May 04, 2015
By Ross Purnell
In 2004, Oliver White was a 24-year-old fly-fishing guide with a degree in philosophy. Like many young, mobile adventurers, he made guiding a year-round proposition by rowing a drift boat in Wyoming in the summer, and changing hemispheres to catch winters in South America.
At Kau Tapen Lodge in Argentina, White met his guest for the week, a man named Bill Ackman, who showed up at one of the world's most challenging (and windy) fishing locations with no rod or reel, and zero experience. He had never held a fly rod in his hand, but had heard that the Rio Grande was one of the best places in the world to catch large brown trout, and he wanted to learn.
White was stricken by Ackman's curiosity, passion, and intelligence and within days he had Ackman casting a two-handed rod, driving a Skagit line into the wind, and working large swimming flies among the sod clumps and in the tailouts of large gravel-bottom pools. Ackman caught a 24-pound sea-run brown trout on his first ever fly-fishing trip, and he was so impressed by White that he offered him a job as one of five analysts at Pershing Square Capital Management, a hedge fund Ackman had recently launched with $1 billion in assets under management (AUM).
White took the bait and quickly became an Ackman-trained analyst, helping the company to grow to $7 billion AUM by 2008, but he missed being a fishing guide, and that year left the hedge-fund world to embark on a global search for his own dream fishing lodge.
He eventually found a run-down hotel with an ocean view just a stone's throw from a shallow mud-bottom mangrove wilderness called The Marls. Made famous by Nettie Symonette and her Great Abaco Bonefish Club more than 20 years ago, The Marls was well-known as one of the most important bonefish nurseries in the Bahamas. The nearby hard, white sand flats of Moore's Island and the east shore of Abaco are equally known for their large, difficult bonefish.
With Ackman's help, White got the property at a bargain-basement price and began building what would become one the most impressive operations in the Bahamas. But along the way he hit a few speed bumps.
During the lodge construction and renovation, White was kidnapped by a local who was obviously inspired by rumors of Wall Street money. White was only carrying pocket change. Tied up in the back of a car he feared for his life. He eventually convinced his captor to take him to an ATM machine where he eventually escaped and made it on foot to a police station. Six years later, the kidnapper is still in jail awaiting trial, and White travels everywhere now with a trained German Shepard guard dog named Bono.
White couldn't have picked a better geographical location for his lodge, a fact recognized by the conservation organization Bonefish & Tarpon Trust, and producers of the TV show Buccaneers and Bones who, with White's help, created a thoughtful season of television programming in just one visit to Abaco Lodge.
In the most recent 2015 season, White helped bring the TV show to his newly acquired Bair's Lodge on Andros Island. And instead of just coordinating the event event behind the scenes, was asked to step in front of the camera alongside regular hosts Jimmy Kimmel, Jim Belushi, Tom McGuane, Tom Brokaw, Lefty Kreh, Bill Klyn, and Yvon Chouinard.
I fished Abaco Lodge with Bruce Holt of the G.Loomis rod company in June 2014 and while I wish I could have found more time to relax in the Oceanside freshwater infinity pool, and snack on fresh and local yellowfin tuna sushi and cold Kalik beer, there was simply just too much water to cover in just a week of fishing.
And the depth of guiding experience was surprising too for a lodge that is just a few years old. White has tapped into a pre-existing pool of Abaco's best existing guides and hand-picked the most knowledgeable, safe, and friendly of the lot to be his full-time staff.
At the same time, White is carefully training young, dedicated locals to become the next generation of guides — not just to secure the near-future of Abaco Lodge but to mentor the future guardians and champions of a sustainable resource.
At the start of his search for the perfect fly-fishing venue, White didn't even know what type of fishing would provide the most compelling experience. When he left Wall Street he caught giant trevally in the Seychelles, tigerfish in Tanzania, payara in Venezuela, and taimen in Siberia.
After opening Abaco Lodge he went far upstream in the Amazon basin looking for possibly the largest freshwater fish you can catch with a fly rod: arapaima. What he found in the small village of Rewa was a Spartan ecolodge that was built in 2005 with a grant from Conservation International. But with no tourism experience (business or otherwise), no marketing savvy, and really no product to sell other than a cot in an empty building, the "lodge" (owned by a town cooperative) was a failure. In the first year of operation, there were only two guests, both mining prospectors.
With funding from Costa del Mar, in 2011 White helped create a new future of the 300 villagers in Rewa. With three friends, he traveled there to discover how to catch arapaima up to 200 pounds using fly-fishing tackle, and helped the villagers set up a fly-fishing-only preserve with proper but rustic accommodations, and guides who know how to catch, release, and protect the giant dinosaur fish that provided the basis for a new tourism industry deep in the jungle.
White spent weeks in Rewa training guides, showing staff members how to set the table, serve, add fresh flowers to the room, and provide turndown service — in other words, to provide similar service to Abaco Lodge. White even took one of the villagers, Rovin Alvin, to Abaco Lodge to see firsthand how a great fly-fishing lodge operates, and to bring that knowledge and mindset back to Rewa to instill in the community. Now, the lodge is booked to capacity for the next three years, and the protected arapaima seem to be getting larger.
Jeremy Wade of the TV show River Monsters recently fished there and was required to use fly fishing tackle, just like anyone else. That turned out to be a good thing, as Wade landed a 300-pound giant that was the biggest of his career on any tackle, and proved that the sustainable operation White created is working. The fish are thriving, tourists are getting a low-impact jungle experience that is safe and comfortable, and an entire economy has been created.
For more details on how Rewa has been changed, and how the arapaima and their habitat has been protected, see costadelmar.com/protect.
Oliver White's constant exposure to the world's best fishing locations alongside the most experienced fly fishers in the world has quickly made Oliver White one of the best fly fishers our sport has to offer. Alongside his other media responsibilities, White in 2015 became a regular columnist for Fly Fisherman magazine, and kicked off his writing career with a cover story on swimming crocodile-infested waters in Tanzania to catch toothy tigerfish.
In each issue, White will focus on fresh and exciting places to travel with a fly rod but at his core, White feels like he's still a fishing guide. That's how he started in the Rockies more than a decade ago, and that's why every summer he still hitches his drift boat to a truck, and spends weeks drifting the best trout rivers on the continent with many of the very same people he started with so many years ago.