Once a pass shooting fancy, more and more Arkansas duck hunters are turning their attention to the pursuit of Greater White-Fronted Geese, also known as specklebellies. These geese have exploded in terms of the number of birds now wintering in Arkansas over the last decade or so. Waterfowlers have taken notice and are working to improve their skills as an alternative or supplement to their traditional mallard hunts.
What’s in a Name?
Specks get their name from a small white patch near the bill and their nickname is inspired by the random, black slashes sported by mature birds across their breast area. The older the bird, the more significant its black feathers are, and the flyway veterans will often times have solid black breasts. Immature geese will typically be an off-white color or brownish-gray across their underside.
The specks that make their way to Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas each winter travel long and far given their breeding grounds are on the tundra across the Nunavut, Northern and Yukon territories of Canada as well as Alaska. Specks, like most geese, pair up and stick together for a long time if possible. Specklebelly geese also tend to stay in family groups longer than other geese.
Arkansas’ season for specklebellies mirrors the start and end dates of duck season, but it is a little known fact that they are legal to hunt during the splits when duck season is closed. So for anyone looking for a reason to head to duck camp during a break in the season, specks are a legitimate solution versus excuses like the need to clean up camp, fix the boat, string decoys or any other reason available.
Specks tend to show up in mid-October depending on the weather and really build up strong numbers in late November and early December. The amount of birds hitting the Grand Prairie has gone through the roof compared to 30 years ago.
In 1980, Arkansas totaled 1,480 specks harvested, per United States Fish and Wildlife Services reports. In 2010, the state reported 36,940 for an amazing 2,395-percent increase. In 2008, Arkansas waterfowlers downed nearly 53,000 specklebellies, which is an all-time high for the state.
The belief is that more specklebellies are wintering in Arkansas because of the reduced food supply in southern Texas and Louisiana. Between the significant drop in rice production in Texas (and subsequent growth in Arkansas) and the damage done to the coastal wetlands of Louisiana, Arkansas’ habitat seems to be suiting the specks just fine.
Texas at its peak produced over 600,000 acres of rice in the 1980s and is now down to 170,000. Arkansas was only doing 300,000 or so acres in the 80s and now has over 1.7 million acres in harvested rice. The shift in food supply has caused a major shift in where specks choose to spend their winter.
There is a trend to be seen, and the same thing might be going on with mallards and the agricultural improvements made by Arkansas’ neighbors to the north in Missouri.
Most specks harvested in Arkansas are likely taken on a passing shot while a waterfowler is duck hunting, given that specks frequent the same fields as puddle ducks. The number of serious, tried and true speck hunters in the state is still very small. But the number is growing and with a little education, the hunter success rate can increase as well.
On the surface, goose hunting in and of itself looks like hard work. And it is if a hunter is chasing snow geese — as they require huge decoy spreads — and making a lot of noise with multiple callers.
Specks can be effectively hunted over 6-12 decoys with a single, talented caller. These geese will also flirt with duck decoys or a combo setup if the hunters are well hidden and still. Experience shows there is a difference between duck hunt still and goose hunt still.
Specks seem to have more keen eyesight than mallards. One theory is that specks tend to lock onto a decoy spread from a greater distance and fly longer in a straighter path, which gives them a better chance to eyeball things. The slightest movement by a hunter or dog seems to divert a group of incoming specks just enough offline to put them out of gun range.
Ducks, by comparison, like to circle and bank into a decoy spread, hence losing their bearings just enough to miss movements by anxious hunters. If a hunter gets some inbound specks laser-focused on his setup, he should remain super still until it’s go time. But one should remember … some of the better hunts have come from setting shooters 50-75 yards on either side of a decoy spread as specks can get in a habit of looking like they are coming dead set for the spread and then ease around wide as they get within 150-200 yards.
The specklebelly is also fond of loafing in buckbrush and willow break reservoirs that dot the Arkansas landscape. Catching them crisscrossing a reservoir looking for a spot to lounge during the day is a great setup for many Arkansas speck hunters. It is good to pick a wide open spot to make decoys obvious and then spread shooters out around the perimeter.
Specks will often low fly the reservoir looking for somewhere to sit and can make for easy shooting.
Patience Can Be Key
Specks tend to pattern consistently in small groups back and forth between where they feed and their loafing spot. When the geese are moving short distances between the two spots, they often trickle to and fro in small groups lifting up out of the big bunch versus the entire wad moving at once.
Hunters can experience higher success if they are patient and wait for the right group to come into range instead of taking maximum range volleys at every group that passes by.
Letting some groups of 6-8 birds go by rather than skybusting will ensure the remaining flock to believe all is well and follow that previous group to the next spot. Continual sky busting will put a stop to that and likely run the geese out of the area posthaste. Odds are if a hunter is in the flight pattern for a large concentration of specks, a group or two will make a mistake and break off on your decoy spread. Given the limit is only two, that might be all it takes to have a heck of a hunt.
Specks are much like mallards in terms of their response to the call. They will go back and forth in conversation with a good caller and can turn on a dime when the sound is right.
There are some “cheater” calls on the market that can produce a speck-like sound if a hunter is looking for a quick solution. But serious callers will use higher end calls that require the use of backpressure and the use of the hands much like the method used by Canada goose hunters on television.
Different patterns and different sounds than Canadas are needed, but the manipulation of the call is required to produce those yodeling sounds made by specks. There are countless videos on YouTube with great instruction on learning to speck call. A hunter can start there and see if he can get the call to break over and create that distinctive speck yodel.
A Fine Eating Bird
Specklebellies are considered by far the best tasting goose roaming the Grand Prairie and many believe they rival the Green Wing Teal in terms of the best table fare in the waterfowl world. Anyone invited to a meal with specks on the menu shouldn’t turn his nose up thinking he is getting some jerky-like Snow Goose.
Specklebellies can be a treat just about any way they are prepared. With each goose weighing about 4-6 pounds, there is plenty of meat to grill, smoke or roast up just about any way imaginable.
Doing It Right
Given the increasing numbers of specklebellies making Arkansas their home for the winter, those who seriously hunt the birds would like to see other waterfowlers take the time to learn how to hunt them in a fair chase scenario.The random skybusting at passing geese ensures they will become less receptive to decoy spreads and calling from legitimate hunting efforts.
With just a little bit of effort and some patience to learn the craft, Arkansas’ hunters can improve their days afield when in the mix on specks or when the mallards may not be participating.
Hunters are urged to get out there and study their behavior, learn a few notes on a speck call and give it a run. Even the mallard purists can get a big thrill out of seeing these big birds trying to set down among the decoys.