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Remembering Dave Whitlock
Fly-fishing icon was, first and foremost, one of the good guys
It’s been a little over a week since Emily Whitlock ever so kindly let the international fly-fishing community know that her husband, Dave, “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.”
Dave Whitlock celebrated his 88th birthday on Nov. 11 and passed away the day after Thanksgiving. The world will miss the man Fly Fisherman Magazine recently named as one of four greats that make up the Mt. Rushmore of fly-fishing. My thoughts turned to the few times I spent in the company of Dave and Emily at their home in Welling.
One idyllic autumn day, Nov. 4, 2020, I will never forget. The Whitlock magic rejuvenated my spirit at the time, slightly dampened as I had recently joined the swelling ranks of unemployed newspaper outdoor writers.
I was there to interview Oklahoma’s fly-fishing icon for a magazine story, take photos and make a quick how-to video.
Dave caught a gorgeous 23-inch male rainbow in spawning colors, he walked through fly-fishing basics for the video with perfection and nary a prompt. On a whim, he even offered to walk through his favorite bass flies for another short video.
He was seated at his grandfather’s old desk, a rescued piece of old family furniture he repurposed decades ago. Emily regularly offered to “tidy it up” for him, he said. He guessed he tied over the years “oh, maybe 50,000 or 60,000 flies” at that old desk.
We chatted about the outdoors, art, writing, fishing, and life in general, like old buddies, even though I’d only really met the man a few times before.
Since that day, my only regret had been that my new status, old laptop, and new video editing software limited my ability to create more than one video in a reasonable amount of time. I just always figured there would be another time to complete them that made sense.
Early last month Dave and Emily gave a presentation at the local Trout Unlimited chapter's annual holiday dinner meeting. I thought it might be the time to write a column and finally tackle those videos. Instead, I ended up catching a nasty cold before the meeting and spent that evening at home cussing about my crappy luck.
Over this past week, I wrestled with whether now was the time to complete the videos, but the more I watched the clips the more I remembered about that day, and Dave, and the more I thought, “yes, share them now.”
He surprised me by saying he started out not liking people--not at all. He was essentially an invalid until his early teens because he had a birth injury and had suffered through polio and rheumatic fever by the age of 4. Most people in those days had yet to awaken to the plight of people with disabilities.
“I didn’t like people because they were always cruel,” he said. “I was happy in nature because it was always good to me.”
At age 86, he still clearly recalled the time his classmates laughed after a gym teacher suggested he could be the second base that day. Not to play second base, but to be the base.
“It just broke my heart,” he said.
Yet, Dave and Emily had endless great friends. They had a social elegance of rare quality, and Dave's favorite work was creating original artwork commissioned for people he knew.
This, after a high school art teacher once told him his art depicting natural scenes would never amount to anything, “because what you want to do a camera can do a better job,” he said.
That was his last formal training in art. He was self-taught as both an angler and an artist.
“I was never against school or training, and might have gone farther faster,” he said. “I just always enjoyed the self-discovery process.”
Dave said he saw both his paintings and his flies as art. His flies were three-dimensional sculptures, done with thread, hair, and feathers, he said.
He shared that there was a time, in the good old days, when fly patterns were protected and innovators of the best flies scored royalties. Ten guys tied flies for him at one point and it was lucrative. At one point, he thought it might provide all the money he needed.
“But the industry changed,” he said.
He spoke of the change as just something that happened. I never sensed bitterness in his tales.
Always professional in public settings, and yet familiar as your favorite aunt and uncle, Dave and Emily enjoyed three decades of matrimony—and they still flirted like newlyweds. No doubt about it, she was the twinkle in his smiling eyes.
Dave wrote thank-you letters on lined paper in his unique beautiful flowing handwriting and mailed them out to friends. Their last note to me included a drawing of a Dave’s hopper fly at the bottom and, above, it was signed with a heart. “(Heart) you guy, Dave & Emily,” it read.
He knew how to express appreciation for others with an honest heart, literally in that case.
He was a hard worker and he exercised daily, a habit engrained in him from his youth. He was not afraid to get his hands dirty—or his whole body.
I once asked Dave how he kept his fishing ponds so nice and clear of moss and pondweeds. Emily chimed in with the answer and Dave chuckled. She was of the mind that he was growing a little too old to be wading barefoot into the ponds to pull weeds and scoop up heavy mats of moss by hand.
From what I could tell, he just liked to be immersed in nature. He appreciated every square inch. I never witnessed it, but I'd bet he spent a lot of time closely examining that pond scum and everything that lived within.
Before he caught that big 23-inch trout on that fine November day a crawdad grabbed his hook.
