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Banding Together for Waterfowl

Teal, we meet again

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by Keith Sutton

If you haven’t tried teal hunting yet, you should.

Duck hunting often reminds us 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 shirtsleeve affair where sweat runs freely and mosquitoes substitute for snowflakes.

Hunting hot spots

Hunters should scout prior to outings to pinpoint teal concentrations.

Big rivers often provide ideal conditions. Scout for backwater sandbars and other locales using binoculars to watch for birds using or passing through the area. The best have 1) a southern exposure with shoreline willows tall enough 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 teal. One of the best 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. The greatest activity occurs 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. Either everything 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 approach it so you’re in range.

If the wind is howling, ducks usually group up 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 said. “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.

Decoys

Teal decoy well without calling.

When hunting small waters like ponds, a half dozen to a dozen decoys usually are enough to attract teal. When hunting larger waters, carry two or three dozen decoys to gain their 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 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.

Camouflage

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. Use a facemask like those used by turkey hunters or some judiciously applied camo face paint. Hide well, and more teal will come your way.

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. An open-choke shotgun works better than a tight choke. 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 best.

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. 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 you least expects it.

Identifying teal

It’s important to identify 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.

 

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