October 01, 2021
Tropical Storm Beta was churning northeast, bearing down on Houston and into Louisiana. The wind was still rolling around from the northwest in her wake, creating pleasant conditions in late September on the middle Texas coast. Bay City lay almost due east of the small rice field pond, a perfect spot to ambush early-season blue-wings. The little ducks were around in big numbers, everyone had been enjoying good shooting. Anticipation was high as decoys splashed down in random fashion and hunters took positions on the north levee. With a few minutes before legal time, the early risers ripped through the wind and splashed down among the decoys.
That hunt didn’t last long, only 11 minutes from first shot to last. When the blue-wings do it right, they do it right! Teal hunting can be feast or famine depending so much on moon phases, north winds and being in the right place at the right time. Teal fly fast, taste good and migrate early, facts that duck hunters know in general. But what else is there to learn about a bird that weighs mere ounces but can make a hunter feel foolish as 3 straights shots miss behind the bird? Glad you asked!
Texas waterfowl biology legend Charles Stutzenbaker is a great person to start with. He began his career with Texas Parks and Wildlife straight out of Texas A&M and spent 36 years on the front lines of waterfowl management. It was his recommendation, along with other members of the Blue-winged Teal Subcommittee, to the Central Flyway Council that opened the first early teal season in September of 1964 in 20 Mississippi and Central flyway states. Blue-wings and green-wings are some of the first ducks to migrate south every fall and the last ducks to return to northern breeding haunts in the spring. Those facts were nothing new in the 1960’s, so why open the guns to the early migrants?
“It was about providing more hunting opportunity and renewing waterfowl hunting interest,” Stutzenbaker said. “We had just come through a bad drought in the late 50’s and early 60’s on the pothole region breeding grounds in Canada and the Dakotas. Waterfowl populations had plummeted because of it and season lengths and bag limits were restrictive. Many hunters had put away their guns in response and we needed to bring them back to the sport. We thought a great way to do that was offering an early season for ducks that are normally long gone when most regular seasons opened.”
The initial early teal seasons (1964-1966) opened for 9 days with a four-bird limit. That framework remained in place with teal populations remaining stable but not seeing tremendous growth. Wet years in the prairie potholes coupled with habitat improvement through programs like the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) saw substantial population increases above long-term averages in blue-wing and green-wing numbers. This led to teal season increasing to 16 days and 6 bird limits, attracting more hunters, and expanding early teal season participation in a big way.
Want to get in on early teal action? The very best bets are the Texas middle coast and Louisiana sloughs and marshes. Of course, teal can be intercepted at any point along their migration corridors, but these lower Central and Mississippi flyway destinations are the best bets. Why? Abundance of teal-friendly habitat is the answer. Where do teal like to frequent? Lots of places, from shallow ponds and marshes to big open lakes. However, they call them rice rockets for a reason!
Heavy on the Starch
Fresh and brackish water wetlands used to dominate the landscapes of both coastal Texas and Louisiana.
Those wetlands are still there thanks to Texas Parks and Wildlife, Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, Ducks Unlimited and other conservation groups, but not covering the acres they once did. Teal have historically loved that ground; with native grasses and invertebrates those shallow marshes and depressions hold are a veritable food feast. Add in heavy cover for security and it’s perfect puddle duck habitat.
But, there’s another big player in attracting millions of teal down south to stage and winter every migration. That’s rice, first planted in the late 1800’s, a cereal grain high in carbs and protein. Traveling ducks need it for energy to continue a very long journey. Staging ducks want it for building their bodies while resting up and flying farther south. Wintering ducks depend on it when cold winds pour out of the north and send temperatures plummeting. Fact not fiction, rice is a staple food for teal and other waterfowl.
As Texas rice production declined, waterfowl managers turned to moist soil impoundments to hold teal for hunting to accommodate a growing clientele. Spread Oaks Ranch located southeast of El Campo, TX, is a premier destination during teal season and beyond. Ranch manager Rob Sawyer is farming for ducks year-round and stays booked solid for early teal. “I remember when very little thought went into habitat preparation for early teal season,” said Sawyer. “A few small farm ponds were sometimes flooded for roost habitat, but we relied mainly on abundant coastal prairie flooded rice crops. As rice production declined after the early 2000s drought, waterfowl managers had to begin working a little harder. Now we develop over 200 acres for early teal, comprised of compartments that are sprayed for noxious vegetation, burned, then disced and flooded in late summer. It’s a lot of work, but it pays off with full straps and short hunts in September.”
Prime habitat holds birds throughout the fall and into spring with teal preferring different landscapes to those hit in September. “Traditionally, the blue-winged teal use our deeper waterways that support coontail and other aquatics that host invertebrates in late season,” Sawyer continued. “For green-wings we draw down our units and expose mud flats to expose new food sources again, mostly invertebrates.”
Add Some Cinnamon for Flavor
There’s a third teal species in North America that is prized as a trophy bird above all else. Cinnamon teal and blue-winged teal are close cousins and closer to northern shovelers than green-wings. These reddish colored beauties mainly originate in extreme southwestern Canada and tend to stay west, far more prolific in places like the Utah’s Great Salt Lake than a Texas or Louisiana marsh. Oh, they can stray down that way, but the best bet for finding one lies in more arid climates, and outside the U.S. borders.
