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John McPhee and his Favorite Fish

Description: This week's podcast guest is especially exciting to me as he is one of my literary heroes. John McPhee [24:10] is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author (Annals of the Former World), and in his numerous other books he has written about such diverse topics as nuclear energy, the merchant marine, basketball, Alaska, bark canoes, oranges, continental drift, flood control, tennis, farmer's markets, and many other eclectic topics. Whether or not you are interested in a subject, you can be sure you will be when you finish reading one of his books you will be fascinated. John has also been a staff writer for The New Yorker since the 1960s. In our interview, he talks about his two favorite fish to catch on the fly rod--the American shad (which he wrote an entire book about, The Founding Fish), and the chain pickerel, which he did not write a book about but did pen a short essay on in his collection of stories The Patch. (I doubt is anyone in the world who would count those two fish in combination as their favorites--but he is never conventional.) I hope you enjoy the interview as much as I enjoyed talking to him. In the Fly Box this week, we have some great questions and tips: A reminder from a listener that I wrote an encyclopedia of fly fishing Some great tips from a listener on using tippet rings A question about what constitutes a watershed when concerned about transporting aquatic invasives A suggestion from a listener on ways to offset your carbon footprint when taking fishing trips Which is a better rod for fishing the surf and jetties--a traditional 9-foot 9-weight rod or a two-handed rod? Do you always recommend using a net? A listener calls me on the carpet for my flippant remark about manhandling carp. A great thought from a listener that sometimes taking photos of fish hinders the moment.
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Podcast Transcript:

Tom: Hi and welcome to the Orvis Fly Fishing podcast. This is your host, Tom Rosenbauer. And in this week's podcast, I always say I have a special guest but I have a really special guest, one that I'm honored to have on the podcast and very excited to have on the podcast. John McPhee has been my literary hero for many, many, many years. Although John doesn't write much about fly fishing, John is a fly fisher and if you haven't read any of John McPhee either in "The New Yorker" where he's a regular contributor, or one of his many books. Here's just some of his books, "Survival of the Bark Canoe," "Pieces of the Frame," "The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed," "Encounters with the Archdruid," "Uncommon Carriers," "The Founding Fish," and one of my very favorites, "Rising from the Plains," "In Suspect Terrain," and "Basin and Range." Those three were a series of books about geology.
Anyways, John writes about all kinds of subjects and even when he writes about lacrosse or basketball or tennis, things that I am not even remotely interested in, I read them because he's just so good. So it's a real honor to have John on the podcast today and he's going to be talking about his two favorite fish, which you wouldn't be able to guess. Well, unless you've read his stuff. His two favorite fish are chain pickerel and American shad. And we're going to talk about fishing for those guys on a fly but we could be talking about fishing for brown bullheads on a fly because it's John McPhee. So anyway, I hope you enjoy this podcast as much as I did interviewing John.
But first, we're going to do the Fly Box and I'm going to try to answer some questions and I'm going to read you some tips from other listeners. And if you have a question or a comment or a tip or a complaint for the podcast, you can send it to me at You can just type your question in your email or you can attach a voice file and maybe I'll read it on the air. The first email is from Adam Greuel. Adam is with the band Horseshoes & Hand Grenades from Michigan. Also Adam has a bunch of solo albums out. He's a great musician and loyal podcast follower.
Adam says, "Hey Tom, hope you're good, man. I was listening to a recent podcast today while doing this and that and I heard the fellow's question about a fly fishing dictionary. I immediately thought of 'The Orvis Encyclopedia of Fly Fishing.' While it's not a dictionary, I think it would serve the gentleman's needs as stated in his question. Just thought it was worth mentioning." Yeah, Adam, I kind of forgot about that book. This was in response to a question last week about a gentleman who wanted me to write a fly fishing dictionary and I said, "No, I can't think of anything more boring."
And actually, I did write a fly fishing encyclopedia and it's a book I kind of like to forget because I worked real hard on it and unfortunately the photos and illustrations in the book were not up to my standards. Usually I have control over the photographs that go into my books. Usually I take a lot of them myself and I know exactly what I want and in this book the publisher used a lot of free stuff from the web and stuff like that and I wasn't really happy about it. But anyway, it probably will answer a lot of those questions of, oh, it isn't a dictionary and it's called "The Orvis Encyclopedia of Fly Fishing" and you can still find it in some bookstores. Enough said about that.
Here's an email from Steve from Idaho. "I'm an avid listener to your podcast and even though I've been fly fishing for 60 years, I've learned quite a bit from it. I don't have a question but I'd like to say a few things about tippet rings, a topic that gets quite a few comments and questions. I fish Silvercreek, Idaho and its tributaries nearly every day in the season, mostly with small dry flies and 6X tippet. These spring creeks are clear and slow moving, famously technical fishing, and I use tippet rings all the time. I like the convenience of not cutting back a leader every time I change a tippet.
