February 27, 2020
The ad in the back pages of Fly Fisherman read “Alaskan Guide Wanted.” That’s how one of the most successful and recognized guides on the planet got his start—answering a classified ad in the back of this very magazine. It was the early ’90s and David Mangum was living in Austin, Texas while wrapping up school. He was ready for a change, and the allure of guiding and wilderness called to him.
When he responded to the advertisement, he discovered that the head guide in Alaska was a Keys captain the rest of the year. Mangum was a Florida native, and the 850 area code was an immediate tip-off. The seed was planted, and the journey that created one of the best guides on the planet began.
After a couple of summers in Alaska, Mangum put his saltwater guiding career in motion. His first tarpon was on an 8-weight, the only rod he owned, and that fish towed him around for the better part of an hour in his aluminum johnboat. It was 1994 when Mangum asked his father to co-sign on the note of his first skiff, a Flip Pallot-designed Hells Bay Waterman. By today’s standards it was a steal—$18k brand new—and tarpon fishing hasn’t been the same since.
If you have been living under a rock and aren’t quite sure who David Mangum is, here is a refresher. He was the masked man in the cult classic Location X—the first film of the Internet age that really showed the world how incredible Florida tarpon fishing is. Mangum has stayed true to his core. His life is built around tarpon season, and the Yeti Presents film 120 Days gives you a taste of just that. His guide season doesn’t end there. He does another 120 days in Louisiana. He runs a stable of over a dozen top-notch guides under his umbrella of Shallow Water Expeditions—including Jack Foley and Jason Stacey. Alongside Mangum, these and many of his guides have earned their own solid reputations in the saltwater space.
Somehow Mangum finds time to film and produce videos, write books, capture amazing imagery, and still be a father to a badass girl. He is one of the most respected—and sought-after—guides on the planet.
That doesn’t mean the road to get there was easy. Early on, Mangum fished more than he guided, putting in as much time on the water as possible: exploring, looking, carving his own way as he honed his skills and learned the fishery. He quickly carved out a niche. He wasn’t the first guide in the Panhandle, but there weren’t many, and most did a combination of fly and gear. Mangum was there to forge his own path. He stayed out of the way of the veteran guides, picking up and moving if he saw them heading his way. If he could see another guide, he cranked up and moved. There is a guiding principle there that continues into the next generation of guides—seeing someone in a spot doesn’t give you the right to it. As Mangum continues to mentor and train new guides, he looks for those who want to do it the “right way.” Above all else, that means respect for the fishery and those who came before you.
Respect the Journey
Mangum kept exploring new water, keeping extensive notes in his daily journal, dialing in the tides, the movement of the fish, what they ate and didn’t eat, the presentation, the flies, and all the other subtle nuances that meant the difference between success and failure. The mastery started with a view from 50,000 feet: How does this whole system work? Why are the fish here? What moves them? What moves the water? Wind? Tides? Temperature? Food? Time of year? From that view he drilled down to the granular level on each and every topic.
Mangum is obsessed. When he gets into something he leaves no stone unturned. That mentality drives him on a search for perfection and mastery. It goes beyond the fishing.
What does it take to perform to the best of your ability? For Mangum it means endurance to put in 120 straight 12+ hour days—so he keeps fit, he practices his balance on a slackline, endures brutal workouts—all to be on top of his skiff game all season long. It’s a never-ending drive for improvement that mimics Steve Huff’s infamous work ethic, and it trickles down into every aspect of what he does.
Most guides, even good guides, have a degree of complacency. I’m guilty of it myself. The legendary guides operate on a different level. It comes from a combination of work ethic, competitiveness, and ultimately the pursuit of excellence. Counter to what many may think, it’s not the big things that really differentiate him, but the subtle nuances. Mangum himself says it’s all about the minutiae.
A big part of guiding success depends on communication. If you are going to spend 10 or more hours in a skiff you have to be able to understand each other. Mangum gives incredible consideration to the way he communicates, not just what he says but how he says it—the cadence, the speed, the emphasis, the order of the words. It comes from years of watching where people crumble when that fish of a lifetime gets in range, when they need focus, and how your influence helps them to perform to the best of their ability.
Ultimately as a guide you are fishing vicariously through your clients, so how do you get them to do what you would do? Mangum is a master of this. You are building anglers and friendships at the same time, and often these relationships take years to bear fruit.
For years he flew under the radar, and there were only a few people who were “in the know.” His book of clients filled quickly and became an “A” list of good anglers who passed his name around to others who would appreciate his talents and the fishery. Demand quickly exceeded supply, allowing the greatest luxury among all guides—you get to choose your clients. At this stage in his career, Mangum is booked forever. In the rare event something opens up, the waiting list is deep with clients who are fun, appreciative, and tip well.
Despite the big numbers of giant tarpon in the Panhandle, the fishery stayed fairly hush-hush for more than a decade. Any hopes of keeping it a secret were dashed with the release of Location X in 2006. While Mangum covered his face and producers attempted to keep the spot a secret, a few notable landmarks appeared in the film. That brought more anglers—the do-it-yourselfers, guides from other areas, and wannabe guides as well. Mangum and his crew are notoriously protective of the fishery, and they quickly developed a reputation for running guides off his flats.
Mangum’s closest friend and fellow guide Brett Martina has said: “Some things need to be guarded.” These guys mean it. A lot of the fishing is done on anchor. When you hook up you throw the anchor and chase the fish. Mangum’s anchor buoy is notoriously a skull. This is more than a “locals only” warning. Mangum said: “Nobody owns the ocean, but you own the intellectual capital that you have earned with your blood and sweat over the years.” That’s a pretty profound statement. The water is public, but the information and knowledge gained from time spent of the water are proprietary.
If you think you can front-end Mangum in a spot you saw him in the day before—think again. Seeing someone in a spot doesn’t grant you access. Breaking that code is the ultimate taboo, and there is zero tolerance or forgiveness. If you want to come in and respect the guides who came before you, invest the energy into figuring out your own program, your own spots. There is a chance they will let you stay. If you stick it out and find something new, you might even earn their respect and enter their inner circle. Amazingly enough, there is still opportunity out there to pave your own way. The guides who do that earn respect from their peers.
Beyond the guiding, Mangum is a mentor and bit of a Renaissance man with insatiable creativity. He’s an artist, photographer, and videographer. You can now add author to his accolades. He recently “curated” a stunning coffee table book, Yeti Presents: Tarpon Book ($100, yeti.com) that includes a foreword by Mangum and short essays from some of the sport’s most influential writers, including Thomas McGuane, Randy Wayne White, and Diana Rudolph.
The limited-edition book was printed and bound by Editoriale Bortolazzi Stei in Verona, Italy on 150-gsm-weight GardaPat Bianka paper. As I mentioned with his guiding, Mangum cares very much about the minutiae and takes care to do every project as perfectly as possible.
That curiosity to tackle new projects (and succeed) makes him a pleasure to be around. I try to surround myself with passionate people like Mangum because they fuel my own passion and push me to always improve and to do better. Whether the fishing is good or bad, when I spend a day with him I am always learning and I am constantly inspired.
Oliver White (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a partner in two fishing lodges in the Bahamas—Abaco Lodge and Bair’s Lodge. He travels extensively, hosting small groups in exotic locations around the world and in the American West.