As the first cool winds of the season begin to stir from the north, blue-winged teal start moving south from their prairie breeding grounds. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service surveyed a record 8.9 million bluewings this spring—41 percent higher than the 2010 estimate—and these birds will soon fill the flyways just in time for September teal seasons in many states. While weather and local habitat conditions will affect where and when bluewings will be available, the following teal-hunting tips will help you make the most of your hunting opportunities when these fast-flying little ducks blow into your area.
Coastal marshes and flooded rice fields are the favorite habitat of teal in south Louisiana, and bluewings are usually thick in this region by early fall. In a good location, shooting a four-bird limit in 15 or 20 minutes isn't unusual. Even so, Rod Haydel, president of Haydel's Game Calls (haydels.com) in Bossier City, Louisiana, is quick to point out the importance of scouting prior to hunting teal along 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," Haydel 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."
There's usually no need for a huge spread of decoys during the early teal 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."
Tim Daughrity of Murray, Kentucky, has been hunting Lakes Barkley and Kentucky for years. He uses a half-dozen hen mallard decoys. "It's been my experience that hen mallard decoys work just as well as species-correct 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 spinning-wing decoy to his spread as well. "Teal respond well to motion decoys," he says. "You don't need an elaborate spread to have them kamikaze at your feet."
Teal flights are often but not always early, short, and sweet. If you find yourself watching but not shooting 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," Haydel 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."
Calling can be very effective on teal, and 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 away, you can really see a call work."
Haydel uses the decrescendo call made by female blue-winged teal most of the time, but sometimes mixes in drake whistles as well.
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 patterns remain 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 10-degree swing 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."
While teal are fast fliers, they aren't difficult to bring down. Thus, guns/loads for teal hunting should be selected for ease and quickness in swinging and pointing and also for good pattern density.
This is why a 20-gauge might be the ideal gun for bluewings, especially over small, confined waters. Twenty-gauge ammo is available in 2 ¾- and 3-inch loads of size 2 to 7 shot. Number 4 shot is a good all-around choice. The best choke selection for small potholes and ponds is improved cylinder or modified.
Follow the migration
With blue-winged teal already on the move, now is a good time to familiarize yourself with DU's new Migration Map. Waterfowlers who live in southern states have two months until the regular waterfowl season begins, but teal offer great migration mapping opportunities. Visit the Migration Map
and watch how quickly the birds will move.
"We will see migration map posts increase dramatically in September as people begin noticing the first flights of bluewings moving south," says DU Web Director Anthony Jones. "If you are see these early migrants, submit a report, and see if another report is submitted south of your location in a couple days."
Teal season is a great way to sharpen your dog's retrieving skills, but in warm weather be careful not to let him become overheated. Watch for signs of heat exhaustion and beware of other early season hazards like poisonous snakes and alligators in southern regions.