They say you never forget your first girl. And while that certainly may be true, hunters in general and waterfowlers in particular take that old chestnut a step further by never forgetting their first — well, anything. Myself, I can take you right now to the spot where I killed my first duck, a one-legged hen mallard, back in 1974. The swamp has changed considerably, but I can still take you there. Same story with my first canvasback (Mississippi River Pool 9), first harlequin (Birch Bay, Washington), and first previously endangered Aleutian Canada goose (Humboldt County, California).
My first white-front, aka specklebelly, holds a like spot in my gray matter. In a field not far from Bottineau, North Dakota, I sat elbow to elbow with goose-calling champion and now close friend Freddie Zink and watched in awe as a small flock of the yodeling birds, virtual strangers to an Ohio boy such as myself, sculled into range. For whatever reason, I shot but once when Zink yelled “take ’em!” — but once was enough, as my charge had connected squarely with a mature speck on the outermost edge of the group; the bird crashing with an audible thud into the stubble. If I remember correctly, I beat the dog to my prize.
Thirteen years later and 850 miles due south of where my inaugural speck hit the ground, a small flock of Kansas white-fronts would stir similar emotions. Beside me and also knee-deep in the Cheyenne Bottoms, Sunflower State native Zach White clucked sharply at the dozen birds swinging to the east 100 yards out, his machine-gun quick yelp…yelp-yelp…yelp-yelp…yelp having an obvious and very positive effect on the group. Their minds collectively set, the birds turned sharply into the wind and cupped up; unfortunately, they hadn’t squared up to our impromptu hide, but rather were attempting to settle onto the water from the side. “If you’re gonna do it,” I heard White hiss at me, “you better do it now.” Standing, I punched the 11-87’s safety and blotted out the lead bird, a black-barred adult; looking over the recoil, I saw the speck crumple. Already, I switched to another further back, and watched as it, too, folded and splashed into the Bottoms. Behind me, I was only vaguely aware of other guns.
“There you go! Your first specks over water!” It was White, his words breaking the spell we’d been under. Four adult white-fronts floated at the edge of the spread, the ripples resulting from their collective descents just now working through the cattails. My mind hustled back to a North Dakota stubble field. To a silver bead passing a barred belly, to the slow-motion end-over-end tumble that results from a charge well-placed. A hint of gray feathers drifting earthward. These are specklebellies, and for those who have heard them, who have hunted them, there need be no further explanation. They are waterfowling, pure and simple.
Visually, and although juvenile specks are a rather non-descript grey with a smattering of white and the species’ trademark orange legs and pinkish-orange bill, adult white-fronts are strikingly handsome. In mature birds, the cottony white patch surrounding the base of the bill extends upward above the eyes and can easily be seen in flight. It’s this patch, or white front, from which the species draws its technical moniker. The heavy black chest bars from which the bird gets it pseudonym — specklebelly — are as individual as are human fingerprints; some birds show little, while others, known in some circles as tar-bellies, can be 50 percent or more black. On average, an adult speck will weigh between 5 and 6 pounds.
While waterfowl migrations offer no absolutes (I once watched a gentleman shoot a white-winged scoter, a sea duck common on the Pacific and Atlantic coast, on a Corps of Engineers impoundment in eastern Iowa) specklebellies are birds of the two western flyways; rather, the Central and Pacific flyways. Here, gunners encounter two separate populations of greater white-fronts — the Pacific population (PP), which nests in the Yukon and winters in central California, and the mid-continent population (MCP), birds that hatch in southern Alaska and winter in Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas and even as far south as Mexico. A separate subspecies, the Tule goose, winters in small numbers in California’s Sacramento Valley, and is both half again larger and much darker than its more numerous — 600,000 Pacifics versus an estimated 12,000 Tules — relative.
The Pass-Shooting Challenge
While it’s true I dearly love fooling geese, regardless of the species, with plastics and calling, there’s just something primal about pass-shooting. Personally, I welcome the challenge of judging distanceat a distance, and enjoy swapping my typical instinctive style of shooting for that known as sustained lead. But before I launch into the subject, let me make one distinction perfectly and unequivocally clear — pass-shooting and skybusting, or the act of shooting at birds ridiculously far out of range, are two very different things. Under the proper conditions, pass-shooting can be a very effective way of harvesting waterfowl. Conversely, skybusting often results in crippled birds and wasted ammunition, and greatly irritates those ethical ’fowlers unfortunate enough to be nearby. That should be enough on that.
