Casting for Giants: Fly-Fishing for Monsters with Oliver White

Casting for arapaimas in the Guyanese jungle.  Photographs by Christopher Wilson


It’s late afternoon on our second day of fishing, and Paul Vigano is struggling. He’s standing in the bow of a 16-foot aluminum skiff, making errant casts with a 12-weight fly rod into Parawan Pond and berating himself. “I’m going too fast,” he mutters. “I’m rushing.”

We’re deep in the Guyana rain forest, on a murky pond flanked by towering vegetation, hunting a creature few anglers have ever heard of — the arapaima, the world’s second-largest freshwater fish, a leviathan that can reach 14 feet long and weigh some 400 pounds. Just as extraordinary, this fish breathes air, having evolved over 150 million years in low-oxygen ponds in the jungle. Arapaimas spend their days in the benthic mud, barely moving except to chomp the occasional peacock bass and surface every few minutes for a split-second gulp of air. To catch the beast, you’ve got three seconds after that gulp — known as a roll — to get your fly in front of its big, ugly face. A difficult proposition.

Vigano is an accomplished fly fisherman who has landed fish from Brazil to Kamchatka. He also runs a $700 million private-equity firm in Connecticut and excels at high-stakes financial ass-kicking. He is used to winning.

Right now he is not winning.

“Roll at 10 o’clock, Paul, 60 feet, heading left,” announces Oliver White, our guide, from the rear of the boat. Vigano casts. He’s late. He’s short. He’s frustrated. He exhales through his teeth.

“Relax, Paul,” White says calmly. “You’ll get there.”

White sits stretched out in the stern, long and lean, one bare foot dangling in the water, pearl-buttoned western shirt open to his chest. From behind a pair of wraparound shades, he exudes an easygoing confidence. Sitting next to him is an equally confident Macushi Indian named Rovin Alvin. In soft, patient voices they explain how to read the arapaima — how it creates a circular ripple on the roll, how bubbles betray its direction after the roll, how its mood can be discerned by the smoothness of the roll.

It doesn’t show, but White very much wants Vigano to catch an arapaima, maybe more than Vigano does himself. That’s not just because guides want their clients to catch fish. To White, Vigano is more than a client. He’s part of a continuing experiment to demonstrate that catch-and-release fly-fishing can be a vehicle for economic development and environmental conservation. It’s a novel idea, one more promising than many ecotourism ventures, and one that White wants to replicate around the world.

But first he needs to prove it works here in Guyana. He’d like that proof to look like this: Vigano catches an arapaima. He goes home and tells his deep-pocketed friends he caught an arapaima. Now they want to catch an arapaima. They fly to Guyana, catch their own arapaimas, and in so doing provide thousands of dollars to the 300 Macushi who allow them to fish for arapaimas. That allows the Macushi to continue to say no to the Chinese mining and timber companies clamoring to get in here. In the end, 185 square miles of rain forest, an area eight times the size of Manhattan, get saved. Thanks to fly-fishing.

“Roll at three o’clock, Paul, 50 feet, going right,” White calls out. Vigano casts. He’s late. He’s short. He’s still frustrated.

Soon dusk settles in, and when it does, all hell breaks loose. The giant river otters that have been eyeballing us all afternoon, big six-footers, suddenly start barking and snorting at us. The forest cuts loose with the roar of howler monkeys. Kingfishers start dive-bombing everywhere, and then we hear shotgun blasts, or what sound like shotgun blasts — arapaimas slapping their tails on the surface. “Not good,” White says. “When the roll is smooth, that’s a happy fish, a catchable fish. When they come up splashing, they’re agitated. They don’t like you in their house.”

The jungle is mocking us. Time to call it a day.

We take skiffs down the Rewa River to our camp. On the way, White explains that when pond levels get really low, jaguars swoop out of the forest and tear the mighty arapaimas to pieces. That’s the way it is here, everything eating everything else. Even young jaguars need to worry about the black caimans, which can grow to 15 feet long and weigh 900 pounds. When we get back to camp, we see seven of the massive reptiles just off the bank — or at least we see their glowing eyes, watching us.

