From the Missouri Conservationist Magazine
August 2015 Issue

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duck
David Stonner

Early Birds

Publish Date

Jul 20, 2015

Sometimes the easiest ducks to fool are the hardest to hit mallard, green-winged teal, and cinnamon teal. This last species isn’t common in Missouri. I’ve never seen one, let alone shot one.

The duration of the season varies according to the number of blue-winged teal counted in annual population surveys. In recent years, the number of blue-wings has justified the maximum, 16-day season. Bag limits can change from year to year, too, so you will want to check the 2015 Migratory Bird Hunting Digest for this year’s regulations.

Teal tend to migrate in fast-moving waves, so timing is critical to hunting success. A 10-degree drop in temperature in the upper Midwest can spur the movement of large numbers of teal south into Missouri overnight, creating an amazing spectacle as flocks of 50 or more blue- and green-winged teal buzz around Dawn lightens the eastern horizon, and I scan the sky, hoping to glimpse dark forms skimming cattail tops. A mosquito catches my eye, triggering a brief adrenalin rush. The air is warm this early September morning, but excitement raises goose bumps on my bare arms.

Minutes later, as the sun peeks over the horizon, my golden retriever Willa tenses. Then her glance flicks southward. Before I can turn my head, I hear them, like onrushing wind.

Teal!

The brief interval between hearing wings and seeing the hurtling forms leaves no time to think, let alone raise a shotgun. Twenty slender birds whoosh past, a boiling cloud of flesh and feathers barely 20 feet off the water. I’m not disappointed by their departure because in the split second of their passage, I saw several heads cock downward to examine our decoys. They’ll be back.

The flock circles downwind, touring a half mile of marsh in 30 seconds, then doubling back. Willa and I track the tight swarm as it swoops and dodges, drawn like iron shards to the magnet of our decoys. Just when it seems they will pass us by a second time, they knife down like feathered darts. Their wings flare and catch the air so violently you’d think they would shatter. Instead, the little ducks flutter the last few feet toward the water like bits of milkweed fluff.

I am ready. As the first bird’s feet touch the water, a drake near the rear of the flock crumples and falls at the sound of my shot. Hummingbird quick, the remaining birds vault upward, catching a slight breeze to regain speed and careen away. My second shot is merely a salute to their stunning aerobatic skill.

Willa, eyes locked on the fallen duck, waits at my side until I whisper, “Fetch,” then plunges into the algae-flecked water and heads straight for the still form at the center of receding ripples. She delivers a picture-pretty blue-winged teal to my hand. We both grin with delight. Early teal season is here again.

A surprising number of avid hunters shun the early teal season because they don’t feel right hunting ducks in shirtsleeve weather. Some shy away from it because of the possibility of shooting other ducks that are not legal game during the early hunt. I’m not complaining about lack of competition, but it’s hard to keep something this good to myself. So here is a brief guide to one of the simplest, most exciting kinds of hunting imaginable.

When

Blue-winged teal migrate earlier than most ducks and have mostly gone south of Missouri by the time the regular duck season opens. That’s why federal regulations allow Missouri to hold an early teal hunt. The season customarily begins the first Saturday in September. This early season is only for blue-wings, the slightly smaller green-winged teal, and cinnamon teal. This last species isn’t common in Missouri. I’ve never seen one, let alone shot one.

The duration of the season varies according to the number of blue-winged teal counted in annual population surveys. In recent years, the number of blue-wings has justified the maximum, 16-day season. Bag limits can change from year to year, too, so you will want to check the 2015 Migratory Bird Hunting Digest for this year’s regulations.

Teal tend to migrate in fast-moving waves, so timing is critical to hunting success. A 10-degree drop in temperature in the upper Midwest can spur the movement of large numbers of teal south into Missouri overnight, creating an amazing spectacle as flocks of 50 or more blue- and green-winged teal buzz around wetlands and up and down major rivers. The next day, the sky can be empty of teal.

Don’t be surprised or daunted if it takes you several years to hit it just right. Even obsessive teal chasers sometimes find themselves out of synch with fleeting migratory spurts. In years when the main event occurs after the early teal season, I sometimes go to the marsh just to watch the birds and thrill at maneuvers that put the Blue Angels to six kinds of shame.

The period of maximum teal movement usually occurs between dawn and 8 a.m., so it’s important to be in place at sunrise, which is the start of legal shooting time. But don’t quit if the action slows down momentarily. During big migration events, you might see flocks arriving off and on throughout the day.

Where

Teal prefer shallow water. The managed wetland areas listed at mdc.mo.gov/node/3721 usually provide teal habitat in early to mid-September. Big rivers also are teal magnets when water levels are low enough to expose sand bars surrounded by 6 to 18 inches of slack water. These open settings provide ample room for the fast, sweeping flight that makes teal so much fun to watch and hunt. They seem to glory in showing off their ability to cover huge distances in nothing flat.

Smaller waters, such as shallow ponds and sheet water standing in crop fields after a rain, also can attract teal. Medium-sized impoundments on conservation areas often are undiscovered teal honey holes. Shallow water is the key. Lakes with steep banks and quick drop-offs hold no charm for teal.

Decoys

Teal are the least wary of ducks. Show them a dozen decoys of any description, and they are sure to buzz you once or twice. Just as likely, they will zip in and land before you can blink. A dozen green-wing teal decoys fit nicely in a small backpack. Set these out in two groups about 50 feet apart near the water’s edge to create a pocket of empty water where teal can land. Then hunker down in whatever vegetation is available and look sharp!

