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Teal Time

With a little patience and scouting, you can hunt these blazingly fast ducks on public lands.

By Chester A. Moore

As a swollen sun peeked over the horizon, a familiar whistle tickled my eardrums. Seconds later, a flock of blue-winged teal buzzed our boat at breakneck speed. It was a sight my hunting partner and I had seen hundreds of times, but this one caught us by surprise.

The shock came not from the birds’ incredible swiftness or daredevil navigation, but from the fact we were on Lake Guri, in a remote corner of the Venezuelan rainforest. Six weeks earlier, we had hunted these birds on the upper Texas coast and now they were among parrots, howler monkeys and anacondas in South America.

Bluewings migrate in September, giving hunters an early crack at waterfowl hunting action. The season follows their southward movement, which can be intense. At the first hint of a cold front, bluewings quickly exit our borders and head toward the tropics.

Fortunately Texas hunters have plenty of opportunities to hunt them on public land while they are here. The key to success is learning what makes these pint-sized ducks tick and applying that knowledge to scouting their habitat.

Scouting for water

The most important factor in having a successful teal hunt is finding an area with the right water supply. Dry marshes and fields send teal south quickly, while too much water spreads them out so much that hunters have a difficult time luring them into shotgun range.

Last season was a prime example. Jacob Virdine, who works at the J.D. Murphree Wildlife Management Area near Port Arthur, said 49 hunters showed up there for opening day. Those hunters shot only 48 teal. The next day 35 hunters took 2 dozen birds.

“The problem was our water level was too deep for teal,” Virdine said. ”It was just right a couple of days before the opener, but then it rained really hard.” The same storm system dropped only a couple of inches of rain in the rice fields to the west and produced limits of teal for hunters during opening weekend.

Back in 1998, the Texas coast experienced a brutal summer-long drought. Two days before teal season opened, Tropical Storm Frances hit, dumping water everywhere on the coast. Instead of shooting in marshes, hunters were shooting teal out of flooded cattle pastures where the birds had easier feeding on floating seed.

Since hunters can’t control the rain, how should they prepare for early teal season? The key is scouting, says Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) Manager Kelly McDowell.

“Many of our hunters are first-timers from the Houston area,” he says, “and lots of times hectic schedules and such do not allow them any time to scout. Sometimes there are so many birds it does not matter much, but other times they will discover too much water or not enough water. Scouting is the key to successful hunting, especially on public land.”

McDowell is right. Because of scouting efforts I have been able to bag teal on public lands when others had a tough time.

Teal are dabbling ducks and tend to prefer shallow mud flats and grass beds in marshes where they eat milfoil, seeds of pond weeds and tiny mollusks. High water can cover areas that would normally be productive, but knowing the topography of the land and locating higher ground that might hold only a few inches of water can yield results.

In the Lower Neches Wildlife Management Area near Bridge City, I go to an island that has a shallow pond in the middle of it. Tropical storm-level tides make it about 6 inches deep, and a magnet for teal during periods of high and low water. It seems to be better during high tides because the birds can see the vegetation more easily than in the foot-deep water around it.

With the advent of the Internet, scouting is no longer confined to physically exploring hunting areas. Web sites such as topozone.com provide detailed topographical maps of any location in the United States and can help you pick out spots that would hold water and be potential ambush spots for teal. I had passed by the island described above dozens of times, but after studying the area on the Internet, I found the little pond and a true teal-hunting hot spot.

Teal hunting tactics

Teal are small and offer a challenging target, but they are easy to hunt during the September season. They are creatures of habit, so you can generally count on them to feed both early and late.

The first thing to consider is setting up a blind. In the case of teal, this does not require a lot of effort. Teal are certainly not blind-shy during the early season, so hunting out of a boat draped in camouflage netting or covered by Roseau cane is more than adequate. Or you can simply wear plenty of camouflage and sit still.

For years, hunters brought dozens of decoys for the early season, but that is becoming outdated. A dozen decoys of any kind of duck set out in the marsh will give these sociable birds an inviting place to land and you a place to shoot.

I usually bring only half a dozen teal decoys, a few shoveler imitations and a “robo duck,” and have no problem scoring limits of teal. Sometimes I use a “confidence” decoy such as a great blue heron, a common sight on the Texas coast in September.

Calling teal is rather simple, although many hunters on public lands tend to overdo it. Simple teal whistles sounded a few times at the sight of birds is enough to lure them in. Too much calling spooks them. I have been in areas where hunters a few ponds away called too much and pushed birds right to me.

Part of a successful hunt on public land is using the mistakes of other hunters to your advantage. It seems there is always someone who calls too much, shoots when the birds are too high or arrives in the field late and pushes birds to you. This may be frustrating, but if you keep your cool, you should get a shot at some of “their” birds.

When you do get a shot, make sure not to use a heavy load, which can destroy the meat in their tiny breasts. I use number six, but sevens will work as well.