Guyana sits next to Venezuela on South America’s Atlantic shoulder, a nation the size of Idaho and consisting largely of pristine rain forest, with about a fifth of its 800,000 citizens living in the coastal capital, Georgetown. I met White on the flight from Miami, and over the Caribbean he informed me that he’d forgotten his shoes. All he had were the cheap flip-flops on his feet. “I travel so much, sometimes I forget things,” he said.

White had just concluded a two-week fly-fishing trip in Cuba, and after our stint in Guyana he would fly straight to the Bahamas for a week of bonefishing with the singer Huey Lewis. After that he would accompany William Ackman, one of the world’s richest hedge fund managers, to Tierra del Fuego to cast for sea-run brown trout. Following that he planned to head to the Seychelles and Tanzania with similarly well-heeled clients. In a fairly rarefied sport, White has carved out a rarefied niche, and when I made the mistake of dubbing him “fly-fishing guide to the rich and famous,” he cringed. “I just love to fish,” he insisted.

In addition to global guiding, he co-owns two successful fly-fishing lodges in the Bahamas, both of which served as the setting for a television series about celebrities who fish, such as Jimmy Kimmel, Michael Keaton, and Tom Brokaw. His commercial sponsorships include Costa sunglasses and Yeti coolers. He writes a monthly column about his far-flung exploits for Fly Fisherman magazine, exploits that have also been documented in films and TV shows. People in the industry told me that White, 36, is fast emerging as fly-fishing’s preeminent personality. Some suggested he is transforming the very nature of fly-fishing, that in bushwhacking through places like Guyana, Tanzania, and Venezuela — to hunt arapaimas, tiger fish, and vampire fish, all challenging fish to catch on fly — he’s taking the sport in directions that might appeal to a new generation. (On our flight to Georgetown, White discussed plans to travel up the Congo River for goliath tiger fish, a fly-fishing-meets–Heart of Darkness type of thing requiring heavy security, negotiations with rebels, and a sizable life insurance policy.)

“The stuff Oliver’s doing is pioneering,” said Kirk Deeter, editor of Trout magazine. “He’ll find a species never caught on fly before, determine how to get a fly in its mouth, then figure out how to land it. And he’s doing this in difficult places — like jungles, with the world’s biggest snakes, biggest spiders, things that can eat you.” Ross Purnell, editor of Fly Fisherman, told me that “fly-fishing has traditionally been perceived as involving libraries and tweed jackets — a gentleman’s sport. Oliver wants to make it an adventure sport.”

White is a lanky 6-foot-3, with soft, hazel eyes, a square jaw, and a ball cap that never comes off. On our flight to Georgetown, we discussed the disappearance of marshland in south Louisiana, the Buddhist view of catch-and-release fishing, and the export economies of various French Polynesian islands. White was extremely personable, fairly brilliant, and refreshingly low-key, all of it coming with residual traces of a charming Southern accent. If you were an industry looking for a poster boy to lure a new generation, you couldn’t do better than Oliver White.

But the problem with casting White, so to speak, as fly-fishing’s next big thing is that White himself questions the entire enterprise. Saddled with both an excess of humility and a philosophy degree from the University of North Carolina, he admits to engaging in near-constant self-reflection and criticism. “I’ve chased what I want to do,” he says. “The whole ‘becoming a fly-fishing personality’ organically grew from that. Now people in the industry want me to be that guy, and it doesn’t feel natural. OK, I’m a brand. But what does that mean, exactly?” Wouldn’t the process of ceaseless brand-promotion lead to an inexorable and tragic loss of authenticity, he wonders. And couldn’t this, in turn, result in the loss of his very self? “How do I do this and stay true to what I love?” he frets. “I’m telling you, man, it’s a semiannual existential crisis.”

He sounded like no fishing guide I’d ever met.

From Georgetown, White and I flew with Vigano and four others two hours south in a Cessna Caravan to a lonely dirt runway carved out of the jungle. From there, Rovin Alvin and several other Ma­cushi accompanied us in motorized skiffs two hours up the Rupununi River to its confluence with the Rewa and the site of Alvin’s village, also called Rewa. We overnighted in the rustic lodge there, and then motored five hours up the Rewa River to our camp, which consisted of a few hammocks in the forest.

