Chasing Specks

Researchers and hunters are in hot pursuit of white-fronted goose populations that are expanding into new areas

© Jim Thompson

Only 25 years ago, white-fronted geese in the Central and Mississippi Flyways were primarily hunted in two places: in Prairie Canada, where they stopped during their southward migration, and on their wintering grounds along the Gulf Coast. South Texas ranch hands and hunters with deep Cajun accents were among those who were famous for mastering the yelps and high-pitched yodels of these arctic-nesting birds.

Today, whitefronts, which are also known as "specklebellies" or "specks," can be found up and down three flyways, and hunters in the Midwest and elsewhere are now searching for the latest information about where and how to hunt them.

We talked to researchers to find out why these populations have been expanding their ranges, and we asked veteran goose hunters about the latest speck-hunting hot spots. Read on to find out what they said. 

Home on the Coast

Historically, midcontinent white-fronted geese wintered on the extensive network of wetlands along the Gulf Coast. They primarily fed on natural vegetation throughout the winter and depended on the safety and food resources of the marshes to get them through until spring. Then it all changed. 

"It was roughly the 1940s, following World War II, when agricultural processes shifted in Louisiana and Texas," explains Dr. Jay VonBank, a research ecologist with the US Geological Survey's Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center. "As rice production increased throughout the coastal regions of Louisiana and Texas, white-fronted geese began relying less on the coastal marshes and started utilizing a newfound habitat—rice fields. This was the beginning of the shift of their wintering grounds to the north and east in these flyways. These birds adapted to a surplus of habitat, and we are learning that they are continuing to do that today." 

Exploring New Territory

While it might appear that the midcontinent white-fronted goose population is growing exponentially, similar to light geese, VonBank explains that this is not necessarily the case. "Over a longer term, say 30 to 40 years, midcontinent white-fronted goose numbers have increased, but if you look at the last 10-year average, it has been relatively stable if not decreasing," he says. "The difference is that hunters are seeing large concentrations in nontraditional wintering and migration areas, and these birds are expanding their winter range. During migration, it used to be one big jump from Canada to the coast, but now these geese are stopping in places like Nebraska, Missouri, Kansas, and Arkansas."

VonBank says that the geese are continuing to use traditional wintering areas but are also seeking out new habitat farther north and east. When they find it, they stay there until hunting pressure, predation, or weather pushes them back to traditional areas. "These birds are so adaptable," VonBank says. "They transitioned from coastal habitat to rice fields and then moved into dry grainfields, and the next step we have seen is winter wheat, milo, and peanuts. We are learning that these birds will travel north to south, east to west, throughout winter, seeking available, quality habitat." 

TOP 5 SPOTS FOR SPECKS

Arkansas

It's not a secret that Arkansas has become the premier white-fronted goose hunting destination in the Mississippi Flyway. This state is the nation's top rice producer and offers large reservoirs for roosting and winter wheat as the season progresses.

Brook Richard, Higdon Outdoors director of marketing, grew up hunting in Lafayette, Louisiana. He picked up a speck call at an early age and continues to avidly pursue whitefronts, but his hunting areas have changed. "When I first started going to Arkansas to chase specks, my buddies in Louisiana gave me flack about it," he says. "But I guess I just migrated up here at the right time with the birds."

Northeast Arkansas has become a magnet for white-fronted geese and a staging area for the birds as they move across their vast wintering range. Outfitters have welcomed this expanded hunting opportunity, and many are now offering afternoon whitefront hunts to complement morning duck hunts. "I understand why these geese have congregated here," Richard says. "Modern farming practices, zero-grade rice farming, and historically a lack of pressure is what I feel has attracted whitefronts to the area."

While Richard can provide a hunter's perspective on today's new speck-hunting opportunities, he can also offer a business perspective. Hidgon's sales of specklebelly decoys haven't necessarily declined in tradtional areas, but they are increasing in places where the birds are becoming more abundant.

"Arkansas is obviously a growing market for us, but I've got guys in Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, and Nebraska who are ordering speck decoys," he says. "In reality, this has opened up a whole new opportunity for us as a company."

Kansas

A Google Earth image of central Kansas shows rolling agricultural fields interspersed with large- and medium-sized reservoirs and wetlands. It's these large water bodies and agricultural fields that have attracted significant numbers of wintering white-fronted geese. 

"It's been a gradual build over the last few years. We are seeing increasing numbers not only in surveys but also in our harvest," says Tom Bidrowski, biologist and migratory game bird program manager for the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks. "The whitefronts are finding a steady food supply in agricultural fields—corn, soybeans, milo—and they are using large wetland complexes and even stock ponds as roosts."