Improved cylinder or modified chokes work great for teal, especially in close quarters. These are incredibly fast birds that can fly at 60 miles an hour. Make sure to lead them by at least 5 feet when they are 20 yards away and double that when they are out past 30 yards.

Beware of sudden surprises

Making a paper-cutting sound as they move, teal seem to come out of nowhere. I do not know how many times I have thought nothing was going to happen and then a flock of bluewings lands right in the decoys. Once a small flock buzzed right over me and landed less than 10 feet from my blind. The encounter excited me so much, I never thought to shoot until my partner’s hyperactive dog alerted them and sent them packing.

Some hunters might consider that a failure, but I consider it the ultimate success. The day I quit being in awe of Mother Nature is the day I put away my decoys for good.

With their super-fast flight and rapid migration, blue-winged teal remind us that good things come and go quickly, but their memory stays with us forever.

Beware of alligators

Mark Hall of Central Flyway Outfitters in Winnie recalls a narrow escape of his beloved retriever. “She ran out toward the reservoir behind the lodge and when she came back after a while I noticed she was walking funny so I went over to her. She was a bloody mess and I figured there might be no way she was going to live. It was obvious a gator had attacked her.”

“When I tried to pick her up, it put her in terrible pain because her hips were in bad, bad shape. The car was 100 yards or so off and she followed me all the way with messed up hips and teeth marks all over. She then hopped up in the pet porter like she always did and rode to the vet without a complaint.”

After expensive surgery the dog recovered and returned to the marsh to hunt again.

Because teal season occurs when temperatures are plenty warm enough for alligators and snakes to prowl, pay special attention to your dogs. There are thousands of gators in Texas marshes and they would love nothing more than to get hold of your hunting partner. After my dog narrowly escaped a big alligator, I now refuse to bring a dog into the marshes I hunt during September. You might not want to go that far, but you should be mindful of the danger.

Public Hot Spots

A $48 Annual Public Hunting Permit gives hunters access to hundreds of thousands of acres in public hunting lands on the teal migration route. In addition, hunters have access to more acreage of national wildlife refuges. Some of these areas are free to hunt, while others charge a nominal daily use fee, so call ahead.

“If I wanted an inexpensive hunt that was relatively easy to manage, my first choice would be Peach Point WMA,” says the WMA’s manager, biologist Todd Merendino of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “Unlike during the big duck season, we’re not really crowded, and the habitat is excellent. Mad Island WMA would be my second choice because it always has water in it.”

Peach Point and Mad Island are great spots, but there are many more good hunting destinations located near most of the major cities on the Texas coast. Here are the most popular public teal hunting areas:

J.D. Murphree Wildlife Management Area (WMA) is one of the best-known public teal hunting destinations. Located near Port Arthur off Highway 73, it offers access to thousands of acres of freshwater marsh. Hunting is morning-only each day of the teal season, and access is by boat only.

Lower Neches WMA, an often-overlooked 7,998 acre stretch of tidal marsh located between Bridge City and Port Arthur, offers prime opportunities for teal. Hunting is legal both east and west of Highway 87. This area also includes the Nelda Stark Unit in Orange County, which is one of few spots open for evening hunts during teal season. Access to Lower Neches is walk-in only. For more information on the J.D. Murphree or Lower Neches WMAs call (409) 736-2551.

Sea Rim State Park offers a 600-acre portion of the park located off Highway 87 for public hunting each day of the teal season. Hunting is morning-only, and access is walk-in only. For more information call (409) 971-2559.

Texas Point and McFaddin National Wildlife Refuges (NWR). Located near Sabine Pass, these twin refuges will be open to boat-in and walk-in, morning-only hunting in designated areas. All areas in the McFaddin refuge, except the Spaced Hunt Unit, will be open every day of the season. For more information call (409) 971-2909.

Anahuac NWR’s Pace Tract will be open each day of the teal season for morning-only hunting. Parts of the refuge’s Middleton Tract will be open to morning-only hunting on days to be determined. Access to open areas is by boat only. For more information, call at (409) 267-3337.

Portions of Peach Point WMA in Brazoria County will be open for teal hunting. Hunting is morning-only each Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday

Mad Island WMA. Located in Matagorda County, this area offers some walk-in access. This spot always hold water is popular with hardcore teal hunters.

Parts of the Guadalupe Delta WMA Mission Lake Unit, Guadalupe River and Hynes Bay units will be open to morning-only teal hunting each day of th eteal-only season. Walk-in access is available.

For more information about hunting Peach Point, Mad Island and Guadalupe Delta WMAs, contact the TPWD office in Bay City, (409) 244-7636.

Designated areas in the Brazoria NWR will be open to all-day teal hunting each day of the teal-only season. No fee is required. Boat and walk-in access are available.

Designated areas in the Big Boggy NWR will be open each day of the teal season. Walk-in access is available, and no fee is required.

For more information on Brazoria or Big Boggy refuges, call (409) 849-6062.

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