Along the way, White told me about Indifly, the nonprofit he started in 2014, with the Macushi-arapaima project as its flagship effort. Since he began bringing clients to Guyana in 2011, a new economy has emerged for the 300 residents of Rewa, who control some 185 square miles of rain forest. Fly-fishing earns them $100,000 a year, an unheard-of amount for a community this far off the grid. They own the lodge, run the fishing, and retain all profits. White does not earn a dime. The community relies on Indifly’s counsel, and with timber companies still trying to secure leasing rights by bribing the Macushi with flashy new boats and outboard motors, the project faces challenges. But White is already trying to replicate it in other places where economically distressed communities intersect with great fly-fishing. He is talking to the Shoshone and Arapaho tribes in Wyoming’s Wind River Range, home to excellent trout streams. He has spent time with the residents of tiny Anaa Atoll in the Pacific, a potential bonefishing mecca. He is investigating Papua New Guinea (black bass) as well as Bhutan (mahseer).

“I think Indifly could be the conduit for everything,” White says. “I get to do what I want to do, go where I want to go, but the focus is off me. It’s about helping other people.”

During the rainy season, from May through September, the Rewa and other tributaries of Guyana’s Essequibo River basin rise up to 40 feet, flood the jungle, then recede, replenishing countless ponds that have existed for millennia. On our third day, we motor 10 minutes downriver and then hike a half-mile through the jungle, past the giant buttressed root systems of mora trees and dense curtains of strangler figs. At Simoni Pond, we find three boats waiting on the bank, courtesy of a dozen Macushi who have schlepped them through the forest for us.

We paddle out. Within minutes, a distant thunk pulses our boat. “Arapaima feeding,” White whispers. “I don’t know of another species you can fish audibly. You can hear them 60 feet away.” Then arapaimas start rolling everywhere, 10 o’clock moving left, two o’clock going away, 12 o’clock heading right. It’s a target-rich environment. But Vigano, the finance guy, continues to struggle. Finally, after two days of quietly analyzing his cast, White steps to the front of the boat. Rather than detail the myriad ways Vigano is flagging, White mentions the Cablz brand sunglasses strap dangling behind his client’s neck.

“That’s a great little company,” he says.

“Yeah?” Vigano says, still fishing.

“Innovative product, cheap to make, and they own the patent,” White says.

“I wouldn’t mind a group of accessories companies,” Vigano says. He mentions that he once owned a fishing-gear manufacturer. White laments that most companies in the space are overvalued and poorly run. This launches an in-depth discussion of good companies, bad companies, and investment strategies.

Vigano relaxes.

Bit by bit, sprinkled throughout this conversation, White tweaks his stroke. He tells him not to break his wrist on the back cast. He suggests “coming over with your thumb at the end for increased speed.” By late morning Vigano is casting farther and more accurately. “Fly-fishing is all about increasing your opportunities,” White explains. “Do that and you’ll increase your chances of closing the deal.”

The hit, when it comes, catches Vigano off guard, the way an earthquake might flatten an unsuspecting village. There’s plenty he’ll say about it tonight over drinks — how the roll was 30 feet out, how the fish was coming toward us — but all Vigano can manage in the moment is “Holy shit!” His rod becomes a horseshoe. White and Alvin scream for him to strip his line. But in seconds the fish is gone.

White points out Vigano’s error: He had raised his rod to set the hook. Any angler would do this, of course; that’s how you catch fish. But it’s not how you catch arapaimas. The species is armor-plated, covered in half-dollar-size scales that Macushi women use as nail files. The inside of its mouth is no less impenetrable. Setting the hook requires some 25 pounds of pressure, and the best way to do this, as White demonstrates, is to wedge the rod in the crook of one arm, grip the line with both hands, and pull with everything you’ve got. Catching the great fish amounts to a mano a mano tug-of-war.

Later this evening at camp, White pours himself a glass of 15-year-old El Dorado, a celebrated Guyanese rum, and reflects on his day. He has helped a man edge closer to achieving a bucket-list dream, while simultaneously helping a people maintain their centuries-old way of life. He’s done some fishing. He will fish again tomorrow. Now he’s reclining beneath a billion stars in one of the world’s great unspoiled wildernesses. “I’ve got the best job in the world,” he says.

About the only thing more compelling than the dreamy facts of White’s immediate situation is the unlikely story of how he arrived at it. Friends credit his success to smarts, charm, thoughtfulness, and work ethic. All true. But they also talk about unbelievable timing, uncanny opportunism, and a knack for transforming personal tragedy. “Oliver could fall face-first into a pile of manure and pull out a diamond,” says his old friend Joseph Dalton. “That’s his life. It’s like a movie. It’s like Forrest Gump.”

