Top 10 Books About Fish

By Patrick Cooney

Every week in 1st grade, we made the march to the library to check out a book. One week, I harmlessly checked out a book about fish identification. Little did I know that it would be the start of my journey to becoming a fisheries scientist.Fish LiteratureI can still smell the freshly dried glue on the newly applied bindings. The vivid images of Pacific Ocean fish popped from the pages along with their common names, some of which I could read, and their latin names, none of which I could read.  My mother would often find me up late (for a 1st grader) examining the pages one more time under a reading lamp in fear that the librarian would no longer allow me to extend the check out on the book.

As life progressed and I pursued the life of a fisheries scientist, I became increasingly interested in books not only about fish, but ones that also told a good story.

The following books are a collection of fish stories that we at The Fisheries Blog have found inspiring.  The common thread of these books is the ability to create characters out of fish, nature, life, and the human journey.

A River Runs Through It – Norman Maclean

A River Runs Through ItThe Big Blackfoot River in Montana plays a beautiful backdrop to the story of Maclean’s life with his father and brother.  Fans of short stories will enjoy how Maclean discusses the spiritual nature of water, rocks, and fly casting.

“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of those rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.”

The River Why – David James Duncan

The River WhyA man casts off the city of Portland, Oregon, and moves to a cabin on the coast to live a life focused on eating, sleeping, and fishing.  That is until he befriends a pet salmon.  The book goes on to explore the impacts of man on the environment and the longing for more in life than simply a destination.

…“that was the thing about nature: make one lousy rule to describe it and it’ll contradict you even if it has to transmogrify and metamorphosize and bust its ass to do it. and so what? if anybody grew wise enough to grasp the real immutable laws of nature, nature’d only rear back and strike ’em dead before they got anybody to understand them.”

The Old Man and the Sea – Ernest Hemingway

The Old Man and the SeaHave you ever wondered why you have a desire to catch fish?  The journey and discussion in this book of predator versus prey and captor versus captive are rewarded like no other book in history.  Given modern fishing gear, landing a massive marlin is no easy task.  Using rudimentary equipment used by the main character in the book, one can truly appreciate the battle and struggle not only on the line, but in the minds of subjects.

“You did not kill the fish only to keep alive and to sell for food, he thought. You killed him for pride and because you are a fisherman. You loved him when he was alive and you loved him after. If you love him, it is not a sin to kill him. Or is it more?”

One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish – Dr. Seuss

One FishLook, a book, but wait, no Snook?  This book has inspired generations of fisheries scientists and anglers from a young age.  After all, it is quite possibly the simplest book on identifying differences between fish species and counting fish populations.  What more is there to fisheries science?

“One fish, Two fish, Red fish, Blue fish.  Black fish, Blue fish, Old fish, New fish.”

Swimmy – Leo Lionni

SwimmyVivid descriptions of sea creatures and fish behavior fill this wonderful book for children.  Similar to Dr. Seuss’s book above, the book inspires children to learn more about the sea.

“He saw a medusa made of rainbow jelly… A lobster, who walked about like a water-moving machine… Strange fish, pulled by an invisible thread… A forest of seaweeds growing from sugar-candy rocks… An eel whose tail was almost too far away to remember… And sea anemones, who looked like pink palm trees swaying in the wind.”

The Founding Fish – John McPhee

The Founding FishThe role of the American Shad in the early development of the United States is often forgotten.  McPhee excellently chronicles their history and demonstrates the importance of preserving these fish for future generations.

“Everybody else was fishing from dry ground in sneakers, while I was dressed up in neoprene stocking waders, sand guards, L.L.  Bean felt-soled boots and an Orvis vest bearing the orange-and-green emblem of the Delaware River Shad Fisherman’s Association.  I looked like a hapless astronaut, while these scientists stood on the ledge in their bluejeans, catching shad.”

Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World – Mark Kurlansky

CodKurlansky chronicles the Cod: Wars have been fought over it, revolutions have been triggered by it, national diets have been based on it, economies and livelihoods have depended on it. To the millions it has sustained, it has been a treasure more precious that gold.

“If cod and haddock and other species cannot survive because man kills them, something more adaptable will take their place. Nature, the ultimate pragmatist, doggedly searches for something that works. But as the cockroach demonstrates, what works best in nature does not always appeal to us.”

Your Inner Fish – Neil Shubin

Your Inner FishIn order to define a true clade that includes all fish, one must include humans.  Shubin explores the evolutionary pathway of fish and demonstrates why Sarcopterygii and all tetrapods (mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, etc.) are more closely related to fish than most are willing to accept.

“The basic skeleton of our hands and feet emerged over hundreds of millions of years, first in fish and later in amphibians and reptiles.”

The Compleat Angler – Izaak Walton

The Compleat Angler

Walton uses the voice of a fisherman (Piscator) to teach a hunter (Venator) and a falconer (Auceps) how to fish.  Complete with poems and recipes, the book offers a unique look into fishing in the 17th century.  Further, it explores life and the joys that nature can bring to someone that exceeds the pursuit of money.

