When I mention goose hunting to average bystanders, most of them immediately comment about the thousands of snow geese seen standing by the roadside during the winter months and early spring.

Yes, those great hordes of white birds do leave a lasting impression, but snow geese are not what I mean when I talk about goose hunting.

White-fronted geese, sometimes called bar-bellies, tiger-bellies, specklebellies and specks, arrive in Mississippi in mid-fall, and remain until early spring. Texas, South Louisiana, and California typically hold the largest wintering concentrations of the greater white-fronted goose, but the Delta areas of Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana are seeing increasing numbers of these birds.

These are the geese that I eagerly anticipate arriving soon after the first big cold front sweeps across the Hospitality State in October each year.

This year, the season on white-fronted geese opens Nov. 15, and ends Jan. 25, 2009. The limit is two daily. And if you think two geese is not worth the effort, consider that they are twice the size of mallards. Technically, you are getting the same amount of meat as a limit of mallards. The other plus is that specks are God's natural alternative to steak - specklebellies are so tasty that most goose hunters refer to them as "flying T-bone."

I did notice that the numbers of specklebellies in my area seemed to be increasing every year, so I purchased a few decoys and started hunting them. With some expert advice from a few folks in Central Mississippi and South Louisiana, I gradually developed my hunting skills and worked speck hunting into my day-to-day operations in the guiding business. When the ducks were scarce, I had another chance to put my clients on birds, because we always had specks.

White-fronts get their name from the narrow white ring on their foreheads and cheeks, at the base of the bill. Where they got the slang names like bar-belly and specklebelly is from the black barring on the breast and belly feathers.

The older a speck is, usually the more black feathers on the breast. Juvenile specks will have a uniformly grey belly, fading to white near the tail, but older geese have several black bars on the breast and belly. Sometimes these bars are so numerous that the breast of an adult speck is nearly solid black.

The head and neck are dark grey, and the back and wings are dark brown. There is a white band at the base of the tail and white tail-feather tips that can be seen in flight. The feet are orange.

Golden opportunity

I began duck hunting when I was in high school, and eventually landed a part-time guiding job for a timber company while in college. I stuck to ducks for several years, and began to guide some on my own after the timber company was sold.

One thing I learned about guiding duck hunts is that when you have paying clients, your business depends on producing birds. I found it quite difficult to put my guys on that "once in a lifetime" duck hunt every time I went out, so I began to search for alternatives.

I had been previously lulled into the fantasy that snow geese are easy kills, and I realized I didn't have the knowledge or enough gear to guide snow-goose hunts.

I'll never forget the day I had three groups of duck hunters in for a hunt, and I didn't have enough ducks to put them on. I sent two groups to a nearby lake where I had scouted a good concentration of ducks, and I took the third group of guys with me to a corn field that had been holding a large group of white-fronts for several days.

My two hunters were a bit apprehensive at first, claiming to have never been on a goose hunt. I think they must've been considering asking for a refund as we set out two dozen goose decoys in a dry cornfield and then stuffed corn stalks into the brush straps on the layout blinds.

When that first family-group of bar-bellies got within earshot to the north, the hunters' doubts vanished like Amelia Earhart. Group after group of specks left their roost a couple of miles to the north, and dropped into our decoys. Even I was awestruck as groups of birds flew back and forth over our ground blinds, just a few feet over our heads, in search of my calls.

We got back to camp with three limits of specks and a couple of snows, and those guys went back to South Carolina with smiles on their faces. Speck hunting saved me on more than one occasion when the ducks were scarce.

How to speak speck

The call of the white-front can be best described as a yodel. Most specks use a two- or three-note call in flight and on the ground. They are very vocal, and the hunter who masters the sounds of a speck has a better chance of luring them within shooting range when afield.

In fact, specks are so talkative that many hunters who are fluent in "Speckanese" have lured the birds within shooting range without the use of goose decoys. I was lucky enough to perform such a feat one morning while hunting ducks. Our blind was built 10 feet up in the limbs of a lone cypress tree in a flooded soybean pothole. The fog was thick that morning, and our visibility was about 50 yards at the most.

I heard a specklebelly in the distance, and began to call to it. It wasn't long before that goose appeared out of the fog, but flew past us in the tree. I continued to call while the goose circled the tree two or three times before we finally got a shot. It's their weakness for the call that makes speck hunting so fun.

Pat Pitt, known simply as "The Waterfowler" to folks in Northwest Mississippi, has spent his life traveling around the world in search of waterfowl. Pitt and his hunting partners take between 300 and 350 specks each year on their duck club in Arkansas.

Like many duck hunters, Pitt and his crew are able to take their share of specks while duck hunting. By placing a few full-bodies on rice levees or floaters in the water around the duck pit, a good caller can lure white-fronts into range if they happen to show up.

"If you can get them to answer a call, more often than not you can kill them - especially ones and twos," he said. "I usually just talk back or answer them back and not over-call, just enough to give them confidence and reassurance."

Confidence and reassurance, as Pitt put it, are sometimes as simple as echoing the goose as it calls in flight. If they are on a bee-line to your location and they shut up, you get quiet also. If they continue to call as they approach, you can usually echo them and coax them to the spread.

Don't let their love of the call fool you, though. Specks have excellent eyesight, and if they spy the wolf in the flock, they'll bail out and leave you calling to no avail.

