This much-awaited volume finally arrived in my mailbox in late March of 2018, and I was so excited to finally see it that I accidentally knifed the back cover getting it open. That's a small indication of the potential value I see in a volume like this. Many of you know that I've become something of a connoiseur of fish books, buying anything I can find for a reasonable price on both the new and used market. My collection covers regions from Arizona to Pennsylvania and from Europe to Peninsular India. Obviously, when this book was announced, I ordered it immediately. Florida has long held a special place in the life and lore of roughfishers - being not only a welcome winter getaway for some of us perpetually frostbitten northerners, but also a treasure trove for unique, regionally endemic species. Florida has also become a breeding ground for invasive exotics of every shape and origin. The confusion and uncertainty surrounding some of these fishes, as well as the precarious survival prospects for many of them, really made building a comprehensive volume like this a neccessity. What follows are my impressions of the book, my reaction to some of the decisions the authors made, and a general overview for people thinking about buying it.
First, my overall impressions - this book is a solid and substantial hardcover with a high-quality binding and hefty feel, which you would certainly expect from a book at this price point - it's a significant investment at $60. With 468 pages and full-color graphics, it has plenty of room to leave no stone unturned and the graphics are simply gorgeous. Typeface and text readability are perfect for a scholarly volume, and the layouts are simple and consistent with good text seperators and no distracting insets. It's a professional product from a high-end press.
The book consists of two sections - a short introduction followed by the family and species accounts that form the majority of the volume. The introduction outlines the geography, hydrology, and geomorphology of the state, and describes and maps the various drainages within the state's borders. This is a polished and relevant overview that helps illuminate the similarities and differences between the drainages and how and where they extend beyond the borders of Florida. It also includes a drainage-by drainage fish occurance chart, which divides the state into 20 major sections and indicates the known occurance of all 222 species with these sub-regions. This is a very handy high-level tool. Next follows a well-written explanation of basic fish morphology. While an obligatory feature for almost every fish atlas, this particular one is among the best I've seen outside of an ichthyology textbook. Of particular interest are the scale diagrams that help show a neophyte how to correctly count scales, the various head measurement terms and how they relate to one another, the fin configurations, and the gill and pharengeal arch characteristics and how to extract or examine these structures. After the morphology section, an excellent explanation of the family and species account formats is provided. Finally, a brief pictoral guide to fish families is included, allowing for a quick and useful narrowing down of possibilities when an unknown fish might be encountered. This was thoughtfully constructed, with certain families (like the cyprinids and catostomids) being helpfully divided into the two differing morphologies that most often confuse people. This is a really nice touch; it neatly and intentionally heads off some of the most common mistakes that people make when trying to identify fishes by preventing the reader from being shunted into an incorrect family. Kudos to whoever created this guide to families as the extra effort that went into it is very valuable, even outside of Florida.
The remaining 400+ pages (outside the appendices) contain the descriptions of all the many families and species of fish that may be encountered in Florida's fresh waters. Each family starts out with a brief overview of the family in general. This is usually a text description, but several of the family headers contain useful graphics to distinguish the members of the family from each other. The gar family, in particular, sports a very useful head configuration graphic that every gar fisher should find useful. Species descriptions include at least one (and usually more than one) full-color photo of the fish in living color, artfully presented against a neutral gray background. Oftentimes, multiple life stages or states of maturity are included for comparison. This is often done to illustrate regional variations, to seperate species-specific juvenile color and morphology differences, and to point out sexual dimorphism for fishes that undergo color and shape changes during spawning season. These photographs are both visually pleasing and extremely useful. For some species, the juvenile coloration patterns can be a huge stumbling block, and these added graphics neatly prevent confusion for those instances where a small fish is captured that doesn't conform to the adult standard. The spawning-dress photos for some of the native cyprinids are particularly jaw-dropping, and I know obtaining them must've been quite an undertaking as their coloration can change within mere minutes of capture. In addition to the photos, sections for fish identification, seperating a species from similar species, habitat, and optional