The River Why? A Little-Known Movie That Any Angler Would Enjoy

The novel was published in 1983, and the movie came out in 2010. So why are we finally getting around to reviewing a ten-year-old flick? Because it’s a movie gem sure to please that crazy fisherperson in your life, and relatively few anglers have even heard about it. It’s available for purchase or rental on Amazon and other places.

I first got ahold of the novel in the 1990s and, like every other male angler I knew, had fallen madly in love with Eddy, the stunning young woman (played by actress Amber Heard) who becomes the love interest of lead character, Gus Orviston. Someone else had evidently also read the book in the 1990s, since the name Eddy was scrawled in yellow chalk on the concrete Hwy. 299 bridge over Hat Creek east of Burney. I remember sighing when I first saw it, pondering whether there really were gorgeous young women out there as crazy about fishing as I was. But even beyond the wonder of Eddy, The River Why? is a quirky story filled with memorable characters and lots and lots of fish.

Gus Orviston is the son of a famous, tweed-wearing, fly fishing father, and a down-home, bait-fishing momma. Gus’ entire upbringing can be boiled down to one burning question; flies or bait? Gus, of course, is proficient with both, but the tension between bait fishing momma and fly flinging father eventually becomes too much for Gus. In an explosive fit of family drama Gus hurls “Nijinski,” the massive stuffed steelhead hanging above the family fireplace into the fire, and moves out. 

While the story unfolds along a fictional river on the Oregon coast, it could be just as easily be any of California’s famous coastal streams. Gus rents a lonely cabin on a river and tacks his “ideal schedule” up on the wall consisting of fishing, eating, sleeping and more fishing. Meanwhile he makes a living tying flies, building rods and teaching others to fish.

Without spoiling it, the film tells the story of fishing savant Gus Orviston coming of age, finding love, exploring the cycle of life and death while learning from classical philosophers and dogs who aspire to be human beings. Experience what it’s like spending an entire night migrating upstream with a giant chinook salmon, rescuing a tiny trout cut off from a main river, and what to do when you inadvertently reel in your first corpse.

The River Why? is not at all what you might expect, and it’s sure to delight anyone who loves fishing, or just wants to see something really quirky and different. If you want to wade deeper into the story, (and there’s a lot that didn’t make it into the film) you can always read the novel by David James Duncan. It’s a way to immerse yourself up to your ears in fishing and fun without even getting your feet wet.

Watch the trailer:

Chip O'Brien

Chip O'Brien is a regular contributor to California Fly Fisher and Northwest Fly Fishing magazines, and author of River Journal, Sacramento River and California's Best Fly Fishing: Premier Streams and Rivers from Northern California to the Eastern Sierra. He lived in Redding, California, for eighteen years, where he was a guide, teacher, and regional manager for CalTrout.

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