If you thought that animals had to reach the level of your household dog or parrot on the evolutionary ladder to have appreciable brains, ''Striper Wars" will surprise you. Striped bass that once have escaped a fisherman's hook learn from experience: If caught again, they'll dive and scramble to wrap the line around a rock in hopes of shearing it and breaking free.
Writer/angler Dick Russell's book -- about the successful effort in the 1980s and '90s to save the striper from extinction, followed by new threats to its survival today -- is chock-full of human actors, from his fellow conservationists (the good guys) to irresponsible commercial executives (bad). But the book's most memorable character is piscine.
Not only is the bass a smarter animal than you might have thought, it's tough. The book's last paragraph (I'm not giving away plot, just a wonderfully touching moment) is about the bass that Russell and a friend landed many years ago. They tossed it in their boat for several hours to continue fishing, then held it up for a photo. They watched, thunderstruck, as it started to move. Unwilling to kill anything with that much will to live, they set it free.
''This most special of creatures," in Russell's words, has a special place in fishers' hearts for several reasons, not least of which is that the effort to save it gave birth to one of the early environmental laws. The jargon-averse may rue the day that EIS (environmental impact statement) sauntered into the vernacular, but few regret that the federal government must now write such statements to detail the effects of proposed development. The 1969 law mandating EIS's followed a battle in New York to save striped bass from a power project near their spawning area on the Hudson River.
Stripers bridge states both red and blue. They swim not just the Hudson but in the Chesapeake Bay, San Francisco Bay, the rivers of Georgia and the Carolinas, and off Massachusetts, where Russell lives part time. There are freshwater bass tournaments in at least 38 states, Russell writes, and the fish's appeal has stood the passage of centuries: ''Presidents from George Washington to George W. Bush have pursued this most wily and tasty of creatures."
Once fished to the brink of extinction, the species was rescued by a restoration effort that included moratoriums on their possession and sale. But now bass in the key spawning grounds of the Chesapeake are succumbing to a bacterial disease brought on in part by malnutrition; their main food, menhaden, are being overfished. Russell means to sound the alarm again with his book.
Fishermen will doubtless find this a can't-put-down read. Nonfishers probably will think Russell could have made his point at about half the book's length. Still, he keeps the focus on conservation and character sketches, avoiding arcane eddies of fishing trivia.
And even those who don't practice this pastime will have new respect for a fish of surprising brains and brawn. Russell might make vegetarians out of a few seafood lovers, the succulent taste of bass notwithstanding.