A mysterious chemistry exists between a fisherman and a fish. Some anglers are generalists, pursuing anything with fins. Others hone in on a single species, and disdain other fish or fishermen without the same calling.
The reasons for one’s choice of piscatorial quarry are as murky as a turbid stream. In some cases the attraction to a species is simply due to proximity or money. Tuna fishing requires a seagoing boat and expensive tackle. Perch, bullheads, and bluegills can be caught with a cane pole, a few feet of line, and a hook. But such mundane explanations are not adequate to describe the fisherman’s tastes and motives.
My grandfather, a Scotsman who migrated to the U.S. in the late l800s, brought with him hand-made cane rods and hand-tied flies for trout. Using live bait, in his opinion, was “unsportsmanlike.” Keith Fraser, who runs Loch Lomond Live Bait in San Rafael, Calif., has no trouble with live-bait fishing, but his species is sturgeon. Fraser’s passion for catching these behemoths led him to found United Anglers of California, the largest conservation organization in the state.
Up near the Canadian border, Indians carve totem poles to describe special familial kinship ties to certain fish and animals. They would say that Fraser has a totemic connection to the sturgeon spirit. On John McPhee’s family totem, they’d carve a shad.
Pulitzer Prize-winning writer John McPhee has an obsession for fishing for American shad which has possessed him for decades. His 26th book, The Founding Fish (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 320 pp., $17.50), begins on the Delaware river, with the author casting a self-made chartreuse shad dart tied on a #2 hook as twilight approaches. A shad strikes. It feels very heavy, suggesting that it is a huge female ripe with tasty roe. “It’s a bad idea to horse a shad,” McPhee advises, because the shad have paper-thin mouths. So he plays the fish gently. But the fish refuses to surface and jump as shad are known to do. He fantasizes that he may have hooked a carp, a trout, a striped bass, or even a sturgeon. Two hours and 35 minutes later, in darkness, with a crowd cheering from a nearby bridge, he finally lands a 4 3/4 pound roe shad that was hooked in an unusual way, making it feel like a much bigger fish.
McPhee tells this story in the book’s first 22 pages, and the stage is set for a tome on shad, shad fishing, a history of shad fishing, shad fishermen, scientists who study shad, shad rivers, dams on shad rivers, tearing down dams on shad rivers, pollution, how to make shad flies and clean shad (which are very tasty but bony), and recipes for shad. The book moves along with the slow, steady pulse of a good shad river, providing much food for thought as well as entertainment.
Such an exhaustive study of a species makes for a valuable book, especially when told by a master storyteller, which McPhee surely is. However, along the course of this watery tale, McPhee enlightens us on the shad’s influence on U.S. history. For example:
In the spring of 1778, the shad run in the Schuylkill River saved George Washington’s army from starvation at Valley Forge. Thus, one could claim that this country owes its victory over the British to shad. (Hence the book’s title.)
One April 1, 1865, the shad spawning run on the Appomattox River in Virginia was in high gear. Confederate General Tom Rosser caught some shad and invited Generals Edward Pickett (of “Pickett’s charge” fame) and Fitzhugh Lee (nephew of Robert E. Lee) to join him for midday dinner near Hatcher’s Run. Neither general told their subordinates where they were going, and in the midst of the meal, the Union Army charged, delivering horrendous casualties and turning the flow of battle, and perhaps the fate of the war.
When John Wilkes Booth murdered Abraham Lincoln, Booth fled across the Potomac and Rappahanannock Rivers in boats manned by shad fishermen. And in the l850s the Great Safe Harbor Shad War was fought along the Susquehanna River. Downriver shad-fishing rights took on upriver rights, thus shaping natural resource laws and policy ever since.
This is a typical McPhee book. It’s filled with engaging stories and fascinating facts that paint a portrait of intimacy between man and nature. And in between strikes, when a fisherman’s mind wanders to deeper pools of thought, McPhee also explores some philosophy, taking some well-placed shots at those whose attitudes may differ from his.
As might be expected, McPhee harpoons the animal-rights group PETA, opponents of fishing as “the cruelest form of hunting.” McPhee writes: “I catch to eat, and with that purpose am not troubled by killing.” In support he notes that “it [PETA] has two hundred and fifty thousand members (while) sixty million Americans go fishing with rod and reel.”
McPhee questions biologists to find out if fish feel pain when hooked. He concludes that they probably do feel something, but since the law of nature is “flesh eats flesh,” as Joseph Campbell put it, that’s life. But this line of inquiry leads to unexpected criticism of some fishermen.
Shad are bony fish that pound for pound fight better than nearly any other fish. The combination of their fighting spirit and bony flesh results in many anglers simply releasing what shad they catch and keeping score. Citing research that finds that the 65,000-odd shad fishermen in New Jersey release four out of five of the shad they catch, McPhee then reports that fishery biologists say that as many as half of these fish may die post-release. This leads McPhee to challenge the ethics of catch-and-release shad fishing:
Certain catch-and-release types speak of “meat fishermen” in the same tone that fly fishermen use for those who fish with worms. I’m a meat fisherman. I think it’s immoral not to eat a fish you jerk around the river with a steel barb through its mouth. I see no other justification for doing so.
Following in my family’s footsteps, I have tended to focus on salmon and trout in the past, because people have told me that shad were too bony and, like McPhee, I like to eat what I catch. This year, however, I plan to tie up some shad darts and go after some silvery shad. I’ll try some of McPhee’s instructions as well as his recipes. He suggests that with care, the fish with “a porcupine within” can live up to its Latin name, Alosa sapidissima, which means “most savory.”
The Founding Fish is a most savory tale about a most savory fish that will enchant any fisherman — and prove fascinating reading for all those who enjoy getting closer to nature, and human nature.
— James Swan is a contributing editor of ESPNOutdoors.com.