White was born in Boone, North Carolina, in 1979, but he grew up mostly in rural Johnston County, 30 minutes from Raleigh, where his father was an Army officer, and his mother a preschool teacher. Their house sat in a pine forest, and Oliver and his two younger brothers spent their days running through the woods, sloshing through creeks, camping, and canoeing.

But White’s passion was skiing, and he spent winter weekends carving up the slopes around Boone. When he was a junior at the University of North Carolina, he was skiing a place called Hawksnest, barreling down a black diamond run in icy conditions. Halfway down, someone slammed into him and sent him flying. When he woke later in the hospital, he couldn’t move his fingers or toes. He had broken his back.

His recovery took a year, first in the hospital, then at his parents’ house, where he soon went stir-crazy. One day his pal Dalton stopped by and found White in the front yard with his walker, casting a fly rod. “His brother had left a basketball in the yard, and Oliver was trying to hit that ball,” recalls Dalton. “He told me he was going to get into fly-fishing.” Casting in the front yard was White’s only outdoor activity for months.

After his recovery, White fished incessantly, and after college he put off law school to manage a fly-fishing shop in Boone. He enjoyed educating anglers on local streams, and he realized guiding was mostly about keeping clients relaxed. One day a man named Fernando de las Carreras walked into the shop. He and White soon fell into a deep discussion about fishing. Carreras owns a lodge called Kau Tapen, an elegant outpost on Tierra del Fuego’s Río Grande River, one of the best trout fisheries on the planet. Kau Tapen is to fly-fishing what Churchill Downs is to horse racing, and it has hosted several U.S. presidents, vice-presidents, and Federal Reserve chiefs. By the end of their conversation, Carreras was so taken with White that he offered him a guiding job.

Kau Tapen became White’s winter home, and through contacts he made at the lodge, he found a summer guiding job in Jackson, Wyoming. Guiding had never been White’s goal, and he knew that one day he would have a more traditional career. But for a guy in his early twenties, it was hard to beat an intercontinental lifestyle with endless days of fishing.

In January 2005, William Ackman, the hedge fund manager, arrived at Kau Tapen with brand-new gear. He had never fly-fished before. He had won the trip at a charity auction. Rookies never showed up at Kau Tapen, and the guides weren’t sure what to do with him. But White did, and the two spent much of the week together. “Oliver was extremely mature,” Ackman said. “He was very smart. The way he explained things made sense to me.”

By the end of the week, Ackman had caught a 22-pound trout and offered White a job at his investment firm in New York. Guides get offered stuff all the time, but rarely are the offers sincere. Yet when White returned to Jackson that summer, he found a box of books on his doorstep, all volumes on investing. He spent the summer reading Warren Buffett and Peter Lynch, and when he finished, he called Ackman. “Ready to come to New York?” the billionaire asked.

White was hesitant. But he had a good sense about Ackman. Plus, what did he have to lose? Worst-case scenario, he validates what he knows — cities are bad, office jobs are bad — and he returns to guiding.

White flew to New York and reported to Pershing Square, Ackman’s new firm. His co-workers were bewildered. “Our usual formula is: Ivy League, a great stint at Goldman, then Wharton valedictorian,” said Paul Hilal, a former partner. “There’s a line of people like that trying to get in here. I said, ‘Who? A fishing guide?’ ”

White spent his first weeks wandering around the office with a legal pad, jotting down everything. He was overwhelmed. Living in an overpriced crappy apartment with a bad Craigslist roommate didn’t help. Ackman reassured White, telling him that his unique perspective would ultimately provide value. Then he gave White $10,000 to improve his living situation.

Hilal began mentoring White, as did another former partner, Mick McGuire. On a whiteboard in his office, McGuire taught him high-level finance. Hilal taught him how to consolidate data. Outside the office, White explored the city. “We’d have drinks, and Oliver would have a list of folks he’d met at a coffee shop, in the subway, on the sidewalk,” McGuire recalls. “He makes friends fast.”