comments are included. These are provided both for the species as listed and any regional variations, subspecies, or differing morphs that may be encountered. Again, these are thoughtfully constructed to prevent the most commonly encountered mistakes and taken as a whole, they form an impressive guide to winnowing down the possible options and arriving at the correct conclusion. The habitat section, in some cases, seemed somewhat perfunctory to me at first reading. Mentioning that a species is found "in lakes, ponds, and pools and backwaters of rivers and streams" doesn't seem all that important when you're reading it over and over again for thirty species in a row. But that's most likely because I read the book from cover to cover, and that is not the way this book is intended to be used. In most cases, the key factors of depth, current, cover, and preferred substrate are all covered, which is about as much as can reasonably be expected. In general, it's hard to find fault with this, as the main purpose is to reinforce the identification by provided the very broadest habitat categories possible. Finally, each species description ends with one or two maps, showing the Florida range as a series of discrete collection points and the continental range as a shaded area. The maps are very well-built and useful. The continental or regional maps are a welcome addition and increase the usefulness of the book considerably. The point maps for the state of Florida are good as far as they go. I personally would prefer some kind of geospatial analysis be done on the individual collection points to "connect the dots" for solely riverine species and to "shade in" wider watershed-based units for ubiquitous or lacustrine species, but I realize it's not easy to do and the resulting map could be misleading even if it was easier to comprehend and more aesthetically pleasing.
The book ends with a series of necessary appendices, including nonestablished exotics, occasional saltwater species collected in fresh water, glossary, references, and index - all useful, well-composed, and necessary.
The book mercifully does not contain a bifurcated key to species. While many biologists may gasp in horror at its exclusion, I have always chafed at the inclusion of such keys in what is obviously meant to be a general/field guide and not a museum reference; the use of such keys can be especially problematic in the Florida setting where there seems to be a constant churn of exotic introductions and in cases where one does not wish to dissect a live specimen acquired in the field. Let's be honest: the bifurcated key is an artifact of an era when high-quality true-to-life photos of fish species were not easily available or reproduceable, when specimens were generally examined after being preserved, and there was very little movement of fish species globally and regionally. The "similar species" section of the species accounts provides more than enough guidance in distinguishing between difficult species. I applaud the authors for recognizing this reality. The species sections could also have included some behavioral and dietary information, at least as far as indicating whether a species is piscivorous or insectivorous, but that would've lengthened the book considerably. It's probably wrong to quibble about a few missing details in a tome of this size, as I'm sure it took a lot of compromises to fit all the content between those gorgeous covers. Again, it's hard to find fault with anything in this excellent book so take my criticism with a grain of salt. The overall approach to recent taxonomic changes is refreshingly conservative; it's even more conservative than I am in some areas (and that's saying something). What's even more refreshing is the fact that they took the time to actually explain these decisions in detail; the discussion of their choice to lump the Lepomis miniatus and L. puntatus because of the intergrades they found on the panhandle is definitely worth reading. Their frank and well-buttressed argument for not elevating Florida Bass to species level is likewise noteworthy; I applaud their diligence and their willingness to be open and honest about their species designations. While this website isn't currently in agreement with all of these assignments, I think the authors' arguments are very compelling; clearly these folks know more about Forida's native fishes than anyone else does.
Overall, this book sets the standard for modern statewide fish atlases, accomplishing this not inconsiderable feat while operating in the extremely harsh and ever-changing landscape of Florida, where difficult conditions and a constant influx of exotic and invasive species make any systematic approach to fish inventory extremely problematic. It's a godsend to those of us who wish to experience all the fish diversity the sunshine state has to offer, and a great tool for fish-heads all across the country. Lifelist anglers, in particular, will find pure gold here. Overall, this book really raises the bar; other states (and foreign countries!) should aspire to produce something of this quality. I'm looking at you, Minnesota! Is it worth $60? Yes, absolutely, if you either live in the SE US or you plan on visiting florida to go fishing. Pick it up. Not only are you going to get a really excellent book, but by bumping up its sales you could perhaps be encouraging other states to attempt this sort of ambitious project.