— By Tom Carpenter
There was no ignoring it. The small pothole at the north end of the marsh was a teal magnet.
While our first-day shoot was fine, the steady stream of little ducks dropping into a secluded pond a quarter-mile away was too much to resist.
That afternoon, after cleaning our morning ducks and fortifying ourselves at a small-town cafe, my boy Noah and I went back out to the marsh and forged a long and narrow path through the cattails to our new duck hole. We marked the route with bits of pink flagging tape (to be picked up later), so we could find our way in by headlamp in the dark.
We stopped short of the pond so as not to bust the ducks off, but what we heard that afternoon — the mini-quacks and high-pitched chuckles of blue-winged teal — was encouraging. It was the perfect, out-of-the-way spot for the next day’s shoot.
The Hunt Begins
The next morning we slowly worked our way under a million stars back to the hidden opening. Our breath came out in puffs from the moist, slightly chilled air as we picked our way through the still-green cattails. Heartbeats quickened when we neared the water and heard the nasal quacks and cheerful chuckles of blue-winged teal. We emerged right where I wanted, on the bulge of the kidney-bean-shaped, calf-deep pond. The ducks took off, but we knew they’d be back.
I set decoys as Noah cleared a couple spots for us in the reeds. The north breeze would come in from our right — perfect for left-to-right passing shots as the ducks buzzed the spread or tried to land into the wind. I placed the decoys upwind of our hiding spot, maybe 15 yards out on the 25-yard-wide pond, leaving an open and inviting landing pad right in front of us and just short of the fakes.
We’d have to be careful, though. Choosiness would be a priority on our shots, as we’d need to drop the ducks in the water and take the cattails out of play for successful retrieval.
When the work was done we settled in to wait, listening to the whistle of wings, the splash of ducks hitting water and the sounds of an early autumn marsh coming to life.
So where were we hunting? A classic early teal season shoot in the South, right? Maybe the same kind of special hunt in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi or Texas. Could have been a “middle” state such as Kentucky, Tennessee or Missouri. Or maybe it was the Central Plains in Kansas, Nebraska or Oklahoma.
Actually, our teal hunt was taking place in the pothole country of northeastern South Dakota.
Depending on the year, 20 to 25 percent of the annual duck bag in places like Minnesota, Wisconsin and both Dakotas is comprised of blue-winged and green-winged teal. But northern states, as well as Canadian provinces, cannot hold special early teal seasons like those in the south. Northern areas are waterfowl breeding grounds, where ducks (including young ones) of all species are present in early September. The chances of killing mallards, gadwalls, woodies or other birds in their brown eclipse plumage would be just too great.
On the other hand, only early migrating teal inhabit the marshes and potholes of the southern and central states that enjoy early teal seasons. The chances for mistaken identity are minimized, but, just in case, some states allow a small limit of wood ducks during the early teal season.
Aren’t blue-winged teal supposed to be late-summer migrants, though? Some southern hunters might find it hard to believe that any blue-wings at all are left up in Yankee country when fall arrives. But there usually are.
In his landmark book, Ducks, Geese and Swans of North America, Frank Bellrose said, “Blue-winged teal are generally the first ducks south in the fall and the last ones north in the spring.” While this is true, it is also clear that the migration takes place over time.
Each fall is different, and some bird movement is weather-related. But, especially in a mild year, the blue-winged teal migration through the northern United States can extend well into October. Mid- to late September can see the peak, and that sometimes coincides with regular duck season openers. I have shot blue-wings as late as mid-November during sleet storms in some northern states.
And what about green-winged teal? These hardy little fellows follow the blue-wings. About when most of the blue-wings are gone, the green-wings start showing up. In the north-central states such as South Dakota, this occurs in mid-October, usually starting around the 8th to 10th, peaking from the 15th to 20th or so, and continuing to the 25th and beyond, sometimes well into November.
There’s no doubt that voluntary restraint, or shooting drakes only, is an issue with early season teal hunting. Blue-winged teal are in eclipse plumage in early autumn, and drakes don’t achieve breeding plumage until they’re on their winter range. For all practical purposes, it is all but impossible to discern males from females while hunting northern states in the fall, especially when birds are on the wing.
In addition, it’s likely that the majority of blue-winged teal that northern hunters shoot are hens.
“More than other ducks, blue-wings differ in chronology of migration between the sexes,” Bellrose continued. “Banding records and kill data show that adult drake blue-wings depart the breeding grounds well in advance of the hens and immatures. Most blue-wing flocks (on the northern breeding grounds) after mid-September are composed largely of adult hens and immatures.”
