December is all about the jingle.
For some, it’s the money, leaving and/or filling their pockets. Still others cherish the sounds of the Christmas season.
For serious waterfowlers, like Jay Gunn, it’s that familiar sound that emanates from the waterfowl blind when the duck and goose bands on his call lanyard come in contact to make a kind of music only hunters can appreciate.
Gunn, who makes a living as an inshore fishing guide in Lower Alabama, heads to the middle of the Mississippi Delta in winter to enjoy the newly expanded, both length and bag limit, seasons for geese. There are a few ducks thrown in, but it’s mostly about the white-fronted geese, specklebellies to most waterfowlers.
His first specklebelly band came in 2000 in Arkansas, and he’s added goose bands here and there down through the years to go with his 17 duck bands.
That was until the 2015-2016 season, when Gunn experienced what easily could be called a band bonanza. During the 74-day season, Gunn added five specklebelly bands and a rare cackler band to his lanyard.
“It was absolutely amazing what Jay did last year,” said Larry Reynolds, Waterfowl Study Leader for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and member of the Arctic Goose Committee on the Mississippi Flyway Council. “Getting a band at all is fairly rare. It sounds like a lot when we say we banded 25,000 ducks and geese this year. But 25,000 out of 50 million, that still isn’t very many. So there’s a very small portion of the population that is banded.
“The information we get from those bands is critical for geese in general, but white-fronted geese especially. They winter in the Arctic, where logistically we just can’t do aerial surveys. So we go up to some important breeding and molting areas. We make a high-intensity, short-duration effort, and we can band a pretty good bunch of white-fronted geese.”
Reynolds said the band recoveries provide data on survival and harvest rates. With the harvest rate information from the bands and the information gathered from hunter surveys, the waterfowl biologists estimate the population size.
“It’s that banding data that really helps us manage the white-fronted goose population,” he said. “What that banding data has been telling us for the last number of years is that the population is increasing and the harvest rate, which is the proportion of banded birds we kill, is actually dropping.
“What that means is we can increase the season by two weeks, because the population is increasing and the harvest rate is decreasing slightly.”
During Gunn’s banner band year, he corresponded with Reynolds to share the band data. Therefore, the waterfowl biologist is very familiar with Gunn’s good fortune.
“It’s rare to get a banded bird,” Reynolds said. “I’ve been hunting my whole life, which is 40 years, and I’ve only killed four my entire life. And Jay killed six in one year, five white-fronts and a cackler, which is unheard of.”
Reynolds said there are areas where a banded population of waterfowl winters each year, and hunters are lucky enough to recover bands on a fairly regular basis.
“Canada geese tend to use the same habitat year after year after year,” he said. “So if you’re banding a part of the population that winters in a particular spot, it makes sense that hunters will harvest more bands. But I’m talking 20-30 bands over 20 years. But that’s just luck, because those birds show fidelity to that particular site.
“For most people, it’s a real prize, a real trophy, to get a band. Jay knows how special last year was.”
Reynolds said Gunn’s good fortune coincides with a transition in the goose wintering grounds. Traditionally, the central Mississippi Delta hasn’t held a significant number of geese. That is definitely changing.
“The population of wintering geese is moving north and east,” Reynolds said. “I saw a great presentation by a master’s student at the University of Arkansas-Monticello. She analyzed all of the band return data from 1975 to 2015.”
The student created a map that highlighted the density of the goose population with varying shades of red. The early data indicated a large, dark red area in southeast Texas.
“She showed how the map had changed over the past 40 years from this big, strong, red spot in southeastern Texas that has moved across Louisiana and into Arkansas,” Reynolds said. “So Jay is hunting in a spot that didn’t traditionally have lot of white-fronts, but they’re starting to move in. Killing that many bands is really something.”
Gunn’s band harvest started with another incredible rarity — a double double — and I was fortunate enough to witness it.
A pair of specklebellies sailed toward the decoy spread and then made a loop around Gunn’s end of the blind.
“Take ‘em,” he said as he shouldered his trusty Remington 870. The first bird fell from the sky as I took aim at the second bird. Unfortunately, I rushed the shot and whiffed. I didn’t have a chance at a follow-up. Gunn’s 870 barked again and the goose fell.
As he headed out into the sticky gumbo mud in Sunflower County, he started to do his happy dance. The first goose he came to was banded. When he grabbed the next goose, he went into uncontrollable gyrations as the leg of the second goose gleamed with a second band. The birds were banded the same day in Nunavut, Canada in 2010.
“If you can’t do a dance about a band killing, you definitely should do one for a double-band killing,” Gunn said. “I would have moon-walked, but that mud is just way too gummy, so I just have to do a happy dance.”
Only eight days later, Gunn bagged a specklebelly that had been banded in 2003 in Beechey Point, Alaska. The bird’s age was estimated at 14-plus.
“A good group of geese came in and they flared at the last minute,” Gunn said. “The boys (Kelley and Grady) decided not to shoot at them. But there was one goose trailing that I thought was close enough to kill. I shot and knocked feather off his right wing. I shot again and knocked a feather off his back. I shot the third time and broke his left wing. Annie (his four-year-old Labrador retriever) made about a 250-yard retrieve on that one.
“I was following one of my golden rules: Get on one goose and shoot that goose until he’s dead. If I hadn’t have done that, I wouldn’t have gotten that band.”
A couple of days before Christmas, another banded specklebelly fell into the Delta gumbo. It also was banded in Nunavut, Canada in 2009.
“That one came in on my end of the blind,” Gunn said. “The boys said, ‘Daddy, you take him.’ It was a one-shot kill, so there were no band fights on that one.”
The coup de grace came on the last day of the season, another hunt I had the pleasure to join.
