August 27, 2012
Out of the pale morning light came the faint sound of cackling. Quickly, our hunting crew tucked tight into their blinds in anticipation of the birds' arrival. A flight of eight famished specklebellies silhouetted against the eastern sky winged towards us with eager anticipation of their breakfast. The birds circled in front of our spread, checking out every detail before committing to land. The family group made one more swing around the field before setting wings and drifting into range with excited chatter. We emerged from our blinds and shotguns roared, dropping six of the birds into the decoys.
The speckle-bellied goose is one of the most coveted of all waterfowl in western Canada. These arctic nesting birds migrate out of the far north and stage through the western provinces on the way south. The agricultural fields in the parkland region, spreading from central Alberta through eastern Saskatchewan, are the primary flyway that attracts these geese as they secure protein-rich diets, building fat reserves for the long journey ahead. The birds seldom range out of this narrow flyway, making them unique quarry for early-season hunters.
Specks are one of the first migrators to arrive. They are often feeding in fields the last week of August, even before the hunting season opens in early September. They arrive in family units, which are easy to distinguish, with two adults (marked by distinct bars on their chest), and the rest drab colored juveniles. These birds act much different than other arctic geese that often migrate in large flocks, seeking safety in numbers. Specks are more solitary, sharing staging water and feeding sources, but hang together in family flocks until later in the fall, when they will start bunching up.
They are wary geese, using their eyes to scan everything thoroughly before making decisions to land. They often hover in the air with heads craning back and forth, trying to assess their potential safety.
We had set up our decoys specifically for the specks that were feeding in a harvested pea field. Watching dozens of flights land in the field the night before, it was easy to identify the number of family groups starting to converge together. Each flock would land in their own space, often walking into a group of geese on the ground to feed. The live birds looked like a patchwork of geese, spread out over the best feeding area of the field. We arranged our decoys to mimic the natural behavior of these birds and grouped our speckle-belly blocks in units of four to eight. We spread them out over a large area where the geese had been feeding, leaving plenty of room in the middle for a large family group to identify a good landing zone.
The detail in our spread paid off. The first group of birds to hit the field dropped in as though trying to land on an "X" we had drawn in the stubble. Specks come out at first light, often before it is legal to shoot. It can be a blessing, as the poor light conditions help to conceal blinds and put the geese in a vulnerable situation that lasts about 40 minutes. We didn't need much time to take advantage of the flocks headed in our direction. They were lined up in the sky like boxcars getting ready to be hitched up on an outbound train.
Two juveniles winged straight in on our decoys without even circling.
We took advantage of their ignorance and included them in the bag with little disturbance to other birds in the air. A second flock with about a dozen birds flew across the front edge of the spread to have a look. They made a wide circle and honed in on our speck calls. The geese finished perfectly at about 20 yards; their pale orange feet splayed out as they tried to find the ground.
We severely reduced the size of the flock and our shooting bumped the next several flights off their intended course. With calm conditions we knew we would have to wait for fresh birds to arrive before pulling in the next group.
It didn't take long for flocks far on the horizon to make their way towards us. With better light, the specks were getting more cautious, circling three times before coming into range. We rounded out limits for the day and sat back to watch the birds. When the sun was completely above the horizon, several groups of geese landed in the far corner of our field. They drew all of the incoming flocks to the new location and we were thankful we shot straight to collect our birds when the getting was good.
Specks are early migrants and most years they hang around until mid-October before continuing south. They offer a short window of opportunity and most resident hunters take the birds while hunting other species. That is, they don't set up specifically for specks and hope that they will simply come into a spread of Canada decoys. These birds frustrate the heck out of most hunters because they don't decoy like big grays. Speck decoys and calls are a must if you want consistent results. If you would be happy with a handful of these fine-eating birds, a good spread of Canada decoys will allow you to collect some early birds and juveniles.
The best part about specklebellies is how they prepare for the table. Avid speck hunters around here consider them the rib eye of geese. You can cook up the breasts just like a good steak and they eat extremely well.
Besides being outstanding table fare, these birds are unique trophies that are as individual as a hunter's fingerprints. Every adult bird has a distinct pattern of dark bars on their chest that can range from solid black to tiny speckles throughout the breast feathers.
I've had several buddies come up to shoot specks knowing they wanted to harvest one worthy of being mounted. In most cases, they ended up taking three or four birds to the taxidermist, unable to decide which speckle pattern they liked best.
What a great problem to have!