Friday, April 22, 2005

John McPhee's "Founding Fish" - The Shad

I've been reading a great fishing book lately, John McPhee's "The Founding Fish", which discusses the lives of shad and shad fishermen in vivid detail. Shad are an anadromous fish which, like the salmon, spend much of their lives at sea but return to their ancestral rivers and streams to spawn. During shad runs anglers descend upon rivers like the Kennebec in Maine, the Pamunkey in Delaware, and the Sacramento River in California to cast out spoons and shad darts (a type of jig) to try and lure one of these giant, silvery herring (the largest of the herring, in fact) away from their reproductive mission, onto a hook and into a net.

By all accounts shad are tremendous fighters, and one of my favorite passages in the book describes McPhee's two-and-a-half hour struggle with a fish that he and his friends theorize might be a catfish, a muskellunge, a sturgeon, even a tarpon, it fights so hard and feels so huge. In the end, it turns out to be an extraordinarly feisty four-and-three-quarter pound female shad. Besides wearing out McPhee and keeping him on the river well past dark, she also manages to wreck his Daiwa reel before finally being netted. It's well worth a read if you enjoy a good fish story illuminated with insights from biology, geography, and history.

If you ever get your hands on a shad, here's a tasty-looking recipe for smoked shad you might want to try out.

Incidentally, another excellent (non-fishing) book by McPhee is "The Pine Barrens," about the unique lives and landscapes he discovers in this remote, undeveloped region of New Jersey. Definitely worth picking up if you like his spare, precise prose style.


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