John McPhee, "a registered curmudgeon", was fishing for shad on the Delaware River one afternoon when he felt a tug. Nearly three hours later, amidst a serious debate over what was on the end of the line, a concerned wife's inquiry forwarded by a policeman, and cheers from interested spectators, McPhee pulled from the river a 4 - 3/4 pound roe shad. Clearly not a record-setter, nor an exotic species - the debate suggested bass, sturgeon and even tarpon. What prompted McPhee to relate this event in opening a lengthy account of what, to some, remains a mediocre animal? Surely, John McPhee, who has written of continental movement and extended vistas, must have a compelling reason to deal with such a mundane topic.
McPhee's reputation as a writer should need no introduction. However, if you are unacquainted with his work, you can start here with confidence. He deftly presents a melange of scientific information, "folk wisdom", history and personal experience. As with his work on geology, he entices researchers, fishermen, guides and legislators to provide him their views, which he relates with sympathy and clarity. Throughout this narrative, his own experiences are told with wit and compassion. Fishermen are great whingers, but McPhee brings a new level of sensitivity to his personal accounts. He knows there's a god when a nearby fisherman nets six fish while his hook remains empty - only a god could permit such arbitrary antics.
The research and folk tales centre on a particular form of fish. Anadromous ["running up"] fish, among which salmon are the most famous, can move from an ocean environment up fresh water streams to spawn. This talent requires bizarre body chemistry, bearing immense costs. Salmon die after spawning, partly because they don't feed on the upstream run. Shad, too, remain hungry heading "home" to breed, but some shad return to the sea after mating. In some regions they may make three or four trips in a lifetime. McPhee, accompanied by fishermen and researchers, traces the history and physiology of the American shad. Other piscine species are touched on, including, of all things, a hammerhead shark. The shad, however, keeps centre stage. Once scorned as "just shad", chiefly due to its bony nature, many now acclaim its flavour when it reaches the table - hence the species name "Alosa sapidissima" - "most savoury".
Books about sports are a major industry. They suffer a common fault - they're universally inwardly focussed. Hunters don't read about cross-country running. Golfers don't read about football. And fishing? There's divided opinion about fishing among sportsmen. Golfers, runners, or rugby buffs often view fishermen with kindly disdain. Up at ungodly hours, thrashing through damp woods to take up stations at a bug-infested stream or foggy lake. Not something reasonable or civilised people should do. McPhee's experiences, brought to light by his superb prose, bring fresh breadth of vision to the world of fishermen and fish. Always an unmatchable read, this latest McPhee must join his other works on your shelves. You may not be a John McPhee fan when you encounter this book, but you will be when you finish it. Then pass it along to your children who will find riches and insights he provides. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]