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The Founding Fish

3.86  ·  Rating Details  ·  636 Ratings  ·  60 Reviews
John McPhee's twenty-sixth book is a braid of personal history, natural history, and American history, in descending order of volume. Each spring, American shad-Alosa sapidissima-leave the ocean in hundreds of thousands and run heroic distances upriver to spawn.

McPhee--a shad fisherman himself--recounts the shad's cameo role in the lives of George Washington and Henry Davi
Paperback, 368 pages
Published September 10th 2003 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published 2002)
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Jaws by Peter BenchleyMoby-Dick; or, The Whale by Herman MelvilleThe Old Man and the Sea by Ernest HemingwayOne Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish by Dr. SeussSo Long, and Thanks for All the Fish by Douglas Adams
One Fish, Two Fish ...
110th out of 178 books — 92 voters
Silent Spring by Rachel CarsonA Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There by Aldo LeopoldThe Lorax by Dr. SeussThe Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael PollanDesert Solitaire by Edward Abbey
Best Environmental Books
303rd out of 552 books — 733 voters

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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 1,062)
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Nov 22, 2015 Darwin8u rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2014
'Poor shad! where is thy redress?'


When Nature gave thee instinct, gave she thee the heart to bear thy fate? Still wandering the sea in thy scaly armor to inquire humbly at the mouths of rivers if man has perchance left them free for thee to enter. By countless shoals loitering uncertain meanwhile, merely stemming the tide there, in danger from sea foes in spite of thy bright armor, awaiting new instructions, until the sands, until the water itself, tell thee if it be so or not. Thus by whole mig
Oct 31, 2008 Hoyt rated it really liked it
Read anything (and there's a LOT!) by John McPhee. My selection as the best American word/sentence craftsman. About every 10 pages he comes up with a sentence that just stuns. The best of the founders of New Journalism - and that's saying something!

Just pick a topic you'd like to learn about. Better, pick a topic you have no desire to learn about. How about "Founding Fish", a whole book about the role of SHAD in American life! (Shad is the smaller, East Coast version of salmon, that saved the Am
Oct 27, 2008 Matthew rated it liked it
fascinating, but like any mcphee book, i'll give you $10 if you can finish.
Patrick O'Connell
Aug 02, 2007 Patrick O'Connell rated it really liked it
I've found I can pretty much count on a New Yorker contributer and/or a Pulitzer Prize winner to provide an enjoyable read and McPhee is no exception. Admittedly his I found Geology series (his Pulitzer series) to be tedious, but this one, although certainly not his best is another of his good ones.

I didn't expect to like it.

The way McPhees weaves interviews and personal antecdotes into his non-fiction brings it to life.
Apr 11, 2009 Eric_W rated it liked it
Shelves: essays-and-misc
I have to admit to being a huge John McPhee fan. His books and essays are always interesting and Founding Fish about the American shad is no exception. McPhee always does his homework, seeking out the knowledgeable and then going further to double-check even their information. For example, one little tidbit is the myth surrounding the role of shad in saving the Revolutionary Army at Valley Forge. The prevailing wisdom, cited in numerous sources is that the shad run was early that winter and with ...more
Aug 14, 2011 John rated it it was amazing
Just when you’re convinced the writing has become too ponderous, McPhee rewards you with a unique image. Here’s one about a fishing map: “Refining things further, he made a series of small X’s in spots where shad are sometimes only a little less dense than they would be in the hold of a canning ship. Or so I imagined Sam was imagining.” This one will rock you to the bones, about the mysteriously gutted shad McPhee removed from the stringer hooked to his waders: “Suddenly, a picture formed, and a ...more
Scott Smith
Dec 31, 2015 Scott Smith rated it really liked it
John McPhee's talent lies in his superlative ability to capture the essences of his subjects--be they human, animal or otherwise--with keenly observed details and just the right amount of dialogue to create a flavorful stew. The Founding Fish is no exception, but this effort is especially compelling because it's impossible to miss McPhee's unstoppered passion for fishing and, in particular, for shad fishing. He's never more at home than when he's in hip waders, tossing a shad dart across a river ...more
David Kent
Jan 22, 2014 David Kent rated it it was amazing
Who would have guessed that a nearly 360-page book about a fish could be so entertaining and informative? John McPhee takes us on a series of fishing expeditions seeking the anadromous shad as they travel from the sea into the rivers to spawn. Along the way we experience the thrill of fishing, a cast of interesting characters, and more than a modicum of shad biology. We also get a view into the historical importance of the shad fishery, and why, along with the founding fathers, we have a foundin ...more
ron swegman
Apr 27, 2011 ron swegman rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: angling
John McPhee is America's living master of creative nonfiction. He won the Pulitzer Prize with 1999's Annals of the Former World, and the follow-up was 2002's The Founding Fish.
McPhee is an avid fishermasn and feels that angling writing is a "great genre" within the craft. The Founding Fish has given him the freedom to fuse a fishing memoir with an historical narrative and a complex and complete biological profile of the American shad; an anadromous fish that has fueled Native Americans, Pilgrims
Todd Martin
Apr 11, 2013 Todd Martin rated it it was ok
I really didn’t have any idea what The Founding Fish was about before getting into it. Little did I know it was all about the American Shad.
Shad are a small silvery fish that typically weigh between 3-8 pounds. The feed primarily on plankton in the ocean, but swim up rivers to spawn (like salmon, they are anadromous).

