My friend Clint’s text read: Shooting time was 6:38. I shot my sixth teal at 6:44. Take a break from work today and go hunting. He didn’t have to tell me twice. I grabbed eight decoys, a spinner, waders, a gun and bolted for the reservoir. The duck-a-minute flurry was over by the time I arrived and the shooting had slowed, but I was knee deep in flooded beans and duck hunting again for the first time in eight months.
September teal seasons give hunters in 25 states the chance to jumpstart their seasons as teal leave their breeding grounds and head south. Bluewings hate cold weather, and the first cool nights of August start a migration through North America that ends up in Nicaragua or even Brazil for some ducks. Bluewing teal make up the vast majority of the early teal flight—although a few greenwings make the trip too. Bluewings bring some big strengths to teal season: There are a lot of them; they’re among the tastiest of waterfowl, and as waterfowl go, they aren’t particularly bright. That’s a winning combination in a duck. You still have to know what you’re doing, but if you put yourself in the right place at the right time, teal hunting is some of the best, fastest shooting of the year for some of the best-eating ducks. Here are 20 expert teal hunting tips for the early season.
1. Look for Hunting Spots in Shallow Water
Most teal hunts, like most shark attacks, take place in less than 3 feet of water—sometimes even shallower. For example, I’ve had great hunts on mudflats where the water was so shallow, my decoys ran aground. When you’re scouting spots, look for aquatic vegetation where teal can feed on seeds and invertebrates in water a foot or two deep. During the migration, teal stop on marshes, farm ponds, oxbows, mudflats, and sheet water in fields. In the Southern states, they are drawn to ricefields. Although I have shot teal in little pockets of water in flooded cornfields, the best hunting takes place on bigger water where the birds can cruise the shorelines looking for other teal to join.
2. The Best Food Sources for Teal
Avery pro staffer Richard Foley makes a science out of managing fields for teal in the area around El Campo, Texas. “I plant milo, rice, or millet in our moist-soil units, and I always plant one part of the fields earlier so the crop is ready in September in time for the teal,” he says. Foley says teal need food and cover to hide them from predators, which is why he manages the fields so they’re 40 percent open, 60 percent vegetation. To add diversity to his teal spots, Foley also discs bare dirt to expose invertebrates, then floods the dirt just 1 or 2 inches deep to make mudflats.
3. Mark the Calendar for the Teal Migration
Brook Richard of Higdon Decoys hunts teal in Arkansas and Louisiana, and says the calendar prompts the teal migration as much as the weather. Often that means they will show up at the same time as other species. Where Richard hunts, he can watch the hummingbird feeder for clues about the teal migration. “When the ruby-throated hummingbirds show up, I know we have teal,” he says. “It seems like the teal arrive on the same day every year even if they have to fight a south wind to get here.”
4. When Teal Arrive, Get Hunting
Until they reach their staging grounds on the Texas coast, teal leave as suddenly as they arrive. Ira McCauley, one of the owners of Habitat Flats, says he learned that lesson the hard way. “There have been times when we’ve had 500 teal in one of our moist-soil units and tried to save them for the next group of hunters,” he says. “But they were gone a day or two later, and the hunters never shot a duck.” When teal are in, McCauley drops everything to hunt them, and he makes a point of being in the blind whenever there’s even a slight northwest wind that might bring fresh birds.
5. How to Scout for Teal
If you can find the X, great; hunt it. But most teal hunting is like dove hunting, according to Richard. “Teal are seat-of-the-pants flyers, and they’re always looking for other ducks,” he says. “Most teal hunting is a traffic hunt. If you’re in an area with teal, they’ll come in and look at decoys.”
6. The Best Blind for Teal Hunting
Hiding from teal isn’t difficult. One afternoon, I ran hundreds out of a bay and had them come back and swirl around me like flakes in a snow globe as I tried to build a willow blind. I’d drop my clippers, pick up the gun, and shoot a duck, then go back to clipping. I was halfway through a limit when I decided to unload my shotgun, finish the blind, and shoot the rest of my birds properly.
