By Wade Bourne
After mallards, blue-winged teal are my favorite ducks. I revere them for their beauty, their sporty flight capabilities, their delicate table quality, and their habit of migrating south long before most other ducks. Bluewings on the northern prairies start getting antsy around mid-August, and any hint of a northwest wind will send them scurrying southward.
So that hunters can take advantage of this early migration, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service allows special teal hunts in September in non-waterfowl production states in the Atlantic, Mississippi, and Central flyways when certain population thresholds are met. This special season lasts 9 or 16 days, depending on the number of bluewings in the breeding population the preceding spring.
In my experience, the early teal season is a greatly underutilized hunting opportunity. But I'm convinced that more hunters would value the early teal season as highly as I do if they would only try it. Catch the migration right, and birds are plentiful. Hunting pressure is usually light. These small ducks fly like rockets, and they decoy with little hesitation. And their breast meat is scrumptious when wrapped in bacon and grilled to rare perfection.
The September teal season is also a good tune-up for the "big duck" season to follow. It's an opportunity to get some decoys out, run the boat, test out a new shotgun, and give the retriever a little practice for more serious fetching chores to follow. Here are some tips for where, when, and how to bag these early migrants.
Where to Hunt
Blue-winged teal frequent both large and small waters (reservoirs, natural lakes, sloughs, swamps, beaver ponds, farm ponds, etc.). They feed on aquatic plants and invertebrates in shallow water (eight inches or less). When not feeding, they like to rest and preen on bare mud flats bordering these shallows.
The best way to find bluewings is simply to go looking for them, and the closer to hunting time, the better. Due to their migratory patterns, they can literally be abundant one day and scarce the next. As a result, the best game plan is to scout in the afternoon for a hunt the following morning.
On big water, run a boat and check flats and bays with binoculars. Hunters can also scout farm ponds from vehicles or hike into remote backwaters to see if teal are present.
When to Go
Bluewing movement is prompted by the slightest weather changes. During September, watch the weather map closely and expect a new wave of birds with each frontal passage.
Bluewings will typically hit a new area and hang around until the next frontal passage pushes them farther south (and brings new teal in). This pattern commences in August, and by mid-October, the majority of bluewings are on their wintering grounds along the Gulf Coast or in Mexico or northern South America.
How to Hunt
Hunting teal is relatively simple. Finding them is often more of a challenge than setting up for them. Early-season teal are not particularly autious. Teal hunters may hide in brush or reeds at the water's edge and must simply keep still as a flight approaches. Teal usually fly on the deck, so blinds don't have to be as sophisticated as they do for warier ducks later in the season.
Blue-winged teal decoys are sold commercially, but the drakes are usually painted in breeding plumage with the distinctive white crescent in front of their eyes. When they are migrating in September, bluewing drakes are still in their nonbreeding plumage—predominantly brown. For this reason, I use hen mallard decoys to hunt early-season teal. Besides being a better plumage match, these decoys are larger than teal decoys and show up better on the water. A dozen decoys will suffice on small ponds, while a spread of three or four dozen decoys is all that's needed on larger waters.
Calling also works in attracting the attention of passing teal. Standard mallard calling is effective, but a blue-winged teal call is even better. This call mimics the bluewing hen's raspy, high-pitched hail call. One of the best on the market is the BT-85 bluewing call from Haydel's Game Calls.
This year, be sure to check with the wildlife agency in your state to see if a September teal season is offered. If it is, give teal hunting a try. The cool mornings of September are a harbinger of fall, and bluewings on the marsh or lake offer enjoyable gunning and a great kickoff to another season of waterfowling.