What game animal has the ability to move like a honey bee, travels thousands of miles across several nations twice a year, weighs less than a pound and tastes like steak?

The bluewing teal, of course!

Bluewing teal are among the earliest waterfowl to migrate south each fall, and they begin arriving in Mississippi in August, and normally pass through our state over the course of six to eight weeks as they head toward Central and South America for the winter.

According to population estimates released this summer, approximately 6.3 million bluewings were observed in breeding surveys in 2010. This number is down slightly (14 percent) from 2009, but is still 35 percent above the long-term average of 4.7 million.

Bluewing teal numbers have held steady for the last few years. 2007 hosted 6.7 million birds, and 2008 produced 6.6 million.

A slight increase to 7.4 million birds in 2009 was evident by numerous birds in the early season and also during the icy conditions of late winter, which puzzled many waterfowlers throughout the state. Blue-wings don't normally hang around that late, but it seemed that duck hunters across the Delta were bagging bluewings everyday during the regular duck season. If 2009 teal numbers were any representation of how many birds will visit the Magnolia State this fall, we are looking at another banner year.

The early teal season in Mississippi last year was a bit disappointing for some, due to the constant rains. However, some hunters enjoyed a banner year in 2009.

The teal migration is so touch-and-go that they are literally here today and gone tomorrow in most cases. One might scout a pond and find hundreds of bluewings one afternoon only to sit and watch empty skies the next morning on the heels of a front that came in overnight.

The good news for hunters this year is that there looks to be ample habitat early in the season, at least in the Delta region. Due to concerns of the Gulf oil spill, several conservation organizations have teamed up to make it more economical for farmers and landowners to flood their properties this season. Many of these practices are tailored especially for early migrating birds like shorebirds and teal.

Early teal season has always been held in September in Mississippi, and this year is no different. The season runs Sept. 11-26. If you've never hunted teal in the early season, or maybe you've pursued the tiny ducks unsuccessfully, then you may find the following information from three experienced teal hunters helpful.

 

The guide

Drew Burton, a Delta farmer and waterfowl guide from Isola, says the 2008 teal season was a good one for him. Burton has been catering to hunters with his father, Greg, for many years on Cole Lake Plantation, and he knows how to get on the teal. With thousands of acres at his disposal, Burton offered a few tips on how to be successful this fall.

"In my opinion, they love old catfish ponds," said Burton, who comes from Humphreys County where catfish ponds are a dime a dozen. "They like shallow, shallow water. I mean water that is 2 or 3 inches deep.

"They aren't a hard bird to kill, but you can't expect them to work like regular ducks."

What Burton means is that teal don't typically circle around the decoy spread and then follow a predictable approach and drop into the decoys like a mallard.

No, teal are anything but predictable. If there were ever a duck that threw caution to the wind and lived in the moment, it was the bluewing teal. Teal know where they're going two hours before they get there, and when they enter your airspace, they do it with shock and awe.

"Have your gun ready and be ready to shoot quickly," said Burton. "If they're coming, they're coming and they aren't gonna circle around and work your spread."

Burton typically uses a few teal decoys in his early season spread, but the silver bullet is the spinning-wing dove decoy.

"We really don't even need the decoys because the Mojo doves work so well," he said. "If the birds have been using the hole for a few days, they'll be all over that Mojo dove."

 

The pro staffer

Monticello resident and Drake Waterfowl field expert Jimmy Barton has been teal hunting the Delta for several years. Barton and his hunting partners have Delta Daydreams duck club in Humphreys County. Barton has hunted his fair share of teal, and he offered a bag of tricks for the September hunter.

"Shallow areas with natural moist-soil vegetation are great for teal," he said. "Old catfish ponds with a couple inches of water seem to be the best spots for early migrating teal. We normally sit on dove stools on the lower inside area of an old catfish pond. We often use a stake-out blind brushed with natural vegetation or use willow limbs for concealment."

Being that the weather is warm and the early season teal hunter is nestled among lush vegetation and shallow water, one might expect that there are more critters in close proximity during this waterfowl season than in the regular season. One is correct.

"Watch for snakes as they are always nearby in shallow water areas since it is still so hot. Use lots of bug spray or a Thermacell as biting bugs are bad," Barton suggested.

Barton prefers using hen decoys of any species, preferably a small-sized decoy, which simulates the look of bluewings early in the year before the males molt into breeding plumage. And, like Burton, Barton uses motion decoys in his teal spread.

"We like to mix in a couple of spinning-wing decoys, and normally use a Mojo dove since the wing beats are faster," he said.

Another tip recommended by Barton is to use 2¾-inch No. 4 or 6 shot. Teal are small birds, and using 3- or 3½-inch heavy loads is overkill most of the time. There's not much worse than shooting a nice mess of teal with No. 2 shot, and reducing the tasty tidbits to the consistency of hamburger meat.

"Calling should be kept at a minimum," he advised. "A few short bursts on a whistle or a couple light quacks will usually turn the birds around."

And probably the sagest advice Barton could give is to properly identify your target. Teal aren't the only ducks in the air during September. We have resident mallards and wood ducks, migrating shovelers and even pintails this time of year. Not to mention the dozens of shorebird species like the dowitchers and yellowlegs that are similar in size to teal, and twist and turn in tight groups much the same way that a flying flock of teal does.

Even the most experienced waterfowler has made the mistake of aiming at or even shooting one of these species because of a hasty shot. But even when you are certain that you are aiming at a teal, think back to that boring hunter safety instructor when he told you, "Know your target and what is beyond."

 

The duck doctor

Dr. Scott Tynes from Waynesboro enjoys the early teal season and the opportunity it gives duck hunters to get in the duck blind after months of reprieve.

"I really love teal season; I guess I feel like it is an extra season," he said. "September brings a little relief from the long absence from the duck blind, early morning sunrises and camaraderie of buddies, including the canine kind.

"Mosquitoes and snakes are the two reasons people turn down an early duck hunt. Our group has had few snake encounters, but I have been known to put a belt around my waders and attach my snake chaps. Mosquitoes are a sure bet. While your favorite brand of OFF is the cologne of the day, I have found a Thermacell is a must.

"Also I learned a trick from a Cajun guide a few years back: a can of Yard Guard is always in my bag. I spray it on any vegetation (bush-plant) near me. It really seems to help. Also grab that face mask out of the turkey gear; not only is it good camo, it will help keep some of the bugs out of your face."

Tynes' most important hunting tips are to scout and keep hunting pressure low.

"Just like with the big ducks, it is hard to put any tactic above scouting," he said. "Also, hitting a spot two days in a row is hard to do - the bluewings don't take pressure very well.

"I think teal in September are very easy to decoy in; mallard dekes work just fine as well as your mallard call, and often I will use a softer, shorter quack. I am a fan of Haydel's Blue Wing Teal call, and have seen it make a difference on several occasions."

Tynes echoes Barton's advice of properly identifying your target.

"Make sure you can ID the ducks," he said. "Wood ducks can be quite common, and the early morning minutes are the most dangerous. A 30-bird raft of teal buzzing around at daybreak is easy to ID. But three or four birds that sneak in with poor light can be dangerous. I really like to see the actual blue on the wings before shooting."