BITING NORTH WINDS CARRIED muffled rumbles of distant shots as duck hunters opened up on mallards, gadwalls and teal while we crouched in the chilly pit buried into this soggy rice field levee. Across the field, the unmistakable yelps and clucks of specklebelly geese grew louder as we waited for them to fly within range.
Hunting specklebellies more closely resembles hunting ducks than snow goose. In fact, more specklebellies probably fall to duck hunters than people intentionally targeting geese. Unlike snow geese, specks or white-fronted geese, typically cluster in pairs or small flocks and respond well to decoys and calling.
"We often get specklebellies as bonus birds when were duck hunting," said Lance Stancik with Backwater Waterfowl in Garwood (979-966-7732, backwaterwaterfowl.com). "Specklebelly hunting is the one form of goose hunting where sportsmen can really enjoy working birds into the decoys. Its a lot more like hunting mallards than snow geese. I usually put out a few speck decoys when hunting ducks."
Since specks dont like to associate with ducks, hunters should place a couple speck decoys on mudflats, levees or other soggy patches adjacent to their duck ponds. Even when specifically targeting specks, use fewer, but more realistic, decoys. Specks usually travel in small numbers, so most speck hunters only use two or three decoys, perhaps up to a dozen.
"Early in the year, we see big flocks of specklebellies until they start breaking up into smaller groups," Stancik advised. "We hunt with full-bodied decoys, but also use sillosocks. Sillosocks have full body appearance with motion like a windsock plus the portability of a silhouette."
Clay Lemaire retrieves a specklebelly goose from a soggy field. Photos: John N. Felsher
While many companies make extremely realistic decoys, nothing looks more genuine to a goose than something with feathers. With outstanding eyesight, geese can easily spot feathers rippling in the breeze, something that doesnt happen with plastic imitations. Some sportsmen prop up dead geese to use as decoys. Others cut the wings off dead geese and tie them to decoys to add movement to the spread.
Mounted geese make the best decoys. While stuffed decoys may not look as artistic as trophy mounts, they cost much less. A good taxidermist can mount geese decoys in many poses. One or two mounted decoys add incredible realism to any spread.
Sometimes, sportsmen need to make their own movement. Some flap dark objects that resemble wings to simulate landing geese. Other goose hunters wave plastic flags on sticks. Others fly kites that resemble geese from their blinds. When geese approach, pull the kite down to simulate a goose landing. From great distances, geese spot the movement and may come closer to investigate.
"I like to flag specklebellies," Stancik explained. "Most hunters in Texas dont do that. Motion is the key. Even with full-body decoys, theres no motion. When geese are at a distance, 500 to 1,000 yards, we can pull them in with motion. Just stick the flag out of the blind really quick to make it look like a goose hopping around or stretching its wings."
To make geese look toward a spread requires good calling. Unlike calling boisterous snows, where sportsmen need to sound like an entire flock, speck hunters call less and "talk" to only one goose in a small flock. Convince the lead specklebelly to land and the rest should follow.
"Being where specks want to be anyway and good calling is the key to bagging birds," Stancik advised. "Even on leased land, dont hunt the same place every day. Keep moving. Find the roosts and go early in the morning to watch where they fly."
Finding where geese want to go on any given day requires extensive scouting. The coastal Texas rice fields historically attract 150,000 to 200,000 specks each winter. On any winter day, motorists driving through the area often spot geese feeding in fields adjacent to roads, but geese may visit another field miles away the next day.
"The mid-Texas coastal area from Corpus Christi to Houston is the traditional area to hunt specklebellies, particularly areas associated with the rice industry," said Kevin Kraai, the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department waterfowl program leader in Canyon. "On all public properties, bagging specklebellies is largely in conjunction with duck hunting."
Unfortunately, most geese feed on private property, but since geese cause so much crop damage, many farmers welcome hunters onto their property. Mad Island and Justin Hurst Wildlife Management Areas, plus Anahuac, Brazoria and McFadden National Wildlife Refuges provide some public opportunities to bag specks while duck hunting.
Mad Island WMA includes about 7,200 acres of coastal wetlands near Bay City. Justin Hurst WMA covers about 12,000 acres west of Freeport near Jones Creek in Brazoria County.
On the federal side, Anahuac NWR covers 34,000 acres of marshes and coastal prairie near Galveston Bay. About 10 miles east of Lake Jackson, Brazoria NWR offers hunting on about 5,500 acres. McFaddin NWR covers 55,000 acres of freshwater to brackish marsh about 15 miles south of Port Arthur. The neighboring Texas Point NWR encompasses another 8,900 acres of marsh with some wooded uplands and prairie ridges.
"North of Abilene, Knox and Haskell counties also hold a lot of birds," Kraai said. "That area has some small freshwater wetlands and a significant peanut industry."
In some years, about 50,000 specklebellies and up to a million Canada geese gather near Haskell. In flight, dark specks and Canadas may look similar, but sound completely different. In that part of Texas, sportsmen may only bag one speck per day.
Will Murray shows off a specklebelly goose he shot. Photos: John N. Felsher
"Hunting Canadas and specklebellies is very similar," said Roger Roewe of Webfoot Connection in Rochester (888-326-3248 or 940-743-3493, www.webfootconnection.com). "Both decoy well and often fly together. Specks are always the first birds to come in each morning. After we get our daily speck, we have to be very careful what we shoot after that."
During the 2011-12 season, a major drought affected goose hunting across Texas, but many sportsmen with good access to water found success. Good breeding conditions up north and improved habitat in Texas could lead to great shooting this fall in most traditional goose hunting areas.