Why Early Teal Season is the Best
September 09, 2015
Biologists claim canvasbacks and mergansers are the fastest ducks of all, and that teal in fact are among the slowest. Anyone who has hunted them very long would beg to differ.
A canvasback held the duck-speed record at 72 mph for years, according to DU, until a paranoid common merganser, a bird that looks like a Tomahawk cruise missile in flight, was chased and paced by an airplane at 100 mph! Most ducks fly around at 40 to 60 mph, and teal? The little fighter jets that make the tearing sound as they rip past? They average a paltry 30 mph, among the very slowest.
Why do they seem so fast? It's the way they move. Small targets and acrobatics trump straight line flight and create a murderous impression of hyper-speed. They flit around like a bat on crack, yet somehow flock all in unison. They may not be the quickest, but we know they absolutely cause more misses than most other ducks combined. And this year, we are going to be missing even more of them than last year's incredible bounty, as their numbers are up once again, far above historic norms.
Teal are fan-favorites of most duck hunters, and the Mississippi Flyway holds by far the most. Over 700,000 are taken there each year, about half in early season and a few more in regular season. The rest of the U.S. kills about 630,000 in early season and 618,000 more in regular season.
"In southern Louisiana it's a big thing! It means something to them folks," says Arkansas icon Jim Ronquest of RNT. He heads south to celebrate the teal kickoff most years. "It's the blue zingers early on and later the green blingers. They're so fast'¦it's oh-oh-oh here they come! Whoosh and they're gone. I like how different parts of the country get excited about different parts of duck season, and in southern Louisiana, teal season, man, it's a harbinger and it's a happening. And when you got 'em you got 'em and when you don't you don't."
On a teal hunt, each bird downed is a beautiful and tasty little treasure in hand. Nobody down south thinks of teal season without thinking of fair weather, family, smoking grills and good times. It's the duck man's dove hunting.
"With teal the biggest thing is everybody is getting excited about duck season, kind of like how in dove season everyone starts talking about hunting season," Ronquest continues. "It's fun shooting and great eats. Teal-titty fajitas are hard to beat off the grill. And the camaraderie of teal season is what's cool. Whether you get maybe the first cool snap or it's hotter than the hubs of hell, you are in any case not a long ways off from comfortable weather. It's about looking forward to fall and winter and what is yet to come."
Teal hunting is just a heck of a lot of fun, as long as you can handle the hot weather and the Heebie Jeebies. Walking up to a pit last September before dawn at Habitat Flats in north-central Missouri's Golden Triangle, we noticed the seemingly perfect blind surrounded by shallow water and panicum grass had just one problem. The grassy edges appeared to be almost moving.
Looking closer, I recoiled a bit when the mysterious motion was revealed to be so many huge spiders trying to hide from our approach, mostly by going into the pit. This arachnophobe had his sissy pants on in no time, wondering if they could bite through waders. Spiders that could span the palm of your hand were in the bottom climbing over turtles and frogs that didn't dare try to eat them.
It was enough to make you forget to look for snakes. Ah, the joys of early season. And this wasn't even the south, where gators gobble bird dogs in September.
Tony's Teal Hole
Vandemore has put together one of the best waterfowl operations on the planet, tailoring habitat, crops and water flows strictly for ducks and geese. His teal hole was no exception. Still, weather is a huge factor regardless of habitat, and gross muggy, buggy, Midwest heat looked like it would suffocate our efforts as dawn broke over the marsh. We looked to the sky over a little two-acre wetland Tony had mowed from the panicum field, then flooded. But there just wasn't a lot of birds around. The good news? The birds that were here wanted the spot in a bad way.
A pack of teal buzzed us, swung wide a few hundred yards in just a few seconds, and banked in for the finish. The night before, I had asked Tony if he thought we should attempt to use the 28-gauge A400 Berettas, probably something that had never been done for waterfowl on TV. He paused, thinking. I realized he'd probably thought I'd said 20 gauges on the phone. He loves 20s, but nobody shoots ducks on TV with a 28. Yet he just shrugged, "Ahh, why not?" in his trademark growl. So we cased the "big guns"; an A400 20 and the new Beretta 20 side-by-side (the Parallelo) and pulled out the three gorgeous bronze little 28s that were delivered for the event. We were about to find out what they could do.
Honestly, I might not have tried it with steel shot, but I had bribed a few cases of Hevi-Shot No. 5s off Kelly Sorenson, and that tungsten-iron mix hits harder than lead.
"Ba-a-a-a-ak-bak-bak-bak-bak," Tony and HF co-owner Aaron McCauley mouth-called, a sound somewhere between Popeye's laugh and a mallard hen loaded with Red Bull. The first group swung through at 20 yards but refused to land. I was intimidated by their speed. Tony murmured, "on this pass, guys" as he continued mouth calling, and they really slowed to land this time, so we let the little guns pop.
