September 01, 2023
So much can and has been said about Dave Whitlock because he truly was a renaissance man in fly fishing. He was a writer, artist, photographer, teacher, fly designer, illustrator, speaker, inventor, and tackle designer. He engineered streams to make them trout worthy and was the first fly tier ever to get paid royalties for his patterns. He helped bring fly fishing to cool and warm water, and was one of the first to design commercial flies for bass and other non-trout species. He helped start some of the first fly-fishing clubs and spread the word about the Federation of Fly Fishers when it was just beginning . . . and so much more. That was Dave the professional. But I’d like to write about a different Dave—the person who I was fortunate enough to live, love, and work with for 33 years.
At a young age, Dave’s doctors told him he probably would not survive past 30. He was first given up on after a very long labor. Surviving that, he caught rheumatic fever and polio, causing extended stays in children’s hospitals and years of wearing leg braces. The rheumatic fever caused a serious heart arrhythmia so no exertion from sports was allowed, and he was never allowed to play on athletic teams.
But that all changed at the age of nine when his dad brought home an old fly rod that he bought in a pawn shop. Dave requested one after seeing his granddad’s L.L. Bean catalog. I guess you could say that after that, he waded into his destiny. And he made it all the way to 88 in good health. He simply refused to give up.
As he told me stories of his early days fly fishing, he laughed about how he would take that old rod—with sticky silk line and a piece of black, braided casting line in place of a tippet—down to the local bluegill pond and catch almost as many sunnies on his backcast as his forward cast!
You see, he’d never met or seen an actual fly fisher and was just making it up as he went along. In fact, he would not meet another fly fisher until he was 17. I often marveled at how motivated he must have been back then to not give up for so many years.
In his late teens—after finally making a fly-fishing friend and getting a canoe—Dave’s world opened up and he discovered another love: paddling. In fact, he became an exquisite canoeist and got us through every tight spot we were ever caught in. Even when he was 88, a canoe was his number one choice for watercraft.
He was so good that over all our years in a canoe together, I only saw him fall out once. We had taken our beautiful wooden Old Town canoe up to Quetico Provincial Park in Canada for some solitude, smallmouths, and pike. We had a fabulous week of camping on little islands covered in wild blueberries and some pretty exciting fishing. On the last afternoon of the trip, we were down to Bisquick and wild blueberries, so we paddled out to catch a smallmouth for supper.
We had been out for a while and I was doing the fishing, so I handed Dave the rod to let him have some fun, too. He cast a fruit cocktail WhitHair Bug just off the shore of a little island. As we watched the fly plop down, a shadow from the deep slowly rose up and hovered behind the bug. It was a huge pike—and we were without a bite tippet. The monster slowly opened its mouth, took in the fly, and then of course, all hell broke loose as the monster shot straight at us and lunged under the canoe.
Dave started madly stripping in line and stood up to turn around as the pike streaked under us. As he tried to turn, his feet got tangled in the anchor chain and he went right over the side—head first!
I was quickly considering my options when he popped up a second later, handed me the rod that he’d refused to let go, and unwrapped the chain around his feet. Holding onto that rod, with the line screaming off, I paddled the few feet to the island so Dave could get back on board. In the meantime, that old pike had us into the backing and was heading across the lake. After about 25 minutes, a couple of mishaps, and an aborted beaching, we got that rascal in, all 48 inches of him. We had a good laugh, thanked him, patted his head, and sent him on his way.
After living, working, and fishing with Dave, I came to believe that he must have been born overly curious . . . and aquatic. He never lost that curiosity and he was absolutely drawn to water. We often pulled over to explore a ditch or stream or pond just to see what it held, turning over rocks and pulling up vegetation to find what critters lived there. Every day was a cool biology lesson with Dave.
At our home in northeast Oklahoma, we have a pond and trout stream. Both need lots of care to keep them at their peak and looking good, especially the pond. We’ve planted a great mix of water vegetation and lilies—and it can be stunning. But overgrowth is a real problem every year, especially with the water lilies. We don’t use herbicides, so hand harvesting is the only remedy.
Almost every summer for the last many years, Dave would get up to his neck in the pond, pulling lilies out by the roots. He loaded them in his utility boat, floated it to shore, and transferred the load to our trailer. Once he filled up the trailer, he took it up the hill to the compost pile and unloaded it again, repeating this ritual even just last October, when he was 88 years old. The crazy thing is that anytime Dave was in the water, he was happy and felt energized, even when he was working hard.
Whitlock the Illustrator
Dave told me he started drawing very early. He would chuckle and say that he was now getting paid for what he used to get spankings for. That was because he would draw on anything—books, school desks, even chalkboards when the teacher left the room. It just seemed to pour out of him. Sometimes I’d go to add something to the grocery list and find that he had rewritten and illustrated it! That man could sure keep me smiling.
He wanted so much to take art and journalism courses in college, but his parents—who had gone through the Depression—refused to help him pay tuition in those fields because “artists and writers were always the first to starve.”