"That said, there are a few precautions. First, the knot between the leader and tippet ring should be changed occasionally. After hundreds or thousands of casts and false casts and being in the sun for many hours, the knot may wear out and break. Next, it's essential to use high quality tippet rings without rough spots. I use the smallest ones Orvis sells and they don't let me down. Next, the diameter of even the smallest tippet ring is larger than the diameter of the wire of a small dry fly hook and I believe that casting puts much stress and bending on the knots over time. So to avoid slippage with 6X tippet in the 4X leader, I use an improved clinch or trilene knot. I use a simple clinch knot to the fly.
"Next, one of your recent guests said he didn't use tippet rings because they pick up weeds, and they do, and weeds are a problem here too. However, I find they're no worse in that regard than a surgeon's or blood knot. Next, because they're metallic, one might think they'll sink and be unsuitable for dry flies. The smallest ones don't sink. The float in the surface tension. Finally, a newcomer to tippet rings might try to remove the ring from the convenient snap holder before tying it on. This is difficult and frustrating. Tie the leader to the ring while it's still on the snap holder, then remove it. The Orvis tippet rings are a great product. If nothing else, I use up far fewer leaders and tie far fewer nail knots than I used to." Well, thank you so much. Those are great tips, Steve, and really appreciate that.
Eugene: Hey Tom, Eugene here from Massachusetts and I just finished listening to your podcast with Amelia Jensen on taking photos of fish and I had a couple comments. My first comment is, you know, I've been fishing now maybe 13 years with a fly rod and I believe that often taking photos of the fish hinders the moment of catching a fish. All of the hard work and perseverance, you know, with rod building and fly tying and reading the stream and then having that fish take your fly and landing them successfully is such a special moment and I feel that fumbling around with a phone and moving a fish around trying to get a photo, even if it is under the water, ruins the moment.
I end up releasing that fish and I think, wow, I almost forgot what I was doing at that moment. I was trying to turn my phone on, I was trying to turn the fish, and instead of appreciating that moment. So, you know, over the years I've found if you take those one or two seconds and look at the scenery, look at the surrounding, look down at that fish under the water in the net and really soak in that moment, it is so much more special than a photo that just gets foldered with the other thousands that you have in your phone.
And then secondly, videos, you mentioned them in the podcast, taking videos of fish. And I actually do this more often than taking photos. I take a video of the release. So when that fish has landed, I can sit there and really appreciate that one or two seconds and then pop my phone which is right in my front vest pocket out, pop it on video and point it towards the fish during the release upstream and you have a great video of a great fish and you appreciated the moment. Thanks again for everything you do for the sport, love the podcast, been listening for years and I'll continue to.
Tom: Well, Eugene, thank you so much for sharing that. Those are really great thoughts and, yes, sometimes photos do hinder the moment so really appreciate you taking the time to send that voice file and, yeah, your idea about videos of releasing fish is great and you don't have to spend nearly as much time composing those because you can always pull a frame from them, so thank you very much for your phone call.
All right, the rest of these are emails. So just in case you're wondering, I could probably use some decent questions via voice file if you have some. The next one is from Craig from Grand Rapids, Michigan. "Hi Tom. First off, thanks for taking the time to read and respond to my lengthy first email earlier this year and thanks for all the continuing education and advice as I listen to the podcast. I'll try to keep today's question brief. My question today is about protecting our waters from invasive species.
"As a kid, I grew up in Minnesota and exclusively fishing on lakes. It was easy to tell what the boundaries were between one body of water and another. Now that I live in Michigan and mostly fish moving water, the boundary is a bit blurrier. I was listening to an old podcast and you made reference to protecting one watershed from another in terms of invasive species so it got me thinking, what is the boundary between watersheds where extra care should be taken to prevent spreading contaminants from one to another? Is a tributary that connects to a river a new watershed and should be treated as if you are crossing from one distinct body of water to another? What about if a dam in on the river? I assume the lower section gets all the organisms from the upper section but should you change your gear or watch it if you're going from below the dam to above?
"If you fish two sections of the same river but you are 10 or 15 or 20 miles from your last entry point, can you treat that all as the same water in terms of a single ecosystem? And lastly, what about ponds that may be within the flood plain of a river? There are a couple small bass and panfish ponds along the main river here that definitely have shared water with the river when it floods. I don't typically wade in them but if I did, I would still think I should clean up my gear before getting in the adjacent river. Yay or nay? I'd rather be more careful than not but knowing the distinction would be really helpful. Hmm, so much for being brief. Sorry about that. It would seem my curiosity got the better of me. Thanks again for all your great input. Keep up the good work with the podcast."
