Honoring an American Outdoor Writing Legend

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Build A Wildlife Area effort in Minnesota establishes Gary Clancy Wildlife Management Area

By Rob Drieslein

In July 2015, America lost one of its great outdoors storytellers. Maybe the last great American hunting and fishing storyteller.

Gary Clancy’s writing hearkened back to the glory days of outdoors magazines when larger-than-life columnists inspired readers to follow their footsteps afield. Yes, big bucks and cackling roosters populated Clancy’s stories. But irresistible human and canine personalities ultimately drove his narratives.

For decades, Gary Clancy entered the homes and hunting shacks of north country outdoors families via his weekly column in the Outdoor News publications as well as other newspapers and national magazines, plus he wrote eight popular books about hunting and fishing. In an era when tackle and technique writing dominates outdoor publishing, Clancy brought his personal life, a humorous cast of characters, empathy and insight of the human condition when describing his days afield. 

And like all great writers, he made it look damn easy.

Clancy died on July 27, 2016 after a 12-year battle with cancer. He was 68, and doctors attributed his nearly decade-plus-long battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma at least partially to his exposure to Agent Orange during his 1969-70 tour of Vietnam.

Within hours of his passing, staff at Outdoor News and Pheasants Forever traded messages confirming that the next Build A Wildlife Area (BAWA) effort in Minnesota should honor Gary Lee Clancy. Along with Game Fair, Outdoor News had partnered with PF on the first BAWA project in 2003, and Clancy’s readers had helped drive many thousands of dollars in donations to the program. In 2020 the Gary Clancy Wildlife Management Area will become a reality.
 

An American Life

Born in the southern Minnesota community of Redwood Falls in 1948 to Evelyn and Roy Clancy, Gary grew up hunting and fishing in the rolling Minnesota River countryside. He graduated from Albert Lea High School in 1966 and then attended Austin Jr. College, Mankato State University and Rochester Jr. College, studying journalism.

Clancy enlisted into the Army on Dec. 30, 1968 and proudly served in Vietnam with both the 1st Infantry Division (better known as “The Big Red 1”) and with the 198th Light Infantry Brigade from June 7, 1969 until August 1970. Decades later, Clancy’s gripping stories of surviving the jungles of Southeast Asia sometimes interspersed his contemporary hook-and-bullet tales.

A couple years after returning from ’Nam, he married Nancy D. Boughten in 1972, and they remained together for the rest of Gary’s life, eventually marking 44 years in 2015. They lived in Albert Lea, Byron and High Forest, Minnesota, and raised three daughters (Michelle, Kelli Jo and Katie) and later, four grandchildren, Miles, Norah, Lucas, and Leo. Katie and her husband, Lee, welcomed their first child (Gary and Nancy’s fifth grandchild), to the family in 2018. They named their daughter Prairie.

Most people remember Clancy as a whitetail, turkey and upland game enthusiast, but in the 1970s, you’d likely find him in a wetland scanning the skies for migrating waterfowl. In fact, the letterhead Clancy used for years (“from the cluttered desk and mind of Gary Clancy…”) featured a line-drawn rendering of him in an early 1980s-vintage Jones-style hunting hat with his black Lab, Jack, peering from a waterfowl blind.

“I had it bad,” Clancy remarked to this writer once. “If the duck season was 60 days, it was a quiet year for me if I hunted 58 of them.”

After a slow day during a particularly slow season, however, Clancy decided he couldn’t continue hunting ducks given the scarcity of birds. Killing the few ducks he’d see felt almost unethical, he said. Though he never quit waterfowl hunting altogether, other hunting sports consumed his days afield during the last 30 years of his life: whitetails, wild turkeys, and the uplands like ruffed grouse and ring-necked pheasants.

To make living post-U.S. Army, Clancy drove truck, but he began dabbling in outdoors writing and sold his first article to Fins and Feathers magazine in 1980. He eventually went full time with writing in 1982 and during the peak of his career in the 1990s, he traveled around North America hunting elk, moose and other big game. 

His writing resonated most with readers walking the woods and fields of the Midwest, and he connected with them for a myriad of reasons: his love of the dogs that accompanied him afield, his everyman approach to finding pheasants and other upland game, and his willingness to open up his personal life and share stories of family. 

A prime example: Readers likely remember him sharing tales of days afield with his colorful and cantankerous father-in-law, Richard Boughten, aka The Old Scutter. Boughten passed away in September 2017 at the age of 96, but for years at Minnesota sportshows like the Deer Classic he’d sported a ball cap saying, “I’m The Old Scutter!”