So, he chose chemistry and biology and went to work for oil companies when he graduated. However, being in a basement research lab was not where his heart was, and he ached to be on the water. He did continue to fly fish, observe, and study aquatic life in every spare moment.
He told me his world changed the moment he put on his first face mask and could see the underwater world he loved so much. He spent hours underwater with a snorkel or tank just watching fish, their various foods, and all that lived in there with them.
He paid attention to how the water action affected them and even how they reacted to flies. He had such a need to know, and understand, and he really paid his dues, not only by reading the words of others but by going to the source to learn for himself. All the while he was building a huge knowledge base that he would draw from when he finally left research and began writing and teaching.
I loved being out on the water or just outdoors with Dave because I learned so much about fish and fishing from him through great conversation and just plain osmosis. The day he had me go underwater with him and just settle in to watch was a game changer for me. When we stopped moving, the fish would go back to their normal behavior and we could get glimpses into their real lives.
I’ll never forgot when he had me turn over and look up. The underside of the water surface is stunning! Everyone should see it for themselves.
A Life in Fly Fishing
After working in research for about 10 years, he decided he’d try following his heart and see if he could make a living in fly fishing. In 1968, with doubt in his mind, he submitted his first article to Field & Stream. After that, he never got turned down by a publisher. He wrote many articles and columns for Fly Fisherman, Fly Fishing and Tying Journal, and almost 100 articles for Trout magazine. Thing is, he never just turned in a text, leaving it up to the magazine to find the photos and/or illustrations. When an editor got a Dave Whitlock article, it was complete with extra photos to choose from, and often several drawings to illustrate it.
My family lived in Colorado when I was growing up, and we traveled to Arkansas for summer visits with my grandparents. I learned to fish when I was just a little girl, with the help of a cane pole, bobber, and worms I dug in grandma’s garden. We would catch a tub full of sunfish, and my grandma would fry them up for supper.
As I got older, I continued to fish, but with my botany degree and love of wildflowers, I spent much more time in the woods than on the water. That changed at age 40, when Dave and I got together. He was such a good teacher, and I really fell in love with fly fishing. I focused all my attention on it when we were on the water.
One spring day, after a couple of years, I happened to look up at a low bluff along the river and found that it was just covered in trout lilies and wild violets. It suddenly hit me—I had been so focused on my flies that I had barely looked up. So, my sweet Dave immediately said, “Okay, from now on every couple of hours we are going to stop fishing and start looking, and when we can, we’re going to get out and explore.”
He kept that promise. He pulled over the canoe, boat, or vehicle many times and we spent many happy hours walking in the woods along rivers and streams. Sometimes, when I was working or cooking, he’d walk in with a big smile and present me with a beautiful little flower, and then he’d take me to where he’d found it.
Dave was such a romantic at heart. For our first date he pulled his VW camper next to the White River and flung open the side doors to reveal a red rose, a bottle of Champagne, and gourmet sandwiches for our lunch. That first cast of his certainly piqued my interest. Later on he loved to make me breakfast in bed, take a picnic dinner and wine in the canoe, or just snuggle on the couch. Every so often he’d get up early, go out to our pond and catch a few bluegill, cook them up, and add them to our morning meal as a surprise.
From the very beginning he believed in me. Dave was a master at public speaking, could get up and talk about fishing all day long, and I never saw him use a script. I had done a bit of public speaking and taught biology in junior college and had a year toward a PhD in biology/botany, but talking in public was still a basic fear for me.
However, Dave decided I would be a natural. So, after we’d only been together a few months, in the plane on our way home from New Zealand, he said I’d be giving the slide show with him at the fly-fishing club when we landed. Of course, I said no I’m not. He said, but the show is about the Ozarks and you just need to talk about the wildflowers in it. I said no I’m not—but he wouldn’t give up. I even tried calling in sick, but he wasn’t buying it.
Well, the next thing I know, I was standing at the front of a room full of fly fishers who were listening to Dave’s every word. Suddenly a gorgeous cardinal flower flashed onto the screen. Dave turned to me and said “What is this flower, Emily, tell us about it.”
I have never felt the entire contents of my brain fall out of my head before—but it did, and I just stood there absolutely blank. I could not even remember the name of that very familiar flower. So, after a couple of beats of silence, I looked at Dave and said “a red one.”
I don’t think I’ve ever been so embarrassed in my life, but my mind and mouth would not sync up! Undaunted, Dave said some bits about the flower and moved on. After a couple of slides, another wildflower popped up. But this time it was “a blue one.”
After that he mercifully said “Thanks, Em, you can have a seat.” I felt pretty humiliated but at the same time I became determined to never be tongue-tied like that in public again. Perhaps sometimes trial-by-fire is the only way. Dave still had total confidence in me for some reason, kept helping me improve in public speaking situations, and I learned to truly enjoy it and now feel very at home in front of a crowd. I think we became a pretty good team.
Dave often saw the potential in others—especially in young fly fishers—and would quietly, or not so quietly sometimes, encourage them. We have a several “adopted” sons whom he took under his wing over the years and are still very close.