Well, Craig, those are kind of all judgment calls but basically a watershed is everything that drains into one main river. So I would think that there's gonna be interchange between tributaries and the main river, even if, you know, things wash downstream, but also stuff swims upstream, fish and mink and otters and mergansers and herons and frogs and all kinds of things move around and they do also transmit organisms. So I wouldn't think that a tributary and a main river need to be treated as different watersheds. They're going to get the same organisms exchanged eventually.
Now, regarding a dam on a river and fishing above it, yeah, the dam could protect the upper watershed from some organisms but, again, you're going to have ducks and geese and, you know, mammals and reptiles, turtles, and salamanders that move around around the dam so I don't think you need to be extra careful there. I mean, it's always good to clean, inspect, and dry your wading boots when going from one place to another but I think that, you know, you're pretty safe there as far as transmitting aquatic invasives. And it's not always practical, especially if you're wearing felt soles because felt soles take a long time to dry, a couple days sometimes. So at least, you know, if you move from down below a dam to above in the upper part of the river, yeah, you might try to wash your soles off and scrub them with a wire brush but they're not gonna dry and you may fish those places in the same day. So unless you have two pairs of wading boots, you may have to deal with it. But I don't think you're gonna transmit any organisms that wouldn't already be transmitted.
When we talk about watersheds, we're talking about...think of going from one side of a mountain range to another or one ridge to another. You know, if you're driving across the state or if you're driving it a half-hour or more and you're crossing some hills and none of those waters connect with each other, yes, things could still be transmitted by birds and beavers and muskrats going across country and they often do in search of new homes, but it's probably a good idea there to really be careful about cleaning, inspecting and drying your wading boots. And even if you don't have felt soles, laces and fabric and wading boots can still hold invasives, so it's always a good idea to clean them, inspect them, and dry them before you move to a new watershed. And, you know, if you're really unsure about whether watersheds connect, you can generally tell by looking at a map, looking at a topo map online. You can see if there's any interchange in waters or if they're in the same valley or if they're in a different watershed entirely. So check a map before you move from one watershed to the next.
Here's an email from Scott. "Many of your podcasts recently have dealt with the side effects of climate change such as warming waters, trouble in Montana and overstressed trout. I've heard people remark that they feel helpless when it comes to climate change so I wanted to share something that everybody can do when it comes to fishing trips, but few think to do. many people drive long distances to fish, and even if you're driving an electric car, you're emitting the gases that are indirectly warming our trout waters. I think few people realize how cheap and easy it is to offset carbon emissions for travel, even better, your everyday life. There are a ton of reputable carbon offset calculators on the internet, such as the EPA or nonprofits like the gold standard Protect Our Winters, TerraPass, and many more. Most people can offset a fishing trip for less than the cost of that parachute Adams you lost in a willow bush, and in the same amount of time it took you to tie on a new fly. I encourage my fellow anglers to do their part in this small way to help protect the resource we all depend on." Thank you very much, Scott. Good thoughts.
Here's an email from Walt from New Jersey. "I live on the coast of New Jersey and most of my fly fishing experience is for bass and bluegills on a coastal lake with my Clearwater 7-Weight and Battenkill reel. I couldn't ask for anything better for my conditions. I'm looking to purchase a saltwater setup. I know have discussed this many times but my question is if I'm going to only surf cast or jetty cast for blues and stripers, would a person be better with a traditional 9-Weight or would a person be better equipped with a two-handed rod? How about a direct comparison? I never minded learning a new skill if I have to.
"Second, I lost my personal best bass a few weeks ago because I did not net it. Got it to the bank, got my hands on it and when lifting, barbless hook slipped and so did my hand. Do you always recommend using a net? Maybe a few comments on that. Thanks again for everything." So, Walt, you're only getting my opinion here and people might disagree with me but for an all-around saltwater rod, I would not use a two-handed rod. If you're fishing from the jetty and you need distance, there are gonna be times, let's say you've got a fast-moving school of stripers or false albacore, and sometimes it's difficult because you probably have a Skagit head out there and in order to cast to a new direction, you probably have a sinking line on, you're going to have to strip that all in, make a couple false casts and get it out there.
Now, you could argue that if you're using more of a floating Scandi type head, you could pick that line up and put it down to the fish but I just don't think a two-handed rod is quite as versatile as a single-handed rod. And, you know, if it were me and I had one rod to pick for saltwater even in that situation, I would pick a single-handed rod. It would be really nice to have a two-handed rod because you're going to get more distance and you're gonna have to false cast less but I think a single-handed rod is gonna be more versatile.
The other thing is if you decide to fish poppers for those blues and stripers, a two-handed rod, you can fish poppers with them but it's not nearly as easy and efficient as with a single-handed rod. Again, there are probably gonna be people that disagree with me there but for one rod, I think a traditional 9-Weight, honestly. And then, you know, think about some time in the future trying a double-handed rod for, you know, situations where you need a lot of distance.
