The total opposite of most avid dove hunters, Jacob Sartain of Madison wouldn’t mind seeing a rainy cold front blow through the Mississippi Delta over Labor Day Weekend.
“Crazy, right?” Sartain said. “I know it would ruin a lot of dove-hunting plans on opening weekend, but in the long run it would create an opportunity later in the month that would be worth it for a lot of us.
“It could set up a chance for a Delta double.”
The first segment of the dove season in Mississippi’s north zone, which includes the Delta, is Sept. 3 to Oct. 9.
The September season for blue-winged teal is Sept. 10-25.
With perfect conditions, hunters have an opportunity during the 16-day overlap of the two seasons to limit out on teal in the morning and dove in the afternoon — the Delta double.
Of course, for that to be possible, the early migrating teal have to reach the South.
“To get the teal migration started, we need an early cold front — really about the same time of Labor Day, when dove season opens,” said Sartain, an avid shooter of all waterfowl and especially teal. “The nesting grounds of blue-wings are in the Dakotas and Central Canada, not near as north as ducks like mallards, but they are the first ducks to migrate.
“Teal migrate farther, 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.”
Hence the need for a wet Labor Day.
“That’s it,” Sartain said. “The best precursor of a good blue-wing season in Mississippi is an early cold front. We have such a tight window 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 other part of the equation is far more consistent. Doves are nothing if not dependable in September, when thousands of acres of fertile Delta soil is planted in sunflowers and other dove-attracting grains.
While doves are considered migratory and are managed as such by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Mississippi has an abundant resident flock that never leaves the food-heavy agricultural areas.
When the season opens in early September, hunters have already been scouting and know where the big concentrations are.
“If anything, our dove hunting in the Delta just keeps getting better, especially now that we’re seeing more corn and soybeans up here than cotton,” said Roger Turner of Leflore County. “So many people are managing habitat for them now that our numbers just keep soaring. You drive through farming areas and you can see the rows of sunflowers mixed into the grains.
“When they start manipulating them in late August and early September, man, what you talking about? The doves swarm in by the flock.”
Turner is one of the many hunters who have joined forces with others to form big dove clubs, which are numerous throughout the Delta. By combining resources and contacts, dove clubs are able to plant more than a few fields, rotating them through the season.
“We not only plant fields that we can rotate during the first season to keep pressure off the birds, but we also plant fields where the sunflowers will be right later in the season, like just in time for the second Delta season (Oct. 22-Nov. 6),” Turner said. “That way we have good hunting for about two months.”
Sartain wishes teal could be as easy to manage.
“Truth is, Mississippi is on a down cycle as far as blue-winged teal go,” he said. “It all relates to habitat, and how much the Delta has lost as catfish ponds have been reclaimed and returned to crop production. The ponds always gave the Delta abundant teal habitat, and it was perfect habitat for the blue-wings. You need shallow, swampy areas with a lot of mud.
“They like shallow to exposed mud flats, and a lot of it. 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 farther 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. These birds 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.
Dwindling Delta teal habitat
Over the past few decades, the number of catfish ponds in Mississippi have been greatly reduced.
The state had 113,000 acres of catfish ponds at the peak of production in 2001. But by 2009 that number was down to 70,000 acres.
In July 2015, it was reduced to 35,000 acres, according to Mississippi State University’s Extension Service.
Some of those ponds were purchased by hunters, such as Sartain, for recreational property. Those catfish ponds became duck ponds.
But, the vast majority returned to crop fields.
“That has had a big impact on our blue-winged hunting,” Turner said. “We still get the migration, and they still pass through, but there’s not as much habitat or food to hold them, so they just keep going until they hit the Louisiana marshes.
“They come, they look and they leave.”
Catfish ponds make up a lot of the desired habitat, but there is plenty more.
Hunters still find some success at big reservoirs like Sardis and Grenada lakes, two of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Flood Control Projects built to limit Delta flooding.
“I still see some good hunting early in the mornings on the big lakes because the timing is always good,” said Tim Freeman of Oxford. “In September, when the blue-wings are coming in, the summer has usually caused the lakes to drop a foot or so, and that exposes a lot of bank that creates teal habitat. I have a lot of friends who fish those lakes a lot, and each September I have them on the look for teal.
“If I get a call that the teal are there, then I get the locations, slip in where it is allowed and set up a ground blind over shallow flats where the teal have been seen. Believe it or not, last year was one of the best seasons I’ve had in five or 10 years. I had two great weekends out of three, when I got the limit before 7:30 a.m. and was able to still make the end of morning dove hunts or arrive in plenty of time for an afternoon dove shoot.”
Know when teal arrive
Sartain said scouting is important for teal, since they can show up seemingly out of nowhere.
“I’m lucky in that in my job (as recreational property sales and management), I get a chance to eyeball my ponds almost daily, but even then it can happen without any sign,” he said of teal arrivals. “Last year, I checked some ponds on a Thursday and again on Friday morning and didn’t see a single teal. I went home and planned a dove-hunting weekend.
“Then that same Friday afternoon, I get home and my phone is ringing: It’s a neighbor in the Delta who had driven past those same ponds and saw hundreds of teal buzzing the ponds. I scrambled, got on the phone and arranged a morning teal hunt the next day. We limited out that Saturday morning on teal and then had a great afternoon dove hunt.”
Sartain said that if teal are around, they are always most active in the morning.
“If you have a chance to double, do the teal in the morning and the dove in the afternoon,” he said. “And realize that is coming from a guy who prefers to hunt doves in the morning in September. I like the mornings because it’s cooler and it’s a lot easier on the dogs, for those who use retrievers. It’s also more convenient for football fans.
“I understand that it’s easier to plan an afternoon dove hunt, because a lot of people have to drive a long way to reach the field. Some people just don’t like getting up early, but when it comes to teal hunting you have to.”