Not that they can’t appear in other places, ducks head off in odd directions every season. Texas is on the eastern edge of their range, so a few are taken there. Hard to plan on shooting one for sure in that area so if adding one to the collection is the goal, better to up the odds and head south. Way south!
Rob Friedel and his partner Chad Yamane own Fried Feathers Outfitters, offering duck and swan hunts on the Great Salt Lake since 2010. These guys are pros, offering airboat trips out to the shallow flats favored by thousands of ducks, cinnamon teal included. Friedel’s advice though, don’t get your hopes up.
“Sure, it’s possible to go out on the Great Salt Lake and shoot a prime cinnamon drake,” said Friedel. “And there are a lot of cinnamons that breed and rear young in the area. But they are bound for Mexico by October, way before their full plumage comes in. You can shoot plenty early on, but they aren’t the trophies people want.”
Hunting them post mass migration is tough and not much fun. “Cinnamons are weird,” Friedel said. “They like to stay with others of their kind and away from the areas we normally find green-wings by the thousands. Targeting a trophy cinnamon is a lot like chasing a trophy fish. You fish all day hoping for that big bite when you could be catching small fish regularly. So, that’s the choice, spending hours in a blind on the chance that a cinnamon could fly by or wearing out the green-wings and seeing flocks of hundreds in the decoys.”
So where can you easily find a nice mature drake for the wall? That’s a question for Ramsey Russell, owner of GetDucks.com and expert on finding and harvesting cinnamon teal. “The number one species my clients ask about when booking a hunt to Mexico or South America is cinnamon teal,” Russell says. “They are a species that not many folks have access to in their home area and they want to add one to their collection. Over the years I’ve had to find the cinnamons and put people on them every season.”
If Russell had one location to choose for cinnamon teal harvest, it’s western Mexico, specifically Obregon. That’s where the Great Salt Lake birds winter along with cinnamons from around the Pacific Flyway. Dry, arid desert country meets freshwater marsh here and ducks converge on the area by the thousands. Cinnamon teal love low water, swampy habitat with lots of cover and the Yaqui Valley surrounding Ciudad Obregon has it.
“Cinnamon’s seek out rank, swampy, nasty marsh above all other landscapes,” Russell continued. “They look for emergent marsh loaded with invertebrates. Once they find that place, they have everything they need. Food, cover and fresh water, the Obregon marshes have it all so that’s where I send my clients that have a quality cinnamon drake at the top of their list.”
Little Guns, Big Fun
In the past decade, there has been a surge among waterfowl hunters moving away from heavy guns and heavy loads. Shotshell development has brought the 20, 28, and even .410 into play for both ducks and geese. An up and coming non-toxic shell manufacturer founded in 2018, Boss Shotshells utilizes copper plated bismuth in their offerings. Heavier than steel, bismuth performs a lot closer to lead with increased pellet penetration and tighter overall patterns.
Boss Shotshells founder Brandon Cerecke loves sub gauge guns and is not surprised that smaller gauges are increasing in popularity. “We started out offering only 12 and 20 gauge in regular production,” Cerecke said. “We made some special runs in 16, 28 and .410 and only sold a handful. As the time went on however, customer requests increased so we added all three gauges to the regular lineup. Initially, 28 gauge accounted for around 5% of our sales. Now those numbers are up to 10% and it’s growing every season.”
Combine light recoil and sleek, fast handling guns with supercharged quick little ducks and the outcome is just plain fun. No need to lug heavy guns and heavy shells through the muck and mire that teal love. Shotgun manufacturers are taking notice too with new offerings like Benelli’s Cordoba in 28 gauge and Tri-Star’s .410 Viper semi-autos. Small gauges are finding their way into teal blinds and regular season hides with regularity.
Another bonus is decreased noise. Small gauges are easier to shoot for hunters and easier on waterfowl populations by reducing sound pressure. Ducks and geese are noise sensitive and decreasing the gun’s decibel level helps keep birds around, especially on small properties.
Cerecke and friends routinely hunt a 200-acre marsh in Michigan for teal and multiple waterfowl species. To keep minimal noise levels, they have a rule in place to help. “We only shoot 28-gauge guns at my home marsh,” Cerecke explained. “It’s not a big area and keeping the noise levels down reduces stress on the wintering birds there. We don’t feel handicapped with 28-gauge guns and Boss ammo, the little gun is very efficient and packs a more than adequate punch. Not only for teal, but big ducks as well.”
Mallards have the size and numbers advantage; pintails fly with more grace and canvasbacks possess more flat-out speed. But it’s hard to say that any duck is more fun to hunt than the teal. Easy to decoy, beautiful on the wall and delicious on the table, teal offer early and regular season opportunities and remote location adventure. Whether it’s September blue-wings strafing Texas rice or cinnamons bombing Mexican marsh, plan a teal hunt this season and get after them!