Regarding losing your bass, you know, that's unfortunately a byproduct of using barbless hooks. You're going to lose a few fish. You're probably going to lose more. Usually it's with smaller fish. Smaller fish usually get off barbless hooks because they flip really quickly. I know that small stream brook trout throw a barbless hook really easily but, you know, I don't really care because I don't want to land all those small fish anyway. But you're gonna lose more fish with a barbless hook. Often the hook will slip out, as you found out when you get it to the bank, which is better for the fish.
And no, I don't always use a net. If I'm fishing for bass, especially bass, either large-mouth or small-mouth, they've got a nice lip to grab onto. You can keep them in the water and still lip them, remove the fly and let them scoot away. I don't often use a net, I never use a net for bass fishing unless I'm in a boat, then sometimes in a boat I will. But no, I don't always use a net and, yep, you're gonna lose some fish either close in or sometime far away using a barbless hook. The one thing you want to be careful of while you're playing a fish with a barbless hook is you need to keep pressure on the fish. When you get them into the bank sometimes, you have to relieve that pressure and that's where the hook often drops off. But anyway, it's still worth it using barbless hooks.
Here is an email from Shane from Kansas City. "Being from Missouri, I don't really have any trout water near me and have always enjoyed your episodes on alternative species. I've been catching panfish, bass and gar. I've been trying to venture into carp fishing on the fly and enjoy the challenge but I've yet to get a hookup so I really enjoyed your recent episode on carp. I've always respected your passion for sharing knowledge, especially about ethics and proper fish handling practices. I've always liked our shared hatred for the hero shots and grab 'n grins. I have to say, I was absolutely shocked when I heard you say it was okay to mishandle carp. I thought to myself, 'Surely not, not Tom. He must have misspoke.'" Nope. "He went on to say it was fine to handle them and fine to leave them out of the water for a while while you went to get your camera because they can tolerate it and in your words, 'nobody cares.' Well, Tom, my comment for today is I care. Just because a fish can tolerate being mishandled does not mean it should have to. I always thought this was a matter of principle and ethics for you and I'm disappointed to learn that's not the case."
So let me answer this one first. You know, Shane, I was absolutely flippant when I made that remark that you can mishandle carp and nobody cares about carp. That's certainly not true and, you know, even though they are invasive and they muddy up some waters and people detest carp for that reason, no reason to mishandle them. And I don't mishandle carp but I don't agonize over carp either, and if somebody does want to get a picture, I don't mind holding it in a net for a couple minutes. I don't let them bounce around in a boat but I don't mind holding it in a net while somebody grabs a camera because they are so tough and you're not really going to do them any damage. So I apologize for my flippancy and I can assure you that I don't mishandle carp.
And Shane goes on to have a Fly Box tip. "On the same episode, a gentleman was asking about rope flies for gar. You suggested a hookless rope fly. These big rope flies can be very dangerous for the fish because if you break them off, the fish is left with a big wad of rope left in its mouth it can't get rid of till it eventually starves to death. I frequently fish for gar on the fly and use nylon rope but I use it just like you would normal fly tying materials.
"Separate the strands and tie a wooly bugger using a few strands for the tail and twice to three times the length you normally would. Then wrap a few strands down the shank for the body like you would chenille and pick it out or brush it for desired bugginess. This leaves you with just enough to stick in the teeth and aid in setting the hook, but not so much the fish can't spit it out if you miss. Also, craft for a bait fish patterns work very well in the same way. I really hope this helps my fellow gar anglers because they can be very thrilling on a fly round and not many people are chasing them. Thanks for the podcast and all you do for us beginners."
That's a great tip, Shane, and I am guilty of using heavy rope flies and I am absolutely going to try your method for my gar flies. And it sounds like a great way of tying a gar fly that'll stick in their teeth but still allows you to release them easier. So thank you very much.
Those are the Fly Box questions this week and I want to thank you all for your great questions and your comments and for calling me on the carpet. I appreciate that. We can always learn and always do better, so thanks very much. And now let's go on and talk to my literary hero, John McPhee.
Good morning, John. It's Tom Rosenbauer. How are you?
John: Hello, Tom. It's a delight to talk to the chief enthusiast.
Tom: That's what happens after 45 years. They don't know what else to call you, John. So anyway, we're going to talk about shad today, right?
John: Right.
Tom: And pickerel, and pickerel. So, you know, it's hard to find a person whose two favorite fly rod fish are shad and pickerel. I think you may be unique.
John: Quite possibly.
Tom: And, John, you started fishing, as I understand, quite late in life compared to most people, right? Your father was a fisherman but you...
John: Well, it was early and late. I went fishing a lot with my dad when I was a little boy. Opening days of trout season in New Jersey, you know, and then up in Cape Cod where we went to a summer camp when I was 8 years old in Vermont, soon after that. And I fished with him through those years and really loved it. Then drifted away from fishing into, you know, high school sports and stuff like that. And so there was a long hiatus between that and picking it up again in my 40's.
