By John Gordon
Duck season was in full swing on the rice fields of northeast Arkansas. The mid-morning lull lured the hunters into a drowsy half-sleep after an early flurry at first light. Then they heard it, the crackling yodel of a white-fronted goose breaking the silence. A sudden shot of adrenaline passed through the submerged pit blind as speck calls were hastily found on lanyards. Excited speck chatter rose from the ground in the form of high-pitched two-note cries and sharp feeding clucks. The geese responded to the calling and changed course for a closer look. Soon the lead bird engaged with the hunters. Confident they were joining in on the feed, they made a final pass and locked wings for landing.
Thirty years ago, those geese would have likely been on the Texas coastal prairie or a Louisiana marsh and nowhere near an Arkansas rice field. Times have changed, and now this scenario plays out often in many more areas. White-fronted geese, named for the white patch ringing the upper mandible of their bills, are more commonly known as specklebellies. That nickname refers to the dark stripes of horizontal bars on the chests of adult birds. Why did specks shift in large numbers into the lower Mississippi Flyway? There are several theories, but one expert believes the answer lies in two factors.
Leading Canadian research scientist Dr. Ray Alisauskas focuses on arctic ecosystems and waterfowl conservation. He has studied the Arctic tundra nesting species since the 1980s. “In my opinion the shift in wintering areas has two main reasons behind it. The first is the increased planting of rice in the region where the geese have moved to. Rice is a staple for white-fronts. The second factor is the extended drought that started in 2007 on the Texas coast. Without food and water, they were forced to move,” he explained.
And then they stayed. Rice production continues to fall in Texas and Louisiana and grow in Arkansas. According to the Texas State Historical Association, the growing of rice in that state began in earnest in 1903. Arkansas started growing the crop as well a few years later and slowly over time that state has increased its acreage while Texas and Louisiana have cut back substantially. Arkansas grows over a million acres consistently today while Texas production has dropped below 150,000. Plant it and they will come.
Speck populations have been on a steady rise since the 1960s. That eventually led to more hunter participation nationwide as limits increased. Those early hunts on the Texas prairies only allowed for one speck in the bag per day. This season both Arkansas and Mississippi’s daily limit is three and the limit in California is a whopping 10. Rice, corn, soybeans; these crops have taken over fertile lands once reserved for cotton. Dr. Alisauskas believes increases in grain production are the main story behind the growing population. “Adult survival rates have gone up as food sources continue to be strong in the wintering areas. With plenty of food and water available, there are more and stronger geese returning to the arctic each year,” he said.
Three types of white-fronted geese inhabit North America. There are three recognized populations of greater white-fronted geese: Tule (pronounced too-lee) geese winter in California, the Pacific Flyway population winters along the west coast, and the mid-continent population.
Tule varieties are the least common and are darker and larger than the other two. Their wintering range is limited to central California. Pacific Flyway white-fronts nest in the Alaskan Yukon and move south to winter in waterfowl rich areas such as the Klamath Basin and Sacramento Valley. Many waterfowl hunters encounter the mid-continent birds migrating from Canadian breeding grounds. Dr. Alisauskas has studied this population extensively.
“The birds that breed in the Canadian arctic spend their winter in the mid-continent,” he said. “The Canadian breeding range extends from the Yukon-Alaska border eastward along the coast to the mainland northwest of Hudson Bay. Most nesting in Canada occurs on the mainland with few white-fronts nesting on the arctic islands.”
Tule geese are present in much smaller numbers. Estimates are between 7,000 to 10,000 according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It is difficult to distinguish the differences between the subspecies. A n area between Willows on the north and Colusa, California, on the south side is closed to white-front hunting to protect the Tule populations.
As speck numbers have grown on expanded range, so have the ranks of the dedicated speck hunter. Ray Shanks of Union Point, Georgia, is a lifelong duck hunter and leading retriever trainer. He primarily hunts near Jonesboro, Arkansas, now, but 10 years ago he expanded his hunting range into the Mississippi Delta around Tunica, Mississippi. It was there he first encountered the white-fronted geese that would intrigue him to this day.
“We hunted rice fields to the east of Tunica and the mallard hunting was great. But slowly we started to see fewer and fewer of them,” Ray said. “I have always loved the calling aspect of waterfowling and no duck responds as well as the mallard. When we started shooting other species more frequently that really just decoyed or didn’t, I missed working the birds into range. Then the specks began to show up in bigger numbers. I decided to get a call and learn how to use it,” he continued. “The first calls I had were hard to use but I learned the basics and had some success. It was a revelation to see them react in a similar fashion to mallards. Specks then became a big part of my hunting experience.”
