By Keith Sutton

Most hunters know the greater white-fronted goose as "specklebelly," a reference to the broken black barring on the breast of mature birds. The name "white-front" notes the white patch or "front" immediately behind the bill of adult birds. They are medium-sized geese, most weighing 4-6 pounds, rather slender and agile on the wing. While Canada geese glide down like huge bombers to a landing, white-fronts often careen out of the sky, sideslipping or butterflying down in a near vertical descent. Their voice is distinctive: high-pitched and melodious, like laughter.

Major waves of white-fronts wing into the South in October and November from breeding grounds in arctic Canada and Alaska. Small flocks sometimes are seen in Oklahoma, Mississippi, Alabama and Atlantic coastal states, but the largest wintering flocks are in natural wetlands and agricultural lands of Louisiana, southeast Texas and southeast Arkansas. The mid-continent population - birds using the Central and Mississippi flyways - has grown in recent years, with visual estimates of 700,000. Since 1962, hunters have retrieved an annual average of 81,000.

As geese go, white-fronts are wary birds--more difficult to approach closely, less tolerant of human intrusions. They somehow seem "wilder" than other geese, and are thus among the most highly prized members of their clan.

Hunting geese of any sort is a lot of trouble, and because they are less common and more wary than Canadas or snows, white-fronts present a special challenge. If you hunt them right, with a large spread of decoys set out before first light in an area you've scouted, a specklebelly hunt represents a considerable investment of time.

Begin preparing well before the season. Secure permission to hunt on farms you suspect geese will use during the coming winter. Many Southern farmers lease their fields for hunting or hunt the land themselves. But geese sometimes damage winter wheat crops, and there are plenty of landowners who allow respectable sportsmen to goose hunt if plans are laid well before the season.

It's best to obtain permission to hunt several fields if possible, because there's no way to know where geese will be from day to day during the hunting season. Fortunately, specklebellies are fairly predictable, wintering in the same general area year after year. A flock in a particular area last winter will usually be in the same vicinity this year and next year, too, if habitat conditions remain the same. If you located flocks of white-fronts last winter, try to obtain permission to hunt some of the fields where you found them.

When the season opens, it's time to figure out where the geese are. If you're lucky, a flock or two will be feeding in areas where you already have permission to hunt. If not, get back to work. Find out who owns land the birds are using, and see if they'll grant permission for a hunt. Then return well before daybreak to set up.

Study the movement patterns of the geese throughout the season, identifying feeding places, loafing areas, roosting sites and flyways between each. Specklebellies select feeding fields at random, but once they start using a field, they generally continue coming back until the food supply is exhausted. If you had no luck hunting them on one area, you may get a better chance when they move to a new feeding site. Or, if they fly over or near your hunting sites when traveling between roosting and feeding areas, you may be able to lure them to your hunting area using decoys and calling.

Because white-fronts are usually found with flocks of snow geese, most hunters use the same decoys and decoy spreads used for snows. Many hunters use white trash bags filled with rice straw or white rags staked down with wooden pegs. Spreads of 500 or more aren't unusual, and most hunters supplement the makeshift decoys with a few wind socks, silhouettes, shells and full-bodied decoys that look like white-fronts. White-fronts tend to gather in small groups at the edge of snow goose flocks, so any decoys that look like white-fronts should be positioned to imitate that behavior.

Arrive at your hunting area well before daylight, and hunt with several partners to hasten placement of decoys. Don't bunch the decoys too tightly. A spacing of five to 10 feet is about right. This gives the appearance of a relaxed feeding flock and provides space between decoys for an approaching flock to land.

Some hunters dig knee-deep pits in the field, big enough to put their feet in while sitting comfortably on the ground. Dirt is piled on the downwind side (the side from which geese will approach), and when geese drop into the spread, the hunters lean forward, using the dirt mounds for concealment. Check with the landowner before digging holes and always fill them after the hunt.

When properly camouflaged, it's also possible to simply lay down in the decoys without being detected. In snow goose decoy spreads, hunters often wear a white smock, coveralls or old sheet and become, in effect, part of the decoy spread. Hunters should be positioned to shoot toward the downwind side of the decoys, because this is the direction from which geese generally come.

Specklebellies have a unique call different from Canadas or snows. Hearing this call helps attract them to decoys spreads, so it's wise to obtain and study an audio or videotape that teaches the proper sounds to use.

One call to use is the two-note yodel, made by saying "wa-wa, wa-wa..." into the call. Both high-pitched and low-pitched yodels are used as a hail call to draw the birds' attention when a distant flock first comes within hearing range. When a flock gets close, switch to the feeding call, which is made by grunting "kuluck" into the tube. Continue calling until the moment you shoot.

A successful specklebelly hunt provides the makings for one of the most delectable wild game meals you've ever eaten. The meat is considered by many to be superior in taste to Canadas or snow geese. Pluck and draw the birds, stuff with your favorite stuffing mix, and roast in the oven 18 to 20 minutes per pound at 325 degrees.

Season dates and bag limits are set in late summer within frameworks established by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Contact your state wildlife agency to obtain a copy of the current migratory birds hunting regulations guide listing dates and restrictions.