White worked at Pershing from 2005 to 2007, during which its value increased from $1 billion to $8 billion. White’s most notable contribution came during Pershing’s proxy battle for the board of Ceridian, a data-processing company. White discovered that one board member was an avid angler who used the company jet to travel to Jackson repeatedly during fishing season. This struck White as highly unethical — and potentially useful in a takeover battle. In fact, Pershing leveraged that information to oust the board member and commandeer the board before selling the company. “We made a 40 percent return on our half-billion-dollar investment in 11 months,” Hilal says. “Oliver was an important part of that.”

After two years Ackman encouraged White to take the next step and get his MBA. But White missed the outdoors, so much so that he sometimes slept in a sleeping bag on the roof of his apartment building. Plus, for all intents and purposes, he’d already earned an MBA. He had learned how to analyze data, pitch ideas, negotiate deals, and raise capital. With this new skill set, White began to envision a life in fishing that was not only comfortable but possibly even lucrative.

With Ackman’s blessing, White left New York and methodically dissected the outdoor space, where he found most companies to be mismanaged or unprofitable. He finally happened upon a storm-damaged hotel on Great Abaco Island in the Bahamas that seemed to have everything — proximity to the U.S., no taxes, and a sweet location on the Marls, an expanse of mangrove flats famous for bonefish. White tapped Ackman for $1 million and also pulled in Kau Tapen’s Carreras.

As he began repairing Abaco Lodge, ESPN called out of the blue. Producers needed a place to host a fishing show starring Michael Keaton, Tom Brokaw, Thomas McGuane, and Yvon Chouinard. Someone knew someone who had suggested White. Could his place be ready in five months? White knew this was impossible. “Yes, absolutely!” he told them.

White went into overdrive, running two 20-man crews 24-7 and rarely sleeping. One day in the midst of this frenzied period, when White was alone in the lodge, he spied a stranger on the property. The man asked for a job. When White replied that he had no jobs, the man put a machete to White’s throat and demanded money. White had none. So the man hog-tied White, threw him into the back of White’s Chevy Blazer, and drove to an isolated construction site, where he proceeded, inexplicably, to light a T-shirt on fire and stuff it into the gas tank opening. Flames leaped out. Terrified, White watched and waited for an explosion. It never came. The fire burned out. The man tried it again. Same result.

The lunatic then did the next obvious thing, which was to untie White, fashion a noose, and cinch it around his neck in order to dangle him from a backhoe. White took the opportunity to mention he had a cash card and suggested a trip to the ATM. The man liked this idea. The two drove to Marsh Harbour, where they ran smack into 12,000 people dancing in the street, celebrating Junkanoo, a Bahamian festival. Seeing his opportunity, White sprinted headlong into the parade, lost the kidnapper, found some cops, and collapsed in heavy sobs on the street.

The perpetrator was eventually nabbed, but White fled the Bahamas, vowing never to return. Soon after, Carreras suggested White visit a friend of his, a guy who raises guard dogs. White flew to Argentina and met a sable German shepherd named Bono, a trained personal-protection dog and one of the more ferocious animals he had ever seen. The dog’s price was $15,000, but after talking to White, the owner gave him the animal for free. White’s friend Dalton calls this typical: “Oliver gets kidnapped, almost murdered, and someone ends up giving him a dog that costs more than my truck. Obviously.”

In April 2009, White put the kidnapping behind him and finished work on Abaco Lodge just as ESPN pulled up to shoot Pirates of the Flats. The show was a home run, and the lodge has been booked ever since. White has since hosted all manner of notable anglers. In 2014, Jimmy Kimmel and Huey Lewis stopped by. “Oliver is so accommodating,” says Kimmel. “He just wants you to have fun.” As evidence, Kimmel mentions the time he, Lewis, and White wandered into a local bar. It was perched next to a bridge, beneath which lived an 80-pound tarpon. “Huey and I stumble out and decide we’re going to catch it,” Kimmel says. “Oliver doesn’t try to talk us out of it. He gets our rods. It’s midnight, we’re drunk, but we’re going for it!”

They didn’t catch the fish.