McPhee loves him some shad, and his book is a peon to all things shad … their description, life-cycle, physiology, how to catch them, how to cook them, shad reproduction, shad’s rol
Sep 21, 2009 James rated it it was ok
Shelves: abandoned
Well, we've finally come to the first abandoned McPhee book....

At 358 pages, it is the largest single McPhee book (counting Annals as the three books that it actually was) - and this isn't one of those that is a collection of long essays. 358 pages about Shad, a fish that, frankly, I'd never heard of before - and I expected McPhee would make me care deeply about, that he would almost make me want to drop everything and go fishing. (I mean, seriously, McPhee....this one even has an Appendix!...of
Mar 01, 2010 David rated it really liked it
At first, I thought it impossible to write 358 pages about any fish, much less shad, which I had assumed was a junk fish. But the author changed my mind on both counts. The fact that he pulls off this feat in style and on such an obscure topic is a testament to his skill and the worthiness of his Pulitzer (received for another work). Yes, he gives you more information about shad than you could ever need or want to know, but for those who appreciate good research and a comprehensive approach to a ...more
Tom Schulte
Dec 30, 2011 Tom Schulte rated it really liked it
I love this newish genre of commodity history or micro-history. The game is dominated by Michael Pollan and Mark Kurlansky, but now owned by the duo as this McPhee title shows. John brings to bear a love of history and fishing to talk about 17th and 18th Century America and the ways and impact of the shiny shad.

Admittedly, this is much more fishing than history...

Terribly narrated buy the author while he eats and drinks.

Merged review:

I love this newish genre of commodity history or micro-history
Jan 31, 2015 Reid rated it really liked it
At a career day talk, an SAS parent and reporter for NPR answered my question about who had inspired him to be a writer. His answer, John McPhee. So I went and got a bunch of books by him. This was one. Full to the brim of history and the breath of the outdoors on the Atlantic seaboard of the USA. Fun.
Brian Storms
Sep 17, 2009 Brian Storms rated it really liked it
Okay, I'm a naturalist. And admittedly, I have tried reading McPhee. Other than Encounters with the Archdruid. I couldn't do it. I couldn't even get started in The Pine Barrens. His one about the geology of California should be good, but I didn't get into it. I think I have discovered that I like fish a lot more than I like rocks though. The Founding Fish is a book about the American Shad, the decline, the rise, the fall, the fishermen who pursue it, the river restoration efforts that surround i ...more
Sep 22, 2015 Robert rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
It's hard not to enjoy anything by John McPhee. This book did not disappoint, notwithstanding the many pages of fishing expeditions. I was particularly interested in the story of dam removals, and the engaging days he spent with fish scientists.
Nov 26, 2011 Goatville9 rated it really liked it
A friend - obsessed with fishing - lent me this book. If the opening scene hadn't taken place near where I grew up I doubt I would have stuck with this book which would have been a shame.

The author skips from place to place, scene to scene which can be frustrating. He also can write a sentence that is spot on: he described a fisherman he knew as " he has the look of someone who has occasionally spent time indoors."