“Oh the brave Fisher’s life, It is the best of any, ‘Tis full of pleasure, void of strife, And ’tis belov’d of many: Other joys Are but toys; Only this Lawful is, For our skill Breeds no ill, But content and pleasure”

Salmon Without Rivers – Jim Lichatowich

Salmon without riversSalmon are anadromous, and therefore require access to both fresh and salt water.  Given a reduction in habitat from logging and human development coupled with river fragmentation from dams, salmon have limited access to rivers compared to historical records.  Lichatowich eloquently describes the attempts to restore salmon and presents evidence to how we have failed.

“We assumed we could control the biological productivity of salmon and ‘improve’ upon natural processes that we didn’t even try to understand. We assumed we could have salmon without rivers.”


Do you have others?

Do you have other favorite fish books that didn’t make the list?  Leave a comment and perhaps we will write a follow up!


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46 Comments Add yours

  1. Mike Allen says:

    Great list! I think two that could be on the list are

    “An Entirely Synthetic Fish: How Rainbow Trout Beguiled America and Overran the World”, by Anders Halverson Great book.

    Also, “Sowbelly: The Obsessive Quest for the World-Record Largemouth Bass”, by Monte Burke

    Both are excellent books about interesting fish and the people that love them!

    1. Wonderful additions Dr. Mike Allen! I have been enjoying some “single species” books that chronicle the history and path of a species to where we are today. You highlight two great ones here.

  2. Matt Carr says:

    Fantastic Patrick. Thanks. There’s a couple of books in your list for me (and my daughter to follow up on). How about “Under the Sea Wind” by Rachel Carson. It continues to be an inspiration to me.

    1. I am glad you put Rachel Carson down here, as I unfortunately did not include any books by women, whom have had a profound impact on fish and fisheries. I agree that Rachel Carson and her books are true inspiration.

  3. jvasslides says:

    Great list Patrick. I might add “King of Fish: The Thousand-Year Run of Salmon” by David Montgomery.

    1. Excellent choice of books for the list! Thank you for bringing this one to my attention. It has been added to my reading list.

    2. Agreed…my favorite!

  4. Shannon White says:

    I second “An Entirely Synthetic Fish” and also add Kurt Fausch’s latest ” For the Love of Rivers.”

    1. Maybe I needed to make the Top 20 books about fish…all of these are great choices. I will have to dive into “For the Love of Rivers”.

  5. David Thorne says:

    The Earth is Enough by Harry Middleton. Great literature by a troubled man taken too soon from us.

    1. Wow…I just read the description of this book, and wonder how I have not read it yet. The stack of books to read gets thicker by the comment!

  6. Dawn Mudri says:

    A Fish Out Of Water by Helen Palmer

    1. This is a great classic that highlights the practice of not overindulging your fish! Keep the additions coming!

  7. Janice Kerns says:

    Other than the one listed, my two other top favorites are “The Secret Life of Lobsters” by Trevor Corson and “The Philosopher Fish: Sturgeon, Caviar, and the Geography of Desire” by Richard Adams Carey

    1. Janice, anytime that the Suwanee River, the house boat, and fellow UF folks are mentioned, you know it is going to be a good book. I completely agree on The Philosopher Fish, and contemplated putting it on the list. In regards to the Lobster, perhaps I need to make a list for invertebrates as well.

      1. jakerns says:

        Yeah, I thought I might get called out for putting in lobsters but it’s definitely a story that almost all fish biologist/managers can relate to 🙂

  8. Cynthia Fox says:

    Good list! I will definitely be adding some of these to my reading list. As a shark enthusiast I have to add Jaws and Shark Trouble by Peter Benchley. Jaws, of course, for its entertainment value alone, and Shark Trouble for its attempt to pull people’s thoughts away from the fear that Jaws caused and to provide more respect for sharks in general. I would also recommend The Empty Ocean by Richard Ellis. That book inspired me a great deal while I was in undergrad.

    1. I contemplated Jaws as well, and feel that a movie list needs to be made. Jaws would probably be at the top of that list! I will have to dive into some of the others you mention. My gosh my stack keeps growing.

  9. Greg George says:

    You must include “Highliners” by William McCloskey, this is the commercial fisherman’s bible. You would find a copy in every galley in the pacific commercial fleet.

    1. Sounds like a good one. Almost like the novel version of “The Deadliest Catch”.

      1. Beverly Sauls says:

        Yes, the whole trilogy by this author is great! The human story wrapped around historical events, including the original Magnuso Stevens Act, is riveting. I was sad when I finished reading them all.

  10. C J says:

    Sharks are fish, and on that note, an abstract fiction text that is so much more than the description allows is Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall. It’s a great read and a really interesting take on “shark”!

