With each dip of his kayak paddle, 13-year-old Grady Gunn glided through the slough on the outskirts of Moorhead toward the last downed gadwall of the morning hunt. By the time the paddler returned to the shoreline, a roar was beginning to build.
Gunn and his father, Jay, raced up the bank of the slough to get to an open field where they could watch what has become a much more common sight in the Mississippi Delta — a monstrous group of geese rising like clouds from the pancake-flat land in every direction.
The sight and noise of a spontaneous goose rising is spectacular, worthy of a few minutes of mouth-gaping awe before reality kicks in to remind the hunters that the goose decoys are back at the camp.
With the changing agriculture practices in the Delta, what happened that morning has become the prevalent theme — scratching out a few ducks early and then heading for the crop fields to call in geese, especially specklebellies.
A specklebelly is called a white-fronted goose by wildlife biologists because of the white patch directly behind the bill. In the sky, the specklebellies are noticeably darker than the snow and Ross’ geese. The ripples of dark feathers on their bellies make the nickname much more appropriate. The specks are usually in smaller flocks and fly somewhere between high-flying snow geese and low-flying Canada geese.
Gunn said hunting specklebellies in the Delta is similar to the waterfowl hunting on public hunting areas like Malmaison, Mahannah, Mathews Brake, Morgan Brake or Panther Swamp.
“You need to either get in a flyway or a feeding area,” said Gunn, who usually also has his other son, 16-year-old Kelley, by his side in the blind. “If you see geese in a field today, most likely they’re going to be there tomorrow at the same time — until either the weather changes or the food is gone. And they’re very callable. They’re like mallards in the timber. If you can see them, you can call them. Whether it’s a wing beat or one calling back to you, if they respond, you have a chance of calling that group of geese. Once you get them coming your way, you work them tight, like you do public-ground ducks. You don’t ever let off until they drop their feet.
“Once you get their attention and they’re trained on you calling, until you let off of them, they’ll stay on your calling. If you call these geese in and they circle you two times and you let off of them, they’ll turn and go in the direction they were headed originally. You have to call them right on down, especially if you’re just in a little flyway spot and they’re not coming there to begin with.”
Ideal specklebelly hunting for the Gunns is seeing groups of two to six geese within calling distance. Large groups of a dozen or more are more difficult to call, although that doesn’t mean the Gunns won’t try.
“You can call to those big groups and sometimes get a call or a circle,” Jay said. “A lot of times that’s all you get. But what you’re hoping to do is break off two or three from the tail end. I think these are probably young geese. If they break off and you keep on calling, usually they don’t even circle. They just come right in.”
The calling techniques the Gunns employ are not complicated, but they do require a good set of lungs.
“We start off with a two-note yodel and then give back to them whatever they throw at you,” Jay said. “If you’re lucky enough to have more than one person in your blind that can call, which I am fortunate enough to have Grady, you want to have the calls tuned just a little bit different, pitch-wise, so it sounds like more than one goose calling to them. We don’t call incessantly, but while they’re circling and you’re calling to their shoulder, they’re still paying attention to you. Once they commit to you, one of the things that’s a deal-closer for us is what I call ‘happy clucking.’ It’s a real high-pitched clucking sound, that kind of compares to a mallard’s chuckle. It’s a sound they make when they’re really excited. If you’ve got two guys in your blind that can make that sound when the geese are 100 yards and closing, you can get them to drop their feet and come on down.”
Because the geese aren’t pressured, there is no need to use more than 24 decoys, according to Gunn. And, if they use that many, it means the group is hunting close to the truck or the four-wheeler. A dozen decoys is more the norm when they head to the field. Gunn recommends the decoys be deployed in small family groups of three to five decoys.
“You want them to look relaxed,” he said. “You don’t want to have them in a bunch, looking like they’re scared. We like to put the farthest decoy 25 yards from our feet. When these geese come in, and they come in well, we’re shooting these geese at 25 to 35 yards. It’s a ‘gimme’ shot, basically.
“The thing about specklebelly decoys is they have to be clean. They don’t need to be dingy. If they’re supposed to be white, they need to be white, no mud, whatsoever. My boys will accost you if you get mud on the decoys. It’s a lot easier to put them up clean than put them up dirty.”
