Early Birds

By John Pollman

If you've never stared down a squadron of blue-winged teal screaming across the shallows of a harvested rice field or scattered gadwall decoys across a bed of smartweed, you're missing out on some great early season waterfowl hunting opportunities. Check out the following advice on how you can get a jump-start to the hunting season.

Early migrating species of waterfowl like teal, gadwall, wood ducks, pintails and widgeon are the first to leave the breeding grounds in the north for warmer climes in the south.

Ducks Unlimited's chief waterfowl biologist Dale Humburg says that the ultimate cue for waterfowl migration throughout their lifecycle is day length, but early migrants are prompted to move when weather and habitat conditions change.

But unlike later in the season, when a major cold front with wind and snow will force bigger birds like mallards and Canada geese to move south, Humburg says the changes that prompt smaller waterfowl to move in early fall are not as easy to decipher.

"Late season is a little easier to understand because you're dealing with frozen conditions, snow cover and loss of food resources," says Humburg. "Earlier in the year it's not always quite as clear because habitat and food are still quite good, but these birds are migrating on an initial, near-term cue from weather conditions."

Humburg says that an initial dip in temperatures at Ducks Unlimited's Goebel Ranch in north-central South Dakota will send many of the blue-winged teal that nested or were hatched amid that sea of grass and wetlands south toward the Gulf of Mexico or to points even further south. Another cold snap will bring spur the migration of pintails, wood ducks, gadwall and widgeon.

For those hunters waiting on the arrival of these early migrants, Humburg says that the ducks' needs to replace fat reserves that were lost on migration should help pinpoint where to look for hunting opportunities.

"Early season migrants search out food resources like natural seeds, smart weed, and millet," says Humburg. "Teal will also move in to shallow, flooded agricultural fields looking for waste grain, second-crop rice, moist-soil seeds and certainly some invertebrates. Gadwall, widgeon, and pintails are going to be more in the open water, looking for submergent food sources more so than teal in the shallows."

Louisiana Teal

The shallows are just where Avery Pro-Staff member Jason Campbell says that he will see blue-winged teal begin to congregate after their arrival in southernLouisiana as early as mid-August.

Campbell says that by the time earl teal season rolls around typically the second weekend in September, the birds have become accustomed to feeding in harvested rice fields.

But that all changes, Campbell says, when the guns go off on opening morning.

"When the hunting starts, a lot of those teal will leave the fields because of the pressure and head to the freshwater marshes to rest during the day," says Campbell.

"At this point, our attention turns to the marsh where we'll hunt birds that have been out feeding all night."

For September teal, Campbell will use 1 to 2 dozen GHG teal decoys, preferring to put out only hen decoys to match the eclipse plumage worn by the birds.

Campbell adds motion to his spread by placing dove or teal spinning wing decoys; their smaller size make the motorized decoys easier to transport into the field, and the high rotation speeds are an attention-grabber for birds passing by. "There's no guarantee with the motorized decoys and teal, but they do seem to be more effective in September than later in the fall," says Campbell. "But at the very least, they give the birds something to look at, especially if you're hunting a big area."

Calling is one aspect of the early teal season that Campbell says cannot be overlooked, as birds will respond well to a series of high, raspy quacks. Duck call manufacturers do produced calls specifically designed for blue-winged teal, but Campbell, who also serves as a Pro-Staff member for RNT Calls, says that with practice, a hunter can use a traditional, single-reed, Arkansas-style mallard call.

Missouri Gray Ducks

In late summer, Ira McCuauley will see a fair number of blue-winged teal move through the moist-soil management areas found at Habitat Flats, a waterfowl hunting paradise in north-central Missouri, but come opening day hunters will often have a chance to see as many as nine different species of ducks.

The mixed-bag opportunities found during the early season are popular for those who hunt at Habitat Flats, but McCauley says that the birds especially the gadwall, pintails and teal aren't quite as fond of the attention.

"The main thing I see with our early gray ducks is that they are super sensitive to pressure, even more so than the mallards that will get here later," says McCauley.

"So we try to keep our hunts short so that the birds have time to use the pools during the day without being harassed; otherwise, they will become nocturnal in a hurry."

To keep hunts short, McCualey says that it is important to scout out the exact spots where ducks want to be to in order to be able to get in and get out as quickly as possible.

McCauley generally uses 4 to 5 dozen GHG decoys in the early season, typically a mix of mallards, pintails, shovelors and teal; and to minimize conditioning the birds, the decoys are picked up after every hunt.

Calling is not as effective in the early season, McCauley says, but that doesn't keep him from trying. "I certainly call less in the early season than I will later once we have more mallards, but at times the early birds will respond well," says McCauley.

"A whistle works well early, too, because there are more pintails, teal and widgeon." McCauley adds that the scouting, decoys and calling won't do you much good if the birds feel too much pressure. "Remember, if you pressure these early migrants too much, they will move on, find a safe spot and sit there all day," says McCauley.

Early Rewards

Both McCauley and Campbell agree that early migrating waterfowl don't receive the fanfare that is often reserved for late season arrivals like mallards and Canada geese, but those who wait until the snow flies before throwing out the decoys are missing the boat.

For McCauley, the mixed bag hunts and steady flow of new migrants into Habitat Flats make the early weeks of a hunting season a great time to be out in the field.

As for Campbell, the best part comes after the decoys, guns and other gear have been put away. Campbell says that a morning's worth of teal particularly the birds that have had a chance to fatten-up in the harvested rice fields are perfect for plucking and placing in cast-iron Dutch oven.

"We'll brown the whole bird in some bacon grease or vegetable oil, and cook them down with some onion and garlic until they'll just fall apart," says Campbell. "Make some gravy out of the drippings and serve it all over rice; it's tough to beat."