FARGO — When Bill and Bobbi Mitzel bought Dakota Country magazine from its original owners in 1980, the outdoors scene in North Dakota wasn't nearly what it is today. Hunting was good, but the critical Conservation Reserve Program was still five years from existence. Fishing was OK on the state's major lakes, but the wet cycle that inundated the prairie and turned shallow potholes into productive fisheries beginning in the early 1990s wasn't even a dream.
"There was not a lot going on in the outdoor world. We were just in the growing stages in the Dakotas," Bill says. "We took it one month at a time and just kept plugging away. All the stuff that has taken place since then — the new lakes, CRP, fisheries initiatives under the guidance of (former fisheries division chief and commissioner of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department ) Dale Henegar. The growth has been amazing."
Reading about that expansion is one of the most enjoyable aspects of paging through Mitzel's book, "40 Years of Dakota Country Magazine." Published in 2019, the book is a trip down memory lane not only for the magazine, but for tracing the explosive growth of world-class hunting and fishing in North Dakota.
I say "one" of the most enjoyable aspects, because the most enjoyable is reading Mitzel's prose — always concise, descriptive, colorful, honest, pure.
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"Our possessions, save photos, some old fishing tackle and hunting stuff, are meaningless in comparison to the joy our adventures bring us," Mitzel writes in the introduction. "Adventures shared with those who remain after us will continue. If we're aligned with the prairie on those adventures, we are blessed. There are no western meadowlarks in Times Square.
"I love writing. I love taking photos. I deeply love children. They have God in their eyes. I love catching fish, walking the prairie with a dog and a shotgun or rifle, walking stick or a camera. I love the anticipation for what's around the next bend. I love the sound of a distant train on a summer night, the wind rustling through the fall cottonwoods, and I love putting it all together on blank pages for people to enjoy."
That pretty well encapsulates Dakota Country under Mitzel's tutelage. It is at once a magazine for hard-core hook and bullet outdoorsmen, while offering terrific writing and storytelling that sometimes get overwhelmed by how-to in other outdoors publications. And there's no shortage of commentary, even if it isn't always popular with Dakota Country's base readership.
Mitzel's book captures all of that in its 184 pages, filled with old articles, briefs and color photos from the magazine. Mitzel says he paged through 420 issues of Dakota Country, "every single magazine and every single page," to find the stories worthy of reprint.
He succeeded, whether it's a harrowing tale from 1983 of three Williston, N.D., men barely surviving four-foot waves on Lake Sakakawea in a 17-foot fishing boat or the informative article about the great Missouri River flood of 2011 and how it affected fishing for years afterward.
"If I could do it all over again, I'd do it bigger," Mitzel says now. "There is more stuff I couldn't include in the book. I felt like I had to leave out some really good articles."
That there were so many good articles from which to choose is a testament to Mitzel, his family and his dedicated staff. Popular writers in Dakota Country over the decades include the late, great Tony Dean, Dan Nelson, Dell Hankey, Lee Halvorson and Mitzel himself.
Mitzel makes no bones that Dakota Country has always been a family affair. His wife, Bobbi, gave her blessing to purchase the magazine in 1980 from a group of Garrison, N.D., businessmen who started it and the couple's children -- Jodi, Stephanie and Jon -- were integral in its growth. Bill has handed the reins of day-to-day operations to Jon, but hasn't cut himself out of the picture completely.
"People ask me when I'm going to quit. Quit what? I fish and I write about it. Why would I quit that?" chortles Mitzel, now 78.
It hasn't all been easy. Mitzel and his family had no publishing experience — Bill quit a secure state government job to buy and run the magazine — and most of the early years were learning on the go. He quickly learned that owning an outdoors magazine wasn't as easy as going fishing and writing about it.
He and his partners, family included, had to do everything. There was no delegating.
"There's just so much to it and we did it all. I love the writing. But I hate the selling. I abhor it," Mitzel said. "But you learn how to do it and you have to do it. There's no other choice. So you do it."
In the burgeoning early days of Dakota Country, Mitzel found outdoors-related businesses around North Dakota willing to advertise. They saw opportunity with the boom of hunting and fishing, and they saw opportunity to get word out about their businesses in an increasingly popular magazine.
At its peak, Dakota Country had 17,000 paid subscribers and a total distribution of 40,000. Today, paid subscribers are at 14,000 with a distribution of 30,000.
Dakota Country is published 10 times a year, including double editions in February/March and July/August. Mitzel produced Dakota Country in his home the first four years. He sold it to The Bismarck Tribune in 1983, before buying the magazine back three years later.
It's still going strong. The best stuff from the past four decades are in the book. It's a fascinating walk through a remarkable time in the outdoors in the Dakotas, as chronicled by the region's most popular outdoors magazine.
"I reckon I've met my goals in life, at least most of them," Mitzel writes in the book's epilogue. "Some were unreachable, but I was always told to expect more of myself than I could accomplish. I never understood that ... at the time. There always has to be goals, something to reach for, to look forward to, and the outdoors offers that opportunity with each adventure. No two days are alike out there. That's a big part of the attraction."