By Will Brantley
Tim Soderquist has been without power for seven days, and now teal season is nearly over. Hurricane Ike tore through Galveston a week ago, but folks in coastal Texas—where September teal hunting is almost a religion—are resilient. With family and friends accounted for, Soderquist and hunting partners Jason McKey and Todd Willingham aren't about to let the last few days of the teal season slip away. And they've invited me to join them.
Worries about the catastrophic effects of the storm are far from our minds the first morning. We're anxious about our teal prospects, and Soderquist tells me this area, near Bay City, barely received any rain. After situating blind bags and gun cases in the September greenery, Soderquist attempts to teach me how to sling Texas-rigged teal decoys lasso-style from the levee into the shallow impoundment. I do pretty well on my first throw in that I avoid striking McKey or Willingham. A DU regional director and former regional director, respectively, my hosts put the final touches on the spread by repositioning errantly thrown decoys.
Daylight isn't long in arriving. Idle chatter about the alligators living in the Colorado River behind us and the baited lines these Texans have set to catch them takes a more serious turn with the first sighting of teal. "Small flock at 11 o'clock," Soderquist whispers before pleading to them with four shrill quacks on a bluewing call. I can hear the teal peeping as they skirt the outside edge of the decoys and bank around behind us for another pass, and I answer them with my own whistle.
September bluewings can be pretty accommodating when they want to be. Wings hiss overhead, and the little ducks are suddenly over the decoys with their yellow legs outstretched and chalky-blue wing patches flashing. Our opening volley knocks down four teal, and Soderquist's 18-month-old Lab, Grace, eagerly takes over.
The next flock arrives minutes later, and with a light crosswind, they make a nice approach over the decoys on cupped wings. Our shooting isn't stellar, but it's respectable. After a lull in the action, the morning is capped off by three teal that make two wary circles before finally committing to the decoys. Our shots are quick and efficient, and none of the birds escape. While two of us are one teal shy of our limits, everyone is happy. We decide to call it a morning and head back to camp for breakfast. There's little time for me to stay and celebrate, however. I have a fishing trip scheduled this afternoon in Seadrift, Texas.
A few hours later, waves are lapping against the hull of Jason Wagenfehr's flats boat as it glides to a stop near the shoreline of Matagorda Island. Wagenfehr is one of several guides at Bay Flats Lodge, which caters to both inshore anglers and duck hunters (bayflatswaterfowl.com).
The hurricane, high tides, and abundant baitfish have given game fish plenty of water and reason to roam. But we manage. I cast a 1/8-ounce jighead tipped with a soft-plastic paddle tail. Wagenfehr is slinging a surface walker. Mullet are breaking here and there, but the guide doesn't see the kind of activity he's looking for. We regroup and move to another shoreline, one that's typically too shallow for fishing but is just right given the high tide.
"Lot's of activity here," Wagenfehr says, eyeing the abundant baitfish and numerous diving pelicans while securing the anchor rope to a stern cleat.
We begin wading again. Wagenfehr has switched to a soft-plastic bait and soon hooks an 18-inch speckled trout. He picks up another trout on the next cast, followed by a small redfish. On my first cast to the "sweet spot," I also tie into a keeper trout. Many casts and several small fish later, I feel a thump, and there's no mistaking the surge on the other end of my line. "I've got a nice redfish on," I announce.
Redfish don't jump. They run and pull drag. And pound for pound, they outpull any other fish in my book. This one isn't that big, maybe 22 inches, but it's a good representative of the local redfish population and well within the legal slot limit. I bring the fish to within reach, slip a hand under its belly, and thread it onto my wading stringer before unhooking it. We continue to catch trout and smaller reds until we have our fill. It's been a full, satisfying day, and I'm fairly relieved to see my motel bed.
The following morning, DU Regional Vice President Bill Ansell hosts us on a second teal hunt. His property, the Buckeye Ranch, contains several intensively managed impoundments filled with smartweed and other desirable natural vegetation. Also joining the hunt is DU volunteer Alan Neighbors and his Lab, Shotgun Spot.
Ansell is from Galveston, and his home was one of only a few in the area spared from Ike's wrath. He still has a lot of cleaning up to do, however, especially at his accounting business, which didn't fare as well as his home. Still without power, Ansell will drive back to Galveston after our hunt to continue the cleanup.
Right at legal shooting time, a couple of hundred teal flit over the decoys, but with the birds' silhouetted shapes barely visible in the dim light, we delay shooting. The delay is costly. We take only two birds before the teal flight ends as quickly as it began, and we're left watching empty skies except for the occasional flock of white ibises. A black-bellied whistling duck is the last bird to decoy during the hunt.
"That's a product of weekday hunting in Texas," Soderquist says. "With no pressure to keep them stirred up, these teal find a place to sit and just stay there."
The following morning is the final Saturday of teal season. An hour before daylight, I meet Kevin Kriegel, a biologist and manager of the Guadalupe Delta Wildlife Management Area (WMA), at the WMA headquarters near Port Lavaca, Texas.
Kriegel is swatting vagrant mosquitoes and directing a few hunters to various spots on the WMA's Mission Lake Unit. Mission Lake is open only on weekends during teal season. "Usually, there is a little larger crowd here than this," Kriegel says. "But with the hurricane, gas at $3.50 a gallon, and a slow season up to this point, people aren't focused on teal hunting. I've got to be honest with you; I haven't been seeing many birds. But we'll try it and see what happens."
A heavy fog shrouds the landscape as Kriegel pulls a sled carrying two dozen decoys, mostly bluewings with a few black ducks mixed in. The latter decoys closely resemble resident mottled ducks and provide a little more visibility to the spread.
We set the decoys in a small impoundment. Occasional flocks of teal trade back and forth, but picking shots is difficult in the fog. This isn't a barnburner, 10-minute teal shoot. Rather, we get chances at workable birds every 15 minutes or so—a pace I could get used to.
The sun finally burns off some of the fog, giving us slightly more time to acquire our targets. One large flock of bluewings approaches directly in front of us and wastes no time circling. Kriegel knocks down three birds from the decoying flock, completing his four-bird limit with a triple. I add one more teal to our tally, and Kriegel's retriever, Gunner, seems pleased with the retrieving work. Though it takes a few more shots than planned, I soon have my limit of teal as well.
"I've fished and hunted in a lot of nice places," I tell Kriegel later as we're cleaning our birds on the tailgate of a pickup. "But South Texas is one of my favorites. I'd consider moving here. You guys have a lot to do, and the country is beautiful."
"We do," he says. "And other than the occasional hurricane, the weather is pretty nice, too."