Book Recommendation: The River Why by David James Duncan

Though considered a classic by many people, The River Why by David James Duncan is a recent addition to my reading list. I’ll admit, I have not seen the movie, but I’ve heard less than positive reviews. The book, on the other hand, I thoroughly enjoyed for its humor, reflection, and accurate portrayal of the mindset of an overly-obsessed angler.

Quick summary

The River Why is one of the few (in my experience) major works of fly fishing fiction. It follows the story of Gus Orviston, the son of a stereotypical dogmatic fly fishing father and a rough-and-tumble baitcasting catch-and-keep mother. He develops a deep love for fishing, but unable to handle the dynamics of his family, moves into a cabin alone in order to pursue “the ideal schedule” of fishing as much as possible.

Assuming that cutting everything but fishing from his life will enrich him, he dives headfirst into a fishing-only lifestyle. This sustains itself for a while, but eventually, he begins to notice all the negative impacts humanity has had on the natural world and realizes that his repetitive fishing pursuit has gotten stale and empty.

As he begins to make connections with neighbors, he is reinvigorated and eventually finds friendship in a few people who bring meaning back into his life through philosophy and reflection. One day he meets Eddy, a fisherwoman with whom he is immediately smitten.

As a test of his love for her, she makes him fight a salmon all night. Though his natural desire is to bring it in and achieve the catch, the process of keeping it hooked overnight and moving with it as it migrates upstream causes him to realize that what he’s been seeking all along is not preconceived success as an ending, but the unexpected joy experienced along the way, easily missed if one forgets to look for it.


Whereas most fly fishing literature focuses on fishing, or at least events that occur while fishing, The River Why is more a glimpse into the mind of a fisherman learning who he is. It represents a transformation that many anglers go through. Fishing oneself into misery is very possible in the real world when the only thing determining success is the netting of a fish, and some people never dig themselves out.

Seeing into the thoughts of Gus not only brings to light the issues of seeing happiness as a finish line, but also allows a reader to learn what they’re seeking when they toss a line in the water.

Don’t forget to check out other book recommendation posts!

The Tracker by Tom Brown, Jr.

The Habit of Rivers by Ted Leeson


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This is a list I made and use for my own trips, and I think any backcountry angler will find it handy.