Public Land Playbook is a column featuring tales of public land hunts, tips, tactics, and strategies.
I believe a good teal hunt is the most fun you can have with a shotgun in September. A hot dove shoot comes a close second. And early Canada goose hunts can be a blast. Still, if push came to shove, I’d hunt bluewings.
For years, special early teal seasons were largely confined to nonproduction states in the Atlantic, Mississippi, and Central Flyways. Put another way, early teal hunting was kind of a southern thing. But in recent years, states like Iowa, Wisconsin, and Michigan have added early teal seasons too. And in places like North Dakota, where the general resident duck season opens in late September, there are often so many bluewings still hanging around that early-season hunting could be described as a teal hunt with some bonus big ducks.
That’s a good thing, too, because no duck hunter should miss the September teal experience. It happens at a time of year when there is, at minimum, the promise of fall in the air. It’s still mostly summer where I hunt in Kentucky and Tennessee, but when teal season opens, the sycamore leaves are falling, and if you take a walk down a white oak ridge, you’ll probably spot the first fresh buck rubs ahead of the upcoming rut. In fact, the first 70-degree afternoon following the “sweat season” is enough to make you sit outside all alone and smile as if you’ve been given an unexpected gift. I’d compare the feeling to that of reeling in a crappie or hearing a turkey gobble on the first balmy day in March.
But there’s more to it than the weather. Blue-winged teal might just be the perfect public-water duck. When ranking species versus the amount of gear needed to hunt them, they require a little of everything but not too much of anything. You need a cold front to move them around, but you needn’t wait for the once-every-half-decade arctic blast to expect a flight.
Scouting will improve your odds, but if teal are around, it’s not hard to find them. Check places with open water and grassy shorelines, where water depths are measured in inches rather than feet. If the mud is soupy, slick, and smells a bit like dying summer, all the better. If there’s aquatic vegetation, well, you’re really in business.
Bluewings swarm places like that in the fall, where they’re feeding on both the vegetation itself and the invertebrate critters living it. These are little ducks, and they’re not always easy to see sitting on the water. They’re dull brown in September, and they can be pretty stationary when they’re concentrated on a good feed. Fortunately, if enough birds are in the area, you’ll probably see a flock or two buzzing around soon enough.
In the air, bluewings are unmistakable due to their rapid wing beat and knotted flight pattern—and in the right light, their speculums flash bright blue. Watch where trading ducks land, and then use binoculars to scour the area for additional ducks on the water. If you can locate 50 or so birds sitting near a decent hiding place, call in sick the next morning (or at least ask to work from home).
Many of these choice wetlands are on public land too. In fact, I’ve hunted early teal in Kentucky, Tennessee, Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas—and most of my best shoots happened on public water. Big reservoirs and larger oxbow lakes get the nod for many hunters, but there are some overlooked opportunities in managed moist-soil impoundments as well. One of the most memorable teal encounters I’ve had was during a draw hunt on an inland wildlife management area in coastal Texas, where we hid in the brush on a levee and shot the zippy birds as they decoyed out of a heavy fog, no more than 10 yards off the ends of our gun barrels.
You don’t need an elaborate blind for teal hunting. Early-season bluewings just aren’t as paranoid as a December pintail. Wear camo, back into the brush, sit still, and you’ll probably be fine. It also helps that the teal flight is at its best in the first 30 minutes of the day, when it’s still dark enough to hide in scant cover.
Since many of the best teal hunting spots can be some distance from a shoreline, in water too shallow for a boat blind, you might consider building a makeshift brush blind, or even setting up a well-brushed A-frame blind, which are becoming increasingly popular for dry-field hunters but work just as well for shallow-water teal hunting.
I think layout blinds are even better. They can be virtually invisible to low-flying teal. Some layouts can be used with neoprene covers to keep you somewhat dry if you’re setting the blind in the mud, but honestly, a damp camo T-shirt has never bothered me much while teal hunting.
It’s been said that teal require minimal effort in the decoy spread, but I still like to set the most realistic rig possible, regardless of the species I’m hunting. I’ve decoyed plenty of teal into a half dozen hen mallard decoys, but these days I do prefer a couple dozen bluewing blocks set on short Texas rigs with light weights, partly because they look better but also because they’re lighter and can be tossed out and picked up in just a couple of minutes. Later in the season I might leave the spinning-wing decoy at home, but I always carry it when teal hunting. I do prefer the rapid, buzzing wing beat of a teal-sized spinner, like a Mojo teal. The dove version works just about as well.
In addition to decoys, bluewings can make even beginning callers feel like maestros. Few species will bank around and commit to hard calling as furiously as a flock of teal. Hen mallard sounds will work, although I’ve had a little more luck replicating the greeting call of a bluewing hen (kaaaa-ka-ka-ka) on a mallard call. Actual teal calls, like a Haydel’s T2, sound even better. Usually, if teal show interest in a call, you can stay on them until it’s time to shoulder your gun.
Set your decoys close—20 yards or less—and put the spinner where you want to call the shot. Don’t shoot until the ducks are tight. This helps prevent misidentification of species, but it’s also just more fun to watch a knot of teal finish. Your usual 12-gauge with an improved cylinder and No. 4 steel shot will work just fine—but this is a great time to downsize to a sub-gauge too. I enjoy hunting teal with a 20-gauge. One-ounce 20-gauge loads of steel 4s might be too light for mallards, but they are plenty for bluewings.
The extra challenge is nice. When a teal hunt is on, you’ll want to do everything you can to make it last. Trust me. So, grab your shotgun, find some public land, and go enjoy September.
Here’s an extensive guide to many of the nation’s top public waterfowl hunting areas in each flyway: 100 Public Waterfowling Hotspots.