Call of the specklebelly: inspiring a special devotion among water-fowlers, the white-fronted goose is a challenge all its own.
Common to the Pacific, Central and Mississippi flyways, specks nest in Canada and winter in California; along the Texas and Louisiana coast; and in the rice fields of the Mississippi Delta. Although some northern hunters bag specks during the migration, white-fronts move quickly through the northern states en route to their wintering grounds farther south. The majority of speck hunting takes place in Arkansas and along the Gulf Coast.
Often as not, hunters kill whitefronts incidentally to snow geese over huge rag spreads. Frankly, many of those hunters consider specks easy because they can break white-fronts out of a group of snows and call them in to the decoys. Hunters who set up specifically for white-fronts tell a different story.
"Specks can make you look like a hero or a zero," says Bill Cooksey of Avery Outdoors in Memphis. "I've brought them in to duck spreads with nothing but a call. Other times, they won't give you the time of day."
I can attest to the latter. One day last December I shared a Stuttgart rice field with Cooksey when specks were very much in cold shoulder mode. Even on a goose-less day, however, I found there's much to recommend specklebelly hunting over the Ahab-like obsession with white geese that afflicts so many waterfowlers. For one thing, how would you rather spend the end of an unsuccessful hunt--picking up 1,500 wet windsocks or 18 specklebelly shells?
Despite winning the Tennessee state duck calling championship twice, Cooksey would rather hunt specks than greenheads or any other waterfowl. In fact, it's his love of calling that enamors Cooksey of speck hunting.
"Specks are the easiest geese to get in a conversation with; they work a call better than any other bird," he says. "They answer right back, and you can tell you're really doing something with the call. When some ducks commit to the decoys, it might be because of where you were set up or some other factor. With specks, it's because you called them in. You rarely have birds drop into your decoys and catch you by surprise. They're geared to the decoy spread and the calling."
As with all goose hunting, speck hunting begins with scouting. In Arkansas, specks feed in rice fields and roost on the hundreds of private irrigation reservoirs that dot the Grand Praire. Although specklebellies often travel with huge flocks of snow geese, Cooksey prefers to keep looking until he finds a group of specks feeding or roosting on their own. "If they're mixed in with snow geese, then you have to fool with a bunch of snow goose decoys," he points out. "When specks are alone, I can hunt them with just six to 18 decoys."
If he can't find or gain access to the exact field the specks are using, Cooksey will set up in a field along the bird's line of flight from the roost in the morning. Cooksey arranges his decoys in groups of three or so birds. "If you look at specks in a field, you'll see them spread out. I'll put two or three decoys six feet apart, move 20 feet, and set three more." As the season goes on, Cooksey reduces the size of his spread, sometimes cutting it down to as few as three geese: a pair, one feeding, one resting, and another single with a semi-rester head 20 feet away.
When it comes to setting out his small spread of speck decoys, Cooksey doesn't subscribe to the "alphabet soup" approach that marks so many Canada and light goose rigs. "You don't need to set out a 'U' or 'W' or 'X' shaped spread with a clear landing zone," he explains. "Unlike other geese, specks won't land short of the decoys and walk in if there's no landing hole. They'll always find a spot to land somewhere among the birds on the ground."
"With specks," he continues, "I want to set up the wind directly behind me. That way, the birds come right at the blinds and give everyone an opportunity to shoot." A bird coming straight at the blinds gets an excellent look at your hiding place, so Cooksey says good concealment is a must. "They get a long look at you as they come straight in," he notes. "A good ground blind covered with rice stubble is a must."
In general, realism and camouflage are critical to a successful speck rig. Specks will typically stay high and circle a spread two or three times, giving them ample time to pick out flaws in your camouflage or to spot unrealistic decoys. "Full bodies make the best speck decoys, although you can get by with good shells," Cooksey observes. "You want to stay away from rags and spinning wing decoys. I'd rather use a flag to add some motion to the spread."
On a sunny day, Cooksey will flag a group of specks all the way to the ground. When it's cloudy and birds can see better, he'll put the flag away before the birds get too close. Regardless of conditions, Cooksey continues to call using the speck's high pitched, two-note yodel. "You'll hear specks make a three-note call all the time, but if you do the three-note call, you're done. I don't know why, but as soon as you start with the three-note yodel, the flock will drift away."
