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Testing the Waters

Sep 09, 2016

Have you ever been interested in duck hunting, but the idea of weathering the cold has kept you from taking that extra step out into the marsh? Or perhaps you do duck hunt, but have that friend who tried it once, had leaky waders in the dead of winter, and swore he or she would never go back. Well, it just so happens that the special September teal season that opens up this weekend (Sept. 10-25th) might get you or your friend back in the water and give duck hunting another chance.

In some ways teal season is like a pre-season football game where you have the chance to work out the kinks, get some practice in, and set your sights on how to be successful down the road. Another similarity to a scrimmage game is that not everyone takes advantage of this early event and you can benefit from the warmer weather and reduced hunting pressure. If you’ve never experienced a morning flight of blue-winged teal screaming through your decoys, it is worth a try.

Why there’s a season this early:

Not all waterfowl wait for icy temperatures to begin their southbound migration. Blue-winged teal are the first ducks to head south every year. As the days begin to shorten in September, these birds know it is time to leave the northern prairies and head toward the equator. Their small bodies don’t allow them to carry a whole lot of extra fuel to withstand cold snaps so their strategy is to get out of Dodge before winter sneaks up and takes hold which means they are long gone before the regular duck season opens. Like any migration, the exact timing of when teal fly through Missouri fluctuates from year to year and also depends on habitat availability. During most years the 16 days set aside in September to hunt these small early migrants is within this window of opportunity. If you want to maximize your chances of encountering teal during this window, keep an eye out for north winds which often blow in fresh flocks of birds; don’t dilly-dally, however, as teal often are only here for a few days before picking up and heading further south.

What to look for:

Blue-winged teal are by far the most abundant duck in Missouri when they pass through during September. Their fast flight and the big light-blue shoulder patches can be used for confirmation that you’re targeting the right species before swinging through and pulling the trigger. Unfortunately, all ducks are finishing up molt at this time and lack the bright colors seen later in the fall. For this reason the drake’s tell-tale white crescent on its face won’t be readily apparent. Green-winged teal are also in season and can be identified by their small stature and quick flight. Typically, their migration is a little bit later.

There are a few other ducks in the field to be aware of and steer clear during this early season venture as well.

  • Wood ducks breed and molt their feathers in Missouri’s wooded wetlands and can be seen zipping over the water during a September dawn. They have blockier heads and their wings are dark, except for the trailing white edge on the back of their wings.
  • Scaling up into a much larger brown bird, the Northern Pintail is another early migrant that you might encounter this time of year. You'll notice their larger size, longer neck, and pointy tail feathers.
  • A chance meeting with a Northern Shoveler within a flock of teal may get your blood pumping because of the similar baby-blue shoulder wing patch. However, once you notice the big schnoz of a bill, you’ll realize that you’ve just pulled up on a “Spoonie” and have to put your safety back on and settle down for the next flight of birds to pass by.
  • A variety of shorebird species also use Missouri’s mudflats in September and can be seen twisting and turning every which way in the air. Shorebirds are even smaller than teal and many are light brown. Some have short legs, while others have longer legs that trail behind them in flight.

All in all, early fall is an exciting time to experience the changing season as birds migrate back through the state. Whether new or old, part of a waterfowler’s conservation ethic is identifying what you are shooting. Hopefully, these tips and occasionally brushing up your id skills by using “Ducks at a Distance” or Delta Waterfowl’s new “Waterfowl Identification Guide” to help you confidently enjoy your time in the marsh.

Where to go:

During teal season you can hunt a variety of locations within Missouri’s floodplains that are holding a little bit of water during this time of year. Many managed wetlands areas disk down openings in the vegetation to kick start the buffet of native seeds and bugs for migrating birds and show a little bit of open water. Nestling under a willow tree or sitting on a bucket among the head high grasses along the edges of these shallowly flooded habitats can be good places to hunt. Typically, teal forage in only a few inches of water and a little bit of scouting prior to the hunt can help you find the magical “X” marks the spot for these early season birds.

  • We’ve compiled a list of habitat conditions, acres flooded, and whether or not there’s a morning draw for 18 managed wetland areas to help you narrow down your teal season destination.

What you need:

Teal season can be pretty low key in terms of equipment. Since it is quite a bit warmer in September than November, it is helpful to pack some Off or a thermacell for the mosquitoes. Like regular waterfowl season you’ll need a gun, some steel shot, and your permits, which include a small game permit, migratory bird hunting permit, and a federal duck stamp. Depending upon the area and depth of water, chest waders may be optional lending more to the use of hip or knee boots due to the shallower water and drier conditions. Throw out a few decoys in the open water to attract the attention of some flybys and you are set. The best option, especially if you’re evaluating whether or not duck hunting is for you, is go with a friend or family member who duck hunts. Waterfowl hunting can be contagious and the best way to get started is going with someone who loves it and can show you the ropes.

Don’t let the winter weather deter you from trying a great tradition and wonderful way to experience nature. Ease into the sport by testing out the waters of waterfowl hunting during this fall’s September teal season. It is worth a shot to take advantage of early migrating waterfowl, Missouri’s great outdoors, and the company of some good friends. Good luck and have fun out there.


Blue-winged Teal In Flight
Blue-winged Teal In Flight
Blue-winged teal and shorebirds fly through Missouri in September as early migrants start heading south for the winter.


Fall Teal on Mudflats
Fall Teal on Mudflats
In early fall, blue-winged teal are still molting their feathers. Drakes lack the distinctive crescent on their face. This shows up later in the winter.


waterfowl hunter in early morning light
Early Teal Hunting
Teal hunting can be a lot of fun and is a great way to experience Missouri wetlands during the mild weather in early fall.


Northern shoveler on the water
Early Fall Shoveler
Northern shovelers also begin to trickle through Misssouri during the early fall. Their namesake is due to their large bill size.


Mixed flock of teal and a shoveler
Spot the Shoveler
Occasionally, northern shovelers can be seen flying with blue-winged teal. You can see the large bill of the shoveler in the lower left corner.


Mixed flock  of waterfowl on the water
Mixed Flock on the Water
Northern pintail are also early fall migrants. They are larger than teal and have longer necks and tail feathers.

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