Blue-winged teal hatch on the northern prairies of the upper U. S. and Canada, and they migrate earlier than other ducks -- typically in September. This is why an early hunting season is allowed, to provide hunters a chance at these birds before regular duck seasons come in. Photo by Wade Bourne
It may have been the shortest teal hunt in the history of waterfowling.
Don Wright and I stood on the shooting deck of Wright's blind last September in a western Kentucky swamp. Legal shooting time was only minutes away, and we hadn't seen or heard any sign of the blue-wings we'd hoped had arrived on yesterday's cold front.
Suddenly there was the sound of wind rushing under wings, and 20 or more teal plopped into our decoys. We eased down behind the blind's front rail, and I checked my watch. "Four more minutes," I whispered. My black Lab Andy whined as if to inquire, "Why aren't you shooting?"
Those four minutes finally drug by. "Okay, let's make it count," I said, and Don and I came up gunning. When the thunder ended, we each had two ducks floating in the spread. "Andy!" I called, and now it was his turn to go to work.
Andy was swimming back with the first teal when another flight blew in. Don and I had barely reloaded. "Take'em!" I blurted, and again we both doubled. In barely over a minute we'd each downed four blue-wings, the daily limit. What a start to our season!
Obviously, not all teal hunts are this fast. But when these birds are on the move, they can offer terrific action. Also, the early season is a bonus hunting opportunity, and it's a good jump-start for regular duck seasons to follow.
These are all reasons why waterfowlers should get in on the September teal season started by the U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service back in the mid-1960s. These diminutive ducks nest mainly in the prairies of the northern U. S. and Canada, but they head south on autumn's first cool front -- well ahead of mallards, gadwalls and other "big ducks." By the time regular seasons come in, most blue-wings are on their wintering grounds in Mexico and Central America. Thus, the early teal season was established to give hunters a chance at these birds before they are long gone.
"Early teal seasons are offered in non-waterfowl production states in the Central, Mississippi and Atlantic flyways," says Dr. Bob Blohm of the Office of Migratory Bird Management, U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service. "Frameworks are 9 or 16 days long between Sept. 1-30, depending on location and the number of blue-wings in the breeding population the preceding spring. During this season, the daily bag limit is 4 teal in any combination." Hunters should check with their local wildlife agency to learn specifics for their state's early teal season.
(Also, Kentucky, Tennessee and Florida are allowed a 5-day teal/wood duck hunt with a 4-bird bag limit that may not include more than 2 wood ducks.)
As Don Wright and I learned yet again, this early teal season is a time for wiping sweat, slapping mosquitoes and popping shells at some of the testiest targets in the marsh. It's also when special know-how must be applied to hunt these fleet birds. They aren't difficult, but neither are they gimmes. Following is a collage of advice on where, when and how to pursue these first ducks of autumn, which few hunters unexplainably do.
Blue-winged teal frequent both large waters and small: lakes, sloughs, swamps, beaver ponds, farm ponds, strip mine pits, etc. They feed on aquatic vegetation and invertebrates in shallow areas, and they commonly rest and preen on mud flats bordering these shallows.
Many hunters consider blue-winged teal to be the speedsters of the duck family, but actually these birds fly no faster than many big ducks. Still, their smaller size and erratic flight characteristics make them sporty targets for hunters in the September special season. Photo by Wade Bourne
The best way to find these birds is simply to go looking for them. A day or two before the season opens, head to likely spots at dawn to see what's there. If teal are present, they'll be visible, sometimes in large flights working over feeding areas.
Also, understand that teal hunting can be a boom or bust proposition, and the outlook can change quickly. Blue-wings are cold front-driven. Even the slightest north wind can bring in a new wave of birds. A swamp like the one Don Wright and I were hunting can be void of birds one day, then covered up the next.
This is why we were in Don's blind the morning described above. On the day before opening morning of Kentucky's 2006 season, a stiff (for September) cold front had blown through. We'd hunted these birds enough to anticipate what the next morning would bring. And obviously, we weren't disappointed!
All decoy manufacturers sell teal decoys, but they are usually painted in a winter (breeding) plumage pattern. However, in September blue-wings are still in eclipse plumage, meaning their heads and bodies are all-brown. Also, most teal decoys are sized to match live birds -- small. This means their profile is slighter, and they're harder to see at long distance.
I prefer to use standard mallard decoys with a preponderance of hens in the spread. The brown color is a better match for the season, and the larger-profile decoys are more visible.
The number of decoys I use depends on my hunting location. On big water where trading ducks can see a long way, I may set out 5 dozen. But on smaller, more confined water (ponds, sloughs, etc.), a dozen decoys may be plenty. Don Wright's blind rules over a one-acre pothole in a thick swamp, and on the morning of our hunt I put out only 12 decoys in a random pattern.
Or make that 13. The extra decoy was a Mojo wing-spinner, set on a pole in the middle of my spread. Teal are drawn to wing-spinners like magnets. Typically, they're fresh off the prairies, and they haven't been educated by hunter pressure. Hunters may or may not elect to use a wing-spinner decoy, depending on their personal preference. But where early-migrating teal are concerned, a wing-spinner is a definite plus for drawing birds into close shotgun range.
