A little bit of history that almost got away

The American shad is more than a good fish story

"The Founding Fish" is a book about shad – about shad fishing, shad fishermen, shad anatomy, shad behavior, shad migrations, and even shad cooking. I must begin this review by confessing that, personally, I am not a shad fisherman. I am merely a bass fisherman. I have, however, caught one Alosa sapidissima – one American shad – in the North River along the east coast of Massachusetts. It was a fine fish. And this is a fine book.

I was captivated, i.e., hooked, from the opening pages describing a two-hour-and-thirty-five-minute mystery with a fish on the end of McPhee's line, to the final recipes on preparing shad for the table, including German, French, and native American entrees. (The Lenape Indians of Delaware, by the way, purportedly included "soft mud" and "a thick blanket of clay" in their preparations around the campfire.)

Readers know from John McPhee's numerous pieces for The New Yorker magazine or his books such as "The Survival of the Bark Canoe" that more than excellent entertainment is to be found in the pages of this Pulitzer Prize-winning author. Yes, there's wit and wry humor, style and pure craftsmanship. But there's also knowledge – a feeling of coming to terms with something actually worth understanding. After reading McPhee's "The Founding Fish," you'll know that the American shad and its unique world are something worth understanding. Even if you've never cast a shad dart in a coastal river on an early spring morning or eaten planked shad for supper, this is a book that will make you think, laugh, and wonder.

You will learn, as in any good fishing book, important tips for catching and finding these often elusive fish. "Where white water flattens out, becoming slick and black on the surface of a pool, eddies tend to form on the sides," McPhee writes. "There is a distinctive seam where the southbound current and the north-drifting eddy touch. Shad cluster beside the seam, known as the eddy wall. After you cast crosscurrent and the dart swings, you connect with your shad at the eddy wall."

You will also learn enough American history to decide for yourself whether the spring migration of great schools of shad up the Schuylkill River in 1778 actually saved George Washington's Army at Valley Forge from starvation. Some have argued that without the providential aid of the shad, the outcome of the American Revolution may have been something else altogether.

Under McPhee's close eye, everything about this fish is fascinating. Shad have been known to migrate as far as 400 miles up various rivers and their tributaries from the Atlantic Ocean. A fisheries biologist can determine the exact river in which a shad was spawned by analyzing the selenium in the fish's scales. A fast-swimming shad will take in some 10 quarts of water every minute.

Shad were once so plentiful, McPhee reports, that in 1875 near Palatka, Fla., "a single gill net caught 11,000." But by the 20th century, a commercial fisherman on the Delaware River spent an entire season to net "about 4,000 shad in 1939, about 200 in 1945, and zero in 1953."

McPhee thankfully notes that with the Clean Water Act of 1972, many rivers, including the Delaware, have seen a substantial recovery. Still, the 66,000 dams in America, the ongoing industrial and agricultural runoff, as well as other waste products flushed into the nation's waterways, continue to present a daunting challenge to any anadromous fish that depends on clean, free-flowing rivers for its spawning cycle.

This engaging account of one special creature's life, throughout the founding and subsequent history of the United States, is a story that deserved to be told so well.

• William Moody is Second Reader of The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston.

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