Special Early Seasons Provide Great Opportunity in Three Flyways
If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen, President Harry S. Truman was fond of saying. And right then, sweating, standing thigh-deep in a steamy, marshy backwater of the Osage arm of Missouri's Harry S Truman Lake, it occurred to me that was pretty good advice. Two friends and I were teal hunting, and we'd been there an hour. The only things we'd seen in the air were buzzards and dragonflies.
It was 4 p.m. on a mid-September day. There wasn't a cloud in the sky or the first hint of a breeze, and the mercury was hovering at 90. I figured I knew what a rump roast felt like on the rack of a convection oven. There was almost as much heat being reflected off the slick, calm water as was coming from above. Sweat was running out of every pore, and my hands were slick on the stock of my over-and-under. I could almost feel the steel beginning to rust.
We were there on good intelligence: the blue-wings were in. As proof, another group of friends had e-mailed me a photo two days before, showing three of them with their limits lined up on the tailgate of a pickup. Instead of salivating over the pile of teal, what I should have noticed was my buddies' plastered-down hair and sweat-soaked clothing. That's what they call a clue, and I missed it.
Now, 48 hours after getting that e-mail, we were sweating, watching dragonflies and wondering if the birds had moved on. We were debating the idea of moving to another spot when a flock of about 15 teal strafed us from behind, whizzing past not much more than head high. One of them caught sight of our decoys and did a hard wing-over at 50 yards, and the others followed his lead. Before we could say anything about it, they were sitting in the decoys.
Keystone Cop-itis took over, and although shots were fired, no teal fell. But that flurry broke the dry spell, and though the day remained as hot as ever, we stopped noticing it so much. The flight was on, and it took just more than 40 minutes from that first bunch for us to take three four-bird limits.
That hunt occurred a few years ago, and the September daily teal limit is now six birds instead of four. September teal hunting opportunities have expanded in other ways, too. Long a Southern thing, experimental teal seasons have been in place in Wisconsin, Michigan and Iowa for three years, and in 2017, Minnesota was added to the list. Waterfowl populations, including teal, are healthy and growing, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has relaxed bag limits accordingly.
Couple those increased limits with the fact that September season provides avid waterfowlers an easy way to stretch their duck hunting days, and then throw in the additional fact that teal are delicious table fare, and it's a head-scratcher why so relatively few duck hunters take advantage of the September season.
Authorized only in the Atlantic, Central and Mississippi flyways, the early teal season began more than four decades ago. By the time traditional duck seasons open, most of the blue-winged teal population is already in Mexico and beyond. The September seasons give American hunters a crack at them, and because blue-wings are the third most abundant North American duck, the early season is biologically sound.
Early-season duck hunting has disadvantages, though. We've already mentioned the hot weather. There are also mosquitoes, and if you're nervous around snakes, there's that disadvantage, too. In alligator country, there's an added risk factor for retrieving dogs.
That aside, September teal hunting is enjoyable and productive, provided you hunt correctly, in the right places and with the correct equipment.
In the absence of frontal activity, blue-winged teal are casual migrators, and they trickle southward beginning in mid- to late August. But a cool front will bring them south in large numbers, so if a front pushes through during the September season, make every effort to get out there during or immediately after the front. Not only will it make for more comfortable hunting, but you'll see many more birds.
Wear lightweight clothing. If you have non-insulated boots or waders, consider wearing them. A mesh headnet and other insect-proof outerwear might also come in handy, and a can of insect repellent is a necessity in many places. And carry plenty of drinking water or electrolyte drinks.
Open marshes and river systems are the places to be. Teal don't like closed-in places. Marshes, fish farms, big lakes, large rivers — that's where to hunt, especially if there's shallow water and aquatic vegetation. A good teal marsh resembles a wet lawn as much as anything else — shallow water choked with so much vegetation it looks like you could walk on it.
Decoys are important for September teal. Large spreads aren't necessary, because teal usually travel in smallish bunches. Somewhere around a dozen decoys is about right. Your mallard decoys will work fine and are actually probably a better choice than teal-sized decoys because they're more visible at a distance. Motion decoys — spinners, jerk cords and others — can also help, where legal.
Blue-wings are vocal and utter a rapid "keck-keck-keck" call you can easily imitate with a standard duck call. Hens quack much like a mallard, but softer and quicker. However, because the natural blue-wing calls are softer than mallard calls, it's usually better to use standard mallard highballs to get their attention and then let decoys finish the job.
Most teal hunters use too much gun. Steel No. 5s or 6s in a 20-gauge are adequate, and this year I'll experiment with small charges of tungsten super shot handloads, using 9s, 9-½s and 10s in my 28-gauges and .410s.
Whatever you prefer to shoot, though, get out there and shoot it. September teal hunting is worth a little sweat equity.