    1. Thank you for the suggestion. I will take a look.

  11. Josh Newhard says:

    Thanks for putting together a good fish book list! I’m always looking for good fish reads. Some other good ones that I’ve enjoyed are: Devil’s Teeth, by Susan Casey, a book about Great White Shark research off California, and Four Fish, by Paul Greenberg, which is about the future of wild caught fisheries and the role of aquaculture.

    1. I need to check out Four Fish. Sounds intriguing!

  12. Nautical Disasters says:

    I like the list, here is another good one:
    “The Sun Also Rises” by Hemingway has a lot of fly fishing in it.

    1. Hemingway has a way with words. I was recently at a Sloppy Joe’s in Florida where they have the Hemingway look alike contest. Many people have tried to emulate his writing as well, but often fall short. He was a master with words and with fishing.

  13. Bobby Davis says:

    Most definitely have to include trashfish. One of the most *eloquent* fishing books I have ever read. A fair antithesis to A river runs through it. Also Four Fishes. Probably one of the more important educational books written in the last 20 years or so about fish. But a great list for sure!

    1. Bobby, I am a huge fan of real life “trash fish”, so I appreciate a book that brings to light the less popular fish and ways of fishing. Sounds like a fun read.

  14. Jeanette Haegele says:

    Thanks Patrick, there are some I haven’t read that look really interesting! Funny, I just found a 1902 book in my parent’s collection: “True Tales of Birds and Beasts”, edited by David Starr Jordan! It looks like it was a primary school text. He wrote the one fish story inside, “The Story of a salmon”. Henry David Thoreau wrote the first chapter.

    1. Sounds like an oldie but goodie!

  15. Peter Unmack says:

    Fish: An Enthusiast’s Guide by Peter Moyle is a great general book.

    For those more academically inclined I’d list:

    Battle Against Extinction: Native Fish Management in the American West by Minckley & Deacon, which is an account of the history of western USA fishes, their decline and management efforts to reverse their decline. This is likely to be a story retold in many other countries as we screw up our rivers.

    Patterns in Freshwater Fish Ecology by Matthews is a must read for anyone interested in fish ecology.

    One of my personal favorites is The Natural History of Native Fishes in the Death Valley System by Soltz & Naiman, a bit old now, but still a great read about one of my favorite places and their fishes.

  16. King of Fish: The Thousand Year Run of Salmon by David R. Montgomery…..fascinating! I read passages to my students as we raise chinook & steelhead.

  17. Mountain in the Clouds by Bruce Brown

  18. Margaret Murphy says:

    I have two more:
    A Fish Caught in Time by Samantha Weinberg about the search for the Coelancanth.
    Song for the Blue Ocean by Carl Safina.

  19. Nora Levine says:

    Fun list! I would add Richard Flanagan’s Gould’s Book of Fish. 1830’s. Tasmania. Prisons. And the taxonomy of fish.

  20. g2-ed3f5944ca08ba8ec7b9317cd65f7c57 says:

    “Darwin’s Dreampond” by Tijs Goldschmidt
    “A Fascination for Fish” by David Powell

  21. Anayeli says:

    Great post! I think you should include a book I just finished reading: “The Log from the Sea of Cortez” by John Steinbeck; an excellent book that combines science, philosophy and real stories about a biological expetition to the Sea of Cortez by the biologist Edward F. Ricketts and the novelist J. Steinbeck in 1940.

    1. Patience says:

      This inotrmaoifn is off the hizool!

  22. The Lobster Gangs of Maine is a great book by Professor James Acheson, telling the story of how Maine lobstering families have privatized the Maine ‘bottom’ over generAtions

  23. Rebecca says:

    I triple the vote for King of Fish. An extremely relevant read for general and technical audiences. Along with Song for the Ocean (mentioned above) another marine themed book is Sex in the Sea by Marah Hardt. It’s an entertaining account of fish (and many other marine creatures) sexual behaviour and how it may be changing in the face of changing environments.

  24. jgf24 says:

    I really enjoyed The Snail Darter and the Dam: How Pork Barrel Politics Endangered a Little Fish and Killed a River by Zygmunt Plater. It’s largely a political story by one of the lawyers in the first Endangered Species Act tests. Really interesting behind the scenes read.

    As others mentioned, Four Fishes is very good as well.

    Love the list – it’s a good one.

  25. Last year I read “Eels: An Exploration, from New Zealand to the Sargasso, of the World’s Most Mysterious Fish” by James Prosek… a great read that explored beyond the American Eel and included a good dose of folklore, cuisine, and commerce of a variety of cultures

  26. Richard Stein says:

    Totem Salmon by Freeman House is recommended if you are interested in the fate of anadromous fishes of northern California.

  27. Beside Moby Dick I am thinking of ‘Gould’s book of fish’ by Richard Flanagan. In this novel the fish is more a metaphore (only partly in Moby Dick). It is a beautiful poetical book but is also about the position of the fish and the cruelties they encounter.

  28. Joacim Näslund says:

    The Trout’s Tale by Chris Newton (Medlar Press) – about how brown trout colonized the world. Very good book! And I second For the Love of Rivers by Fausch.

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