Resist the temptation to shoot at flocks on their initial passes. Teal often make several circuits of available water before settling down. If you sit very still during this process, chances are good that they will eventually try to land right in front of you. Teal don’t know how to fly slowly, but they might take 5 or 10 mph off their usual pace when zeroing in on a landing spot, offering passing shots that are slightly easier.

Later in the day, birds that found other spots to land will occasionally move around in singles and pairs, looking for greener pastures. These birds sometimes loaf past at normal duck speed, skimming the water’s surface as they check out your decoys.

Guns & Ammo

Teal are faster than doves and almost as agile as dragonflies. A light, fast-handling 20-gauge, double-barreled shotgun is ideally suited to this unique wing-shooting challenge. Pumps and autoloaders are okay, but you will seldom get to use that third shot.

Nontoxic shot is required for teal hunting. Blue-wings are less than half the size of big, late-season mallards, and green-wings aren’t much bigger than pigeons. Consequently No. 4 or 6 steel shot is plenty big. Heavy loads are a waste of money for teal. Furthermore, they are unnecessarily punishing when fired from light guns and without the padding provided by a heavy hunting coat.

Drawing a bead on a swooping, dodging green-wing is almost impossibly difficult. If you ordinarily spend two or three shells per bird when dove hunting, bring three or four shells per bird for teal. If you come closer to the national average of five shells per dove, you might need a couple of boxes for a limit of teal.

Beware of Wood Ducks!

Wood ducks nest throughout Missouri in the summer, so they already are here when the early teal season opens. This, along with the fast pace of teal hunting and the small size of juvenile wood ducks, creates significant potential for hunters to mistakenly — and — illegally harvest wood ducks.

To reduce the chances of such illegal harvests in dim light, shooting hours begin 30 minutes later during the early teal season than during the regular duck season. But teal hunters still occasionally face a tough job trying to identify their targets positively before shouldering a gun. Newcomers are wise to make their first few outings with more experienced hunters. Otherwise, you should spend more time watching birds than trying to shoot them until you become familiar with teal and wood ducks’ distinctive appearance, flight patterns, and calls.

Book Sales Support Waterfowl Conservation

Discover the unique history of the “Missouri Model” of wetland and waterfowl management and support related programs by purchasing Waterfowl Hunting and Wetland Conservation in Missouri — A Model of Collaboration. This large-format, richly illustrated book is a must-have for all serious migratory bird hunters, and all proceeds from sales of the book will be dedicated to wetland and waterfowl conservation that benefits Missouri. The book’s authors, many of them former waterfowl biologists and wetland managers, donated their services to produce the book. Sponsors, anchored by Bass Pro Shops, the Missouri Department of Conservation, Ducks Unlimited, the Conservation Federation of Missouri, the Missouri Conservation Heritage Foundation, and private citizens, have covered all production costs. The book is available for purchase through the Nature Shop at mdcnatureshop.com.

Teal on the Table

On Oct. 14, 1805, as the Corps of Discovery began its descent of the Columbia River, Capt. William Clark shot some blue-winged teal and wrote in his journal, “for the first time for three weeks past I had a good dinner of Blue winged Teel.” The old saying that hunger is the best condiment might have been partly responsible for Clark’s enthusiasm. However, I can vouch for the culinary value of “teel.”

Their meat is some of the best wild game, rich but with a milder flavor and more tender than larger ducks. I think it is at its best when rubbed inside and out with olive oil and salt and roasted over hardwood coals just until the breast skin is brown and the juices run clear. This is easily done over a campfire with a green sassafras stick as a skewer.

Other Essentials

  • Hunters 16 and older need a Missouri Migratory Bird Hunting Permit and a Federal Duck Stamp to hunt teal. Hunters under age 16 must hunt in the immediate presence of a properly permitted adult hunter or have in their possession a valid hunter education card.
  • Hip waders are usually adequate for early teal season, with its shallow water and warm weather.
  • A camouflage net facemask minimizes the risk that teal will see you.
  • You can buy calls for both blue-winged and green-winged teal. I don’t think teal pay much attention to them, but calling gives you something to do while waiting.
  • A stool or marsh seat eases the strain of squatting in low vegetation.
  • DEET-based mosquito repellent is indispensible for early teal season.
  • A retriever isn’t absolutely necessary, but a good dog will tip you off to approaching flocks and make finding downed birds a thousand times easier.

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ducking hunting
Duck Hunting

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Juvenile Wood Ducks
Juvenile Wood Ducks

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Green-winged Teal
Green-winged Teal

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Blue-winged Teal
Blue-winged Teal

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Jim Low Duck Hunting
Jim Low Duck Hunting

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Setting out duck decoys
Setting Out Duck Decoys

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Duck Decoys, Gear, and a Retriever
Duck Decoys, Gear, and a Retriever

Also in this issue

Monarch Butterfly

Outdoor Kaleidoscope

Take time to notice nature’s colors — the warm hues of autumn leaves, flashy wardrobes of spring songbirds, and eye-catching rays of summer wildflowers — which tell us something and add to the beauty Missouri has to offer year-round

Float Trip

Just Add Water

A float trip is the perfect recipe for family fun, summertime or anytime

And More...

This Issue's Staff:

Editor - Angie Daly Morfeld
Art Director - Cliff White
Associate Editor - Bonnie Chasteen
Staff Writer - Heather Feeler
Staff Writer - Kristie Hilgedick
Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner
Designer - Stephanie Thurber
Circulation - Laura Scheuler