Gus Orviston begins the narration of his story at the beginning with the coming together of his antipodal parents. Though both are anglers, one is devoted to the art of flyfishing while the other is committed to the ancient practice of live bait fishing. In densely packed paragraphs in which not a single word is wasted, not a single word an accident, the figures of each parent--the brash American Cowpoke "scramblin' down the scree' in J. C. Penny cowboy boots and ratty Stetson and the British Aristocrat who wears his assuredness like a tweed overcoat, Caroline and Henning, each exquisitely designed to raise each others hackles and as ones played by a Master Angler, about to find themselves as fish out of water--practically walk off the page to commence the buffoonish minuet that culminates in the creation of Gus who is born into fishing as a fish into water. Its no wonder Gus becomes renowned as a fishing genius, nor is it any wonder that by the time he is done with high-school he can't imagine a more perfect day than one spent fishing from dawn to dark.
So, leaving behind his raucous family now including young water-phobic precocious Bill-Bob, he holes up in a cabin on a coastal river in Oregon and applies himself to the "ideal schedule" of six hours sleep plus a couple hours for fly-tying and eating with the rest devoted to fishing the river from estuary to rapids. But it turns out there really can be too much of a good thing. He soon suffers insomnia, begins hallucinating the sound, sight and motion of flowing water when it is nowhere near, finds himself unable to carry on conversation with humans but having voluble dialogs with his fly-pole Rodney. When life is all about fishing and nothing but fishing it turns out to be monotonous and meaningless which sends Gus on a quest to discover why that is and what it is all about, if it is about anything at all.
In the course of time he witnesses evidence of human-caused degradation of the river, he meets up with several neighbors and fellow fishermen--Thomas Bigeater, a Warm Springs Indian with the soul of a shaman; philosophical Titus and his dog Descartes; the body of a drowned fisherman; and a fishing goddess named Eddy who sets him the task of playing without landing the spawning salmon she hooks on his lightweight line. It is while tracking this fish the size of his leg up the river by moonlight that he encounters that which he'd been seeking, that which had been seeking him all along.