At the age of 35, Dave Whitlock said, “That’s when I became Dave Whitlock.”
We sat down for a chat at his spacious studio on Caney Creek Ranch near Tahlequah this week, and in a couple of hours he shared enough with his raspy voice to create at least six columns like this. He explained the raspiness in his voice was due to a problem with atrial fibrillation and some medical procedures about this time last year that just about spelled his end.
He thanked his wife, Emily, and good friend J.T. Nickel for saving his life. He will turn 85 on Nov. 11.
My guess is God knew better than to anger a world full of fishermen who would have protested being cheated out of more time with “Dave Whitlock.”
Dave Whitlock is a world-renowned fly fisherman and contributor of countless articles, photos and illustrations to the world’s top outdoors sports magazines. His first published piece was in Field & Stream in 1968.
“I was walking on a cloud for three months after that,” he said.
He has written and illustrated six books — several of which are considered “bibles” by fly fishermen — and co-authored or contributed to dozens of others.
He has been inducted into five halls of fame and was named by Fly Fisherman Magazine one of its “50 Most Influential Fly Fishers in the Last 5 Decades.”
“The funniest story,” Whitlock said with a grin.
He was fishing the Illinois River with some of his favored light fly-fishing gear and had a monster of a smallmouth bass on the line. A boy with a bucket of minnows approached as he was fighting the fish and asked, “Are you catching any?”
The distraction was enough that Whitlock turned his head and the big fish broke off. Upon learning he’d had a big fish on the line just then the boy exclaimed, and then turned and walked off in disgust, “Why didn’t you just reel him in?”
Whitlock likely is the best-known and most talented international figure in Oklahoma who is often not recognized in his home state.
“Oklahoma never has been a real big fly-fishing state,” he said. “There is a strong fly-fishing community, however.”
His first exposure to fly fishing was as a little boy who wasn’t terribly healthy. He was born with a spinal injury and then contracted polio and rheumatic fever.
“I was pretty much an invalid until I was 6 or 7 years old,” he said.
The cover of the L.L. Bean catalog was illustrated with a fly rod with red wrappings and a selection of flies. In those post-Depression days, fly-fishing was considered a rich man’s sport.
“I’d never seen anything so beautiful and fancy,” he said. “I asked my granddad, ‘What is this?’ and he said, ‘Dave, that’s fly fishing. It’s not for us.’ ”
Whitlock designed and was director of the first 10 years of the L.L. Bean Fly-Fishing Schools.
“Now how in the hell could you ever expect a handicapped kid from Muskogee, Oklahoma, who saw a Bean catalog evolve into that?” he said. “To me, that’s a miracle. It’s like a kid who was born in the Sahara Desert becoming the world’s best swimmer.”
A lot of things have just fallen into place along his journey — too many things, he said.
“I must have been born to do this, that’s all I can think,” he said.
One other thing to know is that until last year that kid hadn’t seen a doctor in 67 years. The trick? Healthy diet, exercise and a lot of time outdoors, fishing, he said.
When he told his parents he wanted to write and be an artist, they told him the college money he earned by doing odd jobs like delivering newspapers, raising pigeons and selling mistletoe needed to be put to better use.
He graduated from Northeastern State University to study chemistry, physics and biology with the idea of medical school, but financially med school was not going to happen. Instead, he worked for Standard Oil in Tulsa for seven years doing research and then worked for the Bureau of Mines in Bartlesville doing the same.
“We did good things, creating the catalytic converter and advancing oil exploration,” he said.
Knowing that background makes it less surprising to know he researched and developed the Whitlock-Vibert Box System, an in-stream trout egg incubator and nursery device that has been put to use worldwide.
But the world of petroleum research really wasn’t “him,” so at age 35 he made the leap into fishing. He was a pretty good fisherman and a talented fly-tier, so “that’s when I became Dave Whitlock,” he said.
His first foray was creating and selling flies and traveling to give fly-fishing talks and seminars. He has created about 300 original flies.
His next book, to be titled “A Fly Tier’s Life,” is an autobiography about the flies he has created and his philosophy in creating them. It will include 30 of his original flies.
His most recently published book, “Artful Profiles of Trout, Char and Salmon and the Classic Flies that Catch Them,” is his most personal book so far, he said.
“This is more fishing through my eyes rather than selling an article,” he said. “It’s how I see them as an artist, their personalities, colors, environment, their uniqueness.”
Whitlock gained that artistic vision of fish and their environment when he was about 19, maybe in his early 20s, he said. He was already pretty good at waterfowl art, and he had sold paintings, but then things changed one day on Armstrong Spring Creek in Montana.
“I bought a face mask and fins and went underwater,” he said. “I discovered another planet ... I’d never seen anything like it. I’d lay in that stream for hours watching fish. I finally got a snorkel and that made it a little easier.”
That takes us to today to the guy with the art studio on Caney Creek Ranch with a little trout stream and a pond just outside the window, who with Emily is part of an unbeatable team.
“This is Dave Whitlock today,” he said. “At one time I considered myself a professional fly fisherman, but today I’m an artist. I’m pretty good at fly fishing, but this is what I really get a kick out of.”
Dave and Emily Whitlock may be contacted at whitlock