White’s waterfowling passion lies in decoy spreads and calling, so it was at my request that we spent an evening and a late morning on the Cheyenne Bottoms’ infamous firing line. Situated on the southern edge of the area, the clearly marked line is set up specifically for pass-shooting, and, as one might suspect, is a somewhat controversial subject among both local and transient ’fowlers, who claim the line is little more than an attempt to justify skybusting and general idiocy. True, we did witness some exceptional displays of what I’ll call ballistic ignorance; however, the evening we hunted — NOTE: No shots were fired, at least by us, during the next morning’s pass-shoot — saw White and I take home four birds, two adult specks and two mature snows, with the same number of shots fired. On Sunday, the morning I left for home, we, along with White’s younger brother Isaac and their father Brian, sat atop a high hill southwest of the refuge and killed our eight white-fronts, plus two bonus snows, in less than an hour with fewer than 15 rounds expended. All factors that morning, however, were perfect — an elevated gunning platform, 20 to 25 mph headwinds, positions directly beneath the flightline, sufficient natural cover, and enough 40-yard birds to keep things interesting.
And that’s, I believe, what hunters forget about pass-shooting, and why so many condemn it as being non-hunting. There is a prescription to proper and productive pass-shooting; a recipe which includes the aforementioned factors, as well as, and perhaps most significantly, the right ammunition andself-discipline. In terms of shotshells, 50-yard specks with a 20 mph wind call for more than 3-inch No. 3 steel pushed through an improved cylinder tube. While I sat both on the firing line and atop the hill, my 11-87, choked full, was filled with 3-inch hulls containing 1 3/8 ounces of Winchester’s Xtended Range (XR) tungsten-based #B pellets. Each time I pulled the trigger, three dollars went out the muzzle; however, denser-than-lead hybrid non-toxics seem tailor-made for the pass-shooter, thanks to a fantastic combination of pellet size, pattern density and retained energy. “Even a 105 howitzer has its limitations,” my father, an artillery captain in charge of six of the big guns in Southeast Asia, always said when the topic turned to firearms and ammunition selections. “But if I had to make a choice,” he always finished, “I’d rather go too big than too small.” Pass-shooters would do well to heed the Old Man’s advice.
On The Water
While my primary focus in Kansas was to target white-fronts as a species, hunting them over water was of particular interest. There’s just something about gunning ’fowl on their home turf, and it matters not whether it be a marsh setting as we had on the Cheyenne Bottoms, a winter river, or a Back 40 farm pond. “Specks over water,” White said, “are as exciting as it gets. Geese in general,” he continued, “seem to be more at ease or less skittish about committing to decoys on the water. They know it’s safe out there. That’s not to say it’s easy, but it can be less frustrating and, ultimately, more productive.”
The ’Fowlers Trinity — proper concealment, natural decoys and decoy placement, and realistic calling — all played vital roles in our speck success on The Bottoms during my stay. For blinds, White and I took advantage of one of the countless small clumps of head-high cattails that dot the marsh. “Match your camouflage to the vegetation where you’re hunting,” the boy told me. “Keep your face and hands hidden and stay still when the birds are working. It’s all relatively basic, but it’s amazing the number of hunters who overlook those aspects — and then wonder why the birds won’t finish.”
Accustomed as I am to the huge field spreads of full-bodied decoys used by many Midwestern goose hunters, White’s water set of 24 snow goose floaters, eight speck floaters, and 12 speck full-bodies seemed small, particularly when one considered the 100,000-plus mixed snows and white-fronts on The Bottoms at the time of our hunt. “You can blanket the water with decoys,” White told me, “but I like to keep things small and ultra-realistic. Out here,” he continued, “I’m targeting small groups of specks — six, eight, 20 birds — or better yet, pairs and lost singles. They’re looking for company, and that’s what I’m giving them with my spreads.”
The snows, White explained, are for long-distance visibility, an important factor on the expanse that is the Bottoms. The speck floaters, I noticed, were separated from the whites, while the full-bodies, thanks in part to the 6- to 8-inch water depths that served as our area of operations, were scattered throughout the speck floaters, lending an additional air of three-dimensionalism to the spread as a whole. Even with a light breeze, the decoys moved naturally; we had no problem convincing White’s mini-flocks to give us a closer look.
The third element — calling — surprised me as well. Up to this point I’d only heard and practiced white-front vernacular as part of a field spread; multiple callers returning the speck’s two-note hah-HAH yodel in exchange with the barks of circling birds. That was absent on the water, replaced by a crisp, rapid-fire clucking; sounds that as an avid spring turkey hunter I could only equate to a hen’s excited cutting. “I use the traditional two-note call,” said White, “more as a hail call, but I noticed that birds on the water, which is what we’re presenting with our decoy spread, do a lot more of this quick clucking. It seems to be more conversational from bird to bird on the water. And my feeling is, then, it’s more natural. You have to keep it real.”