When Gunn scouts for possible goose-hunting opportunities, he tries to determine the flyway patterns in the agricultural field before he decides where to set his hunting spot. He looks for a break in the terrain, whether natural or manmade, field drains or telephone poles, for example. It’s absolutely crucial that all hunters and their equipment are not detectable from above.
“If you aren’t hidden, you are probably wasting your time,” he said. “They circle somewhat slowly, and they see everything. If you’ve got pale faces in the blind, you need to paint them up or make them wear a facemask. You can’t have any gun barrels sticking out like stovepipes. And you have to be where they want to travel.”
The Gunns start their preparations for waterfowl season early when they cut tall Johnson grass in August and September for use in their portable blind, which Gunn considers one of their top tools for going undetected. He utilizes several posts used for electrical fencing and a 20-foot piece of netting that is 4 feet tall. After the Johnson grass is dry, the material is weaved into the net and then secured with either zip-ties or burlap string. The Gunns make two of the portable blinds to cover both sides of the hunting spot. Gunn then usually gathers a little natural vegetation, like palmettos, to add to the blind once it’s in place.
“You especially need to be conscious of when they fly right over the top of you to not have a hole in the top of your blind,” said Gunn, who also has hunted geese in Arkansas, Louisiana and Alabama. “If they look down and see a black hole, they’re likely to flare. It’s just like duck hunting, when they come over the top and you hear that wing beat pick up. They go straight up and the game’s over.”
When it comes to bringing down the specks, Gunn said there’s no need to bring the cannons in the Delta. He insists it’s just not necessary to wield that 3½-inch gun.
“What we normally shoot are 2 ¾-inch shells in BBs, No. 1s or No. 2s, depending on what we have in the shell bag,” he said. “BBs are better because it will break a wing bone. But when you have these geese at 25 to 35 yards, you don’t need a 3½-inch gun with Hevi-Shot or T-size shots. Again, this is like shooting ducks in the timber.”
Just like turkey hunting, Gunn uses the rule of thumb that if you can see the eyeballs of that farthest goose, he’s close enough to kill. That means the trailing goose is no farther than 35 yards, which means the lead goose is going to be closer.
One of the attractive features of goose hunting in the Mississippi Delta for the Gunns is the relatively low hunting pressure compared to areas like south Louisiana or south Texas.
“There is nobody hunting these geese unless it’s a few people shooting fly-bys,” Gunn said. “These geese call extremely well. You don’t have to be a supremely good caller to call these geese, because they are not call-shy, whatsoever. This is an untapped resource in the Delta. And it’s not uncommon to kill three kinds of geese in the mornings — specklebellies, snows and Canadas, especially if you’re near catfish ponds.”
Where Gunn once keyed on areas with a little sheet water, there are so many geese in the Delta that, now, looking for food sources has become the norm. In recent years, farmers have had to deal with an outbreak of aflatoxin fungus in their crops in certain areas.
“When the farmers have to turn that corn under, it’s just a free buffet for the geese,” Gunn said. “What’s happening in the Delta right now seems to be better for the geese, but the ducks are in a state of change. There’s not as much waste grain, and there’s not as much rainwater held because of the increase in ethanol production. The farmers are now growing more corn than rice or beans, when five years ago it was flip-flopped. To get ahead of the game, they prepare the fields to get ready to plant corn in March. It’s not so good for ducks, but it’s still good for geese because there is still waste grain there.”
Agricultural consultant Bill Killen of Cleveland said there’s no doubt the changing agricultural practices in the Delta now favor the flocks of geese. Killen said if hunters don’t prepare their own areas to attract ducks, the crop fields are not going to hold water and the ducks will keep on flying. Hunters can’t depend on catfish ponds to hold ducks, either. Killen said high feed prices and low catfish prices have forced farmers to drain the ponds and plant row crops.
“When it comes to farming, it’s all about the market,” Killen said. “Right now, it’s the corn market and the soybean market. Farmers can just make more money off of those crops than they can rice. The fields are rowed up in the fall and ready to be sprayed and planted in the spring. These places are going to be dry, so there will be fewer places for the ducks to feed. But the geese will find something to eat. The thing about specklebellies is they will decoy, but there aren’t many people hunting them.”
For Gunn and his two sons, that’s just fine, especially when Gunn throws marinated goose breasts on the grill.
“There’s nobody hunting these fields, so it’s just like a refuge,” Gunn said. “And we’ve been able to hunt the geese all season long. The geese will stay here until something moves them.”