Tom: Yeah. I think that happens to a lot of people but most of them pursue tarpon or bonefish or trout or pike but you've concentrated on shad and pickerel.
John: Well, there were two distinct causes for each for getting into it. In the case of the shad, the Clean Water Act is really what did it. I mean, I had been a New Yorker writer for some time looking for things to write about and had a certain component of my highly miscellaneous work had to do with the environment and stuff like that. And the Clean Water Act came along and I read about its effect on the shad run in the Delaware River at Philadelphia. There was an anoxic block there of about six miles that in effect was a dam 90 feet high. I mean, it was just the fish could not get through that six miles. There was no oxygen in it.
And the Clean Water Act worked there and the oxygen flow came through and the shad which had been stopped below it started migrating up the river again, and this is one of the big rivers for American shad or had been. And I read all that in the papers. So I went to Bob Gottlieb who was editor of "The New Yorker" and I said I'd like to do a piece on that. And he just glazed over. He didn't know a shad from a lamp post. But he said yes. He said, "Do it."
The interesting thing about that project is that it started from the get-go as a writing project. I had never fished for shad at all and in a totally naïve way I started going about it, and with my friend George Hackel who lived near here at the time, and bumbled and one thing and another but kept at it until the present so that I have my notes and my records and all that kinds of stuff were based on a piece of writing I was trying to do. It turned out to be the founding fish. And back then I was just keeping the records but it's unusual to have put something together about, you know, a recreation like fishing from the very first time you ever did it because of the journalistic purpose I had. And so I happen to know exactly how many shad I have netted. The number is 1,330. And 29 and 30 are 2021 shad. I only went out once this year. I turned 90 at the time and I just haven't fished as much lately.
Tom: Well, if you're still fishing for shad at 90, you're doing great, John. You're doing great. And you had a very sympathetic editor at "The New Yorker" who was a mutual friend, the late Pat Crowe, who kind of introduced me to your writing. He was a fishing buddy and he said, "You know, you should read this guy John McPhee." This is before you wrote the shad book. I said, "Yeah, okay, I'll try it." And I became hooked.
John: His pictures still hangs in my... I have a little cabin on the Delaware River about three hours north of here, here being Princeton, New Jersey, where I live. And Pat Crowe came there every year several times and he was my editor for, I don't know, at least a decade, if not more. Really good friend.
Tom: One of the finest dry wits I have ever encountered. He would have me laughing all day long when we fished together.
John: He was. Absolutely, and he was barbarous in his attacks on me, which were all fun. I just loved him. Actually, you know, Pat died and with his children and others, we scattered his ashes right there in the river.
Tom: Oh, I didn't know that. That's wonderful. That's wonderful. So one of the best stories in "The Founding Fish" was when you went to the Miramichi, one of the most famous Atlantic salmon rivers in the world to go shad fishing. And I just so enjoyed that, that you didn't catch a salmon, did you, when you went to the Miramichi?
John: No. And the shad run was really going on and I learned various things there that... A lot for the book and then later I've been salmon fishing in Gaspe Bay for many years but at that point I had not fished for salmon at all. My father ages ago fished for salmon in the Restigouche. So he was the doctor at a camp that The Ohio State University football team had up there on the south side of the Bay de Chaleur and so that's getting close to the other side of the bay where Gaspe Bay is and where I've been going for many years.
Tom: But that was a great ending to the chapter where the salmon guides had been trying to encourage shad fishing to kind of extend their season because it was different time of year than the Atlantic salmon were abundant and they had been working at promoting it and you asked them how many people had come up to the Miramichi to fish for shad and he said, "You're it."
John: Yeah. He had an ad that I read in some publication. His name was Marty Stewart and as you say, looking for expanding his clientele when the salmon weren't running. He had this idea about shad and he basically advertised it and I got in touch with him to go there because I was working on the book. And when I asked him if he had how many people have been up here, he said, "One, you."
I learned a couple of things there also that were... One thing is that in New Brunswick, people, mainly women, went to the rapids with huge nets, huge diameter nets and they scoop shad and take them home to eat them. And their methods of cooking them, their methods of cooking both the body and the roe, I learned there from Marty Stewart and others and have been doing it ever since. My recipe, in effect, for what I do with shad roe and what I do with the shad body comes from that trip to the southwest Miramichi.
Tom: Do you want to share those recipes with us?
John: Sure, it's very simple. With the finned and scaled and beheaded fish with tail off, all fins off, all scales off of course, you stuff the fish with turkey stuffing and then you put it in the oven at 350 for 35 minutes. And you don't even touch it. That's it. You take it out and eat it. Eat it with fresh lemon to squeeze on it. Eat it, you know, with a fork, the tines of which can bring up flesh and bring it away from the bone. But whatever you do, be in a bright light and hold up the forkful of flesh in the light and get rid of those intramuscular bones, those wicked little bones, and then eat the flesh.