Four birds splashed into the decoys, all hammer dead. No need to waste precious shells swatting cripples. I turned to Tony, grinning like a kid that had learned his new bike was incredibly easy to do wheelies on. "Well I guess that answer's that."
"Wow, no kidding," he replied. "That was awesome."
Tony called me out on a single shortly after, but I checked my swing trying to dodge the Mojo on the low-flying bird and whiffed. He had me covered and smacked the little blue-winger, stoned.
A five-pack buzzed through next and two were escaping to the right, flying like only shot-at teal can, when Tony made a real hero shot. We lowered our guns as the birds got out of range. But Tony, on the end, kept swinging wide right and crunched a drake at over 45 yards. When we finally found that bird it was dead as New Coke and had landed 60 yards away, carried by its own momentum.
The Hevi-Shot 28-gauge experiment was a home run, and we were all addicted to the little red shells, so easy to palm a bunch of them, which Aaron described as "a box of Chiclets." With those loads the toy sub-gauge shotguns were duck-killing machines. A few more flurries and we scored 14 teal for the morning. A great kickoff to the season.
So that's what it is like when you have teal in the area. When you don't, it's a whole different experience.
Back at camp, Aaron's pretty wife Lisa, who runs the kitchen at HF, was on day two of an ongoing broken dishwasher saga. The brand new industrial grade dishwasher had been purchased to make her life easier, and everyone felt bad at the extra work created by the failed machine. Not bad enough to pitch in and help, by any means, but bad enough to cause one of those curious hunting camp dramedies, as men from the lodge stood in the kitchen, getting in her way, staring down at the broken machine with their hand on their chins, pontificating with unsolicited manly advice on what must be wrong with it.
She endured it with her endless charm, and the food was stupendous. That night a crazy Midwest storm struck and dropped 10 inches of rain, blistering the sky with lightning. We set up at dawn on a long canal, a real sweet spot, but nothing flew at all, a bummer, as we had the perfect breeze. It was still awfully warm and no new birds had arrived, but with snow rumored to the north in Minnesota, we knew that evening or next morning would be our day.
Instead, it was a great day to be a carp. Rains continued and the Mississippi was flooding big-time to the east, over 25 feet high and rising. Tony, desperately worried about his crops, said we could go hunt anyway, and "it shouldn't be a matter of life or death."
Shouldn't...With some fancy four-wheeling we headed out, Tony in despair as water was cresting within a few feet of the top of the levees and still rising faster than he had ever seen. The air had finally cooled about 20 degrees, and teal buzzed us as we threw our spread out with great hopes. The giant Missouri wolf spiders had disappeared, but so had the birds, we soon learned. No migrators showed and we cut only a few teal here and there after dropping three in one flock of speeders.
Giving up, we pulled the dekes and a flock of two-dozen came in hard from nowhere. The rest of the crew was gone, but Aaron and I jumped in the pit and he mouth-called with no dekes, somehow sucking them in right to 40 yards. I fired in frustration as they flared. Nothing.
At camp, I packed up, said goodbye to Lisa and the new crop of guys standing around staring at the broken dishwasher, and headed out. The next morning Tony called and said the levee burst just as he feared, and the pit we'd hunted was now under 10 feet of water. The highway was down to one lane and electricity boxes on power poles were going under. Crops were washing away, crops he needed to hold birds later.
Madness. But two weeks later we talked again and he was hammering teal that finally showed in great flocks.
You want to find teal, any biologist will tell you to seek out emergent vegetation, moist soil habitats, and open marshes. So what does that mean, exactly? Just how do you find a good teal hole?
"I hunted public land a ton, and found teal aren't super picky, so public areas can be fantastic," Tony says. "On public the millet and smartweed is super high because they don't put a lot of water on these places, so I look for areas with thick stands of that stuff. Then look for open areas and pockets within them, boat lanes, little ditches, that's what you want."
If the millet is three or four feet tall and thick like that, the teal are looking for the edges of open water. "Whether that's a little-bitty pocket or a ditch or a boat lane, they land in the open and swim into the tall cover," he says. "You can see why they love it. It's full of food, and you watch them and see so many times those big marsh hawks zoom down low over the marsh just a foot above the cover and the teal don't even flush. They are happy in there with food, water and cover."
If you're out on bigger open water try to find a point or a big mud flat. Those are especially good on migration days because you can be so visible.
"I normally don't use a lot of teal decoys, but on bigger water I will. They love Canada decoys, too," he says. "The biggest teal migration I've seen was in Illinois while hunting a pasture in early goose season. Teal season back then didn't open 'til a week later, and hundreds of teal were coming out of nowhere all to the goose floaters. It was unbelievable."