In September, vegetation is still lush in most flyways. And since teal aren't too hunter-wise, most hunters can get by hiding in whatever natural cover is available: willows, buck bushes, cattails, sawgrass, etc. It's not that fixed blinds aren't great! Don Wright and I enjoyed standing on a firm platform instead of in soft mud. But a copse of thick vegetation, supplemented by all-over camo clothing (including a face mask) and holding absolutely still when teal are coming, is usually sufficient to keep these birds from seeing you.
Take along a hand axe or a machete for cutting brush on site. Also, it's better than nice to have a seat handy for periods of inaction. A 5-gallon bucket turned upside down is perfect. (If a bucket is white or bright-colored, spray paint it in olive drab before the hunt.) Also, a dove stool will work if the mud is firm enough to keep its legs from miring up.
Blue-wing hens make a call similar to a 5-note hail call of a mallard hen, except it's higher-pitched, faster and softer. Call companies sell teal calls that realistically mimic this sound.
However, my experience is that standard, louder mallard calls are more effective at attracting these birds. It's the same philosophy as using the mallard decoys. Mallard calls are louder and can be heard farther. Also, teal and mallards frequently share the same waters, so there's nothing unnatural in teal hearing -- and responding to -- mallard calls.
Quiet, shallow waters are where to look for teal in September, and small decoy spreads are the rule for hunting them. Photo by Wade Bourne
Also, one twist to calling teal is "laughing them in," which I've seen guides do at teal-rich Reelfoot Lake in west Tennessee. When a flight of teal is spotted, a guide will laugh aloud -- ha, ha, ha, ha, ha -- in a high-pitched voice and tempo similar to a real teal's call. It sounds crazy, but the birds respond to it. Who cares what it sounds like if it works?
Guns/Loads for Teal
Teal are the buzz bombs of the duck family. They fly fast and dart unpredictably, thus earning their reputations as being among the trickiest targets in wingshooting. However, they aren't difficult to bring down. A couple of pellets on target will usually cause teal to splash.
This is why teal hunters need shotguns that swing easily and throw dense patterns of fairly small shot. Lighter, shorter guns are better for this purpose, and chokes should be improved cylinder or modified. Shot sizes should be #3-#7, of course in a non-toxic payload.
One great choice for teal hunting would be a 20-gauge over/under, especially over smaller waters. Normal shooting distances will average 20-30 yards, and the 20-gauge will handle this chore neatly, if the shooter can handle his!
I've had many wonderful shoots in my 40+ years of hunting during the early teal season.
One of the most memorable was in a southeastern Louisiana marsh with three Cajuns who had given me a lesson in paddling a pirogue, then had led me into a secluded pothole surrounded by roseau cane. We pushed into this tall cover and commenced to shoot teal while standing up in these boats. Everything was great..., until I tried to swing too far, and my pirogue lurched sideways. I wound up with a mud bath and a lesson in what you can do, and can't do, in these small tipsy craft.
Another memorable hunt occurred on Lake Barkley in western Kentucky. Two friends and I had found some teal using a shallow land-locked pothole on a mudflat bordering the main channel. We set up there the next morning, hiding in buck bushes, and no sooner had daylight arrived than the wind switched from south to north, and teal showed up in clouds. Flight after flight rolled down the lake, and every bird wanted in our decoys. We shot our limits, then we unloaded and watched in amazement as the push of migrating blue-wings continued well into the morning.
I've had great teal hunts on Texas' Lake Texoma, in Iowa's Riverton Bottoms, on a strip mine in west Kentucky's coalfield. I've shot these birds over farm ponds in Tennessee and from sand bars on the Mississippi River. Several times I've hunted teal in the morning and shot doves or caught bass in the afternoon. What a great way to spend a September day!
And that morning with Don Wright was one of the best ever. The fast action and the spectacle of so many birds combined for a supreme experience. Also, Don's blind and pothole adjoin a public shooting area, yet we were the only hunters out on opening day. I was shocked -- albeit pleasantly!
Hundreds of teal buzzed this swamp until around 10 a.m. After our brief shoot, we stayed and watched as flight after flight landed in our decoys. "I'd say this is a good omen for the big duck season coming up," I mentioned at one point.
Don didn't answer. He just smiled and looked back out at the sky. Truly, words couldn't add anything more to the hunt we'd just had!
Grilled Blue-Wings -- High-End Fare
Besides being fun to hunt, blue-winged teal are also prized table fare, and one of the best ways to cook them is on a slow charcoal grill.
Skin the birds and wash them thoroughly. Then split the breastbone so they will fold out flat on the grill. Season with garlic, salt, pepper, Cajun seasoning or other favorite spices. Also, if desired, lay strips of bacon across the breasts as they cook.
Grill the birds quickly and serve them while they're still pink and juicy. DO NOT overcook them, as this detracts from both the flavor and texture of the meat.
Serve these fresh-grilled birds with fluffy rice, green beans and garden salad for a meal anybody will relish.