One last calling trick is to mimic the excited calls that a specklebelly makes while on the ground. It's difficult to explain, but an excited goose on the dirt will make a series of short, choppy, high-pitched "clucks" while feeding, or when approaching geese get close.

If you can get close to a feeding flock of white-fronts, take the time to listen to their vocalizations, and learn to master this particular call. It may help you seal the deal on a wary flock of specks.

Hunting tactics

Scouting is just as important with white-fronts as it is with ducks, maybe even more so because specks are often associated with large groups of snow geese. Ninety percent of the time, when you glass a field full of feeding snow geese, you will see a small group of specklebellies feeding off to the side of the snows. Even when feeding alone, a large group of specks can feed a field out quickly, and will move to locations with more abundant feed.

If you see a group of specks feeding in the same field two or three days in a row, make your move quickly. If you wait much longer, they may have fed it out and changed locations before your return. It is just as important to pinpoint their location in the particular field - something goose hunters call "the X."

Hunting on the "X" is when you got to the exact spot in a field that the geese were feeding the previous day. You want to set up in that spot, with the wind and the sun both in your favor, when possible. If the birds are feeding on the ridge top, set up as close to that feeding spot as possible. If they are feeding 100 yards north of a lone tree, set up in that spot. When you walk into the field and find droppings on the ground, you know you are on the "X." Normally, when hunting the "X," you can use a small decoy spread of a dozen decoys.

Another hunting strategy is to intercept the birds as they fly from the roost to the "X." This is what goose hunters call "running traffic." If you can't get access to the field they're feeding, you may want to set up underneath their flight path to and from the roost and the feeding area. Running traffic may require using more decoys in order to attract the birds' attention.

The line of thought with this method is that you are trying to fool the geese into thinking the birds that flew out before them have found a fresh food source and have stopped there instead of at the old place.

In addition to using a larger decoy spread, goose hunters also use "flags" to catch the eyes of passing geese. Flags are hunting tools that resemble kites on sticks, and they can be waved in the air to simulate a bird's wings flapping as it lands. Once you get their attention with a flag, use the calls to bring them on in.

Decoys

Opinions on goose decoys are as numerous as stars in the sky. I started out using silhouettes, graduated to shells and now use two dozen full-bodies. The silos are great if you don't want the bulk of the other types, and easy to set up, but their downfall is that they sometimes cast a nasty glare on a sunny day.

Shell decoys, especially the style that mount on a field stake, are really effective. Models such as the Higdon motion-stackable shell will stack onto each other for transport, and when mounted on the field stake, the slightest breeze makes them wiggle and wobble with lifelike motion.

Full-body decoys that mount on field stakes take up more room in the vehicle but look great in the field. It takes a little more wind to move my full-bodies than the shells I used to use, but the appearance of the whole belly and legs adds an extra touch, in my opinion, to fool late-season birds.

Floaters are great decoys if you want to add a few speck dekes to your duck spread. Whichever type of decoy you use, most goose hunters agree that you should arrange them in such a way so that they look like individual family groups of birds.

Geese will stick together throughout most of the season with their immediate families. You'll have the adults and juveniles feeding together in their small groups, among all of the other family groups that make up the entire flock. These family groups will stick together pretty much all of the time. When Mom and Dad leave the roost, the kids do to.

The older geese are almost always in front of the flock, and wherever they lead, the others will follow. Observe a passing group of specks and see if you notice that the ones with more bars on their bellies are usually in front while the plain grey bellies are in the back. Set up your decoys to resemble this "family-group" behavior pattern on the ground.

Gordon Shaw from Byram has spent a few years studying specks.

"While folks talk about U, J, and even X patterns, I think the most forgotten element is to spread the decoys out," he said. "Geese tend to bunch up when they're pressured or on the alert. You don't want your spread to look like a bunch of spooked birds, so space them out a good bit. Also, don't face all the decoys into the wind. While they do tend to feed into the wind, they won't face the same direction at once unless they are pressured."

Shaw's tips are excellent observations on goose behavior and how to incorporate it into your hunting strategy.

Shooting tips

Specks are medium-sized geese, weighing an average of 4.8 pounds with a 53- to 60-inch wingspan. Most of our wintering white-fronts have spent the summer nesting on the tundra of Alaska and Canada. They begin their 3,000-mile journey in late-summer, and make several stops at staging grounds in Alberta, Saskatchewan and the Dakotas before arriving in Mississippi in October and November.

You may think a bird of this size, having flown that far, is a worn-out, lumbering oaf by the time he passes by your gun barrel, but think again. A white-front in a recent satellite telemetry study was located on the Canada/ US border one day in early winter. Two days later, that goose was sitting on the Rio Grande with his senoritas, enjoying the Mexican sun.

No doubt that particular goose probably caught a blue norther' and rode it south, but specks are fast-moving birds, and hunters are sometimes tricked into thinking that a big target is a slow target. A 3-inch load of BBs will take a speck down easily, but you've got to get them in range and get good shot placement.

Shaw makes a good point about proper lead.

"The most common shooting mistake I see with geese is not leading them enough," he said. "If a bird is crossing, rising or passing over you, the focus of your attention should be his beak. They're pretty large birds and don't look like they're moving fast, but they're moving pretty well.

"For landing shots, they are shaving off altitude, so you need to remember to shoot under them. If they're coming straight in, you can kind of use their feet as a focus point, but find some way to put some air between your gun and the bird. If they are on that last float, just point the gun right at them and shoot."