It is no mystery how Randy Wayne White became one of the top selling genre writers in the United States—talent, persistence, and hard work. White, a onetime charter fishing guide in southwest Florida who came to his true calling in an oblique way, is now a mini-industry, with interests in restaurants, sauces, and even a cookbook.
From modest beginnings, White, mostly through his own efforts, has come to fit the cliché “larger than life,” a celebrity as well as an accomplished writer. A onetime high school athlete, his strapping physique and forthright demeanor fit the image of a former linebacker more than that of a literary maven.
White is a Midwestern native who grew up in Ohio and Iowa. But he did most of his early fishing in North Carolina, where he spent many summers and where his family has deep roots. He recalled those nascent bobber-and-worm angling outings with fondness.
“Growing up I fished with my mother, who was a superb fisherman,” he said. “Pee Dee River, North Carolina. We’d use porcupine bobbers (made from the animal’s quills), which is one of the most delightful ways to fish.”
After high school, White assuaged his innate wanderlust with wide-ranging travels, settling in the early 1970s on Sanibel Island in southwest Florida. He worked at the Fort Myers News-Press—a daily newspaper—and then became a fishing guide, docking his boat in Tarpon Bay and plying the waters of Pine Island Sound, San Carlos Bay, and the Gulf of Mexico with clients for thirteen years. His guiding exploits would bring him to fly fishing and eventually provide the nucleus of an enormously successful book series: the Doc Ford mysteries.
“I actually got interested in fly fishing—I got my captain’s license in seventy-four so I was guiding part time,” White recounted. “And one of my clients was a very fine fly fisherman. He came down to my boat with this strange get-up, a very long, willowy rod and Nautilus reel, as I recollect.”
“At the time, among the people that I knew, the thought was that the water was too murky to fly fish (in the backwaters). I knew no one who fly fished, nor did any of the other guides, but I started going out. And I’ll never forget on my first trip we were fishing by Marker 13A (Pine Island Sound) outside Tarpon Bay, across near York Island. Just blind casting as we drifted, three to six feet of water, and a tarpon hit his fly and I thought he was going to have a heart attack, I almost did, too. Ike Hayes, I think he was, from New York. This was a long time ago, 1980.”
“And the thinking at that time was that tarpon wouldn’t hit a fly here because it was too murky,” he repeated. But having seen evidence to the contrary, White set out to learn the new (to him) sport. “In Cape Coral there was a guy named Bruce Brubaker, who at that time was the world fly casting accuracy champion,” he said. “You meet the most interesting people in southwest Florida. I contacted Bruce, he gave me some casting lessons, and I was never a great caster, but I did learn to cast left handed and right handed. Because if you’re a fishing guide, most people are right handed, and you’re better off throwing left.”
“Anyway, I became an aficionado of the sport, largely because the people who I met as clients were just some terrific, classy, classy men, and women. And another common belief at that time was that the tarpon offshore, even if the water was clear, you couldn’t land them because a fly rod didn’t have enough lifting power.” The guides along Florida’s southwest coast had obviously not kept up with the exploits of Ted Williams, Lefty Kreh, Joe Brooks, Stu Apte, et al down in the Florida Keys.
White took the situation in hand to follow his own instincts. “In the early eighties I went to Glenn Pace’s Tackle (in Fort Myers) and we talked about it,” he said. “So he made for me an Ugly Stik fly rod and it was a 10-weight. And so I took Ike Hayes, late spring, we ran offshore and we were looking at acres of tarpon. Ike landed a tarpon in thirty feet of water.”
All the guides “were aware of this unusual incident,” White said. “And then it became a regular thing. We used a sink-tip line out there.”
He has never been a fan of fishing tournaments. “I’m truly not a competitive person in terms of fishing,” he said. “Although, ego is involved. I care about the clients. . . . All that bullshit, I can’t bear it. I can’t tolerate it. Fly casting to me, fly fishing, had a wonderful way to link me to the mastery of sports fishing. People say fly fishing is an art, well it’s not, it’s a craft. Fly tying might be an art. I like the subtleties of it, and I enjoyed the people; my clients, the fly fishing clients. As wonderful as all my clients were, fly fishermen were just a step above.”
Although fly fishing held no competitive attraction for him, White had a more receptive opinion of casting competitions, even writing about one for one of his nonfiction books.
“It was held in Vail, Colorado, and it was at Silver Creek, it might have been called Silver Creek Fly Fishing. And I was invited out there. It was called something like the Vail International Fly Casting Championship. It was kind of tongue in cheek,” he said. “One event was, we cast at nine holes of a golf course. You’d start at the tee, and then cast your fly line. It was a lot of fun. Another was you had to tie an Albright knot blindfolded. That was my event. There was a spawning run upriver, which I didn’t do very well in. And there was accuracy. Anyway, I placed second. I won a beautiful little Abel fly reel.”
