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Missing Tony Dean

by Mike McFeely

I miss Tony Dean. I think others probably do, too.

If you are an outdoors enthusiast in the Dakotas or western Minnesota above the age of 25, you know who Tony Dean was. He was an outdoors personality and conservationist who lived in Pierre, S.D., along the Missouri River. He was host of the TV show "Tony Dean Outdoors" and the "Dakota Backroads" radio show. Tony also wrote columns for Dakota Country magazine and other publications.

Tony died in 2008 at age 72 after complications from an appendectomy.

The reason Tony is on my mind today is because, if I'm at home on Saturday morning and having a cup of coffee, I'll dig around the TV dial and see what the world of outdoors television has to offer. The answer: Not much.

There is too much Cletus Clutterbuck and too little Tony Dean.

 Here is a photo of Tony I snapped while smallie fishing.

Cletus Clutterbuck is my fictional name for the high-energy, hard-sell, yeeee-hawing, high-fiving host with whom I wouldn't want to be caught dead in the outdoors.

Tony Dean was none of those things, more of a laid-back "Dakota cool" than anything else, and he was wonderful. 

And that voice. Oh, that deep and soothing voice.

Don't misunderstand: There are a couple of outdoors TV hosts who are very good. Jason Mitchell, Tony's protege who bought "Tony Dean Outdoors" before Tony's death (it's now "Jason Mitchell Outdoors"), has continued the legacy of understated, common-sense outdoors programming. I also enjoy Ron Schara of "Minnesota Bound" because he takes more of a storyteller's approach and less of a salesman's approach. 

The rest of it seems like a bunch of Cletus Clutterbucks shooting "trophy" deer in fenced-in enclosures in Texas. But maybe I'm stereotyping.

I had the privilege of calling Tony a professional colleague and friend toward the end of his life. He would invite me to spend a couple of days in Pierre and we'd go fishing on Missouri River reservoir Lake Sharpe for walleyes and smallmouth bass. Mostly smallies, because Tony would say, "I've caught enough walleyes in my life."

 Here is a pic Tony took of me on Lake Sharpe.

It was always a grand time, because Tony had the knack of making you feel like he'd been your lifelong friend. He was the perfect boat companion from my standpoint, because we'd chat for hours about not only fishing and hunting but sports, politics, family, food, wine, business, money, gossip ... anything and everything. This was back in my sportswriting days and I was covering a lot of Twins and Vikings games. Tony wanted to know which athletes were good guys and which were not. I wanted the inside scoop on outdoors personalties -- which ones were legit and which ones were frauds. 

Then when we were done, after catching and releasing about 100 fish, we'd go to the La Minestra restaurant in downtown Pierre with his wife Dar and enjoy great food (one of Tony's passions) and sample a few glasses of red wine. For Tony, it was likely just another day. For me, it was all wonderful and provided me with unforgettable memories.

I respected Tony for many reasons, ranging from his professional approach to his independent thinking on politics to his taste in fine food. But I also learned a lot from watching Tony and the way he dealt with people. He had many outdoorsmen approach him at boat launches, in restaurants and even in their boats on the water. And he was always gracious, always smiling, always willing to chat. He'd offer a tip on where the fish might be biting, how to catch them. It was clear Tony enjoyed his celebrity status in the Dakotas outdoors world and he wanted to make sure viewers of his TV show went away happy after meeting him.

That's not to say the Cletus Clutterbucks of the world don't do the same, but Tony had a natural way of dealing with folks that was cool to see.

Anyway, here are a couple of "Tony Dean Outdoors" shows I found on YouTube. Both are ice-fishing trips to Devils Lake that Tony took with the Perch Patrol. You'll see some familiar faces, including Jason Mitchell and Steve "Zippy" Dahl. Jason, as mentioned, is the "new" Tony. And Zippy is still guiding on an almost-daily basis on Devils Lake. He owns the Perch Patrol and works with Mitchell's Guide Serice in the open-water season.


(Mike McFeely is a talk-show host on KFGO-AM in Fargo, N.D. He can be reached at mike.mcfeely@mwcradio.com. Follow him on Twitter @MikeMcFeelyKFGO.)