A pair of geese surprised us as they sailed toward the decoys, but these were different. The birds turned just before they got to the spread but were barely in range. Gunn knocked one bird from the sky as the other quickly sailed away.
“The sun was in our eyes and we didn’t know they were cacklers,” Gunn said.
When Annie grabbed the goose and started back toward the blind the band glittered in the morning sunlight. Gunn broke out into his happy dance again.
“I’ve looked at the distribution map for cacklers,” Reynolds said. “Historically, to kill a banded cackler in Mississippi is extremely rare to non-existent.”
But that was not the end of story. We were three birds shy of a daily limit when a group of geese responded to Gunn’s calling. We knocked down a pair of birds, and Gunn fired a final time at the closest bird that was trying to beat a fast retreat.
“He’s hit,” Gunn said. “Keep an eye on him.”
The goose tried to catch up with his flock mates to no avail, but he sailed and sailed toward the next field.
“You take these geese back to the camp,” Gunn said. “Annie and I are going to look for that goose.”
About 10 minutes later, my smartphone chimed. I opened it and there was a photo of Gunn and the final banded specklebelly of an incredible season.
“I did my happy dance again,” he said.
Before last year, Gunn admits he only picked up a band here and there since his waterfowling career started in 1981.
What changed for the 2015-2016 season?
“Luck,” Gunn said. “It was a combination of the increase in the (daily) bag limit from two specklebellies to three and luck. It was just my time.”
Gunn believes the lack of hunting pressure and the vast amount of agricultural land for feeding and roosting make Mississippi an emerging goose hotspot.
“But it’s harder to hunt these geese than in Arkansas because of the farming practices,” Gunn said. “In Arkansas, they don’t necessarily bed their ground up for the next season. They leave the rice stubble there, so that means less mud. In Mississippi, these geese can get out in the middle of these fields where nobody can hunt and stay for a long amount of time.”
Local farmer Paul Fitts of Fitts Farms said the geese have been steadily building in Mississippi since the early 2000s. Huntable populations have been in the central Mississippi Delta for about eight or nine years.
“White-fronted geese are birds that don’t take a goose specialist to kill,” Reynolds said. “If you’ve got rice fields flooded for ducks, those duck hunters will kill a fair number of white-fronted geese.
“But it does appear that the geese are following the rice production. Southeast Texas has lost two-thirds of their rice. Southwest Louisiana has lost about 25 percent of their rice. Arkansas has picked up acreage. Missouri has picked up acreage. They’re now farming rice in Southern Illinois. Missouri and Illinois didn’t used to have any white-fronted geese in the winter. Now they’ve got tens of thousands. So who knows whether it’s hunting pressure or climate change or changing agricultural practices? It may be a little bit of all of that.”
Right now, the Mississippi Delta appears to have everything a white-fronted goose needs, according to Gunn.
“Once they imprint and they’ve got plenty of places to rest and plenty of places to feed, they’re going to come back,” Gunn said. “But it’s harder to hunt in Mississippi. It’s harder to hide and harder to get the decoys out. Sometimes you can’t walk out there or drive a wheeler or Ranger out there. That gumbo makes it impossible.
“And there’s no cover in the Mississippi Delta. The geese want to be in the middle of the field. They don’t want to be up against any trees, so you have to figure out a way to hide. Hide is No. 1. If you can’t call or don’t have any decoys, you can still hide in the flyway and pass-shoot them.”
When it comes to building a blind, Gunn said it’s imperative to have the blind profile as low as possible. He also prefers Johnson grass for blind-building material.
“If you can get in a ditch in the middle of the field and build a blind, that’s the perfect spot,” he said. “Layout blinds are good, but you’ve got to have cover to be hidden.”
Gunn said if the geese are flaring, it’s easy to tell if they are decoy shy or blind shy.
“If they’re flaring further out, they’re flaring off the decoys,” he said. “If they flare when they’re closer, they’re flaring off movement in the blind. If the decoys are shiny because of moisture, they’re going to flare at 100 to 150 yards. There’s nothing you can do about that. You just have to wait for the decoys to dry off.
“There’s no need to set out a decoy until after sunrise because the geese aren’t going to fly. The first flight will last until about 9 o’clock. The second flight starts just before noon and lasts until about 3 p.m. I might hunt a little later than that, but I don’t ever shoot the roost.”
Gunn sets his decoys in family groups of three to five to seven. A scattered set used for duck spreads are not natural to the geese and will cause them to shy away.
“Sometimes late in the season, we’ll get down to three decoys,” he said. “With the February season this year, these geese will have been shot at from Canada on down, so it’s going to be one, two or three decoys with minimal calling and being very well hidden. And you hope for wind and blue skies; you want sunshine. The less clouds the better.”
When it comes to calling, Gunn said it’s basically duck calling with a different call, but he never lets up on the specklebellies.
“Specks are very callable,” Gunn said. “They’re like mallards. You don’t have to be where they’re going, like snow geese and Canadas. You can pull specklebellies off their travel route a little. If you can hear them, they can hear you. Call to them and get a conversation going.
“Once I get them talking to me, I just answer back. When I get them several hundred yards away, I’ll really lay it on, trying to get them excited. If they’re excited and happy, you be excited and happy. When they get closer, I call sparingly into the decoys. I always call them into the decoys. If you let them finish on their own, nine times out of 10, they’re going to go past your decoys or land short of your decoys where you can’t shoot them, depending on what the wind is doing. Call them until somebody is pulling the trigger.”
The liberal season dates and bag limit also make Delta hunting attractive with a daily bag of three white-fronted geese and a possession limit of nine. The season is significantly different from last year, which ran straight through to Jan. 31. States had the option to hunt in February 2017, and Mississippi decided to give it a try.