7. When to Use Spinning-Wing Decoys for Teal
Terry Denmon of Mojo Outdoors knows more about using spinning-wing decoys than anyone, but he says the ducks are the final authority. “Let the teal tell you what to do,” he says. “Don’t be afraid to get out of the blind and add or subtract spinners until the birds react the way you want them to.” Denmon says if there is a rule of thumb, it’s to use more spinners—up to five or six—on clear, bluebird days and fewer on cloudy, low-ceiling days.
8. How to Call to Teal
Teal react to calling. You’re not carrying on a conversation with these birds as much as you’re shouting, “Hey!” to make them look. Several manufacturers offer hen teal calls, which sound like high-pitched, raspy mallard calls. “If you can turn their heads, they’ll probably come give you a look,” Richard says. The basic bluewing call is a high, raspy note followed by short, choppy notes. Drakes make a peeping whistle. If you have several callers in your group, have some make hen calls while others whistle.
9. Or You Can Just Laugh Teal In
No teal call? No problem. Some hunters close their hand over a mallard call to replicate bluewing calls. Some don’t use a call at all and “laugh” teal in. Laughing teal is exactly what it sounds like: a high-pitched ha, followed by a descending hahahahaha.
10. Keep Your Teal Decoy Spreads Small and Simple
Teal will plop into a tiny decoy spread. My best spot is a long walk in, so I rarely pack more than a dozen dekes. The consensus among the teal hunters I talked to is that one to two dozen is plenty. Richard says he usually keeps his rig small and simple, but sometimes he goes big with three or four dozen decoys. “If I want to control the birds for a big party of shooters, I’ll go load up what I call a flare wall,” he says, describing that as a dozen or so decoys placed on the upwind side of the spread. “The teal will come in low over the decoys, dip when they get to the hole, then climb when they hit the flare wall. You can shoot them over the middle or when they flare up.”
11. Hen Mallard Decoys Work for Early Teal
Foley uses Avery teal decoys in his September spread, plus some hen pintails for visibility, and black ducks to simulate the mottled ducks found on the Texas coast. While that works well for him, don’t let a lack of teal decoys keep you from this hunt. All ducks are brown in September, and a dozen hen mallards make a fine spread. Just think of them as magnum teal decoys. You can even throw out a few goose dekes for extra visibility.
12. How to Make Lighter Decoy Anchors
If you walk to your teal spot and every ounce counts, replace the anchors on your teal decoys with a 7- or 8-inch section of clothes hanger, a trick I learned from Tony Vandemore of Habitat Flats. Bend the section of hanger into an open V and twist a loop in one end, then tie the cord to that loop. When you throw the rig in the water, the hanger snags and holds fast to the submerged vegetation teal like to feed on.
13. How to ID Bluewing Teal on the Fly
Only teal are legal during teal season (Florida and Kentucky have teal and wood duck seasons), so it’s important to identify your ducks. New hunters worry about it. I did too until I started teal hunting. Identifying them is easy. They are small and fly in tight formations with rapid wingbeats and an erratic up-and-down flight. Bluewings will show you a big powder-blue patch on each wing. Greenwing patches are harder to make out, but greenwings are so small, it’s hard to mistake them for anything else. In many places, northern shovelers are the birds you’re most likely to mistake for teal. They have blue wing patches and are small—although larger than teal. They also have big, flat bills that give them their name. If ducks turn in profile, look at the bills. If they don’t, and you’re not sure, let them go or let them land in the decoys so you can make a positive ID. And if you think some other ducks might be mixed in, let them go on through the first time around. “Usually, they give that first pass, then do a 90 or a 180 and come around again,” Foley says. “If they’re going to land in the decoys, it will be on the second or third pass.”
14. Set the Kill Hole Close to the Bline
Because bluewing teal aren’t the wariest of waterfowl, you can get away with setting your decoys closer to the blind than you might be able to later in the waterfowl hunting season. Terry Denmon likes his kill hole to be no more than 15 to 20 yards from the blind. “If you set the decoys close,” Denmon says, “you can get three good shots at a flock before they’re out of range.”
