November 26, 2022
By Lynn Burkhead, OSG Senior Digital Editor
Dave Whitlock, one of the most important figures in the history of modern fly fishing and one of the most iconic figures to ever grace the pages of Fly Fisherman magazine, passed away on Nov. 24, 2022, succumbing to a significant stroke he suffered at his home on Thanksgiving night.
News of Whitlock’s passing began to circulate in the fly-fishing community on the morning of Black Friday, November 25, 2022, and it was soon confirmed by Whitlock’s wife, Emily, on the couple’s “Dave & Emily Whitlock Fly Fishing” Facebook page.
“It breaks my heart to let you know that we lost Dave last night to a massive stroke,” she wrote on the couple’s social media account. “He was working on his boat next to our casting pond when it hit, and was flown to Tulsa for care. But he broke the tippet and drifted gently back to the deep water, the wild that he loved and spent a lifetime exploring, writing and painting about.
“We shared 30 wonderful years together and I was able to see, firsthand, the huge mark he made on our sport. He was so honored when Fly Fisherman magazine recently named him as one of four greats that make up the Mt. Rushmore of fly fishing. But I think he left an even bigger mark on those who knew him and who got to share a river with him. The shimmering leap of a trout, the heavy pull of a largemouth or the feisty dance of a bluegill were things that he dearly loved, made his heart race and brought out his big smile...every time!
“I can't fathom life without him yet. For all these years we have done everything together. But, if I learned one thing from Dave, (and I learned many), it is to take on each day with willingness and curiosity and go out there and keep casting forward.
“My kids are here with their arms around me and I’ll reach out when I can. We will come together for a celebration of Dave’s life, but we don’t know when that will be just yet.
“Thanks to all of you who have touched our lives so profoundly.
In reflecting on the sudden loss of Whitlock, Fly Fisherman magazine editor Ross Purnell had this to say about one of the sport’s most recognizable figures and one of the magazine’s most invaluable contributors down through the years:
“Dave Whitlock was one of a kind—a scientist, artist, an eloquent speaker, and one of the most generous souls to walk this Earth,” noted Purnell. “He was a brilliant trout angler, but he showed us that fly-fishing was about much more than trout. Because of him, we’ve had generations see the beauty in fly fishing for carp, bass, and panfish. He will be greatly missed.”
Whitlock was a softspoken Oklahoma native who always seemed to have a smile on his face. Born in Muskogee, Okla. in 1934, Whitlock ascended to prominence in a sport that isn’t always readily associated with the Sooner State. Even so, Whitlock rose to unparalleled heights in a career that turned to, becoming a writer, artist, naturalist, and conservationist that brought the admiration of many. Those accolades led him to become inducted into several Hall of Fames down through the years, including most recently, the International Game Fish Association’s Hall of Fame.
A longtime contributor to Fly Fisherman, Whitlock was named to the magazine’s “50 Most Influential Fly Fishers in the Last 5 Decades” list in the fall of 2018 when the 50th Anniversary edition of Fly Fisherman was printed, and more recently joined Joe Brooks, Lefty Kreh, and Lee Wulff in being named to Fly Fisherman's "Fly Fishing's Mount Rushmore".
The Oklahoma angling giant took such honors in stride, along with his Hall of Fame inductions, even if an extra measure of patience was required for the last one of those. Whitlock’s induction into the IGFA Hall of Fame Class for 2020 came during the COVID-19 year so fraught with shutdowns and cancellations and he would have to patiently wait several months to be inducted.
In joining the IGFA Hall of Fame Class of 2020, Whitlock found himself in the company of some 131 other legendary anglers, scientists, conservationists, writers and fishing industry leaders whose contributions to sport fishing are forever remembered and celebrated by the IGFA. Other well-known figures in the IGFA HOF include Zane Gray, Mary Orvis Marbury, Ernest Hemingway, Ted Williams, Bill Dance, Mark Sosin, Lee and Joan Wulff, Curt Gowdy, Flip Pallot, and Lefty Kreh to name a few.
