The Founding Fish, by John McPhee
I must admit that I never thought that I would read a book of more than 300 pages that was mostly devoted to various essays about shad. Nor did I think that I would enjoy it as much as I did, which is largely due to the author’s skill as a writer in a subject I am barely interested in (namely that of fish) and his way of making this subject personally interesting and relevant to me by showing the importance of shad to history, where it must be noted, for example, that shad was a key component in the food given to American soldiers in the Revolution although not, it appears, at Valley Forge as has commonly (and apparently mistakenly) been reported and that the Battle of Five Forks was lost disastrously for the Confederacy in large part because of a shad bake where Picket and Fitzhugh Lee ate while their troops were being slaughtered by Sheridan’s forces. Even more to the point, though, the author made his subject interesting by discussing the fascinating field of fish psychology, of which I have some interest, and where the fate of a being that is both highly tenacious and extremely anxious and nerve-shot is not something that can escape my own empathy.
This book is made up of a variety of essays written by the author, most of which deal with shad and the context of the fish within history and politics and other fields. The author begins with a discussion of shad fishermen in Connecticut trying to wrestle with the fierce fish pointing out that they are in the river. He then moves to a discussion of the selective advantage that shad have because of their slippery behavior and to the way that shad from the east coast were transferred to rivers and gradually expanded in the west as well thanks to the interests of sport fishermen. The author notes the effects of hydroelectric dams on fish levels and the gradual decommissioning of many dams by those who favored the interests of sport fishermen. There are essays on the spawning and outmigration of shad from the Bay of Fundy near Nova Scotia as far away as the St. John’s River in Florida, where apparently all the fish who go there die. There are essays about the author’s trip to Canada to fish for shad there as well as the way that shad are occasionally absent without leave from their normal home rivers, and essays about the historical controversy of shad in the American Revolution and its history. The author even manages to discuss shad in recipes, what is inside the shad’s body cavity, including various egg packs, and the question of the morality or lack thereof of catch and release rather than catching only what one wants to consume.
I must admit that I was quite surprised that there was so much of personal relevance and interest of shad to me, as someone who has no great interest in fishing as a personal hobby and little knowledge about fish in general. Shad are a genuinely interesting fish, although it is fascinating that they have long been on the outskirts of eating, being eaten regularly by American slaves in the Atlantic world but not being eaten to any great degree by plantation owners who preferred beef and mutton. (Admittedly, I prefer beef and mutton to fish myself.) The author notes that shad has been involved in various historical incidents, is a tenacious fish that reminds the author of a small tarpon in terms of its ferocity and its refusal to give up and die, and to the immense stress of fasting during its egg-laying runs (rather like salmon that way) and to the stress it endures by being a hypervigilant and rather fierce little fish. The author did enough work that I must admit that after reading this book I can add the shad to my list of animals whose tenacity and small size have earned it a great deal of respect in my book, however obscure it may be to all but a polite set of fishermen who enjoy a good fight for their fish.