15. How to Rig a Jerk Cord for Teal
Jerk cords are as important in teal season as they are during the regular duck season. Ripples in the water show up from a long distance, and bluewings need little excuse to drop in. Foley uses a multistring setup to create ripples throughout his spread. He’ll screw three spiral ground anchors among the decoys, each with a bungee cord attached to a decoy. Then he runs the lines from all three back to a homemade parachute-cord handle with three D-rings on it. One line is connected to each ring with a carabiner. With one pull of the handle, Foley sets all three decoy lines in motion.
16. Cut the Keels
For mudflat or sheetwater teal hunts, I have half a dozen hen mallard decoys with almost the whole keel cut away, leaving just the part with a hole near the body for a very short anchor line. These decoys will float in as little as a couple of inches of water and move in a light breeze.
17. The Best Time of the Day to Hunt Teal
Everyone knows teal swarm during the first 30 to 60 minutes of shooting light, but even ducks as simpleminded as teal respond to pressure. They will move to creeks or marshes, then trickle in to feed “almost like 10 to 2 o’clock mallards,” Richard says. If you can stand the mosquitoes, stay out and peck away at the ducks. For his part, Richard rarely hunts late afternoons. “It’s so hot and buggy out, I don’t want to be there, and the ducks don’t fly very much. About 4 or 5 o’clock, they’ll find a place to hole up for the rest of the day. It’s not cold, so they don’t have to eat. They don’t move late in the day the way big ducks do in the late season.”
18. The Best Gauge, Choke, and Loads for Teal Hunting
Teal shooting is fast and close, and the birds take you by surprise, which means more and more hunters opt for 20-gauges in teal season, while some of us still shoot our regular 12-gauge duck guns. Improved Cylinder is the right choke for most shots, and a load of No. 4, 5, or 6 steel gives you the pattern density you need to put multiple pellets on small ducks.
19. Always Shoot for a Teal’s Bill
Teal are slow. No, seriously, teal aren’t anywhere near as fast as we think. Their twisting, down-on-the-deck flight patterns and the element of surprise make them look fast, but in reality they are slower than big ducks. Their size is misleading too. They are almost always closer than you think. Because waterfowl hunters overestimate their speed and distance, they overlead teal. You can make most shots at bluewings by shooting right at the bird’s bill.
20. Shoot Birds on the Outside Edge of a Flock
Teal fly so tightly together, it’s often possible, intentionally or not, to kill two or more with one shot. You may view this as a feature of teal hunting—or as a glitch. Personally, I try to pick a bird at the outside edge of an incoming flock, or the tail-end Charlie of a crossing flock, so I shoot only one at a time. If you’ve been waiting all summer to get after ducks, you want to make those first hunts of the year last as long as you can.
Here’s a list of every early teal season in the country:
- Alabama: Sept. 8–23
- Arkansas: Sept. 15–30
- Colorado: Sept. 14–22
- Delaware: Sept. 12–29
- Florida: Sept. 26–29
- Georgia: Sept. 14–29
- Illinois: Sept. 7–22
- Indiana: Sept. 14–29
- Kansas: Sept. 14–29 (east of U.S. 283); Sept 21–29 (west of U.S. 283)
- Kentucky: Sept. 21–29
- Louisiana: Sept. 14–29
- Maryland: Sept. 16–30
- Michigan: Sept. 1–16
- Mississippi: Sept. 14–29
- Missouri: Sept. 7–22
- Nebraska: Sept. 7–22 (low plains); Sept. 7–15 (high plains)
- New Mexico: Sept. 15–23
- North Carolina:
- Sept. 12–30
- Ohio: Sept. 7–22
- Oklahoma: Sept. 7–22
- South Carolina:
- Sept. 15–30
- Tennessee: Sept. 8–12
- Texas: Sept. 14–29
- Virginia: Sept. 17–30 (east of I-95); Sept. 21–30
- (west of I-95)
- Wisconsin: Sept. 1-9