From 500 yards away, sitting atop his horse, John Zeman watched the beginnings of his “perfect scenario” unfold, as if the entire drama before him had been choreographed for some higher purpose.
This was early last September in northeast Montana. Zeman’s 4-year-old German shorthaired pointer, Liza, locked up on point in an overgrown alfalfa field. For several minutes she stood frozen in time and space, her stubby tail canted at 45 degrees, her sinewy, white-and-liver-colored body glistening in the sun. The distance closed, Zeman jumped off his horse, grabbed his 20-gauge over-and-under from its scabbard and flushed a covey of sharp-tailed grouse.
“I knocked down one bird, but the most gratifying part of that whole deal was that Liza was completely steady throughout — on point, with the flush and then the shot. She didn’t break until I released her for the retrieve, which she brought to hand,” said Zeman, 54, of Zimmerman. “Some guys want to shoot a lot of birds, and that’s completely fine, but what I’m looking for is that perfect scenario where all my training with my dogs comes together. As a bird hunter, that’s what really gets me going.”
With Game Fair in Ramsey starting Friday and the early-autumn bird-hunting seasons only weeks away, Zeman, a self-described amateur dog trainer who co-owns his family’s construction business, is in full preparation mode. In fact, Zeman is constantly preparing, his friends say. Dog training isn’t merely a hobby. It’s his lifestyle. And he’s superb at it, they say, a dog whisperer of sorts who is willing to impart his decades of experience to help anyone.
“The one thing about John, apart from his extraordinary aptitude as a trainer, is that he’s genuinely a nice guy,” said Julia Schrenkler, 49, an adult onset hunter whose German shorthaired pointer (GSP) Wren has been trained by Zeman. “If you’re lucky enough to spend time with him, you can’t help but learn from him. He’s so generous it’s a little humbling.”
A member of Pheasants Forever and the German Shorthaired Club of Minnesota, Zeman, at 15, purchased his first GSP for $150. Nineteen others have followed. Today, he has five dogs. Zeman’s GSPs have won field trial championships, among other accolades. He trains regularly at his small hobby farm and often at Four Brooks Wildlife Management Area, state land open for dog training and field trials. Using a GoPro camera, he often videos his training and conditioning sessions and posts them on Facebook. He said it’s a way to “preserve some memories and have a little fun.” He’s developed quite the following.
“I had a mentor when I got my first dog who taught me so many things, and I’m grateful for that,” said Zeman. “That’s why I feel an obligation to help others. I want to show them what their dogs are capable of.”
With German origins dating back to the 17th century, GSPs are often likened to the Swiss Army Knife of pointing breeds. “They’re versatile, athletic, intelligent, great family dogs and have a high, high prey drive,” said Zeman. “I like to hunt every bird under the sun, so they’re perfect for me.”
When it comes to dogs, Schrenkler said, temperament is important. But it’s equally important for trainers. Zeman, she said, carries himself with an infectious “deep calm.”
“He touches and handles his dogs with slow, deliberate hand movements,” she said. “He doesn’t gesture wildly or move his body without communicating his next step. It’s a pleasure to watch dogs watch John, because they pick up confidence from him almost immediately.
“John also has an even voice and grants patience to every person and canine within earshot. His temperament sets the tone.”
Bob St. Pierre of Pheasants Forever started hunting and training with Zeman five years ago. Zeman, he said, has an uncanny ability to troubleshoot.
“I’ve had bird dogs that I’ve gotten to that 80 percent range with my own skill level but have needed John to come in and help me close the game, if you will,” said St. Pierre of training his dogs to their full potential. “That’s why I call him The Closer.”
Zeman may be mild-mannered, but he hunts hard. “If you meet John in the morning for a ruffed grouse hunt, you can bet you won’t get out of the woods and back to the trucks until a half-hour after dark,” said St. Pierre. “He’s hardcore about hunting; he’ll walk your tail off.”
Come Sept. 1, along with St. Pierre, Zeman will be back in northeast Montana and its big, rugged country, full of rolling hills and short-grass prairie, coulees and draws, Hungarian partridge and sharp-tailed grouse — an exacta of wing-shooting possibilities. He said his GSPs excel in that environment.
“They like to run big, but they still stay in touch,” Zeman said. “I can’t wait. … I’m always looking for that next perfect scenario to unfold.”
Tori J. McCormick is a Twin Cities-based freelance writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.