Prize Geese Of The Delta

Prize Geese Of The Delta

White-fronted geese are increasing in number along the eastern portion of our state, and so is the number of hunters who pursue them. This year's best action starts now. (December 2009)

The sun was just rising in a clear January sky when Mike Checkett, Sammie Faulk and I loaded up the four-wheeler and drove across the muddy rice field to Mike's pit blind. Elvis, Mike's yellow Labrador, ran along beside us, obviously eager to begin the hunt.

Mike Checkett and his Lab, Elvis, examine the first white-fronted goose of the day on a hunt near Stuttgart that was filled with great shooting.
Photo by Keith Sutton.

Just a couple of miles away, I could see the lights on the tall Riceland Rice dryer in Stuttgart, one of the most prominent landmarks in the east Arkansas Delta. I could not, however, see the well-camouflaged blind from which we would hunt, not even when we were right up on it.

You would hardly have known it was there until Mike pushed back the sliding top to reveal the interior. There was plenty of room for six or eight hunters, but for now, it would only be the four of us -- three hunters and one big dog.

While Mike and Elvis set out a few white-fronted goose decoys, Sammie and I got situated in the blind. Looking out, at eye level with the flooded field, we could see Mike's big decoy spread with an opening in front of the blind. With luck, the geese would hear Mike and Sammie calling, see the decoys and decide to splash down in the open spot between the dekes.

With the wind at our backs, the birds would fly directly toward us, cup their wings, and present perfect targets as they prepared to land. We'd slide the roof of the blind back, stand, shoot and, we hoped, kill some geese.

That's how it happened. When shooting hours began, Mike and Sammie, both expert callers, started talking to distant flocks of white-fronted geese. The birds' voices were melodic, a high-pitched tootling-kah-lah-a-luk in chorus. My hunting companions mimicked their calls perfectly. Within minutes, a flock of specklebellies turned and headed our way.

The two goose talkers cut loose with loud, frantic calling. The geese answered. More calling. Another response. The time was upon us.

We had agreed earlier that Mike would call the shots. I tensed as I waited for the word. The white-fronts were headed straight for us, and unless something was to frighten them, they would pitch right into the decoy spread.

The lead birds cupped their wings, and then others behind them. Orange legs and feet stretched before them.

"Now!" Mike shouted.

Three shots fired -- three geese fell. On Mike's signal, Elvis bolted and went splashing through the shallow water to retrieve the birds. The first he had marked well, and despite the large size of the goose, the Lab had no trouble picking it up and returning it to Mike. The boss gave the dog a hand signal and off he went again to pick up another white-fronted goose, and then another.

We admired our kill. "Those are some of the best-eating waterfowl on the planet," Sammie said. Mike agreed. My mouth already was watering in anticipation of the feast the birds would provide.

Arkansas hunters know the greater white-fronted goose as the specklebelly, a reference to the broken black barring on the breasts of mature birds. The name "white-front" notes the white patch behind the bill of adult birds. These medium-sized geese, slender and agile on the wing, typically weigh 4 to 6 pounds. While Canada geese glide to a landing like huge bombers, white-fronts careen out of the sky, sideslipping in a near vertical descent.

Major waves of white-fronts wing into Arkansas in October and November each year from breeding grounds in Arctic Canada and Alaska. As geese go, these are wary birds -- more difficult to approach closely, less tolerant of human intrusions. They somehow seem wilder than other geese, and thus are highly prized additions to the bag of Arkansas' hunters.

The number of white-fronted geese wintering in Arkansas has grown tremendously in recent decades. I grew up in the Delta and remember back in the 1970s when we were mesmerized by the first small flocks of "specks" we saw. Only 2,000 to 3,000 wintered in the entire state then, but thanks to the increasing abundance of winter wheat and other favored white-front foods, it's now common to see hundreds, sometimes thousands, of specklebellies in a single field. Tens of thousands winter near Delta cities, such as Jonesboro, Wynne, Brinkley and Stuttgart.

While the geese are abundant, public-land hunting opportunities are not. There are rarely enough grain fields to attract geese on a regular basis to Arkansas' wildlife management areas, and the national wildlife refuges with decent goose populations --Wapanocca, Bald Knob, Cache, White River and Big Lake -- are closed to goose hunting during most or all of the season. Therefore, most goose hunters turn to private lands for their bounty because that's where most of the geese are going to be concentrated.

Hiring a guide is one option for private-land hunting, as guides know the best ways to hunt these birds. They lease large tracts of land where geese are likely to be feeding during winter, so access is no problem. Best of all, guides do all the work. The hunter need not spend endless hours scouting, doing the legwork to gain hunting permission and deploying decoys. For a reasonable fee, reputable guides do all that.

