The Founding Fish

John McPhee

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

A New York Times Notable Book

The Founding Fish, John McPhee's twenty-sixth book, is a braid of personal history, natural history, and American history, in descending order of volume. McPhee is a shad fisherman. He waits all year for the short spring season when delicious American shad—Alosa sapidissima—leave the ocean in hundreds of thousands and run up rivers heroic distances to spawn. He approaches them with a catch-and-eat philosophy. After all, their specific name means "most savory."

McPhee presents his obsession in bold and spirited prose. His research illuminates the sometimes surprising relevance of this fish in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century America, and its unique appeal to imaginative historians. George Washington was a commercial shad fisherman—in 1771 he caught 7,760 American shad. The fish had a cameo in the lives of Henry David Thoreau and John Wilkes Booth. Planked shad (shad nailed to a board and broiled before an open fire) was invented by the Colony in Schuylkill, a Philadelphia fishing club founded in 1732, which now considers itself the fourteenth of the fifty-one united states.

McPhee fishes with and visits the laboratories of various ichthyologists, including a fish behaviorist and an anatomist of fishes, he takes instruction in the making of shad darts from a master of the art; and he cooks shad and shad roe in a variety of ways, delectably explained at the end of the book. Mostly, though, he goes fishing for shad in various North American rivers—in Florida, in Maritime Canada, but especially in the Delaware River, nearest his home, where he stands for hours in stocking waders and cleated boots, or seeks pools below riffles and rapids in a canoe. His adventures in pursuit of shad occasion the kind of writing—expert and ardent—at which he has no equal.


Read an Excerpt

They're in the River
I hadn't been a shad fisherman all my days, only seven years, on the May evening when this story begins -- in a johnboat, flat and square, anchored in heavy current by the bridge in Lambertville, on the wall of the eddy below the fourth pier. I say Lambertville (New Jersey) because that's where we launch, but the Delaware River is more than a thousand feet wide there, and, counting west- ward, the fourth of the five stone bridge piers is close to New Hope, Pennsylvania. Yet it rises from the channel where the river is deepest.
American shad are schooling ocean fish,


Praise for The Founding Fish

"The Founding Fish is . . . far more than a fishing book. It is a mini-encyclopedia, a highly informative and entertaining amalgam of natural and personal history, a work in a class by itself." --Robert H. Boyle, The New York Times Book Review

"A blue-chip tour of the American shad." --Kirkus Reviews

"Under McPhee's close eye, everything about this fish is fascinating." --William Moody, The Christian Science Monitor

"A fishing classic" --The Economist

Reviews from Goodreads



  • John McPhee

  • 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. Also in 1965, he published his first book, A Sense of Where You Are, with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and in the years since, he has written nearly 30 books, including Oranges (1967), Coming into the Country (1977), The Control of Nature (1989), Uncommon Carriers (2007), and Silk Parachute (2011). Encounters with the Archdruid (1972) and The Curve of Binding Energy (1974) were nominated for National Book Awards in the category of science. McPhee received the Award in Literature from the Academy of Arts and Letters in 1977.  In 1999, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Annals of the Former World.  He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.
  • John McPhee Peter Cook


Available Formats and Book Details

The Founding Fish

John McPhee




Farrar, Straus and Giroux