Central Kansas waterfowlers are well aware of the abundant hunting opportunities at Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area and Quivira National Wildlife Refuge, and large concentrations of whitefronts can be found in and around both properties. "While we are seeing large concentrations, specks are still kind of a bonus goose for a lot of local hunters," Bidrowski says. "There are opportunities to shoot them over water on some public ground, but the majority of the hunting for whitefronts is in dry fields and later in the season."

Bidrowski adds that whitefronts are arriving in Kansas as early as late September, and while these concentrations fluctuate throughout the winter, the peak time is mid-January through the end of the month and into February as the birds follow the snow line north. "We have a late season that runs well into February that is becoming more and more popular," he adds. "These birds are prized as table fare, as a unique species, and for those looking for them, they really begin to concentrate in late winter."

Indiana

While Indiana isn't widely known as a prime waterfowling destination, the Hoosier State is emerging as a goose hunting hot spot as increasing numbers of specklebellies are now joining honkers on the landscape, especially late in the season. 

Adam Phelps, waterfowl research biologist with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, points out that the state has always been a well-kept secret for Canada goose hunting, and now whitefronts are making their way into hunters' bags. "We are starting to see a lot of them, and it just turned on like a switch about five years ago," he says. "From the northwest part of the state all the way down the Wabash River corridor to the Ohio River, we are seeing whitefronts. However, the largest concentrations tend to be in late January and February in the southwest portion of the state." 

Phelps stresses that throughout the regular season, finding whitefronts is still hit or miss. But as the season progresses, numbers begin to grow, even on public areas like Goose Pond Fish and Wildlife Area. 

Indiana waterfowlers, like many others across these new white-fronted goose migration and wintering areas, were scratching their heads about how to hunt the birds, but it hasn't taken long for many to pick up the necessary equipment and skills. "Waterfowlers are such gearheads anyway, and realizing that these birds are going to be around, they are getting the gear to hunt them," Phelps says. "And we are seeing that in the harvest numbers. I've talked with several hunters who are coming from out of state to key in on Canadas and now are taking advantage of this new opportunity. Late in the season, when the Wabash and the White Rivers get out of their banks, hunters can find really good numbers from Terre Haute all the way south along the rivers." 

California

Given that California's Central Valley is one of North America's most important waterfowl wintering areas, it should come as no surprise that the Sacramento Valley, which lies within the larger agricultural region, is a premier location for hunting white-fronted geese. With generous bag limits and an abundance of birds, the area is high on the nation's list of specklebelly hot spots. In fact, while the midcontinent population is stable, the Pacific Flyway is seeing exponential growth.
 
Steve Hawkinson, owner of Kupt Up Custom Duck Straps, has hunted specks in the Sacramento Valley for more than 25 years. "There is such an abundance of food in rice fields and wetland impoundments to keep these birds in the valley," Hawkinson explains. "The reality here is that these birds are kind of bottled up. The Sierras to the east and the coastal mountains to the west create a funnel that the birds pretty much stay within. I can drive from one side of the valley to the other in two hours, so it's not like in the other flyways where they have vast wintering opportunities."

Hawkinson explains that the combination of agriculture and public land, including national wildlife refuges, offers the guaranteed water and food these birds key on, and that this reliable combination of resources is what keeps them around. 

The opportunities for hunters to cash in on a fantastic specklebelly hunt in the Sacramento Valley are increasing. "These birds are the first to arrive in the fall and the last to leave in April," Hawkinson explains. "As the numbers have grown, outfitters throughout the valley have popped up."

Texas

As mentioned, the Texas coastal prairies used to be the top hunting area for specklebellies in the Lone Star State, but that has changed. Kevin Kraai, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department waterfowl program manager, has been monitoring recent trends in the distribution of white-fronted geese in the state. 

"The largest concentrations of wintering whitefronts in Texas are now located in an area of north-central Texas that we call the Winchester Lakes," he explains. "These are large playas that have reliable water, and they are surrounded by a strong peanut farming industry. It's a real magnet for these birds."

Kraai explains that during the past decade there was a significant shift of the wintering population from the south into this area that was once dominated by small subspecies of Canada geese. He says that the adaptability of whitefronts is quite amazing. Once they discovered the peanut fields and large playas, the birds made a collective movement into this new wintering area. 

"Winchester Lakes used to be nearly 80 percent small Canadas, and now it has shifted to 80 percent whitefronts," he says. "It has changed the way hunters travel in the state. There is a contingent of goose hunters from Dallas and Houston who used to go to the Texas Coast to hunt geese. Now those hunters are traveling to this area as well as to Arkansas, Oklahoma, and even Kansas."