Blue-winged teal are truly the "early birds" of the fall waterfowl migration. These small ducks nest and raise their young across a broad range of northern states and Canadian provinces, but are especially numerous breeders in the Prairie Pothole Region. Bluewings leave their breeding grounds and head south at the first hint of cool weather, normally from late August through September.

Because of this trait, many blue-winged teal are long gone from northern states by the time the regular duck season opens. As a result, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service allows several Central, Mississippi and Atlantic flyway states a special early season to harvest some of these birds. Season frameworks are nine or 16 days from September 1-30, depending on the size of the blue-winged teal population that year. During these special early seasons, the daily bag limit is four teal in any combination.

The key to success in teal hunting is effective scouting. Bluewings can literally be here today and gone tomorrow. That's why scouting should be conducted shortly before you intend to hunt. Teal hunters should watch weather forecasts for the first cold fronts of the season. Even weak fronts can bring new flights of teal from the north.

Blue-winged teal frequent both large and small waters: lakes, reservoirs, sloughs, swamps, beaver ponds, farm ponds, flooded agricultural fields, etc. Teal feed on aquatic vegetation, waste grain (especially rice,) and invertebrates in shallow water, and they commonly rest and preen on mud flats bordering these shallows.

While scouting, check out likely spots at dawn. If teal are present, they'll be visible, working over feeding and loafing areas, sometimes in large flocks. If you locate a concentration of teal, mark the spot precisely and then return there the next morning.

Since blue-winged teal are still in summer plumage in September, a few mallard hen decoys will comprise an effective spread. Also, bluewings are strongly drawn to the movement and flash of wing-spinning decoys, so it doesn't hurt to have one of these motion decoys in your spread. And one final tip: take plenty shells. They don't call bluewings "rocket ducks" for nothing.

Check with your state wildlife agency for teal hunting regulations and opportunities in your area.