WHY DO WE FIND FISH so appealing? After all, humans are hardly the piscivores ospreys and otters are. Yet fish and fishing have preoccupied the minds of men, women, and children as far back as history and archeology can plumb. The literature on fish and fishing grows more vast and diverse by the year.
“A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm,” says Hamlet. I grew up with a Shakespeare-brand fishing rod in my hands, and while I never thought about it then, today I ponder, as Hamlet did, the myriad ways that fish connect things. Trout link sky and water when they pluck mayflies from the surface of a lake. Largemouth bass unite land and water each time they swallow a water shrew.
When we eat fish, as Shakespeare knew, we’re consuming more than flesh. We’re devouring the world in microcosm, a rich harvest of the planet steeped, fermented, and distilled. Sooner or later every bit of the Adirondack landscape, or any other landscape, runs down into water. Fish are on the receiving end of this endless downhill slide. It brings them good things to eat, and it brings them toxic chemicals in astonishing concentration.
Given how important fish are to our diet, the Adirondack tourist economy, and our leisure, it’s amazing how little we know about them. Even biologists tend to be familiar with only a smattering of species, generally the ones that generate funds for operating budgets or research.
Nature enthusiasts ignore the majority of fish, too, even though, by way of example, the pumpkinseed, a widespread and under-appreciated species of Adirondack sunfish, sports colors more dazzling than any warbler.
Trivia time: Can you name two fish native to northern New York that sometimes breathe air through their mouths, much as the so-called higher vertebrates do? (More about them later.) Which parent in a sunfish family builds the nest, protects the eggs, and tends the young after the Mom and Dad have had their fun? Answer: the father. Fish are full of surprises. The most erotically charged sight I’ve ever beheld was of a mother sucker in a brook, mating simultaneously with a male on either side. All three fish were so turned on that their bodies shook violently and their eyes and lateral stripes turned red.
Two recent books from university presses can teach us much about Adirondack fish. Bravely, the authors plunge into waters inhabited by such distinguished predecessors as C. Lavett Smith’s The Inland Fishes of New York (my favorite fish book) and Lawrence Page and Brooks Burr’s A Field Guide to Freshwater Fishes: North America North of Mexico in the Peterson Field Guide series. The excellent fish guide I used during my Huck Finn years, McClane’s Field Guide to Freshwater Fishes of North America, first published in 1965, also remains available.
Freshwater Fish of the Northeast by David A. Patterson, illustrated by the author’s son, Matt Patterson, ranks among the most handsome fish books ever published. Pencil and acrylic illustrations appear front and center, and to my eye they’re every bit as good as the watercolors painted by our Audubon of fish, James Prosek. Here swim the pumpkinseed, the brook trout, and the northern redbelly dace in all their Technicolor glory. Fish books, if they’re going to be even halfway thorough, need to pay attention to the homely as well as the glamorous. Into the former category fall the bowfin, the longnose gar, and the bullheads. Colored like the muddy bottoms they prowl, bullheads are close relations of catfish and have long been a staple of the Adirondack diet. The bowfin and gar—in Matt Patterson’s renderings they look suitably unappetizing—are the two North Country fish known to swim to the surface on a hot summer day when the oxygen level in the water sinks low and breathe air through their mouths. The trick? Each has a swim bladder, a fish’s version of the buoyancy compensator worn by a scuba diver, that can be pressed into service as a lung.
David Patterson’s text reads easily and abounds in good information. Here the reader learns about the breeding habits of the brook stickleback (the males glue together nest materials with a mucus produced by their kidneys) and about the absence of swim bladders in darters.
The book’s weak point may also prove a strength, depending on the audience. David Patterson pitches his text almost exclusively to fishermen. If your interest in fish is confined to catching them, you may rejoice. But if your curiosity is broader, the book’s narrow emphasis on fishas- recreational-object and fish-as-bait may grate on you.
“I have heard people complain that lake trout don’t put up a very good fight when you catch them,” writes the author, who then goes on to speculate at length about the possible biological rea
sons for the fish’s failure to entertain. Egad! Something’s wrong when we focus narrowly on our fellow beings merely as objects of desire rather than as creatures worthy of interest and respect. I’m also concerned that the book waxes lyrical about eating freshwater fish—yellow perch, most notably—while failing to mention the toxic chemicals they often contain.
The Pattersons’ Freshwater Fish of the Northeast has a masculine slant that may trouble some readers. It annoyed me, partly because I’m the father of a daughter who likes to fish as much as her brother, and because my Adirondack grandmother taught me nearly as much about fishing as my grandfather did. Reservations aside, I’m pleased to recommend the Patterson book, especially for those interested in beautiful art and a “greatest hits” approach to our region’s freshwater fish.
The second book, Robert G. Werner’s Freshwater Fishes of the Northeastern United States: A Field Guide, is a different sort of animal entirely. “The book is designed to facilitate field identification by focusing, to the extent possible, on characteristics and techniques that can be effective in identifying fishes in the field,” writes the author. There’s not much warmth in that sentence, and there’s not much warmth in the book.
For better and for worse, Werner hails from academe. Even though he’s writing about aquatic life, his prose tends to be dry. Yet one person’s weakness is often also his strength. Werner is an ichthyologist by profession, and his scientific rigor and keen interest in his subjects in all their dimensions place this book among the finest covering our fish ever published. All species from the fearsome muskellunge to the lowly, bewhiskered stonecat are covered in the same thorough detail.
Ashortfall of Werner’s book strikes me as so odd that I wonder if it represents a mistake in editing. The text sometimes fails to tell the size of fish. For example, you read about the brindled madtom but hear nothing about the fact that a big one might be shorter than your forefinger. When trying to identify fish as superficially similar to each other as members of the bullhead family, size matters.
This is a rare shortcoming. Werner’s is an impressive field guide, replete with keys to identify members of tricky groups and the latest DNA-informed taxonomy. Anyone with an interest in fish would benefit from putting it to frequent use.