Brad Dokken: New book highlights '40 Years of Dakota Country Magazine'
BISMARCK — Bill Mitzel was working a North Dakota state government job he didn’t much care for in 1980, when he heard a fledgling hunting and fishing publication called Dakota Country was for sale.
A group of Garrison, N.D., businessmen had launched the publication in 1979 and wanted out, Mitzel recalls.
“I thought they were doing pretty good, but they weren’t happy about something, I’m not sure what,” Mitzel, of Bismarck, said. “I don’t know the background; all I know is that they were just going to dump it.”
An avid outdoorsman who enjoyed writing and being creative, Mitzel jumped at the opportunity. He already was writing a weekly hunting and fishing column for the Bismarck Tribune, occasional articles for Fishing Facts magazine and was a regional field editor for Field and Stream.
Perfect timing, in other words, for a new career venture.
“I apparently didn’t have enough savvy to start this thing on my own,” Mitzel said. “It didn’t occur to me this is something that needs to be done. But I wouldn’t have had the money anyway.
“This just kind of fell in the right place at the right time.”
Mitzel says he spent another year or more at the government job before jumping into the publishing venture full-time. Now, more than four decades after the first edition of Dakota Country rolled off the press, Mitzel has published “40 Years of Dakota Country Magazine,” a glossy, hardcover book filled with stories and more than 250 photos from the venerable magazine’s long history.
The idea for the book dates back two years, Mitzel says, and he went to work compiling stories last December, poring through every one of the 440 or so back issues of the magazine.
“It was probably 10 months in the works and a lot of hours,” Mitzel said. “I went through virtually every magazine, page by page, since 1979 to pick out information, stories that would be in the book, so that’s what took the time.”
He had to retype many of those stories, which predated the era of computers and were written on typewriters.
“That took all last winter and summer, but it was fun — I enjoyed it,” Mitzel said. “I knew the end result would be worthwhile.”
Logging in at 186 pages, “40 Years of Dakota Country Magazine” takes readers through an era that produced more changes for hunting and fishing than perhaps any other time in the history of the Dakotas, with year-by-year accounts of significant events and developments.
Advances in fishing electronics and other technology, the Conservation Reserve Program and the resulting explosion in big game and upland game populations stand out among the most significant developments in the past 40 years, Mitzel says.
Other changes of note include the introduction of rainbow smelt into the Missouri River system, the introduction of Chinook salmon into those same waters and a wet cycle that resulted in the expansion of Devils Lake and hundreds of small lakes that have blossomed into quality fisheries not only for walleyes, but pike, panfish and perch.
It’s those changes, Mitzel says, that ultimately inspired him to publish the book.
“When I got to looking at some of those back issues, there was so much that was going on in the ’80s and ’90s — big things happening in the Dakotas,” he said. “So I just finally decided it should be preserved in print somewhere.”
Mitzel, who’s almost 76, remains active in the outdoors and is "still healthy, still doing good.” He was heading out to shovel the driveway after a phone interview earlier this week to promote the book.
His son, Jon, handles many of the day-to-day operations of the magazine as president and publisher, but the elder Mitzel remains closely involved as editor, both in writing and helping to oversee the 10 freelance writers who contribute to the magazine on a regular basis.
“It’s very hard to let go — it’s like watching your first child leave for college or something,” Mitzel said. “Part of me wants to let go, but part of me says ‘No, you can’t. What are you going to do in the morning when you get up —watch ‘Gunsmoke’ all day?’
“You’ve got to do something, and I enjoy writing.”
Dakota Country, which switched from a tabloid to a magazine format in 1987, 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 and even sold it to the Bismarck Tribune in 1983, staying on as editor, before buying the magazine back three years later.
“I really missed being in control,” he said. “I gave them what they gave me, and I went back to work and got an office downtown, so that’s where it’s been ever since.”
“40 years of Dakota Country Magazine” sells for $40 plus $5 shipping through the main office at Box 2714, Bismarck ND 58502; online at dakotacountrymagazine.com; or by phone at (800) 767-5082 or (701) 255-3031.