It’s an editor’s worst nightmare to have to write something about the loss of a team member.
But that task is unimaginably more difficult when that person is your role model, inspiration and very dear friend.
Dave Whitlock, who passed away on November 23, was among the kindest, most gracious, humble, yet supremely talented, energetic and insightful people I’ve ever had the honor to know in the fly-fishing world as a whole, and it was one of my life’s greatest honors to be able to work with him on the many “Art of Angling” columns he and his wife Emily faithfully produced for TROUT magazine.
Dave was the consummate gentleman angler, and he embodied everything I consider great, even sacred, about the culture of this sport I love so much. If there were a “Mount Rushmore” of fly fishing, he should surely be carved in rock.
I’d bet dollars to donuts right now that if most of you combed through your fly boxes, you’d find traces of Dave in the fly patterns you find… Dave’s Hoppers, Whit’s Hoppers… numerous streamers and nymph patterns… he pretty much ran out of things to name all the bugs he created. When you fish, whether you realize it or not, you use techniques Dave pioneered… “tres emergers” and “dry-dropper” rigs, and more. He was Ben Franklin-esque in terms of ingenuity. And best of all, he was an egalitarian angler, shining love on everything from farm pond bluegills to the underappreciated common carp, beloved brown trout, to all the native species of trout and salmon throughout North America and far-away destinations throughout the world.
Dave caught ‘em all. But best of all, he appreciated and respected every fish. He was all about the why, the what and the how, and not just the how many.
He also respected and appreciated the many people who read the words he wrote, or enjoyed the fine art he produced, far beyond any level of gratitude most artists and authors ever show.
I remember once standing in a long line at the Fly Fishing Show in Denver (this was a few years after I had inherited Dave and his column as editor of TROUT magazine) and watching as Dave meticulously signed copies of his books and chatted with every person in the queue. Dave didn’t just sign books. He often took the time to draw an impromptu fish or fly on the title page. You rarely just got a signature from Dave. When it was my turn, he leapt up from behind the signing table to give me a big bear hug, and that made me feel very special.
When Dave would write me letters, the old-fashioned way, to talk about ideas he had for his column, they’d come with elaborate drawings on the envelopes. I never told him or Emily, but I’ve saved every one of them. I knew that they, like everything else Dave produced, were artifacts. He sent me prints, signed “Special to Kirk Deeter” that I proudly hung on my walls.
When Emily called to tell me the sad news that Dave had passed, she said that Dave always appreciated the “freedom” that I, as editor, had given him to create on his own terms. I was humbled and honored, of course (actually flabbergasted), but I had to state the obvious… “what the heck was I supposed to do?!” He’s Dave Whitlock, after all! I pretty much just switched a word here and there, threw in a comma or two and sat back and learned like everyone else. What a luxury it was to learn to be a better angler, and edit a magazine column at the same time.
The most valuable, lasting lesson of all, however, was Dave’s humility.
We live in very cynical times… and also in an era of instant gratification. There’s no shortage of chest-pounding, Insta glamor shots and hyperbole that all revolves around the “conquest” when it comes to fly-fishing media these days. There aren’t many people now who can explain how the fly-fishing world has evolved over the past few generations, and use a box of colored pencils to illustrate how it really happened.
Dave did that, better than anyone. But the thing is, he always maintained an almost bashful country gentleman persona, with a wink and a smile and a friendly hand on the shoulder, never once implying that he’d already cut all that hay… already done more adventurous and “out-there” stuff, and yeah, caught more big, beautiful fish in interesting ways than any hard-charger from Gen-Next might ever imagine. He simply wanted people to find the essence, and the beauty of fly fishing, wherever the passion led them. He mentored by example.
And that, to me, embodies what the true beauty of fishing really is. Dave Whitlock was, in every sense, a beautiful man, who cared very much about beautiful sport, for all the right reasons, in all the right ways.
So he will be sorely missed, and although in the short term, TROUT magazine and the fly-fishing world may be a less colorful place now without him, in the long term, he left us a palette and a purpose to take the “Art of Angling” to newer, greater heights.
We have indeed all been blessed. Godspeed, Dave Whitlock, and thank you from the bottom of my aching heart.