In the last few months, I’ve personally received many stories from people who were affected by Dave. Sometimes by just a few words, sometimes by an impromptu art or casting lesson, sometimes by a long letter he wrote or a beautiful inscription in a book.
I spent many hours next to him in our art booth, and I never knew Dave to just sign his name to a book. Even when we were way behind and he had a big pile of books to sign, he just couldn’t bring himself to do it. Each person and book got his attention. After we started including bookmarks, he even wrote the person’s name on each bookmark. I guess he was still the same kid who liked to draw on everything. I came to love and appreciate that about him, and just expected us to always be the last ones out of the building.
His handwriting was beautiful—it was a work of art itself. It may come as a surprise, but he never used a computer except to look at reference photos. He wrote every article, every email—everything—by hand. He’d start writing an article and after a few days he’d walk into my office and hand me 15 to 20 handwritten pages to be typed up. After typing it, I would make some quick edits (he was a pretty terrible speller) and give it back to him. He’d make his corrections by hand, give it back to me, and I would type in the changes, do a serious edit, and hand it to him for, hopefully, the final edit.
He wrote all his books the same way, and I have piles of the original, handwritten manuscripts. It was pretty daunting to get it all typed, but he loved to write by hand and always said that he could be so much more creative that way. Turns out, he was.
Making Fine Art
Dave never lost his love of drawing and painting. In fact, he would often spend more time on his illustrations than the text of the article. Rarely did a day go by that he wasn’t in his studio at his pencils and paints. There were times when I’d have to drag him out for lunch and remind him when it was dinner time. He would lose all track of time—and love every minute. That must be the definition of a true passion. I’m very glad that he got to devote so much time to his beautiful art in his later years. That came about mostly because we sat down about 20 years ago to talk about our future goals. He was 68 and we both thought that at this point in his life he should be spending the majority of his time on what he wanted to do the most. When I asked what that was, he said “I want to create fine art.”
To be sure, he had already illustrated five books of his own, more than 20 books written by others, and had painted and drawn some pretty remarkable pieces. But he wanted to get more serious about it. I was all for it, but we had to figure how to make that happen. We knew we’d have to stop traveling around the country lecturing and doing programs and instead spend time making and selling art.
We put together an art booth to take to the shows and, because we couldn’t seem to get good-quality prints, we ordered print making equipment and I became his print maker. It turned out to be a great system: Dave would create an original, I would create a print from it, we would tweak it to get it just right, and then I’d print what we needed. What really made the art shine, though, was Dave taking each print and hand-enhancing and remarquing with pencil, paint, and ink before he signed and numbered it. Creating art and seeing folks appreciate it so much made him incredibly happy.
I fished before I met Dave, but never fly fished, so he set about teaching me. I remember vividly one day on a stream in the Missouri Ozarks. We’d been together only a short while and we were working on redesigning a four-mile stretch of spring creek for Johnny Morris of Bass Pro. He had purchased that section of the stream and land around it to create a destination park he would call Dogwood Canyon.
Dave’s job was to design multiple low-water dams and other stream enhancements to create pools and flows that would allow trout to thrive. We had been working on the stream for several days, and on the last evening he brought out a fly rod and told me to have a go. It was a beautiful stream and a lovely evening, but there were two problems—tall trees stood thick behind us and I had only been fly fishing a few times. Needless to say, I proceeded to half-empty his nymph box. He was patient and hardly said a word about the lost flies until we got home. The next morning, he had me follow him to his studio, sat me at his fly-tying table, taught me to tie Red Fox Squirrel Nymphs (kind of), and asked me to fill his box back up. I guess he thought I’d cast better if I knew the work involved in tying the flies.
I did learn to cast, after many more lessons and practice. Dave and I ended up traveling the globe together, catching fish in amazing places, and eventually setting up our own fly-fishing school where we taught together for 25 years.
Dave had a such a hilarious and quirky sense of humor sometimes. We actually met at a fitness club in Mountain Home, Arkansas. One day I noticed that he didn’t wear socks to exercise. This was long before I found out that he only wore shoes when he had to.
Almost everyone wore socks with athletic shoes, and I asked him how no socks could be comfortable, suggesting he might try socks next time. The very next time he was in class, I noticed he was wearing socks. Of course, I commented on this and asked if he liked the feel of them. He said yes and he really appreciated the suggestion. At the end of the class, I sat down to change my shoes as Dave was already pulling his off. I had to laugh out loud because he had cut the bottoms off his socks, and was just wearing the sock cuffs!
Dave was a unique man. He was so talented and skilled, enthusiastic, curious, humble and kind, thoughtful and, I have to add, sometimes ornery. He was also a loving partner for me. Whenever I was leaving to go to town or somewhere without him, he always said “Go forth and be Emily!” He rarely let a day go by without saying he loved me and that I looked beautiful . . . no matter how I looked! In other words, he was a good man—and I miss him.
Emily Whitlock has a bachelor’s degree in botany, and was married to Dave Whitlock for the last 33 years of his life. She still lives at the home they created in northeast Oklahoma.