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'Prairie Sportsman': western Minnesota's version of reality TV

APPLETON -- Reality TV came to Pioneer Public Television in Appleton long before the big networks discovered it.

Only here, it goes by the name of the "Prairie Sportsman".

"You aren't cueing the duck,'' said Rich Massey, the show's host, referring to the show's unscripted format.

"Nature doesn't always cooperate,'' quickly added Tim Bakken, the show's production director.

"But when it does happen the way you want it to happen, wow,'' said Massey.

There have been lots of those "wow" moments in the show's history. Many more are on their way. Massey and Bakken are back in the field preparing the fifth season of programming under the show's new magazine format.

The new season begins in October, but the show is broadcast year 'round every Sunday at 7:30 p.m. It's a primetime slot and indicative of the local station's commitment to the program, said Bakken.

It's the only television programming focused entirely on what the outdoors of western Minnesota offers, a part of the state often neglected by commercial operations. That comes as no surprise to Massey.

"A whole lot of people don't know what we have out here,'' he said.

The quest to let the world in on what we have started when Massey teamed up with Tom Nelson in 1991 to co-host "Call of the Wild". It evolved to become "The Prairie Sportsman", according to Bakken. Versions of the show came and went over the years. It was resurrected in 2003 and started being broadcast in 2004 under its current format as "Prairie Sportsman".

Then as now, the producer, host and guests trek to the field with ideas on what they want to do. It is all fair play from there. There is no one working behind the scenes to find the fish or flush the game to give the show's host that picture perfect moment.

"The crazy part is I will bring Tim out there and nothing will happen,'' said Bakken. "The next day I will shoot a limit,'' he laughed.

In truth, Massey manages to do quite well when Bakken and the camera are there. He brings over 40 years of experience as a hunter and angler to the show, and is an accomplished outdoor writer to boot. He's crafted articles for magazines ranging from Field and Steam to Sports Afield.

Yet despite his success on the water and in the field, he is the first to tell viewers that hunting and fishing is not about the take.

A former teacher in the Appleton schools, Massey said the outdoors have always been an important stress reliever for him. "It's a whole different world out there,'' he said.

Getting people outdoors and showing viewers just "how much fun that can be'' has always been one of the main goals of the program, said Bakken.

Their biggest goal of all is to lure young people away from their video games and distractions and into the great outdoors, they said.

They introduce us all to the great outdoors not by showing endless segments of ducks dropping from the sky or fish flopping in the boat, but by revealing the great range of activities to be enjoyed outdoors and the fun of doing them. The show's topics have ranged from canoeing on local rivers to cross country skiing and making maple syrup. This year's viewers will join Massey on a wild mushroom hunt.

He has also brought viewers into the blinds of hunters with disabilities, to the shores of the Minnesota River for monster catfish, into a spear fisherman's dark house and into the spring woods for wild turkey.

Of course, each season's programming will feature outdoor adventures focused on the most popular game in the region. Walleye fishing and goose, pheasant and whitetail deer hunting are always popular topics, said the two.

Bakken said they try to focus as much on the adventure of it all as they do the prey. One of their favorite shows featured a not-so-successful fishing trip in terms of fish caught, but they were able to capture the camaraderie and good natured fun that a group of fishing buddies enjoyed.

"It's not a 'how-to' show. It's a 'why-to' show,'' said Jon Panzer, an engineering director and station manager with Pioneer TV.

It's also a show geared very much for the outdoors people of this region. Most appreciate wild game and fishing as sport and enjoy their harvest as delicious table fare.

Curt Anderson, chef at the Arrowwood Resort, Alexandria, makes preparing the game easy and fun as a featured guest on the program.

The program also features Ted Takasaki, a professional Minnesota angler. He offers an expert's advice on how to go after the big ones on some of the best known waters in the state.

Massey is just as happy to make his way down to the Marsh Lake spillway just outside of Appleton, where the northern pike will sometimes attract anglers by the truckload.

Revealing his favorite fishing and hunting destinations is all a part of the job for Massey. When the show first aired, the station's primary coverage area was within a 90-mile radius of Appleton. Today, Pioneer Public TV's programming is carried to viewers in an area that ranges from Detroit Lakes to northern Iowa, and west as far as Sioux Falls, S.D., and portions of central South Dakota to Mobridge.

That gives them lots of turf to cover, and an endless variety of stories and people to feature.

"There's no greater place to be than right outside in the open,'' said Massey. "And we want to take you there.''