Most Arkansas goose guides are concentrated around Stuttgart in the southern Delta. You can learn how to contact them by calling the Stuttgart Chamber of Commerce at (870) 673-1602, or by visiting their Web site, www.stuttgartarkansas.org. It's more difficult finding guides in the northeast Delta, but a Web search using the term "Arkansas goose hunting" will turn up many. The Jonesboro (870-932-6691, jonesborochamber.org), Cross County (870-238-2601, crosscountychamber.com) and Brinkley (870-734-2262, brinkleyar.com) chambers of commerce often can provide leads on guide services available near those cities.

Despite the work involved, many hunters naturally prefer hunting on their own. If you're in that category, just remember that 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 hunt for specklebellies represents a considerable investment of time.

Begin preparing well before the season. Secure permission to hunt on farms

you believe geese will use during the coming winter. Many 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 shoot geese if plans are laid before the season.

Obtain permission to hunt several fields, because there's no way to know where geese will be day to day during hunting season. Then when the season opens, determine where the geese are. If you're lucky, a flock or two will be feeding in areas you have permission to hunt. If not, get back to work. Find out who owns the land that birds are using, and see if they'll grant permission for a hunt. Then return well before daybreak to set up.

Study movement patterns of the geese throughout the season, identifying feeding places, loafing areas, roosting sites and flyways between each. White-fronts select feeding fields at random, but when they start using a field, they return daily 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 usually are found with flocks of snow geese, most hunters use the same decoys and decoy spreads used for snows. Many use white trash bags filled with rice straw or white rags staked with wooden pegs. Spreads of 500 or more aren't unusual, and most hunters supplement the makeshift decoys with a few windsocks, 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 place white-front decoys 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 5 to 10 feet is about right. That 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, you sometimes can lay in the decoys without being detected. In snow goose decoy spreads, hunters often wear white smocks, coveralls or wrap themselves in old sheets, thus becoming, in effect, part of the decoy spread.

Specklebellies have a call quite different from Canadas or snows. Hearing that call helps attract them to decoys, so it's wise to obtain and study an audiotape or DVD 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 attention of distant birds. When a flock nears, switch to the feeding call, which is made by grunting "ku-luck" into the tube. Continue calling until the moment you shoot.

The most important thing hunters should remember is to remain hidden and motionless until birds are well within shooting range. White-fronted geese are extremely wary, and if they see or hear anything out of place, they'll avoid it. If approaching birds seem reluctant to land, flare off at the last second, or land consistently outside the decoys, chances are the birds are spotting the blind, hunter movement or something else that makes them nervous. Don't hesitate to move a blind or decoys if necessary to lure birds well within shotgun range.

When everything comes together and the moment of truth is at hand, avoid the temptation to shoot when the first birds start dropping into your setup. Veteran waterfowlers hold off until the lead geese are touching down and geese in the rear of the flock are well within gun range before making their move.

Of course, all these things require knowledge, time and hard work. You need to scout, set up realistic decoy spreads in key locations, be well camouflaged, know how to call, and be creative. If you're not up to these tasks, consider hiring a guide. These guys can show you the ins and outs of goose hunting, and after you've experienced a hunt first-hand, you'll know whether you really want to make the required investment in time and equipment to hunt on your own.

No matter how you pursue them --with a guide or without, on public land or private -- white-fronted geese provide unexpected thrills at every turn. Hunting them is a great way to enjoy the outdoors this winter, so start preparing now for the season ahead. Hunting these incredible birds will leave your heart pounding and provide memories long treasured.

For season info and hunting regulations, visit www.agfc.com or obtain a copy of the current Arkansas Migratory Bird Hunting Regulations Guide available at sporting goods dealers statewide.

FOR YOUR INFORMATION
Preparation & Cooking
A successful white-fronted goose hunt provides the makings for some of the most delectable wild game meals you'll ever eat. These birds are widely considered the most flavorful of all geese. The dark, richly flavored meat is delicious.

Begin preparation by using a sharp knife to open the body cavity just below the end of the breastbone, and then pull out the innards. If you like giblet gravy or gumbo, save the heart, gizzard and/or liver, storing them in a small zip-seal plastic bag.

When I plan to cook the birds using dry-heat methods like roasting, I pluck them. Wild geese, unlike their domestic counterparts, have little body fat; the skin flavors the meat and keeps it moist during cooking. Large feathers are plucked from the body, then the bluish pinfeathers and down are carefully removed.

If the geese will be prepared using a moist-heat method of cooking, they can be skinned. Part the feathers along the breastbone, slice the skin from neck to tail, and then spread the feathered skin until meat on the breast and legs is exposed. Run a sharp knife along both sides of the breastbone to remove two thick filets. Then remove the legs and add them to the plastic bag full of gumbo and gravy meat. Wings and back have little meat. Trim away bloodshot flesh, remove any visible shot pellets, and the bird is ready to cook or freeze.

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