Known for the flies he created and for the eloquent way he chronicled his adventures in streams and rivers, he was, one editor said, “Everyman’s fly-fishing mentor.”
Dave Whitlock was 8 years old in 1942 and already fishing in the streams near his home in Muskogee, Okla., when he spotted a golden-brown fishing rod and reel in his grandfather’s L.L. Bean catalog. It was unlike anything he’d ever seen.
“Granddad,” he asked, “what is this?”
“Dave, that’s fly fishing,” Mr. Whitlock later recalled his grandfather saying. “Not for us, because that’s a rich man’s sport.”
Dave’s birthday gift the next year was a rusty, warped bamboo fly rod and reel that his father bought in a pawnshop. That purchase spawned Mr. Whitlock’s career as a renowned angler, writer, artist and designer of hundreds of flies, or artificial lures.
“He was Everyman’s fly-fishing mentor,” Kirk Deeter, the editor in chief of Trout magazine, said in a phone interview. “He made fly fishing more accessible and tore down the notion that fly fishing was a stuffy sport. He just took the pins out from under that.”
Mr. Whitlock died on Nov. 23 in Tulsa. He was 88.
His wife, Emily (Langevin) Whitlock, who is also a fly fisher, and with whom he lived on a ranch in Welling, Okla., in the Ozark Mountains, said the cause was a massive stroke.
Mr. Whitlock’s favorite fishing spots included small creeks in Oklahoma, the White River in Arkansas, the Yellowstone River in Montana and the streams of New Zealand. He wrote about those experiences for publications including Trout, Fly Fisherman and Field & Stream magazines.
In his first published article, for Field & Stream in 1968, Mr. Whitlock narrated his struggle to catch a 21-inch rainbow trout on the White River.
“Up moved the long green shadow, deliberately and gracefully, and the Jassid disappeared in a swirl that barely disturbed the surface,” he wrote, referring to a fly. “I quickly raised my rod, hoping I would not snap the 5X tippet against his moving weight.” But then, he wrote, the fish fought back, “his broad red side glistened in the glow of the setting sun. Downstream he charged, taking most of the line on his first run and clearing the water twice with shattering leaps.”
Mr. Whitlock had a long association with the company that inspired his angling: He wrote and illustrated the “L.L. Bean Fly-Fishing Handbook” (1983), ran the company’s fly-fishing schools in the 1980s, and consulted on the selection of the fly-fishing equipment it sold.
In the handbook, he set down rules that underscored his gentlemanly approach to fly fishing.
“Do not crowd other anglers,” he wrote. And “If you have a good spot and you notice other anglers waiting for a chance to fish it, either give up the spot after you have fished it a while or invite them to share the water with you.” And “When you hook or lose a fish, refrain from loud speech, profanity, screaming or other noises that interfere with others’ serenity.”
In 2021, Mr. Whitlock, along with Lefty Kreh, Joe Brooks and Lee Wulff, was named to what Fly Fisherman called its Mount Rushmore of the sport. The magazine cited Mr. Whitlock for “his artistic creativity in his fly tying and his painting”; his love of teaching; and his improvements in the 1970s to the Vibert Box, an incubator and nursery for salmon and trout eggs that had been invented two decades earlier by Richard Vibert, a French fisheries researcher, to better stock streams. It is now called the Whitlock-Vibert Box.
David William Whitlock was born on Nov. 11, 1934, in Muskogee. His father, Joseph, was a construction welder, and his mother, Evelyn (Smith) Whitlock, was a beautician.
Dave was born with a spinal condition that weakened his back; when he was 2 years old he contracted polio, which made his right leg weaker and shorter than his left. Eventually, at 5, he was strong enough to start fishing, often in the company of his grandparents.
The fly rod he got for his ninth birthday, with its rusty reel and rotten line, “was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen in my life,” he said in an oral history interview with the Oklahoma Historical Society.
He entered Northeastern State College (now University) in Tahlequah, Okla., hoping to study art and journalism, but his parents prevailed on him to focus on subjects that might ensure that he earn a better living. He took pre-med courses but detoured to chemistry, biology and physics and earned a bachelor’s degree in 1955. He spent the next dozen or so years working as a research chemist for oil companies and for the United States Bureau of Mines.
In the late 1960s, he decided to turn fly-fishing into his full-time living.
“That’s when I became Dave Whitlock,” he told the newspaper Tulsa World in 2019.
For the rest of his career, he fished, painted and sketched (fish, not people), taught, and developed ties that bear colorful names like Dave’s Hopper, NearNuff Crayfish, Diving Frog and Whitlock’s Gorilla Damsel-Dragonfly.
“I don’t think that any angler in the country hasn’t been touched by Dave Whitlock,” Mr. Deeter of Trout magazine said. “If you look in our fly boxes, you’ll find a fly he designed.”
Mr. Whitlock illustrated former President Jimmy Carter’s book “An Outdoor Journal: Adventures and Reflections” (1988) and wrote “Dave Whitlock’s Guide to Aquatic Trout Food” (2007) and “Trout and Their Food: A Compact Guide for Fly Fishers.” He also illustrated “Artful Profiles of Trout, Char, and Salmon and the Classic Flies That Catch Them” (2020), which he wrote with his wife.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Whitlock is survived by his son Allen; his stepdaughter, Jessica Capps; his stepson, Nicholas Langevin; and a granddaughter. His marriage to Patricia Davis ended in divorce. Another son, Joel, died in 1986.
Mr. Whitlock defined himself as a fisherman and an artist. In his early 20s, he recalled in the oral history, he was fishing in a creek in Montana where the sight of trout swimming in crystal clear water entranced him. The next year, he brought a snorkeling mask so he could observe them underwater as artistic subjects.
“You know,” he said, “when you go under the water in a clear river and see the vegetation and the light and the bubbles and the fish and everything moving in that flow, rather than as we see everything in the air, it’s like another world.”
He added: “The minute I saw that I said, ‘That’s what I want to paint. I want to show people that other world.’”