The River Why: A Must Read

As anglers, we have a tendency to gravitate toward nonfiction writing. How-to books adorn our bookshelves, fishing magazines fill our mailboxes, and blogs like this are a constant on our screens. Like any good athlete or artist, we are constantly striving to improve our craft. And how do we do that? By reading and reading until we can’t squeeze another morsel of fishing information into our obsessed brains. But in this incessant scramble for knowledge, we disregard some of the finest fishing literature ever written.

While nonfiction pieces serve to make us better at fishing, it is fiction that reminds us why we fish. The River Why, a 1983 novel by Montana author David James Duncan, is perhaps the most profound reminder to ever grace angler’s bookshelves. In my third reading of the book, I learned two things about this literary masterpiece: first, this is the best outdoors book ever written; and second, reading this book will never get old.

The novel follows a young Augustine “Gus” Orviston in his quest for fulfillment and happiness through a fishing-filled life. From a young age in his northern Oregon home, Gus finds himself torn between the polarized fishing practices his parents preach. His father (Henning Hale Orviston, or H2O), a renowned fly fisher, exemplifies the classic tweed-clad, high-society dry fly purist. In stark contrast lies his mother (Ma), a bait-slinging, rough-and-tumble woman who’d sooner be found wrestling a grizzly bear than reading the sophisticated articles penned by Henning. From both H2O and Ma, Gus gains a deep appreciation for everything fish and fishing, no matter the method of pursuit. 

When the rift between his parents grows so strong that they can hardly be in the same room without arguing over whether a #14 Mosquito or glob of nightcrawlers is the “proper” way to fish, Gus quits trying to be the mediator between the two and sets off on his own. At his cabin on a coastal Oregon river, Gus finds temporary solace in his “ideal schedule”: a calendar comprising 14 ½ hours of fishing per day, with small breaks for eating, sleeping, fly tying, and rod building. He quickly develops a spiritual reverence for the natural world, especially regarding man’s impact on nature. 

As Gus becomes one with the wilderness, he draws further away from humanity, eventually experiencing severe isolation and depression. It isn’t until a traumatic experience with a deceased angler and an embarrassing run-in with the girl of his dreams that he comes to the revelation that the “ideal schedule” may not be the key to pleasure. In the following chapters, Gus attempts to achieve balance in his unique life, keeping fishing a focal point throughout the entire journey.

As I grew up with parents who don’t fish and living on the East Coast, the similarities between Gus and myself end at our love of all things fishing; yet I still feel an acute connection with the character Duncan creates. Like Gus, I’ve often fantasized spending long hours on the water, day-in and day-out. Furthermore, I have a deep appreciation for the natural world, and cherish the time I spend in it. Reading Gus’ story, I feel as though I am making discoveries alongside him. The philosophic progress he makes throughout the novel becomes ingrained in me as I follow his lead, casting into the Tamanawis River, scaling the Pacific Coast peaks, and contemplating life as I know it while sitting on a streamside boulder. Although I have never cast a line in a PNW river, the story is so relatable that I feel as though I have been fishing for the steelhead, salmon, and trout inhabiting those waters for years. The environmental concerns Gus raises quickly became my concerns as my love for the natural world of the West deepens with each page I read. 

Duncan’s tone throughout the piece remains so sophisticated you’d think you were reading Thoreau or Leopold, yet straightforward enough that even seventh-grade me could appreciate the complex, charming story Duncan weaves. In its most stripped-down form, The River Why is a typical coming-of-age story with themes of spirituality, romance, maturity, and personal discovery sprinkled throughout; however, the novel takes this genre to a whole new level. Intertwined with humorous anecdotes and thrilling adventure is highly introspective philosophical commentary and prophetic environmental analysis. 

In flipping to the title page, I was astonished to find the book was written nearly 40 years ago. The themes and ideas contained within its pages are still incredibly relevant today – sans, of course, the tweed jackets, prolific steelhead runs, and affordable land beside a world-class river.

As frigid weather drives us off the water in the coming months (or reduces the frequency of our trips, anyways), consider picking up a copy of The River Why to scratch your fishing itch. Not only will the story keep you vividly engaged, but the notions it raises will leave you deep in thought as you consider what it would be like living life in Gus’ shoes.

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