Last duck season was a tough one for me personally. For a number of reasons the mallards just didn’t congregate on the farm I hunt in southern Lonoke County like normal. So many factors were at play, the biggest one being an abundance of water — especially in the White River Bottoms — which seems to scatter and spread the ducks way too thin. Back that up with a very mild winter (I don’t recall breaking ice once) and duck season really never got going.
But instead of settling into a state of duck depression, my season was saved and then some by the venerable specklebelly goose. The “bar belly” (nicknamed for the unique black markings on the breast area) wintering population is growing more and more each season, as there has been a shift north in where they choose to spend the winter months. Ten to 15 years ago, the number of specks seen in Arkansas was a tiny fraction of what it is today.
Most attribute that to the reduction in rice farming in south Texas and Louisiana. One would be naive to think warmer winters didn’t cause a shift as well. It’s a situation similar to how we Arkansas duck hunters have come to fear Missouri is becoming a “stop short” migration location.
Specks aren’t terribly hard to hunt. Unlike their snow goose brethren, specks don’t require huge decoy spreads or a dry field. A dozen, good-looking decoys with a little action to move them around can lure the bird well into gun range.
Specks love a little sheet water but will also loaf in knee deep water like puddle ducks. I’ve even seen specks decoy in a dead timber reservoir. The specklebelly is a very versatile bird in terms of huntable habitat and is growing in popularity as an alternative or a gap filler between quality duck hunts.
But please don’t take that as a testament that anyone can shoot specks in the snap of a finger. Specks do respond to calling much like mallards but are much more sensitive to missteps because of their slower approach pattern. The cadence of specks requires a lot of listening and observing what sounds they make and when. Between the yodels, grunts and clucks, hitting the wrong note at the wrong time will have them steering around your decoy spread.
As with most waterfowling, you would best be advised to cover up, get hidden and be still. Decoying specks have a lot of time to eyeball the situation and can get very skittish, especially on cloudy days.
Our friends at Backwoods Duck Club and Lodge also had a stellar season on specks. Backwoods is located just west of Bayou Meto and typically focuses its guided hunts on ducks in the morning and geese in the afternoon. That was until this past season when its duck hunting struggled like most.
Trey Bohannon and his guides shifted their attention to specks and began tracking their patterns and habits, which proved be a big difference maker on Backwoods’ success rate. Bohannon and lead speck guide Brandon “Opie” Howard say that doing your homework, which includes a lot of observing and listening, can greatly improve your ability to decoy specklebellies. Their impressive number of satisfied hunters would put them at the top of my list if I was in the market to try speck hunting without the investment in decoys and leases.
Personally, last season was as good as it could probably be on specks while the duck hunting was the polar opposite. I don’t even recall setting out duck decoys once after Christmas, as the speck hunting was just too good.
As the population grows along with the liberal three-goose limit Arkansas is fortunate to have, the reputation of our speck hunting is growing. My hope is more hunters learn to truly hunt them and cut back on the sky-busting and pass shooting that ultimately influence geese’s decoying ability. Take the time to learn the craft and you will not be disappointed as your success improves.
And definitely learn how to cook them because there is no better table fare than the specklebelly goose.