By Bill Buckley
For many years, RNT Calls President John Stephens hunted white-fronted geese, also known as "specklebellies" or "specks," like many of us do—as a welcome by-product while hunting ducks or snow geese. That changed when speck populations increased dramatically in Arkansas, particularly around Stuttgart, where Stephens and RNT are based.
The appeal of specks, aside from their consistently increasing populations, is their callability. "I enjoy duck hunting because of the calling," says Stephens, a three-time world duck calling champion. "But unlike ducks, specks will call back, and you can have this wonderful kind of a conversation that reminds me a lot of turkey hunting."
Stephens shares his tips for hunters looking to take advantage of this increasingly abundant resource.
The good news is that there's usually no need for huge spreads. In fact, big numbers of decoys will often work against you.
"If it's just me, I'll put out less than a dozen full-bodies," Stephens says. "Since the birds are already here, I'm not having to break down high-flying migrators. When there are two or three of us, we'll use four dozen or more and mix in some silhouettes. Since we hunt out of layout blinds, more decoys are necessary to hide us. I also like to set out about a dozen snow and blue goose decoys off to the side, since they really stand out and increase the spread's visibility to distant flocks."
Larger spreads can work well in the early season, since specks haven't been hunted much and travel in bigger numbers, but Stephens downsizes as the season progresses. "I don't know if they're reacting to hunting pressure, but starting in mid-season specks will begin traveling in smaller groups, and our spreads reflect that," he says. "Also, educated birds can be really cautious around decoy spreads, and the fewer decoys you can get away with, the less likely the birds will be able to spot a fake. That goes double for days with no wind—nothing looks more unnatural than decoys that don't move. One way to make smaller spreads more effective, especially when the birds have been pressured a lot, is to split up into smaller hunting groups rather than hunting in one big party.
"We've also found that mixing in silhouettes can really help on calm days. Silhouettes create perceived motion—they seem to appear and disappear to incoming geese. Motion is crucial, and on still days you need all the help you can get. That said, while I've tried flagging a few times, it didn't seem to make a difference."
Stephens makes sure to keep his decoys clean and looking their best. As for decoy configuration, he likes to string a very loose line of pairs and singles, starting about 70 to 80 yards downwind, that geese can follow into the main spread. For the main set, he pretty much follows his friend Shawn Stahl's idea of "placing decoys where you don't want geese to land."
Hide like your hunt depends on it because, according to Stephens, it does. "Pressured specklebellies can pick a setup apart in no time," he says, "and you've got to devote a lot of attention to brushing your blinds. Whenever we hear the geese making alarm calls, chances are it's because they see us. Either that or the decoys look fake because they're not moving—in which case we remove some. One way to hide better is to set up for crossing shots. Early in the season you can get away with facing the blinds directly downwind, but later on, being out of a flock's direct line of sight makes hiding much easier."
Most hunters associate speck calls with a high-pitched, two-note yodel. That call can be effective from a distance and when geese are heading away, but Stephens says it's a mistake to yodel too much. Clucks and murmurs are much more effective, particularly on educated birds. "The more they're hunted, the less they call, and the more effective clucks and murmurs become," Stephens explains. "Just as important, as waterfowlers we're always trying to separate ourselves from other hunters, so yodel less and you'll be far more successful."