, a river fisherman's delight when it returns from the sea to spawn, mostly in North America's eastern rivers, and some western. Eastern shad hang up northway, near Newfoundland, when not chillin' in rivers procreating. Between river and sea, apart from their natural predators, nets and lines are constantly hoping to gather a Shad harvest. Having finished this fish tale, I can't think of a single unanswered question about the shad, and I'm an inquisitive fellow. Knowledge I'm not sure I'll ever find use for, as I'm not a fisherman and prefer my fish from Arthur Treacher's. So: why would this non-fisherman and only passing curious-about-fish reader bite on this title?

Shad Central

Ahh, the reason is that author McPhee's shad headquarters - his Shad Central - is on the lovely and "mighty" Delaware River, the pleasing watercourse on which several friends and me make our annual Canoo Pilgrimage. If we love the Delly, and we do, we are interested in anything about it. By McPhee's description, during our canoo trip, always at the very end of May, first week of June, we are on-river after the tail end of the spring shad run. There are still shad in the river likely always are, stray or confused as their case may be, just not in the massive numbers as during the peak spring run. McPhee, a Princeton academic, is in joyful proximity to this single eastern American river that is unimpeded by a main-stem dam, the Delaware. The fewer the obstacles to get upriver, the better the shad like things. A lot of McPhee's fishing takes place on the Delly, when he isn't trying his luck on less worthy water-bodies or hanging with ichthyologists in his noble quest for shad info. I can't say for sure, but in my nearly 25 annual canoo journey I don't think I've seen a Mr. or Mrs. Shadfish, not that I even knew they existed or what I was looking for. A few trips back, a fellow canooist, in jest, grabbed a floating dead fish and hurled the carcass a pretty nice heft about 10 feet, plop!, right into my canoo. Har har that the kind of silly stuff that goes on during Canoo Weekend. Thinking back, this fish MAY have been a shad, quite possible and given the number of shad even after their prime run, maybe likely.

Shad Saved the American Revolution

McPhee goes into quite a bit of history of shad fishing, including the story, which he semi-debunks, that the annual shad run up the Schuylkill River in the spring of 1778 "saved" the American independence movement by succoring the nearly starved patriots at Valley Forge. If not in that instance, the shad certainly helped colonists maintain a economic and sustenance foothold in America and started them on their way to self-sufficiency and maybe subsequently onto the political heresy of, "hey, who needs England?" ideas. Thus the "founding" notion of the Shad fish, a tinge of bestowed nobility. Finally, as he emphasizes throughout his fish tale, McPhee is a shad-eater. Shad are known for their bones, but this deters him not. The author especially favors Roe (female) shad which he catches before they've had time to disperse their eggs in mating. This shad caviar, as you may think it, is his especial delicacy. He provides several shad recipes, none, to this only occasional, and usually deep-fried fish-eater, especially appetizing although sans bones shad supposedly offers mild, tasty flesh. McPhee's favorite is "Shad roe under bacon," where essentially you line a fry pan with thick tasty bacon and plop the Shad roe/ eggs thereon. You cook this combination for a god-awful amount of time (hmm, to kill the taste of the shad eggs?), flip the contents onto a plate, and "enjoy." Methinks anything you need to cook extensively with bacon, yummy yum bacon, I think we'll forgo one of the ingredients and gulp the bacon. McPhee wrote an entire book about shad, I'm sure gulping the eggs is nolo problemo for the author.