Goose hunting has never been a major part of the Mississippi waterfowling experience. There just haven’t been that many of the B-52-sized birds migrating through the state to attract that much attention. But that has changed in recent years, as agricultrual practices along the Mississippi Delta have changed. And, so while most Magnolia waterfowlers dream of that perfect flight of greenheads cupping into their spreads, Canton’s Jacob Sartain and his buddies have spent every available minute trying to outsmart wave after wave of geese. “Geese started coming into these Mississippi counties about 12- to 15-years ago,” explained Sartain, who has been chasing geese for the past 15 years. “The numbers of geese drastically have increased.”
Sartain’s focus is on the Mississippi Delta — especially Humphreys, Sunflower, Washington and Yazoo counties.
In the area where Sartain hunts, the most-dominant species of geese are white-fronted geese (known most commonly as specklebellies or specks), snow geese and blue geese.
There’s a good reason why more geese make their way to his Delta haunts.
"Today the Delta’s primary agricultural crop is corn, not the cotton and soybeans of some years ago," Sartain said. "Geese love corn. The snow, blue and specklebelly geese have expanded their flyway range, which also has shifted geese into Mississippi."
That a big change from historical goose flyways because the Delta once had very few if any geese or goose hunters.
And like many hunters, Sartain originally started hunting snow geese because there were lots of them. However, to hunt snow and blue geese successfully involved a great deal of work before daylight, as well as numbers of hunters and equipment.
All the way down the flyway, these geese had been pounded heavily by waterfowlers. So the birds recognized what sheet spreads (placing hundreds of white cloths on the ground to look like a big flock of snow geese feeding on the field) and wind-sock decoys (putting white bags suspended by sticks the wind would fill up with air and move to look like snow geese feeding in a field) were.
Since the wind-sock decoys didn’t work when there was no wind, people hunting snows soon learned that to be effective they needed full-body decoys — lots of full-body decoys. Spreads ranged from 200 to 1,000 dekes, one or two trailers to haul the decoys, and even more time and more hunters to put-out the decoys — which also meant more expense.
Snows also are just tough to hunt, even once all the sweat equity is invested.
"Another problem we’d identified with snow geese was that once that giant wave of birds came in and you started shooting, the snow geese escapees would land on nearby ponds," Sartain said. "When the next flock of snow geese came toward our spread, they’d see the other live snow geese on ponds 100 to 500 yards away from us and where we were hunting.
"Those flocks would land with the live birds on the water rather than near us."
And then Sartain and his friends noticed that specklebelly geese often flew with the snow geese, as well as flying in flocks by themselves. They also realized the specklebelly geese were easier to call than the snow geese and required fewer decoys to bring the birds to within shooting range.
And that appealed to them.
"We learned, too, that we didn’t have to have nearly as many specklebelly decoys to get the specks into shooting range as we had to use to draw snow geese within range," Sartain explained. "We could use two dozen specklebelly geese decoys per hunter, take three to five hunters with us and take plenty of birds.
"We changed from hunting snow geese to hunting almost exclusively specklebellies and became more successful."
Early Days of Mississippi Goose Hunting
In those early days of Delta goose hunting, Sartain and his hunting buddies used layout blinds in corn fields, rice fields and soybean fields.
"Back in those days, we’d wear white lab coats and lay down where the wind socks were blowing," Sartain said.
The problem, of course, was that there were days when there wasn’t a puff of a breeze. That led to educated birds.
"When the wind didn’t blow, our wind socks looked like a bunch of trash on the ground," Sartain said. "After the first two or three days of the season, the snow geese could recognize the difference between the wind socks with no wind in them and live snow geese feeding on the field."
They tried to adjust with limited success.
"We mixed- in full-bodied decoys with the wind socks," he explained. "Still, our decoy spread looked horrible, and the geese wouldn’t come in to the hunters.
"Also, if we bought enough full-bodied decoys (1,000 or so) to make our snow geese decoy spreads look real, we’d have to spend our life savings."
With snow goose decoys, if the fields were dry, Sartain and his friends would drive their trucks and trailers out into the field, unload the trailers and put out the decoys.
However, if the fields were wet, they’d have to park on the edge of the field, haul ATVs behind their hunting vehicles, load the decoys on their ATVs, and go back and forth to the trailer to pick up decoys and set them out.
An army of men and equipment was needed to move the snow and blue dekes.
"We also really needed 10 to 12 hunters to effectively hunt snow geese, and all the hunters needed ATVs," Sartain recalls.
The Speck Advantage
Six or seven years ago, Sartain and his buddies decided that snow goose hunting was too expensive, required too many other hunters and vehicles, and that making their snow goose spreads look realistic was more work than fun.
They had been buying more specklebelly decoys to mix in with their snow goose decoys, and a plan started forming.
"We noticed that perhaps 50 to 300 specklebelly geese often would light in the field together — away from the main flock of snow geese," Sartain said. "So, we decided to try and set up on the smaller flocks of specklebellies because we learned they were far more responsive to calling than the snow geese."
The difference was immediately apparent.
"We were amazed at how successful we were. On our first attempt, the six members of our party limited out on specklebellies in 1 1/2 hours," he said. "We realized the specklebelly hunt was more fun and required far less work than snow goose hunting.
"Soon, we put together hunts exclusively for specklebellies."
And they soon realized specks aren’t nearly as smart as their more-cautious cousins.
"Once you shoot one flock of specklebellies, you may have the opportunity to hunt five or six more flocks before the morning hunt ends," Sartain said.
Of course, because specklebellies socialize in smaller bands, the hunters didn’t have lug hundreds of blocks before and after each hunt.
"We also found that we could use as few as five to six dozen specklebelly decoys and still be effective," Sartain said.
Sartain’s friends also learned that depending on the weather and the area they had to hunt, they still could hide a large group of hunters and take specklebellies.
"If we have good cover, we can hide six to 10 hunters and still use only 50 or 60 decoys," Sartain said.
Corn fields are preferred for shooting because of the abundance of stubble hunters can use to camouflage their blinds.
Also, if you hunt a field with a ditch running through it, the hunters can get down in the ditch: Geese can see down in the ditch and think no predators are there, since the hunters are camouflaged.
The number of hunters a particular field can accommodate is directly proportionate to the amount of cover: More cover means fewer dekes, and vice versa.
"If we have a relatively clean and open field to hunt, we only may be able to hide two or three hunters in a 60-decoy spread," he said.
The only way to increase the number of hunters in fields with little cover is to increase the number of dekes.
"So, if you want to hunt a larger group of hunters in a clean field, you needed a bigger spread of decoys to hide the hunters and their layout blinds in that spread," Sartain said. "Our rule of thumb is we have to have at least 60 decoys to be effective. With every additional hunter in a clean field, we have to use an additional two dozen Avery Outdoors Full Body Specklebelly Goose Decoys."
This group of hunters prefers using layout blinds instead of hiding hunters in hedgerows because, through the years, they have learned that the specklebelly geese prefer to land farther out in the fields than hunters in a hedgerow can shoot.
"Specklebellies like to be at least 50 to 75 yards out in a field away from a hedgerow," Sartain explained. "Therefore, to get within shooting range, the layout blind is your best option."