What’s a Dakota teal hunter to do? Make your own choice. Blue-winged teal populations seem to be supporting the harvest of hens. If populations drop, teal limits would drop accordingly. Still, strict drake-only hunters might shy away from early season teal hunts in the north.
By the time green-winged teal arrive, most of those drakes have some pretty good breeding plumage going. Some hunters can pick out a drake, but good luck hitting the one you’re shooting at! Hens invariably end up in the bag.
There’s still a way to practice some form of restraint on early season blue-wings, and even green-wings later in the season. Simply stop short of a limit and “save” a hen or two for breeding next spring.
Teal are simple and fun to hunt. A freelance pothole specialist with a pair of hip boots and a sack of mallard decoys can work wonders on northern teal. It fits the kinds of small waters that teal call home now, although sometimes I’ll paddle or pole a canoe in to where I’m hunting.
Do you need teal decoys? I love my pothole bag filled with a couple dozen life-sized blue-winged and green-winged teal decoys. The species specialization can’t hurt. You may not need the colored drakes, because a flock of careening teal doesn’t have the time or reasoning ability to think, “Hey, we’re in eclipse plumage and those guys aren’t — back off, gang!” Plus, the extra splash of color can help attract ducks.
To be honest, though, you can get by with mallard decoys. Teal feel safe around mallards, and the little ducks will not hesitate to glide right in. Larger mallard decoys also add visibility to your spread.
Decoy placement is more important than species, and two kinds of sets work best. Put the wind at your back, and then set out two knots of seven to nine, or even 11 decoys each on either side of you, leaving a gap of 20 yards or so right in front to serve as an attractive landing-zone target for incoming flocks.
Or you can choose to work a cross-breeze. Put a knot of 13 to 15 decoys upwind of your hide as we did at the start of this story, leaving a landing zone in front of you. It helps to push the decoys against the pond’s upwind bank or shore so incoming birds are forced to land in front of you instead of beyond.
Calling works well on northern teal, and any audible duck sound can grab a flock’s attention and get them to swing around for a look. The higher-pitched quacks and chuckles of a good blue-winged teal call can really make birds feel confident. Replicate the mini-quacks of blue-wings, and for green-wings a duck whistle can work, too. Your favorite mallard call will work just fine on teal, if investing in a few teal calls isn’t in the hunting budget this year.
Dakota teal hunts usually don’t require a blind. With vegetation full, there’s usually enough natural cover to just step back into the cattails, reeds or weeds and hide yourself. Wear camouflage and add a face mask. Pack along some light blind fabric just in case some hideout enhancements are needed.
Light waders or hip boots are good for most early blue-winged teal hunts. By the time the green-wings arrive though, you’ll be wearing your neoprene waders and other traditional cold-weather duck garb.
Early season Dakota teal hunts can quickly evolve into something more. Wood ducks, local mallards, and sometimes gadwalls, pintails or wigeon can make pleasant surprise visits, so it’s important to use a load that’s effective on a variety of ducks.
If I was assured of just teal shooting, size Nos. 5 or 6 steel shot would get the nod. Considering all the other possibilities though, No. 4 steel in a fast load runs a good compromise and makes sense. Go with an improved-cylinder choke.
As legal shooting light seeped across the marsh, the teal came in singles, pairs and small flocks. One bunch of teal whooshed by so close you could feel the rush of air from their wings. Another flock swung around and set their wings to glide into our hole, and we rose up and dropped a duck each. Many birds skimmed over the cattails across from us — plenty close for a shot, but they were safe because we didn’t want to drop them over thick cover.
It continued like that for an hour, with maybe a third of the birds approaching for a good shot over open water. It was an excellent lesson in restraint for a young hunter as we picked and chose our shots. When the flight slowed, I counted 10 ducks on the pond — just right for a couple meals, but short of a limit with a couple birds to spare for “seed.”
I picked up ducks as Noah gathered decoys, and I gave him the duck strap to carry out as I lugged the decoys and blind bags. Powder-blue wing patches matched the high-blue sky as we trudged out toward the road, very happy with our Dakota teal season.
About the Author: Tom Carpenter is editor of Pheasants Forever Journal and a freelancer who focuses his outdoor year on the northern plains. His favorite thing to hunt or fish for is … whatever he’s hunting or fishing for.