Years passed and Ray noticed a change happening. “The basic calls started to be less effective and the birds became much wary. Sure, you could get young birds to come to you but the adults had adapted and new tactics were needed. One very important finishing factor we learned was complete attention to hiding,” he explained. “While specks work well to calling on the edges just like mallards, they generally have more time to study the situation. Their longer wings make them slower on the swing to the call so they can easily spot something out of place. Believe me, once that adult bird does not like what it’s seeing the jig is up and they will leave in a hurry.”
Ray believes the ultimate challenge is making specks go where they normally wouldn’t with advanced calling techniques. “Hunting in a rice field that the geese are feeding in the area is one thing, bringing specks into range in flooded timber is quite another,” he stated. “You have to really lean into your calling using an aggressive style to create enough noise to make them curious. I love how responsive they can be to quality calling. It really pushed me to go the extra mile and learn how to make all the subtle sounds that will finish them when they should have flown by.”
The Sacramento Valley, stretching from northern California to the central part of the state, attracts large numbers of Pacific Flyway white-fronts. Once again, the draw is the rice crop. Banded/Avery pro-staffer Gene Carter is intimately familiar with the valley and speck hunting in the area. Gene resides in Yuba City, a small town north of Sacramento.
“Specks are the earliest migrants to the valley, often arriving by late September,” he explained. “They will stay in the northern range early where large amounts of water can be found, especially in the past few years when drought conditions have plagued California. There are normally hundreds of thousands of specks near my home, you can hear them passing over at night, a magic sound.”
While the Pacific specks start out in the north of the valley, they transition as winter progresses, shifting to the south. “By late December and January the specks will be feeding in dry fields,” Gene said. “And they can be found as far south as the Los Angeles area. This gives many hunters a chance to hunt these geese, either as a main target or incidentally while duck hunting.” Gene is also enamored with calling specks. “They will interact with you, calling back to you, much like a mallard hen. You use feeding calls, loud attention getting calls, and subtle calls to draw them close. All of the same techniques that work with mallards are also in a good speck calling arsenal,” he claimed. “Different ways are used of blowing into a call of course but the principles are the same.”
In addition to being well hidden, the best speck hunters pay close attention to decoy selection and spread set ups. Decoy set size is the first consideration and one of the most important. Opinions on this fluctuate much like they do for Canada goose hunting. One school likes a large set, others go with minimal numbers. Large sets of six- to 10-dozen decoys can be situated similar to a typical snow goose rig. Build the “head” of the spread or top with the bulk of the decoys. Break out smaller family groups upwind with a lot of space between the groups. It’s important to give the illusion there are more birds on the ground than there are. Taking them out as much as 100 yards is not too much. Don’t worry about birds landing short, specks focus on the calling and seek out the source before committing to landing.
Flocked or painted decoys? Today’s speck hunter has choices not available in years past. Early speck decoys were simple dark plastic rags on sticks. Then shell decoys developed and then full-bodied fakes took over. Many top speck hunters swear by the fully-flocked versions, as flocking eliminates shine and increases realism. Both types will kill specks. If decoys are left in the field for extended time periods, painted versions have an upper hand. Flocking will take a beating from the elements and fading is the most common problem. Flocked decoys require more storage care; slotted decoy bags are a must to keep them looking good for many seasons.
When hunting traffic areas, many speck hunters go with a mixed spread. Adding in snow geese improves the spread visibility substantially, while offering the bonus of attracting snows. It’s a good idea when running snow decoys to have separation from the specks. While these two geese are often found in the same fields together, they are not the best of friends. Snows can be downright mean, pushing specks out of the way to reach food sources ahead of them. So, specks will keep some distance between themselves and the white birds. The space doesn’t have to be great, 10 to 15 yards is sufficient. Use more feeders than actives. Tanglefree, Dive Bomb, White Rock and Reel Geese all make quality socks or silhouettes (or both) that can create a larger footprint and more motion at a reasonable cost—the more realistic the spread, the better the results.
Speck populations are a waterfowl success story. And if rice crop planting remain strong there is no reason they shouldn’t continue to grow. Not every state has opportunities available to hunt these birds but enough do to make traveling to pursue them worthwhile. They are great table fare as well. Many a memorable evening at hunting camp has been highlighted by grilled speck breasts. Check out speck hunting opportunities both near and far this season. It’s a challenging and enjoyable way to spend a day in the field for certain.