He admired that silly old bug and even held it up for a photo. We talked more about crawdads than any of the trout he played that day. He described how they let their antenna and brightly tipped pincers stick out from under rocks to attract small fish.
“They’re better at catching little fish than you or I catching bluegills on a worm,” he said.
John T. Nickel, the owner of Caney Creek Ranch and Whitlock’s close childhood friend, stopped by for lunch that day—wonderful sandwiches served streamside, under the trees, in the autumn sun.
In his lawn chair, Nickel tipped back his head to view the blue sky through the trees, feel the sun on his face and listen to the nearby falls in the creek. It was one of those days that should never end, he said.
Whitlock’s life journey from Muskogee kid to petroleum production researcher in Bartlesville to fly-fishing expert and teacher in Arkansas and back home to the ranch along Caney Creek is a long one full of grand tales.
Nickel, who was born nine months after Whitlock, said only one story really counted.
“I’ll tell you how he comes to live here,” he said. “We went to different grade schools but we were in the same school in Seventh Grade. A guy I was always hunting and fishing with said, ‘I’ve got a new guy I met and you’ve got to meet him,’ and it was this guy right here.
“We were just 12 but Dave was already fly fishing. Well, he took me under his wing. He took me into his studio and he had ordered me a little fly-tying kit and vise. He taught me how to tie flies and how to fly fish. That’s why he is here.”
Whitlock chuckled, “I just wish I’d been a little better instructor! He had a flunky. I could not have been worse!”
They fished the Illinois River, Caney Creek, and Baron Fork Creek before there was a Tenkiller Dam. They caught their first Neosho smallmouth bass on Caney Creek when they were 14.
“You can’t describe what it was like then,” Whitlock said. “It’s hard to understand how many bass could live in there. For every bass today in the Baron Fork and Illinois I think there were 25 to 50 before.”
Both grew up to accomplish great things, but streamside on a pretty day they were just like a couple of kids. They joked about how two handsome young lads managed to hit 86 years of age in the blink of an eye. They told old-man jokes that only old men can tell from the experience.
“I never dreamed of being 86. That’s old!” Whitlock said.
They were in a laughing mood. Our interview steered Whitlock toward his favorite art pieces, always ones created on commission for people he knew, but it soon derailed again.
“Funny story,” Whitlock said.
The late Ray Scott, the founder of the Bassmaster Sportsmen Society, was a fan of Dave’s art and had a large Whitlock in his Alabama office for years. It depicted a school of largemouth bass suspended in deep water near a bluff, he said.
Whitlock had successfully encouraged Scott to include fly-fishing content in Bassmaster Magazine and one day they had a meeting with about a group of 10 or 12 industry reps at Scott’s office. Among other things, they would get to see his Whitlock’s Eelworm streamers.
Scott suggested that Dave walk back into a narrow closet-like area that offered access behind a large aquarium built into the wall of his office, so he could show the reps what the long worm-like streamer looked like underwater.
For added perspective, this meeting was a jacket-and-tie kind of affair.
“I had it on some 20-pound monofilament wrapped around my hand and, well, he had a 14-pound bass in that aquarium and it immediately grabbed on and hooked itself!” he laughed. “It damned near thrashed every gallon of water out of that tank!
“By the time I got out of there, those guys could hardly breathe they were all laughing so hard... Being confined in that aquarium I never even considered that bass would be interested, but, boy!”
Nickel pulled up a photo on his phone of one of Whitlock’s more recent personal efforts, an oil painting of a bird’s-eye view overlooking Caney Creek Ranch.
“We were walking one day and saw a bald eagle up in a big sycamore and we talked about what the view must be like from up there, so I painted it from that view,” Dave said.
The sweeping landscape view included the eagle’s mate returning to the tree from the sky and the ranch buildings below. On closer examination of the hills, woods, and meadows, livestock, deer, quail, a roadrunner, woodpecker, squirrels and all manner of life that adds to the symphony of any rural landscape came into view.
“See, with that kind of painting, with every brush stroke I’m thinking of my friend,” Whitlock said.
This, from the kid who started out not liking people.
It is clear that his heart always turned to “the wild that he loved and spent a lifetime exploring, writing and painting about,” as Emily stated. He said he had come to believe everything in nature had its own sort of personality, not the same as people, but their own individual characteristics and roles to play.
Whitlock looked to the stream near our picnic spot for a quieter moment.
“People who aren’t students of nature are really missing out,” he said. “This little stream right here, there is a whole world going on out there right now in that water. Little minnows, and crawfish and scuds, they’re all just doing their own thing and they’re all adapted to live there. They go through their lifecycles. Every square inch of our planet is like that. It breaks my heart when people don’t take care of it because every spot is so unique.”
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