In 2010, a fishing buddy of White’s named Al Perkinson traveled to Rewa. He had heard about a giant air-breathing jungle fish and wanted to know more. He had also heard about the plight of the Macushi. The tribe has an age-old relationship with the arapaima, and until the mid–20th century, residents recognized a strict cultural taboo against harvesting the species. An innate understanding of the fish’s important ecological role as a top predator led the Ma­cushi to believe that powerful demons in the ponds would, among other grisly fates, suck to the bottom any fisherman who caught an arapaima. In the 1950s, Brazilians began popping over Guyana’s southern border to harvest the fish commercially. The Macushi initially frowned upon this, at least until their balata industry collapsed. (The latex substance, tapped from trees, once provided the covering for golf balls.) The taboo against arapaima harvesting crumbled in the face of economic desperation. The Indians began building platforms over the ponds, from which they harpooned the giant fish. Boatloads of salt-cured arapaimas made their way to Brazil.

Before this slaughter, scientists estimated that thousands of arapaimas existed in Guyana (the fish is endemic only to Guyana and Brazil), but a survey in 1998 found just 400. Alarmed, officials outlawed the harvest, and conservation organizations began working with the Macushi. In 2005, Conservation International helped Rewa build a lodge for birders. But few birders came. The Macushi had few outside contacts and knew nothing about marketing. Meanwhile, many villagers left altogether to work dangerous jobs in the gold and bauxite mines of eastern Guyana.

Perkinson is the hippie vice-president of Costa sunglasses and a believer that business can be leveraged for social and environmental good. He wondered how he could help the Macushi and the arapaima. “You’ve got to see this fish,” he told White. “You think we can catch it on a fly?” White traveled to Rewa, and for eight days he tried everything. He tried 40-pound lines.

The fish destroyed those. He tried foot-long flies. He tried a fish scent called Berkley Gulp! spray, but that attracted only piranhas. The Macushi thought he was nuts. “We didn’t think he could catch anything on a fly,” says Alvin. Finally, on day nine, using a five-inch imitation peacock bass, he caught an arapaima.

Perkinson saw immediately that fly-fishing could help the Macushi. White spent months crunching data, analyzing budgets, and figuring out logistics. Then he taught Alvin how to cast and flew him to Abaco to teach him how to guide. Alvin returned to Rewa and transformed the birding lodge into a fly-fishing lodge. Soon, White’s rich fisherman friends started showing up.

Today scientists estimate that Guyana’s arapaima population has rebounded to some 4,000 fish, and the residents of Rewa see their future in catch-and-release fly-fishing. Still, as a people who continue to live a largely subsistence lifestyle, hunting their meals every day with bow and arrow, the Macushi don’t pretend to understand the appeal of releasing something you’ve just caught. Even Alvin admits, “It’s a little strange.”

On our fourth day of fishing, Vigano is ready. We’re on Caiman Pond. There’s a slight breeze. It’s just before 9 am. With 11 curious caimans floating nearby, Vigano casts perfectly at a fish 40 feet out at 10 o’clock, moving right. The subsequent hit vibrates the boat, and then everything seems to unfold in slow motion: Vigano bent over in the bow, pulling like Popeye trying to hoist an anchor; Alvin in the stern, reverse paddling to create tension to set the hook; White stepping to the front of the boat, hollering instructions.

“My arms aren’t strong enough!” Vigano yells. “Keep pulling!” shouts White.

Our boat glides across the pond, towed by the arapaima. Finally, without warning, the fish explodes into the air, a writhing, thrashing mass of green, gold, and red, a ferocious display of primordial fury sending waves across the water.

We paddle close to the bank, and then Alvin, short and powerful, jumps into the water and wrestles the monster toward shore. The fish is six feet long, approximately 160 pounds, and when White jumps in to assist, it beats the shit out of him with its 24-inch-long head, delivering repeated blows to his upper arm that will transform into a baseball-size bruise. When the beast finally mellows, Vigano jumps in for a quick photo, the three men holding it at the surface, smiling. Then Alvin walks it into deeper water, holding it a good while, allowing it to regain strength. He’s not going to release an exhausted arapaima with so many caimans hovering nearby.

High fives are exchanged. Vigano thanks White.

“All that coaching paid off,” Vigano says.

“You always had the components,” White says. “It’s easy to sit in the back and bark orders.”

Vigano shakes his head. “You don’t bark orders,” he says. “That’s not your style. You’re calm and methodical. I like that.”

White grabs a rod and steps to the bow. Now it’s his turn to fish.

Paul Kvinta, an Atlanta-based writer, wrote about the war on Australian sharks in the September 2014 issue of Men’s Journal.