How I Fish: Dave Whitlock
A timeless interview from our archives with one of the most respected and innovative fly anglers of all time
My parents fished bait or used very large wooden lures on metal baitcasting rods. That didn’t interest me as a kid. I learned about fly fishing when I was about 8 or 9 from my granddad’s Field & Stream and his L.L. Bean catalogs. I saw these beautiful feathered lures, and I thought it was so neat to fish with something so pretty.
I started catching fish on flies before I was a flyfisherman. As a kid, whenever I would run out of bait, I’d put some thread, grass, or cloth on my hook. I’d dap that in the water, and those sunfish would hit it.
Trout are for fly fishing. It’s too easy to catch them on other tackle.
My wife, Emily, she’s my best fishing buddy. I taught her when we got together. We’ve been married 19 years now.
The person who makes an accurate 35- or 40-foot cast is going to outfish the guy who’s throwing 80 feet.
When I took up nymph fishing in the late ’50s, everyone kept saying strikes were too hard to detect. You had to watch the line to see if it twitched, so I learned to use a very visible line. The next thing I did was paint a fluorescent tip on the end of the fly line. Then I went to using fluorescent material on my leader, which we now call indicators. I caught all kinds of hell because people said I was just using bobbers. But when they saw how much better I could catch fish, it didn’t take long to convince them.
Dave’s Hopper probably took six or eight tries before I got it right. With a new fly, over the years you just gradually see how things work out, or new materials become available. Once in a while somebody will even give you a really good tip that makes the fly better. And that’s what we all do if you stop to think about it: We build on everybody else’s knowledge. That’s the cool thing to do.
Now, people use such huge indicators and so much weight on their leaders. It’s created a crudeness to nymphing that I don’t care for at all. I fish flies that sink effectively because of the leader I use or the knots I tie and very small indicators that fish really don’t see.
I enjoy wading or canoeing versus powerboating and all the stuff that the professional bass people do now. I like to be a player in nature rather than a foreign object.
The best way to create a new fly is to get on new water and see what the fish are eating. From that immediate experience, go to a fly-tying area that you’ve set up and begin creating a fly. Then go and fish the fly in that same period. Finally, go back to your desk and take what you’ve learned from the experience to improve the fly. That’s the coolest thing to do because what you’re doing is observing, creating, and testing.
I grew up in bass country, and I realized early on that I was not a good fly-rodder for bass, which required a completely different set of techniques. With trout, you’re fishing a small fly on a light leader, and the fish intercepts that lure in open water. With bass, I learned to fish a big fly with some animation and aggression because you’re targeting a fish that strikes to kill.
I’ve invented close to 350 or 400 flies now. The Red Fox Squirrel Nymph, Dave’s Hopper, Dave’s Diving Frog, and my Waker Shad Minnow are probably my favorites.
If you sit down to eat lunch, and just as you’re about to take your first bite a car hits the building, you would immediately lose your appetite. You wouldn’t be interested in eating until you got into a safe position again. The same is true for fish. The more the fish can’t detect your presence, the more chances you have of getting them.
A cellphone is good to carry in your fly vest for emergencies, but I leave mine turned off. I don’t want the thing ringing while I’m fishing.
One common problem I see fly anglers make is fishing with too much slack. If that line is not straight when you try to do anything with it, the slack creates all kinds of mechanical problems that cause anglers to fail.
Keep your cellphone off when you’re making love, too.
I’m not a celebrity fisherman. Fishing is personal. I enjoy doing it with somebody that I care for on a very private basis. I think most of us are that way. If not, we’ve got a problem.
This story was first published in 2010.