by Keith Sutton
When we think of duck hunting, we're often reminded of numb toes, frozen fingers and rosy cheeks. You won't be cold, however, during a September teal hunt. An early-season foray for blue-winged, green-winged and/or cinnamon teal usually is a shirt-sleeve affair where perspiration runs freely and mosquitoes substitute for snowflakes.
When breeding ground counts show teal numbers are high enough, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service allows several states the option of setting a brief, early season to take advantage of the hordes of teal that pass through portions of the U.S. in September and are sitting in the marshes of Mexico and points south long before traditional waterfowl seasons open later in the year.
Seasons typically extend a week to a week and a half in most areas, with a daily bag limit of four teal and a possession limit of eight. Check with your state wildlife agency for season dates and regulations in your area this year.
If you haven't tried teal hunting yet, you should. Targeting teal specifically is a great way to add spice to your hunting season, and teal properly cooked are among the most delectable of all waterfowl.
It's important for the hunter to be able to distinguish teal from other ducks because only teal are legal waterfowl during September hunts in most areas.
Blue-winged teal are pint-sized ducks with chalky-blue shoulder patches on the front of the wing. The bill is relatively large. Males are grayish above, tan spotted with dark below. A white face crescent is present by early winter in adults. The female is brownish-gray above, pale gray marked with dark below. Flight is erratic, and the bluewing's small size and twisting turns give the illusion of great speed. The small, compact flocks usually fly low.
Male green-winged teal have a brown head, spotted tan breast and gray sides. The head turns chestnut-colored and has a green ear patch by early winter when a white vertical crescent behind the breast becomes evident. Females are grayish-brown, speckled below. Both sexes sport a green speculum. The flight is fast, buzzy and erratic, usually low, with compact flocks wheeling in unison.
The male cinnamon teal has a bright cinnamon-colored head, neck, stomach and sides. He has a black bill, yellow legs and feet and red eyes. The female has a light brown head and neck, a gray bill and brown eyes. Her breast and sides are brown and streaked with darker V-shaped spots, her upperparts are brown, and her belly is white. Like the drake, she has a blue shoulder patch on her upper wings, with a white band of feathers under the patch and a green speculum. Cinnamons usually travel in small flocks made up of male and female pairs.
Being trusting, unsuspicious ducks, teal decoy well without calling. That's good news for hunters like me who are less than proficient at blowing a call.
When hunting small waters such as ponds, a half dozen to a dozen decoys usually are enough to draw birds in. When hunting larger waters, carry two or three dozen decoys to gain the birds' attention. Mallard decoys work ok, but small-bodied teal decoys are easier to carry and work even better.
The pattern of your decoy set is vital in attracting teal and luring them where you want them to land. Most patterns have a pocket facing downwind where the decoying birds should land. These patterns often are described as C, V and J patterns, after their shape as seen from above. The pocket should be within shotgun range and encourage the most ideal angle of approach. Decoyed teal land into the wind, which should be coming from the back of the blind, encouraging the normally difficult-to-hit teal to come in straight toward the gunners. It's also important to place decoys where flying ducks have a good view of them. If the decoys are hidden by a high bank, trees or other obstructions, they are useless.
Blinds seldom are necessary for teal hunting, and may, in fact, arouse suspicion in the birds, making them difficult to coax in. Most hunters wear camouflage clothing that blends with the surroundings, and move as little as possible. Flop down atop a beaver house, hunker among cattails, stand against a tree in the shadows or squat among cypress knees in a slough.
When teal are directly overhead, stay absolutely still. Don't look up and give them a chance to spy a shiny face. If you're weak-willed, try a face mask like those used by turkey hunters or some judiciously applied camo face paint. Hide well, and more teal will come your way.
Hunting Hot Spots
Hunters should scout prior to outings to pinpoint teal concentrations.
Big rivers often provide ideal conditions. Scout for sandbars and other locales beneath major flyways, using binoculars to watch for birds using or passing through the area. The best have 1) a southern exposure with a fairly tall growth of shoreline willows to break the north wind; 2) an expanse of shallow (2-3 foot deep) water where teal can feed and eat grit; and 3) are out of the current so teal don't have to struggle to stay put. Most big-river teal hunters shoot from a boat hidden in bushes or other cover, or hidden in natural cover on the sandbars or along the river.
Beaver ponds also attract many teal. One of the best situations is a small creek with beaver ponds strung one after another for a considerable distance. Teal often work back and forth over several ponds that are bunched up, with the greatest activity occurring during early morning and late afternoon.
When teal do come, they're usually close and fast. There's little time to think, just seconds to decide which bird to swing on, no time to calculate proper lead. Everything either comes together in an instant, or it doesn't.
Farm ponds also offer exciting shooting possibilities. Those covering an acre or less usually offer only a single shooting flurry per visit. On these, it's important to figure out how to approach without alerting the ducks. If you know that birds on a certain pond usually feed at the shallow end, then it's necessary to approach so you're in range. If the wind is howling, ducks usually will be on the protected side, if there is one. In a gentler breeze, they may be on the wind-blown side because the stirring water brings them food.
Some ponds never hold more than two or three birds—transients dropping in for a short visit. A friend of mine told of hunting one such pond on his property. He hunted 30 minutes each morning before going to work, then 30 minutes late in the afternoon. "Some visits I wouldn't see a bird," he says. "But during the entire season, my score was 14 teal. It was great. I was hunting within a hundred yards of my house."
Bayous, sloughs and other backcountry waters also attract teal. One of my favorite hunting spots is a slough in the middle of a 40-acre woodlot. As far as I know, no one but me has ever hunted teal there, because when seen from the nearest road, 1/4 mile away, it appears to be the most unlikely spot in the world for bagging such birds. Teal come here, though, feeding on the seeds of marsh plants growing in the shallows.
No matter where you hunt, you'll probably burn a few shells before you can consistently connect with teal. Even the most skilled hunters know to take along plenty of shotgun shells and patience.
That's part of the fun of hunting these fast little game birds. No matter how you hunt them or where or when, teal always offer plenty of challenges.
Guns & Loads
Teal are rather easy to decoy, and most shots are within 20 to 30 yards. Therefore, an open-choke shotgun works better than a tight choke, especially with steel shot, which is required for hunting them. Steel shot patterns tighter than lead. Improved cylinder is a good choke choice for decoying teal, but when pass shooting, many waterfowlers prefer a modified choke.
Teal are tougher than they look, despite their diminutive size. You won't kill them efficiently with low-velocity dove loads, although many hunters try. High-velocity loads with No. 6 or No. 4 steel shot are preferred.
To improve your odds for success, try some practice rounds at a local skeet field, or better yet, shoot a few rounds of sporting clays, the clay-bird game that simulates most hunting situations. Practice your shooting with the gun unmounted (away from your shoulder) as you call for the target. Failure to mount the gun quickly and properly is one of the worst habits the average teal hunter falls into. Teal are among the fastest game birds and often pop into shotgun range when the hunter least expects it.