by Will Brantley
We were among several hunters at the boat ramp arranging gun cases, decoys and blind bags before joining the squadron of aluminum crafts on the lake. The September air was hot, muggy and filled with so many mosquitoes that killing only two of them in a swat was a product of poor timing. But our anticipation was high for good reason. It was opening morning of the Kentucky teal season, and the grassy mudflat we'd scouted the evening before had been crawling with birds. Fortunately, no one else had claimed the spot when we arrived, and we were able to hide the boat and set decoys just before the last stars faded from sight.
Five minutes before legal shooting time, just as the sweat from our predawn chores was drying, we heard the whistles of little wings, followed by splashes. A small flock of bluewings was swimming in our spread of hen mallard decoys. The flock flushed but was followed in short order by another.
When the legal minute finally arrived, the lake roared to life in the fashion of a hot dove field, although the shotgun reports carried much farther across the open water. Scouting paid off for us. By 8 o'clock, the flight slowed, but we'd shot a nice bag of blue- and green-winged teal.
September teal hunting is a popular tradition for many duck hunters. The sport requires minimal equipment, but some aspects of teal hunting are specialized. Taking note of those aspects could add a few extra teal breasts to your grill this fall.
Coastal marshes and flooded rice fields are classic settings for teal in south Louisiana, and bluewings are usually thick there by early fall. In a good area, shooting a limit in 15 or 20 minutes isn't unusual. Even so, Rod Haydel, president of Haydel's Game Calls in Bossier City, is quick to point out the importance of scouting prior to a teal outing on the Gulf Coast, especially in the marsh.
"If you're off the line by even a hundred yards, you can literally sit there and watch teal fly by all morning," he says. "As far as flight paths go, certain areas are good year after year. Teal tend to skirt the edges of grass and points in the marsh, and they'll often fly over little islands next to those points. If I don't see birds on the water while scouting, these are good places to hunt."
Tim Daughrity of Murray, Kentucky, has been hunting Lakes Barkley and Kentucky for years. Hunting September teal and wood ducks, both legal during the state's early season, is among his favorite waterfowl pursuits. He says teal are a little choosy in their habitat preferences, so it's important to know what you're looking for in a hunting spot, especially on public water.
"Teal like larger bodies of water than where you typically find wood ducks here in western Kentucky," Daughrity says. "I've had fantastic wood duck shoots in nothing bigger than a creek, but you won't find many teal there. Swamps and sloughs with expanses of open water will hold teal, as well as larger lakes and impoundments. Shallow (usually no deeper than a foot) aquatic vegetation is key. I have never had a lot of luck on a water body without a good food source. Occasionally I have been able to hunt teal over flooded crop fields, and these have always been dynamite hunts."
There's usually no need for a huge spread of decoys in the early season. While Haydel has hunted over as few as three decoys and as many as 10 dozen, he says a dozen is generally about right.
"You can certainly get by with standard mallard decoys, but I prefer teal decoys," he says. "We're hunting bluewings in the early season, but I don't think it matters what type of teal decoy you put out. The key is being sure you have the decoys in a spot where the birds want to be."
Daughrity uses a half-dozen hen mallard decoys. "It's been my experience that hen mallard decoys work just as well as teal decoys," he says. "The birds are still in eclipse plumage in September, so the drakes more closely resemble a hen mallard decoy than they do breeding-plumage teal decoys. Plus, we pay a premium for magnum and super-magnum decoys for late season. Why wouldn't you want the same effect in the early season?"
Daughrity likes to add a wing-spinner as well. "Teal respond well to decoys, especially spinning-wing decoys," he says. "You don't need an elaborate spread to have them kamikaze at your feet."
Teal flights are often early, short and sweet. If you find yourself watching but not shooting teal shortly after daybreak, it may be time for a quick move. This is one reason Haydel favors a mobile approach in the early season.
"After a few flights in the morning, you can usually predict what's going to happen," he says. "That magic window of opportunity may last an hour and a half, and it may last half an hour. If you're hunting one of those short days, moving quickly can be critical. If you're hunting light, you can always move, and if it doesn't pay off, you can move back."
"I always like to be on the X at first light, but I've had some great teal hunting later in the morning," Daughrity adds. "Some mornings, teal don't seem to really start flying well until nearly 8 o'clock. If you are not on the X from prior scouting, all is not lost. Of course, if the birds are piling into a spot 200 yards away, you need to relocate immediately, because the flight can fall off at any time."
Many duck hunters are Weather Channel addicts, and teal hunters in particular can benefit from recognizing a promising forecast. Blue-winged teal are influenced by subtle weather changes in early fall, and often a temperature swing of just a few degrees can send them packing.
"I like to have a cold front way up north of us, while our weather remains the same," Haydel says. "This will move birds down to us. On the Louisiana coast, slight weather changes can move the birds around. A wind change can move them from one part of a marsh to another, or scoop them out of the rice fields and into the marshes. I've even seen days when a 10-degree difference after a cold front moved our birds out."
"Ideally, I like to see a couple of weak fronts come through in the two weeks before the opener followed by stable weather during the season," Daughrity says. "A drop in temperatures or a good storm front will move every bird in the area south. A weak front during the season can bring feast or famine, filling the sky with new birds or moving everything out."
Calling can be very effective on teal, and it's no surprise Haydel has some specific advice on the subject. "Given the opportunity, I think it's handy to sound like the bird you're hunting," he says. "You should use your call after birds have passed by. When they're 20 yards beyond your spread and still going, you can really see a call work."
Haydel sticks to the decrescendo blue-winged hen call most of the time, but because the birds hear this call quite a bit from hunters during teal season, he sometimes mixes in drake whistles as well.
Not too long ago, insect repellent spray was a must-have item for September teal hunting. While it's still effective on mosquitoes, Daughrity says a ThermaCell appliance (mosquitorepellent.com) may be an even better choice for keeping flying bugs away. These small devices will easily fit in a blind bag, along with a few refill packs.
Lightweight camouflage clothing and hip boots make the hunt a little more comfortable in the heat, and a bottle of water should always be in the blind bag. Because vegetation is still green and leafy in September, wearing camouflage and sitting still will often suffice, but a folding saw or hatchet for building makeshift blinds can be handy. Bringing along a dove seat or five-gallon bucket to sit on is also helpful for this type of hunting.
If your state offers an early teal season and you're not taking advantage of it, you could be missing out on some great hunting. Chances are you already have all the necessary equipment. With the right weather forecast and a little scouting, getting in on a fast-action teal hunt can be easy.