The Clancys owned many dogs over the years: Labs Jack and Soncho, Brittanies Meg and Casey, and a couple of Llewellin setters at the end of Gary’s life, Recon and Chase, now ages 5 and 7. Outdoor News readers likely most remember Gary hunting pheasants and grouse over Meg and Casey, as well as a hard-luck German shorthair named Duke. The family adopted the shorthair, which had been abandoned in the desert of New Mexico, and the serious pup took a shine to Gary. Tough as nails and stubborn, the dog repeatedly tangled with porcupines and once ran off some wolves in the north woods that had attacked his comrade canine Casey.

“We always had at least one dog, mostly adoptees,” Nancy Clancy recalled. “I used to say that Gary and Duke were a lot alike and deserved each other. Gary liked that.”

Though he didn’t openly preach conservation or dress down landowners for making a living from their property, he lived a conservation ethic that carried through in his writing. When Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acreage began disappearing in the mid 2000s, Clancy didn’t blame farmers for cashing in on higher commodity pricing, but he also didn’t mince words as about tanking numbers of pheasants across Minnesota and eastern South Dakota.

His daughter, Michelle, remembers her father perusing Aldo Leopold’s classic environmental tome.

“Every few years Dad would read A Sand County Almanac to keep things in perspective,” she said, “meaning the natural world and our relationship to it is worthy of reverence and protection.”

After Clancy’s cancer diagnosis, readers monitored his health and admired his ability to remain active and upbeat even while shotgunning one-handed after suffering nerve damage to his left arm and shoulder from his disease. In an Outdoor News column, he shared a frighteningly vivid, near tragic story from October 2008 of falling out of his boat while fishing solo on Pimushe Lake in northwestern Minnesota. Only the thought of never seeing his then 4-year-old grandson Miles willed him to someone make it to shore where another angler eventually found him and declared, “You’re Gary Clancy!”

Why did readers love Clancy?

Because he lived it. Many outdoors writers share experiences from days past, but readers knew Gary was afield regularly and not because he had columns to file or deadlines to meet. He hunted and fished all the time because there was almost nothing else he’d rather be doing recreationally. With an occasional exception: Clancy was a serious golfer. While attending outdoors writer conferences in the mid-1990s, Clancy sheepishly admitted he was as likely to be hitting the links as attending a writing seminar.
 

The Gary Clancy WMA

In 1970 when Clancy returned home from fierce fighting in Vietnam, he found peace and respite in Minnesota’s public lands and vast waters. Friends and colleagues believe there was no better way to honor this veteran than to pay his personal love of public lands forward.

Every year, American veterans return home from overseas, whether it’s Afghanistan, Iraq or a stint on the Korean DMZ. The vision of the Gary Clancy Wildlife Management Area is to provide a new generation with the same recreational access that helped create one of the nation’s great outdoor scribes.

Soon after Clancy’s passing, Pheasants Forever and other partners set a goal of $100,000, which they exceeded within just a few months of announcing the effort. Donations came from corporate sponsors who had worked with Clancy during his outdoors writing career, but the bread-and-butter of the campaign came via small donations from rank-and-file outdoorsmen who’d read his stories for decades. A number of small businesses including archery shops and resorts that Clancy had visited over the years also contributed.

Eran Sandquist led the charge for Pheasants Forever to create the new WMA and helped secure a 167.11-acre parcel in Blue Earth County. The property had been the Mark and Lucy Carter Farm, and their four children sold it to PF. The rolling mosaic of woodland, wetlands and cropland acreage features 6,700 feet of frontage along the Watonwan River, a tributary of the Minnesota River that shaped Clancy’s life. Though he unlikely ever hunted the specific farm, one step onto the property and the vibe is obvious: this is Gary Clancy country.

From left: Eran Sandquist, son-in-law Lee Clancy and Gary's wife Nancy discuss the property and related habitat projects.

The parcel contained 105 acres of cropland that PF began restoring in 2018 to direct hardwood seeding (along the river) with the balance being restored to native prairie. Sandquist and other land managers expect the prairie portion in full bloom when a formal dedication of the property occurs in summer 2020. The parcel’s acquisition also will improve access to adjacent county-owned land open to the public.

“More than 50 individuals, businesses, non-governmental organizations, agencies, plus state and federal grant sources, partnered together to fund this project,” Sandquist said. “Over $900,000 will be spent to protect and restore this first parcel of the Gary Clancy WMA.”

Per Sandquist’s reference, other adjacent land acquisition opportunities potentially exist to expand the property and provide even more hunting opportunity to the region’s sporting community.

“The Gary Clancy Wildlife Management Area project exemplifies what partnerships can achieve working together.  Honoring the legacy of Gary, a man who touched many through his words and passion for the outdoors, makes this project truly unique and meaningful,” Sandquist said.

Rob Drieslein is longtime editor of Outdoor News, and loyal friend and fan of Pheasants Forever and the late Gary Clancy. This story originally appeared in the Fall 2019 Issue of Pheasants Forever Journal.