That list now includes, of course, Dave Whitlock, a southern gentleman who turned 88 this month. He lived on a ranch near Tahlequah, Okla. with his wife Emily, and routinely fly fished the Illinois River and other waters in the Ozark Mountains region of Oklahoma. While he would go on to sample most of the great fly-fishing waters of the world during his unparalleled career, it was those simple Ozark streams and lakes that always captured his heart and drew him back.
After being educated at Northeastern State University, Whitlock’s rise to prominence in the fly-fishing industry got off to a bit of an unusual start when he turned a college science degree into a research chemistry position in the oil industry.
But at the age of 35, a longtime love for fly fishing and the outdoors world spurred Whitlock to make the leap headlong into a new career devoted to the angling arts. He never looked back, becoming a multi-talented communicator who wrote, lectured, and photographed his way across the fly-fishing world.
Along with countless magazine stories and Internet articles, Whitlock was the author of several books including the L.L. Bean Fly Fishing Handbook; the L.L. Bean Bass Fly Fishing Handbook; Dave Whitlock's Guide to Aquatic Trout Foods; Trout and Their Food; and his most recent work, Artful Profiles of Trout, Char, and Salmon and the Classic Flies That Catch Them among others. He was also a contributor to several other books over the course of his career.
Whitlock was also one of North America’s most innovative fly tyers over the years, coming up with literally dozens of patterns over the course of his career including his well-known Dave's Hopper, Sheep Minnow series, the Red Fox Squirrel-Hair Nymph, the NearNuff Crayfish, the NearNuff Sculpin, and the Dave's Diving Frog to name a few.
Known as widely for his art as he was for his writing and fly tying efforts—Whitlock’s fly fishing brand has offered sales of his art work recently through Black Friday sales promotions that took place just prior to his death—Dave Whitlock was a talented painter who created fly fishing images for fly tying vise bases, coffee mugs, coasters and limited-edition prints. He was a prolific illustrator too, creating art for his own books and some 20 others over the course of his career.
On the conservation side of the wild world that he so enthusiastically embraced, Whitlock was a key contributor to the propagation and management of wild trout with the Whitlock-Vibert Box System that he helped to create. An instream salmonid egg incubator and nursery device, the system—which Whitlock wrote a book about—has helped to develop northern Arkansas’ trout fisheries like the White River into renowned rivers and streams that have produced world record size brown trout.
The Oklahoman's love of piscatorial critters knew no bounds prior to his death as he became a recognized expert on such diverse species as trout, largemouth bass, and bluegills and a variety of other sunfish. In his beloved Ozark home waters, Whitlock not only embraced the rainbow, brown, and cutthroat trout found on Arkansas’ celebrated trout streams like the White River and the Norfork River, but he also embraced catching temperate bass species like the stripers and hybrid stripers that swim in the deep reservoirs of the region.
Whitlock also helped to popularize the rise of fly fishing for carp across the United States and even adventurous treks to such places as South America to search for golden dorado.
Whitlock’s recent induction into the IGFA Hall of Fame and the accolades from Fly Fisherman magazine certainly added to the fly angler’s distinguished list of awards and accolades earned down through the years. That collection of honors also included induction into the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame, the Trout Hall of Fame, the Catskill Fly Fishing Center and Museum Fly Fishing Hall of Fame, and the Arkansas Game & Fish Hall of Fame, among others.
His list of accomplishments also included the Max Ander’s Wild Trout Award for work on the propagation of wild trout, the Fly Fishers International Conservation Man of the Year Award, the Buz Buzeck Memorial Fly Tying Award, and the Dr. James E. Henshall Award for work in warm-water fishing and conservation. Whitlock was also the recipient of the Lifetime Contribution Award from the National American Fly Tackle Trade Association.
Following his sudden passing, Whitlock leaves behind his wife Emily and a host of family members and friends. At the time of this writing, no details are available for the celebration service to honor the legacy of Whitlock and his extraordinary life. Stay tuned to Fly Fisherman magazine and/or www.DaveWhitlock.com as more details become available.
Rest in peace, Dave Whitlock. We’re forever in your debt in the fly-fishing community.
Lynn Burkhead is a Senior Digital Editor.