With early teal seasons already open in portions of the Central Flyway and more states opening this weekend, waterfowlers are getting their first taste of duck season, peppered with fears over how much drought conditions have impacted duck production in the Prairie Pothole Region. Reports from the field suggest that the coming weeks will still present good hunting opportunities for blue-winged teal as they migrate south through the flyway.
North and South Dakota
Blue-winged teal production in South Dakota was likely down in 2021 compared to previous years when the state produced bumper crops of the birds, according to Rocco Murano, chief waterfowl biologist with South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks, but hunters should not be entirely discouraged about the status of the population.
“There was some real concern heading into the spring nesting season as blue-winged teal are one of those ducks that are closely tied to the prairie. They will not overfly this region, so what they find here is what they are going to get in terms of breeding habitat,” Murano says. “Based on what I’m seeing now in September, however, I think bluewings fared reasonably well, considering just how dry things were. We had just enough water in our seasonal wetlands to support duck production, particularly east of the James River Valley.”
The situation in North Dakota is not quite as promising, Murano says, pointing to the North Dakota Game and Fish Department’s spring and summer surveys, which showed dramatic decreases in the number of both wetlands and ducks.
“The good news for hunters down the flyway is that the teal that did settle in the Dakotas are already on the move, and I’ve received reports of bluewings already showing up in larger than normal numbers as far south as Texas,” Murano says. “Here in east-central South Dakota, I’m starting to see really nice pockets of birds congregating on wetlands, and it’s only a matter of time before they start heading south.”
Matthew Garrick was among the Nebraska duck hunters who helped kick off the September teal season last week. Garrick, who is the new waterfowl program manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, says that water was the key ingredient for success.
“I hunted in the Sandhills region southeast of Valentine, and where you found water, you found teal,” Garrick says. “Overall, conditions are dry in that part of the state, but what I found was that if you covered some miles, you could find an area that had received some rain and wetlands that were holding ducks.”
Garrick says that state biologists banded “quite a few” teal in the Sandhills region this summer, and the bulk of the birds trapped and banded were juveniles.
“And that’s what we saw hunting last week: the majority of the teal we shot were hatch-year birds, which is good,” Garrick says.
Reports from the Rainwater Basin in central Nebraska are of mixed wetland conditions, Garrick continues, with recent rains having provided much-needed moisture for early migrants like teal.
“It hasn’t been enough to fill up the basins, but it has put us one big rain event away from having good conditions in that part of the state,” Garrick says. “We’ve seen some good growth of moist-soil vegetation, and now we just need water to make that food source available for ducks.”
Kansas duck hunters will benefit from better-than-average local teal production, says state migratory game bird program manager Tom Bidrowski, and the local teal population has already been buoyed by birds arriving from the north.
“We need a little precipitation to be able to hold these birds and offset a hot, dry month of August,” Bidrowski says. “The good news is that there is plenty of food in many of our shallow basins. We just need some rain.”
The Kansas teal season will get under way this weekend, and Bidrowski advises those hunters who are planning to hunt on public land to check the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks (KDWP) website for changes made during the offseason.
“Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area, one of the most popular early-season destinations, is undergoing a renovation, which will likely impact teal hunting there,” Bidrowski says.
In addition, he reports that Cheyenne Bottoms is now a ‘no wake’ area for boats, which is a change aimed at improving the hunter experience. The KDWP has also instituted a limit on when hunters can access the popular Neosho Wildlife Area in southeastern Kansas.
Oklahoma saw the first good push of teal in early August, says Kelvin Schoonover, an Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation biologist at Hackberry Flat Wildlife Area near Frederick, and he says that there is good reason to believe that the birds liked what they found when they arrived.
“Our water levels are good. Our reservoir is full, and we’ve had good vegetation growth,” Schoonover says. “Some of those first teal have moved on, but I’d say that we have a normal abundance for this time of the year. The outlook is good.”
Reservoirs are a prime destination for hunters in September, and Schoonover says that the moist-soil plant production along the perimeter of those bodies of water will provide excellent sources of food for teal and other early migrators.
“Heading into teal season, water levels have come up and flooded this vegetation. At this point, I think we are in great shape,” Schoonover says.