Cooksey sticks with the two-note call and listens for a response. "Keep that conversation going and hold the bird's interest. If they don't answer back, I'll fake the conversation to get it going. I'll yodel, then answer myself with a slightly different tone until the geese start talking. If they stop answering, I'll go back to playing both parts until they start up again."
Cooksey leans on the call until the geese are all the way in to the decoys. "I'll try to get the first flock of the day to within 10 yards of the guns," he says. "You can tell a lot by how that first bunch acts. If they're new geese to the area, or the light or wind conditions are right, they'll come right in and you can predict the rest of the day's flocks will act the same way. If the first bunch slides off at 35 yards, you'll be calling a lot of 35-yard shots that day."
Like many speck specialists, Cooksey swears by the Chien Caille (www.chiencalle.com; it means "spotted dog" in French) call made by Mervis Saltzman of Abbeville, Louisiana. In the coastal rice farming region known as the "Gueydan Corridor" Saltzman reigns as the guru of Gueydan geese, and he is another believer in the less-is-more school of speck-foolery.
Traditionally, local hunters concentrated on ducks. Saltzman was one of the first in the area to spend as much or more effort on geese as he did on ducks. Hunting from a pit blind in a levee, Saltzman sets his duck decoys in front of the blind, then puts a small group of specks as far as 80 yards behind (upwind) of the blind He spreads the groups far apart, so that no matter which way the wind is quartering, there's a group of decoys straight upwind of the blind, leading geese directly over the pit as they approach.
Late in the season, Saltzman may reduce his spread to just three decoys, 75 yards directly upwind of the blind. He prefers shells to full-bodies, on the belief that a full-body stands much taller than a real goose feeding in the stubble. Occasionally he'll place one or two snow geese off to the side of his speck decoys for added realism.
Snows are a common sight around Abbeville and Gueydan. The area winters 800,000 to 900,000 light geese in addition to roughly 150,000 specklebellies. Another local, Rocky Rousseau, targets light geese and specks together, setting out big spreads that appeal to the snows as well as to the whitefronts that fly with them. Rousseau's approach, while labor intensive, nets bags of specks and snows alike.
Rousseau started goose hunting in the days before commercially available rags and windsocks. "I asked myself, what looks like a goose but won't cost a lot of money?" he recalls. His inspiration: white Clorox bottles. Rousseau took out an ad in the paper offering to donate 25 cents to the local church for every empty bleach bottle people brought him. Just $250 later, he had 1,000 jugs. Rousseau made heads for one in three bottles, dotted the tail end of each with black spray paint, and he was ready to hunt.
Rousseau added numbers to his decoy collection over the years until his "weekend spread" consisted of 3,000 decoys: 1,500 silhouettes, 300 to 400 rags and his Clorox jugs. I'll find a field to hunt on Friday night and we'll set out the decoys. We'll hunt Saturday and Sunday morning, then four of us will pick up all 3,000 on Sunday afternoon."
"Near the front I mix three silhouettes, two jugs and a rag," he says. "Farther back, I use two jugs with a rag. That way, when the geese circle the spread, they see the jugs which have three dimensions." He'll set 200 to 300 speck decoys off to one side.
There's more to goose hunting than numbers of decoys, Rousseau says. Calling well and flagging are important factors in his goose hunting success.
"People don't know you can call blues with a Canada call," he says, "I bought a Tim Grounds Half-Breed Canada call and learned to call blue geese on that. Blues have a hail call, greeting, a laydown and a comeback just like the Canada does." For specklebellies, Rousseau swears by Saltzman's Chien Caille speck call.
"I power call to flocks of geese," he says. I'll do three blue goose calls to one specklebelly call, 'cause that's what you hear when a flock comes in. Then if the snows break out and leave I'll just call to the specks."
As the season wears on Rousseau, like Cooksey and Saltzman, adapts with a smaller spread on those days when he's alter specks alone. Late season hunting turns especially tough when there are no weather fronts to move new birds into the area.
Specklebellies that have "gone local" get wise to the location of permanent blinds in the rice fields. "Sometimes late in the season we'll move down 500 to 600 yards from the blinds and take just a few decoys, get some camo burlap and plywood to sit on. We'll sit against the levee to keep a low profile. I'll use Mervis' call and a T-flag to get the birds in," says Rousseau.
Why go to all the effort to hunt geese when he lives in an area where hunters kill more ducks in a season than all the Atlantic Flyway states combined? Simple: "Ducks aren't a challenge to me any more," says Rousseau. "Geese are always a challenge."
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|Date:||Nov 1, 2003|
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