It was during his guiding years that White also began writing for profit. Eventually he parlayed his penchant for visiting exotic locales into a lucrative career by traveling to and writing about the farthest corners of the world. This was participatory, first-person adventure travel journalism that paralleled the rise of Outside magazine, which eagerly underwrote his assignments to sometimes dangerous places and hair-raising experiences. Over several decades his travels have taken him from Sumatra to Central America, Africa to Australia, and many places in between. Collections of his adventure travel tales include Batfishing in the Rainforest, The Sharks of Lake Nicaragua and Last Flight Out. When we spoke he was in a deadline crunch following a trip to Guyana.
Simultaneously, White dived into the turbulent waters of fiction, publishing books under the names Randy Striker beginning in 1981and Carl Ramm in 1984. But it was his 1990 mystery Sanibel Flats, published under his own name, that catapulted him to the literary stratosphere. The book’s two main characters, marine biologist Marion “Doc” Ford and his superannuated hippie pal, Tomlinson, have formed the foundation for one of the most successful literary franchises of recent decades.
The Doc Ford phenomenon is also reflected in the success of three eponymous themed restaurants throughout southwest Florida in which White is part owner. The eateries are hugely popular book signing venues for the author, who often heads out on nationwide promo tours.
White’s self discipline and productivity are legendary; traits that have made him one of the country’s most prolific authors, with more than forty published books. His fiction books are action stories, often set in exotic locales, and fraught with violence and local color. These are not novels of manners and cerebral maunderings. Occasionally, though, he does salt them with existential quips. In recent years his novels have consistently made it onto the New York Times Bestseller List. The American Independent Mystery Booksellers Association picked Sanibel Flats as one of the hundred favorite mysteries of the twentieth century.
White is modestly circumspect about one aspect of his apprenticeship in fly fishing. “You know, I really didn’t start anything in this area,” he said. “I want to be very careful not to take credit for something I didn’t do, but what I told you about fly fishing was absolutely true.”
He defers to other guides on the pioneering aspect of his southwest Florida saltwater forays. “I think Rick O’Bannon was a far better fly fisherman than I,” he said. “I think the O’Bannon’s—Rick and Phil—were starting to do some fly fishing at that time. And the only reason I recall that is because I happened to pull into the old marina at Punta Rassa and Phil was there and I saw fly rods. . . . It might have been the early eighties.”
When he stopped guiding, White passed on much—but not all—of his fishing gear to his two sons. He still fly fishes and two months before this interview flew down with a couple of friends to the Bahamas to chase bonefish.
“We did great,” he said. “I actually didn’t plan on fishing. But I went out with Mark Futch (a friend from southwest Florida). On a real windy day the guide said, here, get your ass up here. So I got up there (on the bow) and started throwing into the wind and starting getting my loop right, started to get my loop contained, and, Christ, I caught a bunch of little bonefish. It was fun. . . . They ate like little piggies.”
White lamented the fact that he seemed unable to make more time for a sport he loves. “I really have to change something. I write, always have, essentially seven days a week, that’s the problem. The deadline obligations, correspondence, and charities. . . . I still have a fly rod rigged and ready and if I see tarpon down by the beach—which I often do in the fall, that’s a phenomenon—I’ll go on down and more often than not I’ll clip off the point of the hook and then just get a jump or a run.”
Though almost all of his fly fishing has been in the salt, White has sampled freshwater. “I’ve done a little in Idaho and Colorado,” he said. “And I enjoyed the subtleties of it. I wasn’t very successful. I loved the way it smelled.”
Though White cares deeply about the natural world, he refuses to be pigeonholed. “There are a number of so-called environmentalists that disagree that I’m an environmentalist,” he said. “I travel so much that I’m all too aware that the first casualty of a failed economy is the environment. So I’m for free enterprise, particularly small business. I am less and less tolerant of the unthinking, blind, so-called environmental groups. . . . I like to think I’m a realist who appreciates the environment.”
One thing he learned from the sport is, “There is a continuity, whatever pastime or vocation we choose we, in a sense, channel our predecessors. In regards to fly fishing, Ted Williams . . . Captain (Jimmie) Albright. Another thing it taught me. Women, in my experience, learn fly casting far easier and far more quickly than men. They don’t overpower the rod and they listen to what you say.”
Many of us have a number one fishing buddy and White is no exception. “My favorite all-time fishing companion is (fellow author) Peter Matthiessen. In fact, Pete just came down a month or two ago, and we did have three wonderful days. He came down and Bill Bishop (guide, outdoor writer, and angling artist)—he is absolutely superb—he took Peter and me out. It was windy, but Peter still had a couple of shots at big fish.”
These days he has taken up another aquatic pastime, also partly centered around fish. “I paddle board,” he said. “It’s very intimate, I see a lot of fish. I’ve seen more bull sharks than I’ve ever seen in my life.” Because of their ferocity and penchant for hunting in packs, bull sharks are the bane of tarpon fishermen’s endeavors and have a well-earned reputation as one of the oceans’ most dangerous predators for humans. One time White was videoing a large one swimming around his board when he slipped and fell on top of it, causing it to shoot away like a torpedo. Having been peripherally acquainted with him for nearly twenty years—observing the way he carries himself, his physical bulk, his confident mien—I was not surprised at the shark’s reaction.
Excerpted with permission from Famous Fly Fishers: Profiles of Eminent and Accomplished People Who Love the Quiet Sport (West River Publishing)