A Delta Specklebelly Primer

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What You Need to Know to Hunt Whitefronts

A common fall and winter visitor in Dixie, specklebellies have become more popular with hunters. Photo © Tom Rassuchine

It was early January in the Delta, and we were on total lockdown. A weeklong cold front had pushed in and frozen rice fields top to bottom. Our attempts to open water resulted in frozen spigot heads and dead batteries on ice eaters, which wound up keeping enough water open for about three or four teal to land. My friend Patrick and his son were due in camp, and from the look of things, it would be slow going. His son wanted to experience the flights of greenheads and pintails we were known for, but they were long gone, heading for open water at a more southerly latitude.

“We will probably be shooting geese,” I said over the phone as they drove from their home in South Carolina to the Grand Prairie.

“Geese?”

You could hear a snivel of disappointment in Patrick’s voice. He’s not one to complain, but I knew what they wanted. Still, they were seasoned hunters and know too well you take the hand Mother Nature gives you.
“Don’t worry,” I reassured them. “They’re specks”.

Specklebelly. Barbelly. Speck. White-fronted geese go by several names and have become increasingly more popular among hunters in the Delta, who are discovering slowly what folks in Louisiana, parts of the Grand Prairie and Western flyways have known for years: Specks are just flat-out cool. They respond to calling, can execute impressive aerial acrobatics and are dang near one of the hardest birds to kill when they get some education under their wings. If you want me to say it’s easy, that’s not gonna happen. There’s a lot of frustration and confusion, followed by little trigger time while you figure things out.

Decoys

Folks have several schools of thought about decoying specks. One involves using four to six decoys to simulate small family groups. Hunters place those on the outside of their duck spreads, usually floaters, hoping to lure in a few meandering geese. Although this tactic will work occasionally, it’s more of an afterthought; an insurance policy, “Just in case we see some.” Sure, that works sometimes with smaller groups, but later in the season, when larger flocks become the norm, you won’t see geese drop en masse, wings cupped into your paltry spread.

Instead of tossing out a few floaters, like half the hunters in the Delta, invest in a half-dozen flocked full-bodies. Place them where the geese need to pass low in front of you or overhead while they’re lining up on the micro-spread. In our neck of the woods, the shallow end of a field, where water is just barely touching the tops of their feet, seem to be the best places for this type of setup. You run the risk of the geese swinging wide, but positioning decoys in that manner seems to put levee- and blind-shy geese at ease.

When we target geese in midmorning or afternoon, slightly larger spreads on the edges of flooded fields or dry grain fields consistently produce results if conditions are right (more on that later). What started out as a half-dozen full bodies morphed into two dozen, along with a half-dozen shells and a few dozen snow geese scattered around. Placing the geese in small family feeding groups with a landing zone crosswind in front of the ground blinds has become the go-to. Specks are wary, and if you set up so they come head-on into the spread, they’ll probably pick you out. A poorly brushed blind, someone wants to take one last peek before closing the lid or something geese see that isn’t quite right is all it takes for a hard abort mission. By setting up the landing zone where geese must fly within gun range but parallel to the blinds keeps their eyes off you.

Conditions

In my opinion, nothing can help you kill specks better than hunting when conditions are favorable. I believe that means hunting when the winds are high enough to keep them low and eliminate their desire to circle several times, inspecting every aspect of your spread. Higher winds will make them hang in the air inspecting your spread, making the shooting seem easier than it is. I’ve missed more of these low floaters than the average bear; kind of like trying to hit a knuckleball. If geese are coming in out of range, don’t be afraid to move your decoys to attract them into range. The same can be said if geese flare before really settling into your spread. If you have more than a few groups line up on your decoys only to backflap and rapidly gain altitude, something isn’t right. Try pulling a few decoys or moving the landing zone, and triple-check your brush job on the blinds. I can promise, if you make a mistake, they will pick it out and let you know.

In terms of general weather, I don’t care to hunt in the rain and have never done well during a heavy rain. But a mist or light fog can make for fine goose hunting. They’re already flying low, and wind or not, will typically circle low or lock up with their feet down faster than on bright days. On those days, you must pay extra attention to your decoys and brushwork on the blinds, as every imperfection will be magnified. On such days, I only run fully flocked decoys and will usually pull the shells to keep everything looking as natural as possible.

Calling

I could start a fistfight by going into a diatribe on calling specklebellies. I can tell you this: You must learn to read the geese the same as ducks — perhaps more. Every calling sequence is situational, and that’s one of the things I love about hunting specks. Talking in big groups will get my blood up as much as watching mallards circle in the timber or seeing a group of big sprigs cautiously circle a rice field.

Several videos can teach you how to call specks, but for the layman, I would concentrate on learning a few sounds to start with. Two- and three-note yodels and a murmur will be all you need most of the time. When you hear a goose, start talking to it by matching its call. If it does a two-note yodel, you should do a two-note yodel. When this rhythm has started, do not pause, even if the goose does. Don’t get frustrated if you can’t get every goose to commit. Look at this as a learning process. Watch the goose’s body language, and listen to its calls. Learn from this, and build on it to better fit your calling to each situation and goose.

Several manufacturers make quality calls, but I like Redbone, Riceland and Gaston, and a few buddies run the RNT Barbelly. They kill geese, and that has a lot more to do with the driver than the car.

Patrick and his son arrived, and true to form, the geese proved hard to kill. Luckily, those guys are crackerjack wingshooters and capitalized on every opportunity. They were packing the car on the first warm afternoon in almost 10 days, taking several tasty specks back to South Carolina. It wasn’t a classic Delta rice field hunt, but I can say after a few days, they are hooked on hunting whitefronts.

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