Now, there are a lot of people who won't do this because that's just too much work for the 21st century American palate. But it wasn't too much for people in 1820 or whatever. The taxonomic name of this fish means "most savory" and it is a wonderful tasting flesh and was very popular back when but people stopped eating it when they got finnicky. And anyway, the roe, take a heavy iron skillet and line its bottom with bacon right across, so you've got a bed of bacon. Put the roe sacs on there and salt and pepper. Put that over extremely low surface heat and let that go for...and cover it too and let that go for 35 minutes also. Very low heat and so forth.
At the end, with a minute or two to go, you can turn up the heat so that the bacon will brown more. And then you make sure that the roe and the bacon are loose. Do that with a spatula, and then flip the pan and lay the roe on a plate and what you've got is roe covered with the fat of golden brown bacon. If the bacon isn't colored to your satisfaction, remove and color it up in the frying pan and put it back on the thing. But that's basically the recipe and I wouldn't want it any other way after having that. Also makes a big difference how soon after it's been in the river that you're eating roe.
Tom: The fresher, the better, I assume?
John: Yeah. The fresher, the better.
Tom: Well, thank you for sharing those recipes with us. Now, in the process of writing the book, you fished for shad in lots of different places, right?
John: Yes, well, mainly the Delaware River where I have this cabin and so forth, the upper Delaware River from where it forms from two branches in Hancock, New York to the Delaware water gap is about, I don't know, that's about 70, 80 miles or something like that, and it's in that stretch that the shad fishing is particularly good. There is shad fishing all the way down the Delaware to the bay and the shad are so idiosyncratic, some of them stop in Trenton and spawn. Some of them spawn in Bethlehem but the enterprising ones go up there and go farther. They go up the streams into the trout country of the Willowemoc and up near Roscoe. We're about, say, 30 miles down from the branches, 30 miles down the main stem. And in the part of the Delaware River, it's just one rapid followed by a pool, followed by a rapid. And these are long things. The stretches might be a mile or so that you can see before a bend in the river goes. It's one of the most beautiful rivers in America, for sure.
So anyway, mostly I fish for shad either down here early on when I first was taking it up and fishing from a boat in Lambertville 15 miles from my home in Princeton. But then when a friend of mine told me that he was a swimmer in the river, he liked to scuba dive and everything and he wasn't scuba diving but he had a mask on and he told me that he saw all these fish, all the shad in incredible numbers wadded up below a rapid. And the thing is the shad have lived their lives in the ocean. They're coming up this river. They've never seen this stuff before. A bridge pier will stop them dead and a rapid or anything, they have to pause and think it over. They're schooling fish and they're all communicating to their alarm and that's why they bunch up below rapids and bridge piers and stuff like that.
And they saw all these fish and I went fishing there. But when I got into the book, I fished for shad in the St. Johns River in Florida and, you know, went to other places like that in order to amplify my experience. In Holyoke, Massachusetts... Come on, tell me.
Tom: The Connecticut River.
John: Yeah, the Connecticut. I went to school beside it. Anyway, the Connecticut River, particularly in Holyoke where a dam really stops them and there are plenty of shad there and I went fishing a number of times there. And also in Turners Falls, Massachusetts and looked up fish biologists up there too.
Tom: Yeah, I've fished for them in Turners Falls. It's a nice area and they get as far north as Bellows Falls in Vermont because they have fish passages which were originally built for Atlantic salmon but that didn't work out so well. But the shad certainly took advantage of the fish passages.
John: They lift them in a very interesting operation at Holyoke Dam in that they've diverted current through one side of the dam where they have two freight elevators and these freight elevators look like freight elevators in a very large office building. And the current's coming out of the elevators when the elevators are at the lower level and the fish swim in because they follow current. And then the elevator fills up so full, there's more fish than water in the elevator and they haul it up three, four stories and let them out above the dam. And up there, they have a place where windows where school kids can look at the fish. But that's the operation at Holyoke and its really absorbing.
Tom: I've never seen that but it sounds like it's worth looking at.
John: Well, it's like another place in the Columbia River in Oregon. At Bonneville Dam they have windows to watch the shad go by and this is the biggest shad run in the world, in America that is, of the fish called Alosa sapidissima, the American shad, that five million shad go up the Columbia River. And the first encounter with some big manmade problem is Bonneville Dam, not the last but they have a fish weir process for them to go by and they go by these windows inside the dam. Outside the dam, where there's a lot of riprap and the current, the water coming out of the dam is really fast and there's a huge amount of riprap on the right bank of the river and that big quarry blocks, I don't know, one block is big enough to have a picnic on.
And at any rate, there are people who fish there for shad, including me with my friend Dr. Lynn Dicke of Vancouver, Washington. And that is one of the great scenes in shad fishing because, I don't know, it's like Brooklyn in the Green Market. It's just a crisscross of the entire humanity is there fishing. People of every ilk, color, creed, who knows what, the whole scene is there and they're fishing for shad. I love doing that with Dr. Dicke.
