Fishing trips are synonymous with driving. In a country like Australia, this can mean lots of driving. To look at it another way, lots of driving means lots of time that is spent not fishing! So why not spend these wasted non-fishing hours thinking about fishing, learning about fishing or developing a greater understanding of fishing. It was this life changing epiphany that led me down the path of the fishing audio book. I can now utilise these countless hours, which would otherwise be spent on frivolous tasks like avoiding kangaroos and wombats on the highway, listening to books which are all about fishing. Over the last few months it’s been incredibly interesting to listen to books on a diverse range of topics from fishing philosophy, fishing for world records, pro bass fishing in the USA, the psychology of being near water and even a self help book for aspiring tournament anglers (yes such a thing does exist!). It’s certainly made those long dull wildlife-collision-free car trips go faster. So here is the first in a series of audio book reviews on the topic of fishing. Happy reading!
The River Why by David Duncan. 304 page book or 15 hours as an audiobook
The central character of the River Why is Gus. Gus’s father is a gentrified fly fishing writer by the name of Henning Hale-Orviston; (H20). His mother is a bait soaking ‘kill-and-grill’ cowgirl from the country. Growing up, fishing was in his blood. It was his life. But unlike his mother and father, who agree to disagree about every fundamental aspect of fishing, Gus learns the best of both worlds (fly and bait). As his skills develop under the expert tutelage of his parents he starts to catch more and more fish. Soon he is out-fishing both of his parents. Fed up with his parents disagreements about the ‘right’ way to fish however, he soon leaves home for a secluded cabin on the banks of a lonely but stunning river in the back country. Once there, he fishes all day – every day. He develops the ‘ultimate schedule’ based on 10 hours of fishing per day, with only small breaks for eating, bathing and driving, resulting in an estimated 4000 hours of fishing per year. He is living the dream right? Before long though, he starts to question if the endless pursuit of fish is really making him happy. What happens when fishing becomes a mere sequence of mechanical actions that leads to the fish resting in the bottom of the net. Where is the enjoyment in that?
Written in 1983, this book has become a classic. They even made a movie of it (which you can sometimes watch free on youtube until the video is removed) although to be honest the book is much better! Actually to be really honest, the movie is not very good. Calling it B-grade is probably slightly too kind. Definitely read the book the first.
Without spoiling the plot, it’s fair to say that Gus reaches the same conclusion to most anglers that I know. Catching fish is only part of the enjoyment of fishing. There is something about being on or near the water that is the good for the soul. Allowing yourself to get lost in the task of fishing and escaping from ‘real’ life is addictive. Along his journey Gus explores the loss of fish habitat to urban development and deforestation and how quickly people become disconnected from nature when this happens. He talks with indigenous folk and traditional custodians of the land and sea. He explores the ideas of religion and ‘the Creator’. He meets a fisher lady – who happens to be a gorgeous blonde, described in intimate and salubrious detail. He ties his own flies and makes his own rods. He grows a beard and befriends his fly rod, the aptly named ‘Rodney’. Ultimately though, he works out through prolonged trial and error, that a man cannot live by fishing alone. He comes to the conclusion that “not fishing is crucial to the enjoyment of fishing”
There is a second quote which neatly summarises Gus’s thinking on the recreational fishing industry and the plight of fish stocks;
” If you want a river full of fish – it won’t help to advertise (referring to some fly fishing magazines), i won’t help to kill everything you catch (referring to some bait fisherman), it won’t help to work for a fish killing industry (dam building or forestry in this example), it won’t help to curse and drink and lament (rednecks). So I cut down on my killing, I tied more flies on barbless hooks, I built more fly and fewer bait rods, I told tales more than I gave tips, and I found myself loving rivers … and fish … and fishing more than ever before”.
While not essential pre-reading, it would help to know a little about Izaak Walton’s ‘The Compleat Angler’ from 1653. If you can make it all the way to end of the Compleat Angler however, you are a better person than I am. It is dense and at times, mind-numbing reading.
As for the title of the book ‘the river why’, this defines the central theme. Gus is exploring if the river is asking ‘why’, as in, what is the meaning of life? Why are we here and why do we fish? Or if the river is telling us why – the streams are here because the endless rush of water eventually erodes the mountains and creates the valleys. Fate, circumstance and evolution have created these magnificent landscapes – that is why the river exists. Everything is, because it is. Ultimately (in my humble opinion) the question boils down to an acceptance of religion or science as the key to understanding the world around us. Deep, I know.
The River Why is a must listen for all of us that dream about the water every day when we are bound to our computer screens, our day jobs and our family responsibilities. I would suggest it is also a must listen for every fly fishing bum who dreams of a lifestyle living out of Kombi van fishing a backcountry river from sunrise to sunset for day after day.
The book does lose marks for being long-winded at times and disappearing down seemingly irrelevant tangents for page after page (or several minutes in the audiobook). I have to admit to completely switching off when this happens. That said, overall the book is incredibly well written, funny, intelligent and thought provoking. I can’t recommend it enough, especially if you’ve got a few long drives coming up for fishing trips – just remember to watch out for wildlife on the roads!
The River Why gets 4.5 out of 5 existential fishing crises.