By Wade Bourne

Blue-winged teal are the most weather sensitive of all ducks. In early fall, they are the first to leave their nesting grounds and head south. The slightest north wind or dip in temperature can trigger their migration. Then these birds will push rapidly toward their wintering grounds in southern U.S. coastal areas, Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean.

Because most bluewings migrate well before regular duck seasons open, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service offers a special early teal season in many states in the Atlantic, Mississippi, and Central Flyways. This season lasts up to 16 days and allows hunters to take as many as six teal per day. (Check local regulations because season lengths, dates, and bag limits vary from state to state.)

The early teal season is a real bonus for waterfowl hunters. It provides extra days afield and a chance to tune up skills and equipment before the regular duck season opens.

Following are a few tips to help you make the most of teal hunting opportunities in your area.

Don't skimp on scouting.

This is the most important aspect of teal hunting. When migrating, blue-winged teal frequent marshes, swamps, farm ponds, river backwaters, mudflats on large lakes and reservoirs, and sheet water in fields. They feed primarily on small seeds and aquatic invertebrates found in shallow water. Also, these little ducks can be here today and gone tomorrow. Even the weakest cold front can push blue-wings into or out of a given area. This is why teal hunters should scout as close to their hunting dates as possible.

Assemble a lifelike decoy spread.

In the early season, teal are still in eclipse plumage, and drakes and hens are hard to tell apart. For this reason an early-season teal spread should consist of hens only. Decoys should be scattered randomly or in small groups on the upwind side of the hunting site. Spinning-wing decoys are also very effective and will help draw passing flocks into your spread from long distances.

Use natural cover for concealment.

Early-season teal aren't particularly wary, and hunters usually don't have to go through much trouble to conceal themselves. Natural vegetation around a pond or pothole will often suffice. Sit back in the cover on a marsh seat or five-gallon bucket, wear full camo, and remain motionless as teal are approaching. If the ducks show signs of suspicion, add to the natural cover around you for more effective concealment.

Match clothing and accessories to the season.

Summer-weight camo clothing is the rule in southern states, while a light jacket may be more appropriate up north. Breathable, uninsulated waders are preferable to heavier neoprene. And don't forget the insect repellent and sunscreen.

Call to attract passing teal.

Hen bluewings produce a greeting call that consists of one long, shrill note followed by four or five high-pitched quacks. Imitating these sounds with a blue-winged teal call can turn passing flocks and pull them into the decoys. Also, standard mallard calling can draw teal flocks from longer distances. The sound of the calling may cause the birds to look, and the sight of a spinning-wing decoy may convince them to veer toward the spread.

Keep retrievers cool.

Many retriever owners don't realize that dogs can suffer hyperthermiaheat distressin hot early-season weather. Be careful not to overwork retrievers when air and water temperatures are high, and watch for excessive panting, lack of coordination, blood-engorged gums, and general dullnessall warning signs of hyperthermia. If a dog appears to be heat-stressed, get him into the shade, provide cool water, and take the dog to a veterinarian as quickly as possible. Also, in the Deep South, be wary of alligators that can launch a fatal attack on an unsuspecting retriever.

Take a beginner along.

Early teal season can be a great time to introduce beginners to waterfowl hunting. The weather is mild. Hunts aren't usually long or difficult, and the birds decoy readily, so action is normally quick in coming. All these elements combine for a hunt that's both exciting and fun for novice and veteran hunters alike.