Last Saturday, first day of dove season, just as it gets light enough to see across the Delta, I spotted movement in the sky to the west. Three black dots were cruising above the corn, getting larger by the second.
“Three coming! Got to be the biggest doves I’ve ever seen,” I told my hunting partner, stationed in a stand of sunflowers and brush about 50 yards away. WAIT! Don’t shoot.”
That’s right, the Delta had already attracted early-migrating blue-winged teal. Perhaps, it is a positive sign for the upcoming 16-day teal season (Sept. 10-25) that opens Saturday across Mississippi.
According to one avid waterfowler and habitat specialist, it could very well be. In a feature in the September issue of Mississippi Sportsman magazine, Jacob Sartain of Madison said any kind of cool snap around Labor Day triggers the migration.
And, Saturday morning in a usually steamy Delta, it was 62 degrees.
Said Sartain: “To get the teal migration started, we need an early cold front, really about the same time of Labor Day, when dove season opens. … Teal migrate further, even as far as Central and South America, so when it gets time for them to go, they will not let any kind of front with a north wind in September go to waste. They will get up and fly south.
“The best precursor of a good blue-wing season in Mississippi is an early cold front. We have such a tight window (season) for the teal migration to hit us; it’s just 16 days. We need the peak of migration to occur in that time frame if we are going to have a good teal season, or even a decent season. A lot of years, especially lately, the peak has been either right at the end of the season, right after it has closed or even in early October. The quicker they start flying the more likely it is they will pass through here during the season.”
The dry cold front that made opening day of the dove season one of the most bearable in memory should pay dividends this month for hunters hoping for an early shot at duck season.
“We started seeing the teal early last week, but it picked up quick just before the Labor Day weekend and dove season, when we had that little change in weather,” said Jimmy West of Greenwood. “I was out looking at some of my dove fields about every morning and afternoon, and on Thursday and Friday (Sept. 1-2) I started seeing teal, more groups of them, buzzing the fields that are close to any water.
“We ended up choosing a dove field adjacent to some catfish ponds that still have a foot or so of water in them. Before our dove hunt, the landowner actually warned us about the teal. He was making sure that we knew they were there and none of the younger guys messed up.”
Back at our hunt north of Belzoni, enough teal buzzed by us en route to a small flooded field that we could have limited out two or three times over. The daily limit is six for the September teal season.
“That’s the most teal I’ve ever seen here in September, including the season,” said Dan Smith of Ridgeland, my host for the hunt. “We had a huntable number and that’s a first for me.”
Sartain said teal like shallow mudflats, which is why the hundreds of old catfish ponds in the Delta are ideal habitat.
“They like shallow to exposed mud flats, and a lot of it,” he said. “That’s exactly what you get when you drain a catfish pond, shallow water and mud flats. I don’t plant food for teal, not like millet or any other grains that we do in our normal duck holes for the regular winter duck season. I might put more water on them if the mud flats start to dry out, but that’s about it.
“Teal fly so far so fast that when they stop to feed they look for protein, things like insects, snails and other invertebrates. Once they leave here going further south, they may fly as far as the Yucatan. They need to stock up for that.”
The extreme blue-wing migration dictates their dietary needs while in Mississippi. Blue-winged teal are dabblers, and will eat grass and seeds, but their diet differs in that insects and invertebrates make up a larger proportion than that of other dabblers.
For more about teal hunting and teal habitat management — and about the opportunity for a mixed day of dove and teal — see the “Delta Double” feature in the September issue of Mississippi Sportsman on newsstands now.