By John Pollmann
With a pair of refuge areas near his home in central Kansas, waterfowl guide and hunter Zach Simon has the opportunity to watch migrating speckle-bellied geese stage by the hundreds of thousands as they wing their way from the arctic to wintering areas in Texas and Louisiana.
"I started hunting the birds while I was still in high school, and I got hooked," says Simon. "They are a ton of fun to hunt – to decoy, to call – and I feel pretty fortunate to be able to see the magnitude of numbers around here each year."
Along with Flatland Waterfowl (www.flatlandwaterfowl.com) co-owner Phil Freeman, Simon has been guiding specifically for speckle-bellies near the Cheyenne Bottoms and Quivira National Refuge the past 6 seasons, and along the way he has enjoyed helping many hunters take their first speck. But as unique as an experience as hunting speckle-bellies can be for others, putting together a hunt doesn't require much of a novel approach.
"Speckle-bellies generally feed twice a day like any Canada or snow goose," says Simon. "So hunting success depends heavily on finding the "X" where the birds are hitting the ground. It's not that different that what you'd do for any other kind of waterfowl hunt."
Once he's found a large concentration of birds, though, Simon will wait until the birds leave, as their exit strategy might determine whether or not the field is all it's cracked up to be.
"If they all get up at once and they haven't been spooked, it might be that they've eaten out that particular field or they just didn't like what was in that particular field," says Simon. "But if they peel out in small groups to head back to the refuge, chances are they'll be back the next day. Once in a while you'll get burned, but that's why they call it hunting."
Like many other hunting scenarios, Simon says that the birds will dictate decoy set-ups the next morning.
"Specks are often some of the first birds to arrive here in central Kansas, so early season hunts we'll only use speckle-belly decoys with some Canadas thrown in," says Simon. "As the season progresses, and the snows and little Canadas start to show up, we'll start adding those to our spread."
Late season set-ups, Simon says, will include up to 1200 full-bodied decoys – 600-700 snows and 400-500 speckle-bellies and Canadas – with the bulk of the dark geese decoys on the downwind side of the spread.
Simon will start to blend snow goose decoys in with the darks toward to the middle of the spread – a "salt and pepper" mixture where he will also hide the blinds – and the line of white continues toward the upwind side of the spread.
"The speckle-bellies tend to want to land short or in the middle, so it's important to have your blinds toward the downwind side of the spread if you want a shot at those birds," says Simon. "The snows will almost always want skip to the top, so you they maybe aren't decoying, but they are providing great shots straight overhead."
Even if snow geese aren't a target for the day, Simon says that the white decoys are especially important for grabbing the attention of speckle-bellies later in the season.
"I think that the specks feel safe hanging with the snows, and we like them for the visibility," says Simon. "When these birds come off the refuge and head out to feed they won't fly 1 or 2 miles, they'll fly 25 miles to find the field, and if they get off line a little bit, it's nice to have that blob of white so they can see your spread."
Even with such a massive decoy spread, Simon says that speckle-bellies don't need 3 or 4 guys blowing calls to get their attention. Often one hunter, mimicking the sounds of a lead bird, is all it takes to draw the geese in close.
It's a trait that custom speckle-belly call maker Bill Daniels says makes hunting the birds so enjoyable. Learning to call speckle-bellies, however, can prove to be a challenge.
"Blowing a speck call takes a lot of air, incorporates the hands to create the back-pressure and to throw the different sounds, and you have to grunt or growl – you have to add your voice to the air," says Daniels. "It just takes a little bit to get used to it, but once you do, you'll love how the birds respond to the sounds."
Daniels – who has been designing the speckle-belly line of Riceland Custom Calls (www.ricelandcustomcalls.com) with co-owner James Meyers the past three years – says that there are two basic calls for calling speckle-bellies: a two- or three-note yodel, and the cluck.
Similar to calling other waterfowl, Daniels says that listening to the sounds of real birds is the best way to master the different vocal inflections made by speckle-bellied geese.
Watching the birds as they approach the decoys and keying in on the response from a lead bird, Daniels says, is the only way to know what really works and what doesn't.
"Calling at a speck is the closest thing I've seen to calling at a mallard – they both will work to the call – so you've got to learn to read a speckle-belly just like you would a mallard," says Daniels.
"But you're watching and listening to one goose, and as long as that bird keeps talking to you, you keep talking to it until it is close enough to shoot. If he starts to flare or slide away, you cluck hard or back off - whatever you need to do differently to get his attention back."
Blowing a speckle-belly call is not just for show, especially where Daniels hunts in southwest Louisiana. Hunting pressure gives speckle-bellies critical ears when it comes to calling, and Daniels says if you're not on top of your game, the guy in the next blind over who is will be seeing more of the action.
"If you want to have success hunting specks, you've got to know how to call," says Daniels. "But every day is different, and that's why I love calling and hunting them so much; some days they want to be called all the to the decoys, other days they're not that interested in much more than a cluck. But that's not that much different than hunting any other duck or goose."