Rich Laksonen Ishpeming, Michigan
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.