PHEASANTS

Rich Lak­so­nen Ish­pem­ing, Michi­gan

Outdoor Life - - THE ROAD WARRIORS - —N.K.

Oc­cu­pa­tion: Nurse prac­ti­tioner Time on the road per year: 3 to 4 weeks Rig: Chevy Sil­ver­ado 3500 Crew Cab with top­per

Rich Lak­so­nen doesn’t take hol­i­days off. He works through Thanks­giv­ing, Christ­mas, and New Year’s, plus all the other na­tional hol­i­days, and most week­ends too. He’ll jug­gle gru­el­ing 12- and 24-hour shifts in the emergency room, bust­ing his ass daily, then knock­ing out farm chores once he’s off the clock.

So, when Lak­so­nen asks for a va­ca­tion—usually whole weeks at a time, and al­ways in the fall— his man­ager signs off. “My boss knows I’ve sac­ri­ficed on all the great days most peo­ple re­quest off,” Lak­so­nen says of his strat­egy. “And no­body else is re­quest­ing the sec­ond week of pheas­ant sea­son off.”

At 32, Lak­so­nen is no stranger to tough jobs. The Michi­gan­der’s ré­sumé builds from fire­fighter para­medic to trau­ma­cen­ter nurse to ac­tive duty at North Dakota’s Minot Air Force Base start­ing in 2014. That’s the year he got his first bird dog, a Ger­man short­haired pointer named Art, and the year he dis­cov­ered the Roughrider State is lousy with pheasants.

“I don’t know if there’s an eas­ier way to fall back in love with hunt­ing than to get a bird dog,” says Lak­so­nen, who fell so hard for pheasants, he can’t help but chase them ev­ery year.

He’s since ac­quired four more dogs and moved home to the U.P., where the grouse hunt­ing is leg­endary and Lak­so­nen doesn’t have to stray far from his back­yard. Pheasants, how­ever, re­quire he spend those hard-earned va­ca­tion days. Now when he hits the road, all five dogs tag along. Two GSPS (in­clud­ing Art) and one English cocker spaniel ride in truck-bed ken­nels, and two more spaniels get crates in the cab. Lak­so­nen used to dream about buy­ing a dog trailer, but over time, min­i­mal­ism has proved ad­van­ta­geous.

“Some of the spots we’re hunt­ing are pretty far off the road, and some of the trails can get pretty muddy,” says Lak­so­nen, who brings all five dogs each day of the hunt, no mat­ter who’s run­ning. “I don’t want to drag a trailer down that.”

There’s enough room un­der the truck top­per for dogs and gear: Dog bags go on top of the big ken­nels, ammo behind those, plus a 5-gal­lon water jug and dog food. Clothes and hu­man gear get stashed on top of the medium-size ken­nels in the back seat.

Once the crew is loaded up, the road trip it­self is rem­i­nis­cent of a night shift at the hos­pi­tal. Lak­so­nen likes to leave on a Satur­day evening and drive straight through un­til reach­ing his des­ti­na­tion on Sun­day. Stops are per­mit­ted for gas and to relieve the dogs, but naps aren’t usually nec­es­sary. Meals are off lim­its, since eat­ing makes driv­ers sleepy. If Lak­so­nen does snack, it’s only on high-pro­tein foods like jerky (a trick he picked up in the mil­i­tary). Chew­ing through a bag of sun­flower seeds pre­vents high­way hyp­no­sis, and he con­sid­ers a full blad­der “kind of nice,” since the discomfort keeps him alert.

Trav­el­ing on week­ends al­lows Lak­so­nen to hunt when most hunters are stuck at work. Des­ti­na­tions in­clude ac­ces­si­ble states with strong wild-bird population­s, and ideally res­i­dent friends or fam­ily. This is dou­bly ad­van­ta­geous: He gets to squeeze in a visit and crash with them, in­stead of camp­ing or pay­ing for a mo­tel. Upon ar­riv­ing—of­ten in the Dako­tas, some­times in Kansas or Wy­oming—and meet­ing which­ever bud­dies are game, the crew starts scout­ing. That in­cludes ev­ery­thing from watch­ing fields to talk­ing with farm­ers.

“As awkward as it sounds, just feel­ing out who looks lo­cal in bars or restau­rants can be re­ally pro­duc­tive,” Lak­so­nen says. “We make con­ver­sa­tion with peo­ple who ap­pear to be farm­ers or hunters, and it’s pretty rare that they don’t want to tell you where to go. I re­ally en­joy talk­ing to farm­ers. It’s a lot of ‘I just cut this wheat field and saw lots of birds—they flew left or right.’ And de­pend­ing on whether they own the land or not, those are good op­por­tu­ni­ties to say, ‘Would you mind if I went over there and tried hunt­ing?’”

Lak­so­nen es­ti­mates his suc­cess rate for se­cur­ing per­mis­sion, ei­ther in con­ver­sa­tion or from knock­ing on doors, is about 80 per­cent. The tracts he’s look­ing for are in­ter­sec­tions of food and cover, sweet spots like smaller strips of CRP grass ad­ja­cent to a grain field or pond. Once Lak­so­nen gets his birds for the day, he spends the rest of it search­ing for an even bet­ter spot to hunt to­mor­row.

DREAM TEAM Lak­so­nen and his first GSP, Art. Not pic­tured: the limit of No­dak roost­ers on the tailgate.

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