There are other places too. in order to collect material for the book, that's right, I went around to various spots like this. Florida was particularly interesting. In the St. Johns River it's surprising how many shad are down there and they fish for them in what I looked upon as a strange way. They're in skiffs, boats, these fishermen, small boats comparable to jon boats and motorized with a small outboard. And they are going around a big pool in the river in clockwise fashion. They go way down the right bank of the river and then they swing across and then the come back up the left bank of the river, so like a mile. And this whole ring or oval of boats goes around and around and around. I mean, really, it's remarkable. I spent a couple days doing that with my friend Sam Candler.
Anyways, these trips were fun to try shad in different places. I never tried them in the Potomac and they're back in the Potomac. The Potomac was closed when I was doing this project but the Potomac is open now and people right there in the District of Columbia are catching shad every spring.
Tom: Yeah, associates of our retail stores in DC do a lot of shad fishing, fly rod shad fishing in the Potomac now and they have a lot of fun doing it right in downtown DC.
John: The shad, you know, go along the bottom and they're very sensitive to light so that's why it's better in the morning and evening. I mean, they have huge eyes and they're very sensitive to light so they will swim low and one thing or another. Okay, if you're fly fishing for shad, you got to go low, so you gotta... I mean, I use a 6-weight line and you have either a full sinking line on the reel or you have a line with a 25-foot sink tip for example. I even add to that a now disgraceful four-foot lead core leader.
Tom: Why disgraceful?
John: Because lead is supposed to be bad for the environment.
Tom: Oh, okay, yeah, yeah.
John: But anyway, I still have my lead core leader and I'll confess right here in front of Tom Rosenbauer that I use it.
Tom: Shame on you.
John: And I also use an 11-foot switch rod with this rig, not exclusively but most of the time. Okay, think of this thing. You're picking up a sinking line or a line with 25 feet of sink tip leader plus the lead core leader and this is the clunkiest casting that you can imagine. I mean, it's just...think of having on 4-weight line a 22 mosquito. It defies imagination.
Tom: But it's efficient, right? It works. That's the important.
John: It works. In places where I fished, when the thing's going on, fishermen are lined up on the banks, you know, three or four or five fishermen and I'm over there in my canoe with this rig. And very often I'm catching fish and they are not. They're fishing with spinning rods. It's not always true. And there's big stars in this world who somehow catch fish every time they cast just about. I don't understand it. But I do well. I do disproportionately well with my fly rod.
Tom: What are your favorite flies for shad, John?
John: This is another confession. I use a shad dart that weighs 1/32nd of an ounce. I have the flies and have used them and my friend Jim Merritt has tied them for me and they work but the little tiny thing, it's like the size of a head of a stick pin. I shouldn't have said that because it's very, very small. It's smaller than a bb in the head and, you know, it has feathers around it and so forth and Flashabou maybe. That's very effective, Flashabou. I tie these things or make them. Anyway, that's what I use because I find it most effective.
Tom: Well, I don't see any reason for a confession. People put all kinds of lead and heavy metal weights on the front of flies and the shad just are no different, right? Still got the feathers and the Flashabou.
John: I didn't realize that this phone call with you would be a kind of warming psychiatric session where I would get relieved of any number of guilts.
Tom: Yeah, there's no guilt in this podcast, John. I feel if you can make it in a fly tying vice and any way you can get it down to the fishes is fair game.
John: I make it in a vice.
Tom: You play the game however you want.
John: Okay. But that's the rig.
Tom: Now, John, why do you think shad take flies or lures, whatever? They're planktive eaters. They don't feed when they're spawning. Why do you think they will attack a fly?
John: The endless discussion after the frequent question. And there's no absolute consensus but this is what I think. They're annoyed and what they're doing is getting this annoying thing, like a housefly at them, out of the way. And so they swing their heads, you know, almost like baseball bats to knock this thing out of the way and in the course of it they get it in the upper maxillary thing. That's what I think. This is sheer luck but they have to be hooked in a certain place in order not to be lost. Losing shad on the line is part of shad fishing for sure. It just happens and they have to be hooked best right under the nose in that whatever, I think it's called maxillary bone or something.
Tom: Well, they're certainly great eating fish but they're great fighting fish too. They jump and they run and, boy, catching a roe shad, you know, a good size one is a lot of fun.
John: And also you know you're almost always right. You can tell moments after a fish gets on the line whether it's male or female.
Tom: Yeah. Yeah, I remember actually fishing with Pat Crowe one day on the upper Delaware not too far from Hancock and hooking a roe shad and it just went and went and went and into my backing and it came off. So difficult shad fishing.
John: That's shad fishing. You cannot fish for shad without that happening.
Tom: I wish it hadn't been that big one though.