If you are lucky enough to have your own place to manage for ducks, you can make a great teal spot. To "make a pile," first make a hole. "Teal love bugs, really small moist soil seeds like panicum, and they really like shallow water," Tony says. "The good thing is it plays into my late season strategies with moist soil foods that you can manipulate by mowing, creating places that are really shallow and full of food. Lots of people don't realize that with your moist soil management, ducks love bugs and invertebrates, and those do better in horizontal cover in mowed stuff than in stuff that is left standing. And that stuff all carries well into the big duck season."
How do you hunt it?
"On smaller water it doesn't take much of a spread, they are inquisitive little guys. If it's where they're used to being, one to three-dozen decoys works. I like hen mallards with no color, and add a little motion with dove or duck spinners," Tony says. "Good thing about teal is camo-wise you don't need a blind, they are not super smart if you just hold still. When to call the shot is the hard part on teal. They are coming so fast a lot of times they will come in on the 'gun-run' as I call it, on the deck and screaming, a fly-by. You can shoot them then but you are going to get just a few as they are at Mach 3."
If you show restraint and let them pass they will often go about 60 yards, make a tight hook, and come in with feet down and start landing, and "then you can get even with them. But remember, with teal you have to be so careful. Often you are sitting there with four or five on your strap and they are notorious for balling up over dekes'¦one shot can kill multiples. I saw a buddy kill six with one shot. The other thing they do is go straight up after the shot. With teal it's better to be one of the last to shoot because when they go up like that, they stall out and you can cherry pick 'em. Let somebody else waste shells."
The trick to hitting the little rascals is to pick one bird. "With targets moving that fast the temptation is to flock shoot. Pick one out. That's the golden rule in wingshooting. Flock shooting creates just as many misses as shooting behind the birds," he says.
Even if you can't mouth-call like Tony and Aaron, don't be scared to call. "Calling helps turn 'em for sure. It's just a high-pitched mallard call," he says. "It's a Kackk-kacck-kacck-kack-kak, high pitched and fast. Go listen to them in the marsh, it's a lot of fun.
"He runs steel No. 7s in a 20-gauge with a modified choke. And don't sweat the heat. Cool weather is great, but "first light and last light are going to be pretty good even when it's hot," he says. "It's your summer duck. Some will fly no matter what based on hours of light in the day. Others are driven by fronts, but that time of year a front can be a low of 40s in the Dakotas. I usually see the first ones around Aug. 1, and by late August decent numbers will show."
For the most part they are very predictable, he says, though he has seen a terrible year with a super-late hatch where no birds showed til October.
So don't wait for cold weather.
"If you aren't sweating or getting sunburned it's not teal season. That's the beauty of it," he says. "It's great for kids, it's warm out, and it's the earliest duck you can shoot. Teal represent the change of the seasons. It's the first time of year you are going to have a cup of coffee and watch the sun come up over the marsh with a gun in your hand. It's a wet dog and duck hunting. I am pretty hard on the mallards but early teal is hard to beat. We don't miss it."
Hard to beat, and great to eat, "especially when you put them on the smoker. Philly teal-steak sandwiches, college football is kicking off, it's an awesome time of year. Then you can go shoot some rails and doves in the afternoon," Tony says.
Further south, Ronquest says it's pretty much all blue-zingers early on, hunted around Arkansas over newly cut rice with portable blinds in field corners or pits. "Kick the cottonmouths out of the blind and have it. They get pretty serious about it," he says. "Any rainwater caught on a field becomes an opportunity. Or they hunker on rice levees."
Also popular are "spook" blinds, portable blinds dragged out in a rice field and brushed over, a small-frame conduit blind.
One last thing. Teal season ain't over when it's over. Long after the blue zingers have moved out, during regular duck season guys will be shooting green-wings in some of the big timber holes, Ronquest says. "You can get big bunches of green-wings in there, when you get water. Our public hunting in Arkansas is limited for teal due to lack of water. Most areas aren't flooded, but there are some areas on federal grounds that are huntable, and WMAs will have some."
Teal hunting is addictive, and just different.
"I've got some buddies in northeast (Arkansas) that hunt 'em early in regular season," Ronquest says. "They are all about green-wings. They hunt an old slough, and get hollerin' at them. First time I went with them, they start hollering like wild Apache Indians, all a-sudden here come 50 green-wings and it was just blammity-bubbadee-boom-boom-boom. Man you get a bunch of guys yelling like they are laughing, it's a high-pitched sound and those teal will come right to it. It is awesome. You get four or five guys start doing that and if you haven't seen it before you don't know what's fixing to happen!"