I developed a new appreciation for shad and learned the difference between Anadrom
Wyatt Spear
Mar 27, 2015 Wyatt Spear rated it really liked it
I didn't know what a shad was before reading this. Now I overflow with knowledge of the fish and its history. Plus I sort of want to go catch and eat one...
Sep 25, 2008 Katie rated it really liked it
Shelves: food, nonfiction, fish
This a reading book, not a reference book. McPhee details his experiences as a Shad enthusiast, recalling annecdotes from researchers and experts, as well as citing primary sources from America's early history. The picture is somewhat inconsistent, (how much shad people say they ate versus what we find in the archaeological record), but McPhee does not really point this out explicitly -- I found myself thinking, "Wait -- didn't he say something completely different a couple chapters ago...?" in ...more
Guy Choate
Oct 17, 2014 Guy Choate rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
I give up. Rarely do I not see a book through to the end, but I couldn't do it. I have a great deal of respect for McPhee and his work, and I know he's delivered something great here if you're into shad fishing, but I'm not even into anything fishing. I quit at the halfway point.
Barbie S
Sep 07, 2014 Barbie S rated it liked it
Not my favorite by one of my favorite authors
Rory Diva
Jun 18, 2014 Rory Diva rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
I read this on audio cd. Read by the author.
Jun 05, 2013 Travis rated it liked it
I found this book on cd and gave it a try on the simple belief that John McPhee could make me appreciate any subject matter that he chose to write about. I had never heard of Shad fishing before, but I was correct, McPhee still had me entertained. For years I had wanted to read a book where he wove some of his own experiences into his narrative. I just had the thought that he would be good at that. He was and is good at that. I'm sure if I had even a passing interest in shad fishing I would have ...more
Aug 09, 2011 Brian rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Now I want to eat a shad. This book is a natural history of the shad, an anadromous fish (i.e., one that lives in the sea and seeks rivers to spawn in) native to the east coast. This book definitely made me get my map out, and it was worth it. There's a great section about the Bay of Fundy, the place with the World's Biggest Tides, where the entire Atlantic population of shad ends up for the Winter. Includes recipes and fishing advice, plus an interesting discussion on the ethics of catch-and-ea ...more
Nov 04, 2008 Joe rated it it was amazing
i don't care much for fishing, and that's what this book is about, and yet, thru the sheer force of mcphee's incredible writing, i read and enjoyed the entire thing. unbelievable. he is a god among writers. numerous diversions into fish-related topics such as cooking fish, biology of fish, history of fishing, his personal life related to fishing, politics of fish, especially as they affected the success of the revolutionary war, and also controversies about river dams.
Tom Schulte
I love this newish genre of commodity history or micro-history. The game is dominated by Michael Pollan and Mark Kurlansky, but now owned by the duo as this McPhee title shows. John brings to bear a love of history and fishing to talk about 17th and 18th Century America and the ways and impact of the shiny shad.

Admittedly, this is much more fishing than history...

Terribyly narrated buy the author while he eats and drinks.
Ken T
Sep 18, 2011 Ken T rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
McPhee's language is always a pleasure and he does an admirable job bringing the history and the joy of shad fishing alive. His collection of recipes at the end are particularly amusing. His treatment of the decline in shad population - whether overfishing plays a factor or not - smacks of Melville's blindness to the decline of the whale populations in the 19th century in Moby Dick.
Tom Schulte
I love this newish genre of commodity history or micro-history. The game is dominated by Michael Pollan and Mark Kurlansky, but now owned by the duo as this McPhee title shows. John brings to bear a love of history and fishing to talk about 17th and 18th Century America and the ways and impact of the shiny shad.

Admittedly, this is much more fishing than history...
Oct 17, 2013 Derek rated it did not like it
John also wrote and read Uncommon Carriers. Parts of that book were fascinating and really enjoyable. But I skipped through much of it for inappropriateness and sheer boredom. I actually got this book on accident thinking that it said “Founding Fathers” even though I had seen the book a dozen times.
Mar 02, 2008 Andy rated it liked it
I couldn't get into McPhee's work on the American Shad. Though masterful in its ability to incorporate history, science, narrative, and interview into a flowing text, the text was just too dry for my taste.

Certainly an interesting work, but at least for me, it didn't have that special something.
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John McPhee was born in Princeton, New Jersey, and was educated at Princeton University and Cambridge University. His writing career began at Time magazine and led to his long association with the New Yorker, where he has been a staff writer since 1965. The same year he published his first book, A Sense of Where You Are, with FSG, and soon followed with The Headmaster (1966), Oranges (1967), The P ...more
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