John: I'm sure you do.
Tom: Now, it's interesting that I have caught shad in the Delaware on dry flies. Apparently after the, and you correct me about this, but apparently after they finish spawning and they're dropping back, they will eat insects. Is that correct?
John: I don't know, really. I don't know. I know this, that most roe shad die after spawning but by no means all of them. And these are the repeat spawners and they go back to the ocean in what's described as the out-migration. And so of course they have to return to consuming things so it just makes sense in terms of their lifecycle. The out-migration will consist of a fairly low percentage of the migration that came in in that spring. But, yeah, that's true.
Tom: Yeah, they were rising right in... I remember it was a brown drake spinner fall, fairly good size mayfly and they were feeding right alongside the trout. I actually didn't know the were shad until I hooked one and landed it. It really took the dry fly.
John: Well, that's it right there. If it was a repeat spawner, beginning the out-migration.
Tom: Interesting fish. Now let's talk pickerel too. why are you enamored of pickerel? I mean, you wrote... There was a collection of stories called "The Patch" and the "The Patch" is about a place where you caught pickerel.
John: Well, that was it. With another couple named Hackel who live in New Hampshire now, we all knew each other when we were young and my wife's oldest friend is George Hackel's wife and so forth and she owns an island in Lake Winnipesaukee where her father fished for lake trout and so forth. And we've made a canoe trip with them down the Allagash River one year and we made another canoe trip in the Adirondacks. And then the third year we went to their island and just stayed on that island in Lake Winnipesaukee for, you know, eight days or something. And during those eight days, and sitting around wondering what to do. You're just sitting around an island, an uninhabited island.
And fishing crossed my mind. And why pickerel, I don't know because I didn't know anything about pickerel at this point, just fishing. But fly rod yes, and I went out in a canoe and fished near this great big patch of lily pads, about six acres of them, and, pow, a pickerel out of nowhere... A pickerel is a bullet that explodes when it hits you and this pickerel is suddenly on the line. That was the beginning of 40 consecutive years of fishing in the very spot and other likely places around near that island every single autumn until COVID.
And that's the story. It was always in October or September and always in your own canoe. I mean, I took my canoe up there and George had his and out we went to the island and fished every day. So anyway, that's how that started and I got very enamored of it because dealing with pickerel is such fun. I mean, one of the many things that's terrific is that they go back where they were. You disturb them and they don't move around. They have a carencia, the chosen spot they want to stay. So you go back an hour later and this pickerel is there, an hour after you missed it, after something went wrong, and the pickerel's there.
But also, you go back a week later and the pickerel is there. A year later and the pickerel is there. This is really... I mean, for simple-minded people, this is fun.
Tom: I mean, they're such an aggressive fish and they're so eager, you know. They're not fussy. They're always willing to bite, in my experience. And they're fun. They're really fun.
John: You bet. You just look at their bodies and you see how they make a living. I mean, they're shaped like torpedoes. They look very much like barracudas, and for the same reason. And they hover. And if something comes near them, they just nail it. Yeah, I mean a trout hits something like 50% or something of the prey it goes after, it succeeds. Pickerel is 80%.
Tom: Wow. You know, you hear so much about pike fishing and muskellunge fishing but those fish are a lot moodier and, yeah, they're bigger but the strike's no more exciting than a pickerel. So yeah, I'm a big fan as well of pickerel fishing.
John: There's an inverse thing about pickerel fishing and size of the fish and that is we fish for pickerel for breakfast. We eat them and the smaller the pickerel, the better it is to eat. And therefore, if you catch a 22-inch pickerel, if you ate it, it'd taste like an American linden. They aren't very good. A little one is 14 inches long because, you know, it's like a platypus, mostly head and tail. But they are just plain delicious and we have them every morning for breakfast in New Hampshire.
Tom: And again, you have to watch out. You like bony fish, don't you? You have to watch out for bones in pickerel too.
John: Well, I don't like the bones at all but I like to work at getting at the flesh.
Tom: It's like eating lobster, right? Good things you need to work hard at.
John: Right.
Tom: Well, John, I want to thank you for taking the time to talk about your favorite fish with me today. If those of you who are listening have not read John McPhee, you are in for a treat. And nearly anything John writes, in my opinion, is worth reading. In fact, I'll read your pieces on things like basketball and lacrosse and tennis, which I have absolutely no interest whatsoever but I love reading your pieces on that. And being kind of a very amateur geologist, I've loved your books on geology and, you know, the topics that you've written about, John, are just so diverse, from barge captains to the Sierra Club, just bark canoes. Anyone who's not read John McPhee, you're in for a treat, guaranteed. Take it from Tom.
John: Thank you, Tom. Thanks so much.
Tom: Well, John, thank you and I hope you get some shad fishing in next season.
John: Great. I do too. Take care.
Tom: Okay. Thanks so much, John.
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